I recently returned from a monthlong stay in Greece, the cradle of Western civilization. One of the fascinating things about Athens is that the city seems to spread out in ripples from a center that is home to the Acropolis, on which sits the Parthenon. When I reached the entrance to the Parthenon I looked out around me and was struck by the proximity between the past and the present. Though there is a bit of climbing involved in getting to the top of the Acropolis, the ruins are a remarkable sight, at once timeless and time-bound. The Parthenon and ruins that can be found elsewhere in Athens, and throughout Greece for that matter, transcend their time and place in antiquity, because millions of tourists each year go to see them—a simple but nevertheless profound form of secular worship. What is not to be marveled at in relation to the engineering and artistic capabilities of humankind over two thousand years ago? The sheer size and breath of these temples dwarfs and shames the individual who believes he is greater than his brother, who believes he can do any one thing that epitomizes human greatness by himself.
All works of architecture in particular are made by a community of artists and workers for a community of believers, of which they are but a small part. The ruins of ancient Greece are a testament to the ingenuity of the past that survives into the present and on into the future. This astonishing power of transcendence, which major artistic, architectural, and even technological feats all share, is at the heart of Greek pride, and should be at the heart of all human pride. For it is in the forgetting of ourselves in the creative process, in the endeavor to leave a legacy to culture and to the community of all humanity, that we build a bridge to transcendence, across which all future generations can trod and return to the past to ponder the beauty of what has survived the ravages of Time.
For those who believe the past is irrelevant to the present or the future, the ruins that dot the Greek landscape are signifiers of the opposite. Though these temples dedicated to the worship of the gods and other ruins, such as those of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, once houses of learning and the teaching of philosophy, can no longer be used for these purposes, making them in a sense quite time-bound, they are monuments to the engaged human mind in acts of creation, thought, and community and nation building. The activities that went on atop the Acropolis, in the Agora, and these schools have not changed in over two thousand years; the only real difference is that they now take place all across the globe in more modern buildings and expansive cities. We can only imagine what it was like to live in those times, to worship at these temples, and listen as the great philosophers of the day argued over what they believed was the truth, and over the best way for human beings to live in the light of this truth.
There is a difference between living in the past and remembering it. Living in the past is destructive not just for the individual or group that does it, but for the larger society in which these people live alongside those who do not share the same need to hold on to a past, onto a cultural memory that can and has created divisions throughout history among the various communities who share wider, more foundational beliefs and nations as their home. Living in the past demonizes “the other” from each side of the divide and disables us from moving forward as a united community and country. Not being able to let go of personal or communal traumas only keeps us chained, not just to the past (however accurately we recall it) but to anger and hate that has no value and serves no deeper purpose than to hide the ignorance and fear that are the root of these passions and divides. Living in the past and holding on to negative memories takes power from us and hands it to those whom we let oppress us through our hate, fear, and anger. We are already dead if we let the ugliness of past events dominate our present and ultimately our future.
Remembering the past is another story. It is wise to learn and have in the back of our mind how the peoples from ancient times through even a century ago lived. If we look at where we’ve come from, it will help us to see how we got where we are today and give us a gauge in knowing where we are going in the future. But we cannot let this slip into becoming an experience of chronic nostalgia. We should pay homage to the positive and peaceful eras of humankind’s development but we cannot go back to these times or mourn that things are not the same now as they were then, for every age of man could have been improved upon, as there never was and never can be a golden age of human history. Constantly dwelling on the glory of a nation’s past undermines and denies the present as a time to be experienced and prevents us from using it to transform current horrors and injustices into a more free and equitable future. The value of remembering the past, of reading firsthand and more contemporary accounts of history, is in the studying of human nature, of human character, and the personalities and peoples that have moved history forward and ushered the future (whether for good or ill) into the present.
In order to understand how we got to this point we must be deeply knowledgeable in history and the past. In order to take charge of and shape the future, and avoid repeating the myriad mistakes of the past, in order to break the cycle of ignorance, fear, and desire, all of which have been the forces behind the struggles of humankind against each other, we must take great heed of the past and learn better how to repair our ancient, tribal hatreds and dissolve our grievances over sins and crimes committed countless generations ago. In order for the past to stop having such a devastating stranglehold on the present and the future we must forgive each other, forget that which has paralyzed us from living in the now, and cross the widening divides between races, cultures, and nations by building a new and different bridge to transcendence—one of love and compassion.