The Past is a Foreign Country

All Souls Oxford

They do things differently there. Or do they? Man’s real fear is of the unknowable future.

I was sitting in a quiet Wimbledon garden chatting to my two lovely nieces. One is an undergraduate studying classics at Oxford and the other hopes to go to Durham shortly to read English. Bright, wonderful little sparks of life they do not possess an ounce of malice between them and in their quiet company I can often feel at peace with the world

We were discussing Roman literature and suddenly the glorious security and certainty of reading Cicero, Livy or Pliny struck me forcibly.

Whatever we say about re-interpreting the past, it is difficult to deny the veracity of the written word. Fools and knaves may deny the holocaust but it would take a bigger fool indeed to look at the works of a classical author, copied faithfully throughout the centuries, and claim he did not write them.

Thus, whatever re-interpretation pushy academics may place upon the words of a classical author, it is reasonably certain that many of these works remain as written. It remains the case as it has done for the past two thousand years.

There is thus a security in reading such works. This happened, that happened. This is how this author felt about his world, his life. His writing is a fly in amber, a fossil record, a tablet written in stone. Immutable.

Einstein may have posited time to be non existent; that past, present and future do not flow. But it is not so for we mere mortals. If the future is knowable, we do not know it.

How we long for gnosis, for revelation. How many questions there are for which we have eternally sought answers. How consistent and poignant our search for meaning in a capricious universe. How numerous the grand theories of reality we have invented to comfort ourselves. The gods, the voids, the nirvanas.

Do we find comfort in such things? Perhaps we do; the mystic would certainly claim so. Some of us are lucky enough to have had glimpses through the doors of perception; or at least to believe so.

We look for certainty in the past and can find great comfort in its famliliar and sometimes warm embrace. The very stones of Oxford itself breathe a kind of warmth, a blanket of security and beauty. There was I too, many years ago, reading history in those ancient hallowed halls. Walking those paths where scholars have walked for nigh on a thousand years.

Feeling continuity, peace, a sense that all is well.

Do I seek the same thing in my beloved country churches? A sense that even if the future is unknowable, I can at least wrap myself in the familiar clothing of Norman arches and ancient stained glass windows.

Far from being a foreign country, I would argue to my nieces that the past is a present comfort to us. That we can derive joy and meaning from our living history and use it to help us see our place in our vast and ever changing universe.

Not so that we become ossified, not so that we find ourselves fossilised in these ancient writings and stones. But so that we can congratulate ourselves on some of our better achievements, our greater glories. So that we can more clearly see our past mistakes and look to a brighter if unknowable future. Where there we may indeed hope to do things differently.


  1. A soulful contemplation, Anthony.
    I have no religious upbringing except that gleaned through osmosis from my Catholic friends and family, those of several of the non-Catholic Christian sects, and a few Jewish friends..
    After I moved to Sweden and, therefore Europe, at age 65 I had access to many great churches and cathedrals. I have sat, alone, in many that I encountered, feeling a great peace and sometimes awe. I think, also: of the amazing imaginations and labors that went into these structures, and the faith (or something undefinable) which stimulated their creation.
    As for ‘the future,’ I feel I am in my own future now. On balance, it’s been a good life (no important presentiments here).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel exactly the same way you do about great churches and Cathedrals. I can spend weeks in Venice moving from one beautiful church to another. And yes, I too get feelings of peace, total peace from such places. Especially after half an hour or so of quiet meditation. Yes, that “something indefinable” – I feel it so often these days. As to the future, I fear life more than death. The daily grind of physical existence can be so tiresome sometimes. Filling in a tax return, the petty bureaucracies with which we have surrounded ourselves, the tiresome noise of hateful cars and aeroplanes. I’m not sure sure my life has been a good one, despite the wonderful places I have lived and the beauty I have seen. But it is a lot better now than it ever has been. Letting go and pretending to be a Poohstick has been the answer.

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  2. “Thus, whatever re-interpretation pushy academics may place upon the words of a classical author, it is reasonably certain that many of these works remain as written. It remains the case as it has done for the past two thousand years.”

    While most of what we’re reading from the classics probably are substantially what the original author meant to say, it’s worth keeping in mind that what we have is often a translation of a translation of a translation (typically going from Latin or Greek to Arabic, back to Latin, then to English), each of which were an unavoidable act of interpretation by an interpreter in a particular cultural milieu. And the preservation of these classics throughout the centuries before the invention of the printing press, were done by hand copying manuscripts, an error prone process. Actual manuscripts from ancient times are very rare, and are usually fragmentary.

    That’s not to say we don’t learn a lot about the original thoughts behind the writing. Just that in most cases we’re looking at it through filters, ones we hope don’t blur things too much. Writings from the mid-15th century onward are more certain since the opportunities for copying errors are much smaller.

    Sorry, don’t mean to undercut your comfort from this, but I actually think paleography is fascinating.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. For God’s sake don’t make the same point to a Muslim or a fundamental Christian! Not without being quite sure of the security of your anonymity. What I write tends to be more poetry and feeling these days than fact; more my experience and interpretation of what I see around me than anything else. Dis-ease can only be combatted, it seems to me, by surrounding oneself with a comfort bubble of one’s own making. A life of magic and pixies and the imagination rather than fact. A world where you turn your shoes upside down at night lest pixies step into them. A world where Tom Bombadil still roams the barrows on a Wiltshire hilltop and people still believe in faery tales.

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