Future talk

When the classics mentioned fame, they had a very indeterminate idea in mind. Almost none of them give us reason to think that they thought of a precise point in the future and hoped to be remembered by whoever happened to be alive then. Fame was very important to the Romans, we know that, but how fame, time and eternity worked with each other is something the historical record is silent on. The Romans simply wanted to be remembered. By whom, when, we don’t know. By all, forever. The problem with finding an answer to this question is that the ‘future’ was a very elusive concept in antiquity. The ancients had a cyclical view of time, so the future is not an easy category to plot as it doesn’t correspond to that arrow shooting out from the present to the infinity of the future moment, as on modern timelines. From the revolving celestial spheres to Plato’s Spindle of Necessity and beyond, the ancient notion of the future was caught in a wheeling motion which prevented an understanding of time as moving somewhere indefinite. The future gets dissolved in the eternal return, as Mircea Eliade would have put it.

The medieval period capitalised on a renewed understanding of time afforded by the advent of Christianity. Without completely renouncing circularity, the medieval thinkers introduced an idea of time as an arrow fading into the mists of the future. Time becomes a question of optics, not necessity. God alone can see the future, but humans are free to make it. The future as we know it was born.

This new understanding of time, which is so fundamental to how we see ourselves, each other and the world today, also made it possible, for the first time, to imagine human history on a timeline extending backwards but also forwards. It also became possible to connect, imaginatively and poetically, with the human beings of the future and of the past. In the 14th century, Petrarch wrote personal letters to the figures of antiquity as if they were still alive. A new historical consciousness allowed the late medievals and then the humanists to distance themselves from the past by acknowledging that the past and the present were all a series of dots on the timeline of humanity.

The future too ceased to be the indeterminate notion the ancients had made of it and instead appeared as an instantiation of human society on the mysterious timeline. The 12th-century English historian Henry of Huntingdon spared a moment in his History of the English people to consider the readers of the year 2135: “Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves.” Dante, writing at the beginning of the 14th century, was equally worried about his future readership. In canto 17 of Paradiso, he muses over how his Divine Comedy would be received by ‘those who will call this present, ancient times’, so probably by those reading the Comedy way after 2135.

All this future talk shows that the West was already experimenting with its new cultural endowment. The future is now.

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