Hearing voices

Every silenced voice is like the o excised from voice. It’s a vice. History is an invitation to recover lost voices and to listen to what they have to say. It’s not a dispassionate adventure. The refusal to listen is an attempt to silence the past, to pretend it’s not there.

For pre-modern cultures, the past was there to shape the present. For many of us today, the present is here to shape the past. It often seems that the past is far more liquid than the present – and therein lies the danger.

The ancient Romans knew the value of cancelling the past. European culture changed when Imperial Rome discovered the power of not just silencing living voices, but also cancelling the whispering voices from the grave. With the invention of damnatio memoriae, Europe made an important leap towards the mastery of the past.

There is no equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath for the historian and specialist of the past. There is no sacred responsibility to preserve the plurality of voices from the recent and distant past. There is no duty to recover the voices rather than recasting them in our own image. The triumph of science is total malleability, including that of the heaven of the fixed stars.

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