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By Edited Jan 10, 2014 6 1

"History" says Maitland, "is a seamless robe, and he who would tell but a piece of it, must feel that with his first sentence he tears the fabric." Each generation sees but a piece of that seamless robe, spread out before it, and is apt to think that nothing of what has gone before is worth the seeing, yet Maitland's dictum carries a deeper truth: the truth that the whole course of man's existence on earth is really one, so we owe a debt to and can learn a lesson from our remotest ancestor, and also from those who went before us just yesterday. This is why a study of the past enables us to comprehend the present better, and view it in an altogether different light. It is not that a study of the past is meant to make of us unrealistic worshippers of all that is past.

As Rabindranath Tagore reminded us:
"To know my country one has to travel to that age when she realized her soul when she revealed her being in the radiant magnanimity and not now, when she has withdrawn herself into a narrow barrier of obscurity, into a miserly pride of exclusiveness, into a poverty of mind that dumbly revolves around itself in an unmeaning repetition of a past that has lost its light and has no message for the pilgrims of the future."

While he may be exaggerating, we must not lose sight of Tagore's warning, or else the light of our past will in fact be lost, while we imagine that we are keeping it burning. Human nature has not greatly changed, and knowledge of the vanished cultures of the Indus Valley, or Egypt, or Peru, gives a deeper understanding of our own culture. It remains true that the study of ancient civilizations enables us to make a truer estimate of our own, and at the same time leads us to view our material achievements in a humbler light: to see not only the size, but also the meticulous accuracy of the workmanship of Egypt's pyramids or Mohenjo-Daro's Great Bath, and to remember that his work was done without the help of any but the simplest machines - levers and rollers - is to learn that the skyscrapers and other great buildings of today are only humble descendants of those of the past, while the human workmanship put into them is often inferior.

And perhaps the greatest value of the study of the past, the greatest light it can shed for us, is the understanding it gives of other men. Our own encounters with our fellows teach us something, but that knowledge is immensely deepened by the study of the past, whose figures live again for us in the pages of history. Belloc sagely remarked that, "History adds a third dimension to experience". With the "hindsight" of historical knowledge we can see the interplay of human character and outside environment in the past, and can bring that understanding o bear on contemporary affairs, whether the great events which will themselves form a part of history, or those of our own immediate circle. Armed with such an understanding, we can make a more useful, much more enlightened, contribution to our world.



Sep 8, 2011 2:32pm
I agree. History is forgotten today by so many, but we need to remember and learn from it.
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