The following is the text of Professor Nisbet’s speech at the 1985 Ingersoll Prizes Awards Banquet:
One of Hans Christian Andersen’s lesser-known stories bears the title “The Most Unbelievable Thing.” A king offered a fortune to the subject who created the most unbelievable thing in the arts. Competition was intense and prolonged. When at last the day of judgment came, the jury, after inspecting all the entries, settled on a marvelous fusion of a clock and calendar, one with hundreds of moving parts, set in rare metals and crowned by precious stones. This, said the jury, is surely the most unbelievable thing. But as the king was about to ratify judgment and make the award, a competitor, insane with jealousy, came up with sledge hammer in hand and smashed the beautiful creation into a thousand pieces. The crowd was horrified. But the jury said: “Why, surely, this is the most unbelievable thing, to smash so perfect a work of art.”
Western culture may be neither unbelievable nor perfect as a work of history. But for 2,500 years it has commanded the admiration and awe, and not seldom the covetousness, of countless peoples. Set as it is upon a small promontory of the vast Eurasian continent. Western civilization has been, from at least the fifth century B.C., the unique object of wonder for peoples from almost all parts of the world. We take nothing away from the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Persia, and China when we declare the West without serious rival as the collective culture hero in world history. For this the West has, however, paid a price; the price that is always exacted of the great and noble by the envious and covetous. From the Persians turned back at Thermopylae and then the Germanic-barbarian invaders of Rome, down to their successors, the Mongols, Muslims, and Slavs, the West has been a uniquely desirable civilization in the world: the barbarians have sought to invade it from the outside, as they still do in our day. Worse, Western civilization has had, especially in modern times, those from within whose impact upon their own civilization is hardly less than that of the barbarians beyond the walls.
There are various reasons for the West’s remarkable fertility of culture, and there is no time for exploring any of them in proper measure. There is one reason, though, that I want to stress here: the West’s unequaled profusion of inventions during its two and a half millennia of existence. I am referring to more than the mechanical inventions which immediately come to mind, though I do not deprecate these. Almost all cultural change has in it invention of one kind or other. This is as true of systems of morality, musical composition, statecraft, literature and its forms, and painting and sculpture as it is of technology and science. So much that we lazily ascribe to “growth” and “development” is in fact the child of Western man’s inventive genius.
There is no other civilization known that can match the prodigality of inventions in the West. The reasons are several and begin with the generally freer air that has existed from the beginning. But there is one that I want particularly to note here: the conception of time in Western thought. Man is a time-binding creature, a faculty that along with language gives him uniqueness among the species. Tomorrow and tomorrow may creep into the present, but so do all our yesterdays. Nothing is more important to the creative process than the conception of the past. Cultures have become ossified from too strict a veneration for the past; but they have been turned to cultural froth by ignorance or neglect of the past. If a culture is absolutely obliged to choose, it is better to mummify the past than to be in ignorance of it. But far better, as the West’s course illustrates, is the steering carefully between the Scylla of rapt immobility and the Charybdis of idle neglect. What is important is use of the past to serve the present.
The great ages of Western history, beginning with Pericles’ Athens and including the High Middle Ages, and not forgetting America’s 18th century, have been built around a singularly delicate but potent balancing of past and present, a balancing in which the imperatives of the present make all the brighter the rich and diverse resources of the past. There is a telescoping of the generations in such ages. St. Augustine likened the development of humanity to the education of a single individual through all time. In the 13th century an allegorical figure became common in writing: that of a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant. The dwarf represented the present, the giant the past. Only by availing himself of the giant could the dwarf see farther into the future than could the giant.
My own sense of individual biography suggests that the past has similar importance in the works of highly creative individuals. There is an acute feeling for what Eliot called the “usable past.” Eliot’s reverence for the past is best shown by his mining of it for often radical poetic purposes. From Plato to Einstein there is a continuing respect for the past, a respect that is based upon the sense of the past’s richness as a mine of resources in all areas of the human mind. Max Planck, whose quantum theory is often held to be the single most revolutionary idea in 20th-century physical science, was notorious for his traditionalism; he himself said that he found the theory in materials available to everyone; and he said also that he had not turned to this new theory until every possible explanation from the past had been examined first. Churchill said that he loved the past, distrusted the present, and feared the future. A friend likened his mind to a layer-cake, each layer an epoch of the past. For all that, Churchill’s grasp of the present was, as we know gratefully, superior. The greater of the Impressionists knew and respected the past; they sought only to build on it by use of inventions in color. Had it not been for a blockheaded establishment in Paris, fearful of all innovation in art, the Impressionists would have shown their canvases in conventional galleries; and their true relation to the past would have been instantly evident.
The most unbelievable thing about the 20th century is the near-loss of the past: loss through crippling and distortion, often through its murder. Quite rightly does the historian J.H. Plumb refer to “the death of the past.” Eliot speaks of “disowning the past.” Our conception of present and past is no longer the dwarf standing on a giant’s shoulders. In our art and literature and philosophy, the dwarf has gotten down from the giant, to stand on the ground and kick the giant’s ankles. Our flouting of the past is exactly commensurate with our narcissism of the present and our worship of the future. The greatest crime the intellectual can be thought guilty of is that of treating the past with respect, of “romanticizing the past” as convention and cant usually have it. Nostalgia, which is the rust of memory, is permitted because it sells well; but not history. Hence, as everyone knows, the scuttling of curriculum in the schools by undermining the study of history. Never would the NEA “turn the clock back,” as they love to say.
Such undermining is far from being merely a conceit of schools of education. It stems from our transformed popular regard for the past. For at least three centuries in the West there has been a relentless growth of systems of thought based upon a proposed extermination of the past from human thought. Descartes’ rationalism, which has been well called “intellectual terrorism,” urged the burning of all libraries and museums; Rousseau drew from this Cartesian philosophical nihilism a program of all-out political nihilism; Marx, child of both Descartes and Rousseau, saw all history as the necessary destruction of the past, in the interest of an ever-evolving present. And Freud populated the racial past with mythologically derived demons which relegate memory and tradition to the bins of the unconscious.
But for all the assaults of modern Western history, the past is fundamentally indestructible. As I said, man is a time-binding creature; he can no more live without the past in his contemplation of the present than he can live without oxygen. The past is inseparable from the creative process and also from simple adaptation to crisis. The single greatest message of Orwell’s 1984 is the tribute paid to the past by its incessant distortion by the totalitarian masters. The Bolsheviks, determined at first to create the new Soviet man overnight and to wipe out the Russian past, were not long in discovering the value of linking the Communist present to the pasts of Novgorod, Kiev, and the courts of Ivan and Peter. Over and over the lesson is the same: cast the past out the front door, as did Descartes, Rousseau, and Marx, and it will enter the side door. Inasmuch as the future is absolutely dark to our eyes and is the abode of charlatans, we have only the past to go to when we seek relief from the frustrations of the present. Not to the past of nostalgics, romantics, and antiquarians, but the past that is a vast theater in time with innumerable human dramas from which to draw inspiration and even role-models.
Someone, I think it was Camus, conceived the parable of the bee. It is in man’s power, the parable says, to destroy the bee with a single clench of his hand. But the bee’s sting has kept it alive as a species for 50 million years. It is the sting of the neglected past that will surely force us to restore it to the high place our forefathers gave it. And this will not be long in coming, I firmly believe.