A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2024 proposition, “We should never forget the past.”
We mourn the onset of dementia because it is difficult to see our loved ones decline into forgetfulness. The evil of this is obvious: dementia patients begin to lose their identities, as they no longer possess the memories of the past that make them who they are and, ultimately, become unrecognizable to those around them. Memory, being so integral to our identity, is a fundamental aspect of our humanity for no other reason than that, unlike our other mental faculties, it transcends the immediate present.
We are fundamentally creatures of the past, pushing forward into the opacity of the future. It is no accident that Aristotle conceived of memory as the intermediary between mere sense perception and “art”—it is the superimposition of the far more substantial past upon our present and ephemeral sense. Let us conceive of the human as a ship: its foremost part, the figurehead, has no bearing upon the ship’s operation. The figurehead’s only merit is that it encounters space before the rest of the ship. The ship, however, is guided and controlled by that which is at the rear—the oars, the rudder, the sails, and the helm are all positioned far behind the figurehead. In similar fashion, our present self is informed by what falls far behind it. In other words, the self of the infinitesimal present is guided entirely by the self of the past.
Regarding the statement, “We should never forget the past,” it seems almost insulting to use the conditional “should” as opposed to the imperative “must.” History is the memory of the collective human consciousness and its preservation is necessary in the most urgent sense. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Athenian historian and general Thucydides writes of a great plague that afflicted Athens. The city-state, which Thucydides had imbued with every virtue and so much power throughout his narrative, succumbs to fear and chaos so great that not even the concurrent Spartan siege could elicit it. In the present day United States, we saw similar chaos and fear grip the country not even four years ago for the same reason: plague. Perhaps if we had been conscious of our human history we would have been more inclined to endure the situation with greater decorum, causing less personal and economic strife. If we do not study history, we will be incapable of learning from our mistakes and therefore unable to direct ourselves in a sensible manner. If the rudder or the helm or the sails of a ship we were on were somehow deficient, it would be a cause for concern; given our lack of historical knowledge, I find myself similarly worried, lest we unfavorably repeat the past.