[The past]

Dear Donagh,

…. I notice you are always quoting people from centuries ago.  You even went back to BC a few times!  What's the reason for that?  People from those times didn’t have the knowledge we have now, so how could they have anything useful to say to us?  Haven't we enough scientists and thinkers today who know the problems of today and can give us solutions for today?  What's your fascination with the past?  I'm just curious.  My mother reads you all the time, and she told me to look at your website.  But she’s over 50, so it makes sense that she would be reading old stuff…. Why keep on about the past?  Eamon

Dear Eamon,

Could it have something to do with the fact that I'm even older than your mother?  I'm in my 70s!  But no, I don’t believe that could be the reason, because I was reading books by those writers even when I was in my 20s.  I read them because they have very important things to say to us.  Every age has its own blind spots: thoughts and presuppositions that are so much part of their own time that people are blind to them.  When something is in your eye, or too near your eye, you can't see it.  Our age, without a doubt, has its blind spots.  People in the past had their blind spots too.  We can see their blind spots clearly most of the time, as far as we know.  But they didn’t have our blind spots.  That's what makes their writings useful to us.  By chance they can sometimes penetrate our blindness. 

The world is gripped by astronomy today.  It has given us a sense of the immensity of the universe.  The figures mentioned are beyond comprehension.  Who can imagine the distance that is called a light year?  We can say 9.461 x 1012 kms., but no one could imagine such a distance.  Multiply that by a couple of billion and we have nothing left to say…. The aspect of it that intrigues me more than anything is the fact that we are looking at the past when we look at the stars.  We see them as they were hundreds or thousands or millions or even billions of years ago, because it has taken all that time for their light to reach us.  Coming back down to earth, when we read Meister Eckhart, for example (14th century), it is just as if the light of his mind is reaching us now.  No one says those ancient stars are of no interest to us because they are so old-fashioned.  Instead, they are of compelling interest.  Likewise Meister Eckhart and hordes of others from the near and distant past…. 

Astronomically, Meister Eckhart would be described as our near neighbourhood.  A bit further back you can see Plato (423 BC – 347 BC), who wrote: “We can quite easily understand a child who is afraid of the dark.  The real tragedy of life is when grown people are afraid of the light.”  That is a useful insight in the present age which makes a science of disinformation – barefaced political lies, conspiracy theories, bullying and shaming people on social media, sometimes driving children to suicide.  What a clear ray of light from Plato, five centuries BC!  Or another star from slightly nearer: Epicurus, 341 BC – 270 BC.  “Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”  How good it would be if millionaires and would-be millionaires were to take heed of that!  How good it would be if everyone did!

Consider old photographs.  When I was your age I had no interest in them whatsoever.  But a few months ago I found a photograph of my father when he was 25 years of age.  I had seen only two other photos of him as a young man – because people weren't into photography in rural places at that time.  He died 45 years ago, aged 80.  That photo from 1922 – a century ago – was of riveting interest to me.  It was an object from the past, yes, but it was also intensely present. 

That is the mystery: that the past is not just the past.  Technology – the invention of photography – is able to capture passing images and hold them for us forever.  When we look at them, it is like recovering the past for a moment.  The invention of writing is able to record thoughts, which are passing things, and hold them forever.  The invention of printing then delivers them to everyone.  These wonderful inventions have made our mental and spiritual and emotional world a bigger place – just as astronomy has allowed us to see the immensity of the universe.

Take care, Eamon.


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