Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

By Paul K. Conkin; Roland N. Stromberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1

THE ROOTS OF WESTERN HISTORY:
THE ANCIENT WORLD

The Uniqueness of Western Historical-Mindedness

THE place of history in Western civilization has been a uniquely great one—a legacy of the dual tradition of Hebraism and Hellenism, of the Judeo-Christian sense of time and the Greek critical spirit. Few if any civilizations have possessed this sort of historical-mindedness.

It may be thought that no society can “escape history,” and this is in some sense true. The past lies around us everywhere we look, in the form of physical mementos such as buildings, monuments, and objects of art and utility; and in the legends and tales preserved about memorable deeds, such as even savages relate. The past is a gigantic fact almost comparable to physical nature in its presence. Teaching about the past is a constant element found in all societies, some have asserted. Certain forms of historical consciousness doubtless exist even in primitive societies. Nevertheless, primitive people and some of our most highly developed civilizations, above all the Oriental ones, have not endowed time with the kind of value that Western people have always ascribed to it. In his interesting book Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, the distinguished historian of religions Mircea Eliade pointed out that traditional or “archaic” societies, the kind that most people have lived in during most of humanity's time on earth, typically “refuse history.” Though they often believed in a golden age in the past (the oldest and most ubiquitous of all human myths), primitive or archaic people lived in a timeless dimension, ritualized around primordial acts in a way that seems determined to deprive time of any real meaning. And if we turn to a very sophisticated and old civilization, that of India, we see clearly that its modes of thought ascribe no significance or “ontological content” at all to time. It is without meaning. The Indian tradition posits huge time cycles of millions of years which always come back to the same place. Creation, destruction, and new creation go on

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