The Spirit of History

Robert Bellah said:

“We can’t know culture in the deepest sense without knowing its’ history, even though we may think that we have outgrown it” (referencing Hegel)

“In an important sense, all culture is one: human beings today owe something to every culture that has gone before us”

Reflecting on his words I draw out the following:

It’s fascinating for me to observe how history plays its’ part in various countries.  In Bulgaria I’ll always remember an acquaintance by the name of Plamen.  He vociferously read history books, with particular interest in the military and the narratives that shaped Bulgaria through communism and the USSR after World War II.  Our conversations would always include historical references.  I was blown away by how much he knew, doing my best to make out the details of what he was saying in Bulgarian.  I compared Bulgaria with my own society in the United States.  Surely in the US there are some people fond of history and enjoy discussing it, and bastions to history like museums obviously exist.  But it’s different.  The US is way too centered on change, innovation, and projecting into the future to make much space for history in our everyday lives.  Other societies capture the spirit of history in an intriguing way to me.  For example, though in Oman I don’t see many physical remnants in the environment from their distant past (whereas Europe is filled with architecture preserved for centuries), it is as though the depth and importance of history is on display in their lifestyle and adherence to tradition and religion, as if the spirit of history is supposed to exist from within.  This willingness to breathe the air of history may have good effects on lifestyle.  Societies like Bulgaria and Oman are way more laid back than a place like the United States, at least where I grew up in northern New Jersey, where sometimes you feel like a weirdo simply for taking a leisurely stroll.  Can such a difference be attributed at all to how a society relates or in informed by history?  One could make the case that a regard for history is not that important, but the historian Eric Hobsbawm said that the acceleration of cultural change in the recent past has threatened to cut us looks from history, snapping the links between generations, and therefore past and present.  What are the consequences of this?  One of the things that attracted me to Islam was to see how strongly its’ adherents seek to preserve the links between generations, seeing it as a kind of treasure trove of wisdom. Of course, as this country has recently modernized and been affected by globalization, there could also be ruptures to the way the people here view the relevance of history.  But for a society so centered on religion and tradition, I don’t see it happening anywhere near the level like in the US.  I would go as far as to say that part of the reason we have the president we have is because of our society’s disregard for what some see as the legacies of “dead white men”.  It baffles and saddens me that so many Americans see the heartbeat of our nation’s narrative as one marked by slavery and oppression.  The last decade of my life abroad has awakened me to the true remarkable nature of the United States.  It has stoked a keen interest to study our history in a deeper way, especially the founding and early national era.  The dissolving of social cohesion in our society, the inability for us to center our hearts on one uplifting and proud historical narrative, is surely one of the reasons why our president resonated so deeply with millions of us.  I’ve witnessed other societies defend their historical narratives and national identities with a reverence and fervency that is lacking in some corners of the US.  Patriotism doesn’t need to translate into nationalism or fascism.  Certain features of our modern world simply make many of us search for a reliable life raft.  Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. puts it well:

“The world shrinks, and its population is more mixed up today than ever before. Shrinkage subjects the world to a whipsaw, tearing it in opposite directions–intense pressures toward globalization on the one hand, toward fragmentation on the other. The world market, instantaneous communications, media–all undermine the nation-state and develop a world without frontiers.  At the same time, these very internationalizing forces drive ordinary people to seek refuge from unrelenting global currents beyond their control and understanding.  The more people feel themselves adrift in a vast, impersonal, anonymous sea, the more desperately they swim toward any familiar, intelligible, protective life-raft; the more they crave a politics of identity.  The more the world integrates, the more people cling to their own in groups defined by ethnic and religious loyalties.”  

And besides the relevance of a shared reverence and understanding of history for the cohesion and stability of a people, I wonder if we in the US an underlying anxiety about the kind of legacy our modern culture will leave behind for the generations that come after us.  In our era remakes of movies that came out just a few decades ago makes one wonder if this is ode to our cultural heritage or a reflection of our society’s value towards making an ensured and easy buck on a brand name that will appeal.



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