A Kind of Organized Remembrance
“The way you treat history is the way history will end up treating you.”
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” writes G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy. “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.“
The ancient city-state protected its citizens not only from hostile neighbors, but also from time. The Greek polis and the Roman res publica were “a guarantee against the futility of individual life, the space protected against this futility and reserved for the relative permanence, if not immortality, of mortals,” writes Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. “In other words, men’s life together in the form of the polis seemed to assure that the most futile of human activities, action and speech, and the least tangible and most ephemeral of man-made ‘products,’ the deeds and stories which are their outcome, would become imperishable.” The walls and laws of the city-state constituted “a kind of organized remembrance.”
“The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location,” continues Arendt, “it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.” As Pericles told the Athenians, “Wherever you go, you will be a polis.” The problem with the city-state, however, was that its small size made it particularly vulnerable in war. Whole cities were razed to the ground, the vessels of their history and tradition shattered forever. Rome sought to avoid this fate by building a vast empire around its city, to guarantee survival through conquest. When its domination of the material world seemed certain, Rome became known as The Eternal City. But while the city did survive, the empire eventually crumbled.
The fall of the Roman Empire coincided with the rise Christianity. The new religion asserted the futility of trying to build anything lasting in the material world, in place of which it promised everlasting life in heaven through good deeds—of which only God is to know, as the ideal good deed is meant to be done in secret. Despite this professed lack of material ambition, the Christian Church had established an even more durable structure at the center of the collapsing empire by moving the ground of its metaphorical polis into the spiritual domain, from the Eternal City to the Kingdom of God. Wherever Christians went, they would be Christians. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, this space expanded to encompass what we now call Western civilization. Empires and kingdoms would rise and fall, the church itself would splinter, but the underlying civilization, held together by the shared thread of religion, would merely evolve.
This new refuge in the spiritual sphere did not remain secure forever. Not content with seizing material power, the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century extended the battle to the field of ideas by attempting to reshape the way people thought. “Some foreigners say our thought reform is brainwashing. I think that’s right, it is exactly brainwashing,” remarked Mao on his indoctrination program.1 Stalin’s most valued cadres were not his soldiers, generals, or even the secret police, but his writers. “There are various forms of production: artillery, locomotives, automobiles, trucks. You also produce ‘commodities,’ ‘works,’ ‘products,’” Stalin told a group of authors. “You are engineers of human souls,” he said, adding that “the production of souls is more important than the production of tanks.”2
This assault on the mind was accomplished not only by means of terror, but by the destruction of intellectual tradition, of which the church naturally became one of the first victims. Not only did the totalitarian regime inculcate the people with its own ideals, but by severing the thread that linked the present to the past, it wrote its own version of history as well. Orwell grasped the full significance of this strategy, distilling it into the totalitarian slogan in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Whereas tradition seeks to preserve, ideology seeks to rewrite. The problem for ideology, however, is that by undermining the foundation for remembrance, it likewise ensures its own destruction, for when a totalitarian regime inevitably falls, its own worldview is wholly erased by whatever replaces it. If the polis acted as a kind of organized remembrance, the ideologies of the 20th century result in a kind of organized oblivion.
“With the loss of tradition we have lost the thread which safely guided us through the vast realms of the past,” writes Arendt in Tradition and the Modern Age. “We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion—quite apart from the contents that could be lost—would mean that, humanely speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence.” Tradition is not the past, it is a means of structuring and keeping alive civilizational memory beyond a single human lifespan. It is like a thread that holds the beads of civilization—its beliefs, ideas and art—by preserving their context through time. Cut the thread, and one by one the beads slip off and become meaningless. The past will still exist, but it will exist as a mere set of facts and artifacts, interpreted backwards, not as your past, which it would be if you were a carrier of tradition.
Is the existence of this space for remembrance possible today? Two things stand in the way.
First is our tendency to look at the past through the lens of the present, rather than the present through the lens of the past. The unprecedented scientific advances of the last century make it easy feel intellectually superior to our ancestors, but even though we undoubtedly possess vastly more knowledge, can we really say the same about wisdom? In any case, it is not necessary to limit yourself to one perspective. Indeed, the only way to gain a clearer understanding of a time is to step outside of it, which means both, to look at the past from the vantage point of the present and to look at the present while immersed in the worldview of the past. As Nietzsche wrote: “There is only a seeing from a perspective, only a ‘knowing’ from a perspective, and the more emotions we express over a thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we train on the same thing, the more complete will be our ‘idea’ of that thing, our ‘objectivity.’”3
Second, the value of tradition itself is challenged by its being placed on a dichotomy between tradition and progress. In politics, this dichotomy is presented as the difference between the right, who are said to defend “traditional values,” and the left, who are said to promote “progress.” The pitting of tradition against progress frames it as a set of backward beliefs that get in the way of the improvement of society. Besides devaluing tradition, this perspective encourages people to tear down Chesterton’s fences—institutions or laws whose purpose is not immediately clear to a new generation of reformers—without thinking through why they might have been created in the first place.
For this space for remembrance to exist, we must both, understand the importance of tradition, and be part of a community that shares the same values. Shared values without tradition lack remembrance, tradition without shared values is superficial ceremony. The value of this space goes both ways: not only do you gain a “dimension of depth in human existence” by expanding your consciousness to include the thought patterns of the past, but some shard of your own existence—your actions and your ideas—can potentially be preserved in time. In Greek myths, the souls of the dead entering the underworld are ferried across the river Acheron. Tradition—in the broad sense of continuing the thread of historical, intellectual and artistic capital of civilization—is a kind of resurrection, in which we ferry dead souls back into our own consciousness. “The savior will be saved,” wrote the 19th century philosopher Vladimir Solovyov in his interpretation of an old fable. The way you treat history is the way history will end up treating you.
Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story.
Stephen Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting For Hitler 1929–1941.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals.