When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

I often discuss the historical period beginning with the Enlightenment thinkers and ending with the early modern revolutions. There are many obvious reasons for this focus, as in many ways it is the origins of the world we live in. But for the same reason, it was also the end of the world that came before.

That is what makes it so fascinating to read the words of those who were alive then. They were well aware of what was being lost. It was still within living memory, such as the last remnants of feudalism still holding on even as revolutions were remaking society. The costs of change were clearly understood and many thought it necessary to compensate in some way for what was being lost (e.g., Paine’s citizen’s dividend) or at the very least to acknowledge its passing.

That is different today. We live in a world fully changed. There is little if any living memory of what came before, although isolated traces linger in some remote places. This relates to the disconnection I see among so many people today, across the political spectrum, but it stands out most for me among liberals I observe. Liberalism has embraced modernity and so forgotten its roots, the historical development and radical thought that made it possible. Blindness to the past makes for a lack of vision in the present.

All of this was brought to mind because of something I just read. It is a Jacobin article by Alex Gourevitch, in response to Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind. Gourevitch writes that,

“[I]f liberalism were really committed to the view that the individual is “metaphysically” prior to society, that would almost single-handedly eliminate the French liberal tradition, from the proto-liberalism of Montesquieu, to the sociological liberalism of Benjamin Constant, to the holist liberalism of Emile Durkheim. Constant’s famous speech in 1819 distinguishing the liberty of the moderns from that of the ancients was explicitly based on an appreciation of the social origins of modern individualism. “Ancient peoples,” wrote Constant, “could neither feel the need for [modern liberty], nor appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which this system grants to us.” Social organization “leads” and systems “grant.” No “metaphysical” priority of the individual there.”

Benjamin Constant was of French ancestry. His family had fled religious persecution and so he was born in Switzerland, but he returned to France as an adult. He was one of the first people to identify as a liberal and he was involved in the revolutionary fervor of the times, although he sought moderation. What interests me here is that it was the French Revolution that led to the abolition of feudalism in that country. Feudalism was still a major force at the time, although it was on the wane across Europe. When Constant wrote of the ancient world, he surely was speaking from the firsthand experience of the persisting ancient social order in the world around him.

Many thinkers of that era wrote about the past, specifically of Western history. They were literally and experientially closer to the past than we are now. Feudalism, for example, had developed from the landholding tradition of the Roman Empire. The influence of the ancient world was much more apparent at the time and so they could speak of the ancient world with a familiarity that we cannot. For us, that earlier social order is simply gone and at best we could read about it in history books, not that many will ever bother to do so. It’s not a living reality to us and so doesn’t compel our interest, certainly not our moral imaginations.

8 thoughts on “When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

  1. I think I’m about twenty lines in and I already have to interrupt!

    This is exactly the timeline and function of when things were lost in my line of interest too, again, my whole inner life is just one small aspect of yours.

    While I have a hard time seeing humans so recent as classical times as being so different from us, I absolutely support what may be your idea here – that we have to understand what it was we used to think, how our ideas evolved, or any possible connection to the past will be lost, and with it any connection to reality.

    • I’m not quite sure what my point is, at least in the specifics. It is more of a general thought. But I can give you a specific that is briefly mentioned in the post. It is the citizen’s dividend as presented by Thomas Paine in “Agrarian Justice”.

      Feudalism ended earlier in England than some other countries. The land enclosure movement was a major part of this process. It was the destruction of the commons and along with it the rights of commoners. It created a vast starving population of landless peasants. Paine saw the results of this. He had no interest in romanticizing the past, but he realized that the prior system of subsistence lifestyle and social obligations had been eliminated. Those who had been forced off the land were never compensated for their loss nor would any of the following generations be compensated, unless laws were passed to do so.

      It was his awareness of the past that helped inform his political activism in creating a new society. Paine was essentially a progressive liberal, although he never identified as such. His liberalism still had dirt attached to its roots. The question he posed was how do we re-create what has been destroyed, not simply to radically force something new into existence. The point is that real people were effected and the losses from the past were still fresh in the public mind. It was very much a practical concern, not mere historical or philosophical curiosity. That is the point I was trying to make. The past was still viscerally real in the present lives of the revolutionary generation. The feudal order was entirely alien to what was emerging, but it was close enough to be familiar to the likes of Paine. This familiarity led to genuine compassion.

      In the world today, we have the vague sense of something having been lost or gone missing. But we have a hard time putting our finger on it. The present world is far different from what the world once was. A disjuncture exists. We have a hard time even imagining what the past might have been like, other than assuming it was simply a more impoverished and less free version of our own lives. We are unable to take the past on its own terms. We are like the person who has been blind their entire lives. Someone can explain vision to us and describe what they see. But even then, we won’t really understand what it means to see. Our lack of sight is what we take as normal, just the way the world is. We’ve learned to get around without sight and have developed other abilities and technologies that offset our lack of vision. Still, it doesn’t lessen what is lost.

      So, what exactly is lost? It’s hard to say. In a country like the US, there is the lack of close-knit communities, extended families and kinfolk, social identity concretely grounded in home and land, groupminded and self-enclosed ideological worldview of society and religion, culture of trust and honor, social responsibility and obligation, interlocking rigid forms of social capital and societal structure, ancient traditions and myths that stabilize and comfort, a circular sense of time and of repeating patterns, hierarchical sense of the society and reality, etc. It’s not to argue that the former world was better. It’s hard to even know what that world was really like, to be fully within it as one’s entire sense of reality. These are only words, not the lived reality.

      I don’t know. It’s just a sense of not quite being able to grasp what came before. Even in reading about it in detail, there is an experiential distance. It’s not quite real.

      • ah, you are really filling stuff in for me, Ben. So liberalism is still fighting its original battle and still, eternally, losing, the loss of the commons and the possibility of an aboriginal or subsistence life. And then that is the same sense of loss these swine politicians exploit when they leverage nostalgia, good ol’ days crap? OMG.

        • I definitely see liberalism as “still fighting its original battle and still, eternally, losing”. But it’s even worse than that. The terms of the battle have become less clear. Since we have less sense of what was lost, we have less sense of what we are fighting about and should be fighting for.

          The vagueness of the sense of loss plays right into the hands of those selling cheap nostalgia. It’s not the reality of what was lost that is politically compelling in campaign speechifying and pundit preaching. Few actually care about the reality, as reality makes for boring rhetoric and gets in the way of emotional manipulations and empty imaginings.

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