Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Tension of Tenses

Jan Cox once wrote that about 500 years ago a change of some kind happened so that human life had a value.  I am sure his original phraseology was clearer-- but my recollection is that he was referring to a sense that every human life has a worth.  He was pointing to something other scholars have delved into the fringes of, and call the Renaissance. One thing that also happened around this time frame in Western history has been called the 'discovery of the past.'  What this means is that people in what we call the medieval period in western Europe,  assumed that everything around them had always been the way they currently observed it. The church was a big factor in this perception, one church, supporting a clearly structured society.  People were born into a certain class and did not consider it unfair if they were not rich, this was where God had meant them to be.  Then all heck broke loose, with the printing press making books more widely available, and many other factors of which I am unaware going on -- but now, as the historians would say, a perspective of change was pressed on people's attention. Old books, old art, for instance made it apparent that society had not always been arranged the way it currently looked. And if things had not always been a certain way, perhaps change in the current structure was a possibility.  In the words of certain malcontents: 'When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?'  Change had become conceivable.
The above is pretty standard stuff in history books. (Except for Jan's comment.) What it brought to mind is that, you would think a discovery of the past would mean a discovery of the future...Yet this little essay argues that in fact, there was not then, nor is there now, a real discovery of the future. By discovery of the future I mean a sense of the future as real, as in the first paragraph, I tried to show what people mean when they say the past is a real factor.  Of course, I do not mean the future is real as in currently existing, that would be contradictory. But the future as real in the sense of something unknown which impinges on us, an arena of the new, the possible new --that future is not part of the ordinary machinery of man's mentation.
WERE the future a reality in the mind of man, then there would have been no amazement that we could have planes crashing into office buildings in a city arguably the capital of the world. Okay---it would have been amazing, but there would have been no sense of how could this happen, how could our intelligence have let us down?  Because a sense of the future would give to man's ordinary mind the flexibility that an awareness of areas of which we are ignorant would lend it. 
It is possible, it seems to me, that ordinary human mentation could include a sense of the future, and does not now.

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