Back to the future

One of the most significant transformations of modern society and a defining feature of modernity itself has been a shift in our understanding of the relationship between time and human betterment. For most of Western history, the past had always been the depository of valuable capital which the present was constantly seen to lack and which the future promised to unlock. Reformers always looked back to an age whose lost treasures would be brought back into a reformed past. The modern age removed this retrospective pose and colonised the future with novel items of its own paternity, which the past was not understood to have promoted. From ‘forward to the past’, the moderns moved ‘back to the future’.

One of the leading myths of our age is that of progress, the icon of a future ripe with answers to current questions, by virtue of constant renewal and its imagined deposits of salutary resources. Progress depends, fundamentally, on a tribal attitude of love for one group and hate for another. This dynamic is played out at the level of time and narrative. The more the future is glorified (and one can make anything of something which hasn’t turned into anything), the more the past is ignored. The triumph of sci-fi is the decline of history.

For an ancient politician or a medieval theologian, the way forward was an exploration of the past, the work of the historian capable of extracting examples and models to avoid. For a modernist thinker, the past is silent, while the future is noisy with possibilities. The way forward is about trust in what the future can reveal, a kind of faith which keeps the spirit open and excited. And at greater risk of disappointment.

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