What is the role of history and narrative for human beings and peoples? What do we gain by learning of “our” past and the often horrendous crimes that we human beings have committed? Consider this parable.
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Imagine that you are a different kind of human being. You are of a species that lives for a thousand years. You have a capacity for memory, moral reasoning, purposiveness, and reflection. But your capacities are bounded, and there are whole decades that you no longer recall. You have what we might describe as a persistent but intermittent personal identity; you know who you are, but not always who you have been. After passing the age of 800 you have reckoned that you are in the autumn of your years and you would like to collect the materials for an autobiography. You begin collecting documents and markers and newspapers and personal recollections from other people, and gradually you begin to form a more complete picture of yourself over time. It is not a happy picture.
It turns out that your younger years were turbulent. In your 100s you were impulsive and violent, sometimes attacking people for no reason, sometimes threatening and attacking them to take their property. Towards the end of this period you found tranquility, an excellent psychiatrist, and a yoga mat, and you were able to put your aggressiveness and percolating violence aside. Things went well for a century or so, you formed a family, you were a good father for at least a hundred years, and you practiced meditation in a disciplined way. Your life was orderly and kind.
Your researches have informed you, however, that this tranquility and peace did not last forever. In your fourth century you took up politics, you developed strong opinions, and you became intolerant. You were a charismatic person, and others followed you, and in that century you had a lot of influence. One of your passions was patriarchy — you became committed to the idea of the natural and moral superiority of men over women. By seizing the power of the state you sought to create a system of law in which women were permanently subordinated to men. With your followers at your side, you mostly succeeded. This period too didn’t last for ever. Instead, the women of the empire you had created rebelled, and they were successful. You left the palace in your fully charged Tesla, and you never looked back. It took another century for the state you had left behind to recover its equanimity, but eventually a decent liberal democracy was restored.
You felt you had learned a lesson, some kind of lesson, though you quickly forgot many of the details of this bad political episode. Anyway, your research tells you that things went better for you in your sixth century. You cultivated friends, had another family, and practiced the calming arts of meditation once again.
But then, once again, bad times. Petty disagreements with your friends led to breaches, to distrust, and eventually to active enmity. You broke your friendships, you broke promises and allegiances that had seemed permanent, you betrayed the trust of the men and women who had been your community. In fact, your own resentments and anger led you to do things you shouldn’t have done — you let slip embarrassing information about one friend to the newspapers, you denounced another friend to the political authorities for her disloyalty to the state, and you actively connived in presenting evidence against a third former friend to support a spurious allegation of business fraud. Once again, despicable behavior for a moral human being — “how could I have done those things?”.
Tranquility and peace came once again, as it always has. And this brings you more or less up to date. You have now filled in the gaps. You “know” yourself over time. And because you have been exhaustive in your search for evidence about your past, and because you have been unflinching in confronting the truth about yourself over the centuries as exposed by these researches, you now know that you have been a very long-lived person who has embodied both good and evil, both benevolence and hatred, both temperance and unbounded aggression. You have, you are now ashamed to realize, harmed a great many people who deserved only kindness and respect from you. The story of your life is now collected in eight compact volumes in a small library in your current palace. And you ask yourself this question: in the remainder of my centuries of life, how shall I live, given what I now know about my past and my potential for doing evil?
You realize a number of things all at once. (You spent a fruitful century studying philosophy with one of the great sages only a century or so ago. On balance, you preferred the philosopher to the psychiatrist, but more than both of them you preferred Seinfeld.) First, you realize that you have not consistently been a good person, a virtuous person, a person of integrity and courage. Second, you realize that the people you harmed are now dead and gone. You cannot make up your debt to them, you cannot undo the evil you inflicted upon them. You cannot, at the moment, even fully understand why you did those things. And yet, you now believe that you are a more fully moral person, a person who wants to act justly and well in the remainder of your years. Your overriding wish is to act as a virtuous human being for the time left to you, and to make the world a better place. You return to the philosopher-sage for more advice.
What advice can the sage offer this long-lived, flawed, but aspiring human being?
The sage, who seems to be a latter-day Stoic with a bit of Martin Buber included in the mix, has only five things to offer. To be humble. To seek to understand the deficiencies of character that led to the bad behavior over the centuries. To find ways to correct these flaws of character. To seek to rebalance the evils you have created. And most fundamentally, to dedicate your strength, talents, wisdom, and years, to the task of contributing to a better future for humanity. This will be enough, given that you cannot live your life over and undo the evil you have done.
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Here is my question: Does this story about a limited, erratic, and forgetful human being provide an analogy for how we might think about long stretches of human history? Does the parable provide some means for understanding the history of humanity and the ways that we understand ourselves as human beings over time? Does it shed light on how we human beings, a historical species, must feel our way into an understanding of our past, our present, and our future? Is knowing history a form of self-discovery of often-forgotten truths about ourselves, and developing the strength to honestly acknowledge those truths, learn from them, and move beyond them? Can humanity deal with its blemished history in the same ways that the nameless ancient one in the parable is advised to deal with his own personal history and actions?