Recently, I was listening to an online lecture that discussed the importance of studying the history of the Roman Republic–something I was inclined to study about myself already, obviously–and the speaker commented that one of the characteristics of the present age was the lack of interest in studying the past and in the intense interest in predicting or guessing the future. As someone who has always taken a strong historical view to life and nearly every subject matter I come across, it struck me that although I am a person with a strong interest in history, that this interest is unusual in many ways. There are many people who study the past in order to make use of it for their present political purposes, but it is comparatively rare to see people have an interest in the past on its own terms.
It particularly struck me that this fascination with the future and what it might be and the total lack of interest in what is as soon as it changes from prediction to history is something I witness and participate in on a weekly basis as a frequent online commentator on music. Day by day, information comes in about radio plays and streams for songs and people hopefully guess and speculate on which songs will do well, perhaps debuting on the chart or surviving recurrency or hitting #1 or whatever the case may be, and when the data for the week closes on Thursday night, predictors get busy guessing as to where songs will hit on the chart that comes out early the following week. All of this guessing and predicting draws interest as people try to speculate on the data and brag in advance about what will happen, but as soon as it happens interest drops dramatically except among those of us who are interested in the history, and the intense interest moves on to the next week that is being predicted.
This is a pattern that goes on weekly and it has always struck me as somewhat odd and counterproductive. Why is there so much focus on anticipation, on the hope and expectation of how things will be, and so little time spent on reflecting about what indeed happened? It is not as if this is only a problem in the world of music charts. The same thing is what I see when it comes to politics as well. Over and over again people cite polls that say that one thing or another will happen with such a spread and such a margin of error, and people use these polls to brag about how well they are doing and how poorly someone else is doing, and then comes the time when people get into the voting booths and there are results, and comparatively little time is spent analyzing and reflecting on the details, what can be learned, because it is time to fight the next campaign already. The all-absorbing interest in predicting and speculating about the future overwhelms the more useful historical tasks of understanding what happened and why and engaging in whatever soul-searching is useful when one has bragged about the success of one’s side that has not been borne out in practice, or a success that may only prove to be temporary and illusory.
With the all-consuming interest in the future that many people seem to have, one would think that this interest in the future would be combined with an interest in what was eternal and lasting, an interest in the endurance of character and the development of relationships with others that one would expect to last throughout time. If one is going to be focused on the future, the most important aspects of the future are the institutions and relationships that build a better future, that provide instruction and wisdom and comfort and encouragement. Yet it is not as if people tend to focus on these things. The interest in the future is more competitive in nature–who will win the next sports game, or top the next chart, or win the next election, as a means of providing the legitimacy of one’s worldview or the superiority of one’s area or team, but in a situation where there is always some additional competition coming up that one needs to win over an over again or else one does not feel as if one has actually been a success. None of the victories ultimately matters, and none of them is final, and yet our attention is focused on these meaningless competitions in the absence of building a better and more lasting future whose foundations can endure if we have done our work well. Perhaps all of that seems too much like history to matter to people these days. To study history and to make history are related matters, and if we do not care about the past, why would we care about the work that needs to be done in order to attain a bright future whose chief benefit for us is ensuring that we will be remembered fondly. Seeing as we do not care about memory, why would we care about that?