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MONTHLY BLOG 91, PEOPLE SOMETIMES SAY: ‘WE DON’T LEARN FROM THE PAST’ AND WHY THAT STATEMENT IS COMPLETELY ABSURD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

People sometimes say, dogmatically but absurdly: ’We don’t learn from the Past’. Oh really? So what do humans learn from, then? We don’t learn from the Future, which has yet to unfold. We do learn in and from the Present. Yet every moment of ‘Now’ constitutes an infinitesimal micro-instant an unfolding process. The Present is an unstable time-period, which is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the Past. Humans don’t have time, in that split-second of ‘Now’, to comprehend and assimilate everything. As a result, we have, unavoidably, to learn from what has gone before: our own and others’ experiences, which are summed as everything before ‘Now’: the Past.

It’s worth reprising the status of those temporal categories. The Future, which has not yet unfolded, is not known or knowable in its entirety. That’s a definitional quality which springs from the unidirectional nature of Time. It does not mean that the Future is either entirely unknown or entirely unknowable. As an impending temporal state, it may beckon, suggest, portend. Humans are enabled to have considerable information and expectations about many significant aspects of the Future. For example, it’s clear from past experience that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die in their current corporeal form. We additionally know that tomorrow will come after today, because that is how we habitually define diurnal progression within unilinear Time. We also confidently expect that in the future two plus two will continue to equal four; and that all the corroborated laws of physics will still apply.

And we undertake calculations, based upon past data, which provide the basis for Future predictions or estimates. For example, actuarial tables, showing age-related life expectancy, indicate group probabilities, though not absolute certainties. Or, to take a different example, we know, from expert observation and calculation, that Halley’s Comet is forecast to return into sight from Earth in mid-2061. Many, though not all, people alive today will be able to tell whether that astronomical prediction turns out to be correct or not. And there’s every likelihood  that it will be.

Commemorating a successful prediction,
in the light of past experience:
a special token struck in South America in 2010 to celebrate
the predicted return to view from Planet Earth
of Halley’s Comet,
whose periodicity was first calculated by Edward Halley (1656-1742)

Yet all this (and much more) useful information about the Future is, entirely unsurprisingly, drawn from past experience, observations and calculations. As a result, humans can use the Past to illuminate and to plan for the Future, without being able to foretell it with anything like total precision.

So how about learning from the Present? It’s live, immediate, encircling, inescapably ‘real’. We all learn in our own present times – and sometimes illumination may come in a flash of understanding. One example, as Biblically recounted, is the conversion of St Paul, who in his unregenerate days was named Saul: ‘And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus; and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”’1 His eyes were temporarily blinded; but spiritually he was enlightened. Before then, Saul was one of the Christians’ chief persecutors, ‘breathing out threatening and slaughter’.2 Perhaps a psychologist might suggest that his intense hostility concealed some unexpressed fascination with Christianity. Nonetheless, there was no apparent preparation, so the ‘Damascene conversion’ which turned Saul into St Paul remains the classic expression of an instant change of heart. But then he had to rethink and grow into his new role, working with those he had been attempting to expunge.

A secular case of sudden illumination appears in the fiction of Jane Austen. In Emma (1815), the protagonist, a socially confident would-be match-maker, has remained in ignorance of her own heart. She encourages her young and humble protégé, Harriet Smith, to fancy herself in love. They enjoy the prospect of romance. Then Emma suddenly learns precisely who is the object of Harriet’s affections. The result is wonderfully described.3 Emma sits in silence for several moments, in a fixed attitude, contemplating the unpleasant news:

Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!

I remember first reading this novel, as a teenager, when I was as surprised as Emma at this development. Since then, I’ve reread the story many times; and I can now see the prior clues which Austen scatters through the story to alert more worldly-wise readers that George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse are a socially and personally compatible couple, acting in concert long before they both (separately) realise their true feelings. It’s a well drawn example of people learning from the past whilst ‘wising up’ in a single moment. Emma then undertakes some mortifying retrospection as she gauges her own past errors and blindness. But she is capable of learning from experience. She does; and so, rather more artlessly, does Harriet. It’s a comedy of trial-and-error as the path to wisdom.

As those examples suggest, the relationship of learning with Time is in fact a very interesting and complex one. Humans learn in their own present moments. Yet the process of learning and education as a whole has to be a through-Time endeavour. A flash of illumination needs to be mentally consolidated and ‘owned’. Otherwise it is just one of those bright ideas which can come and as quickly go.   Effective learning thus entails making oneself familiar with a subject by repetition, cogitation, debating, and lots of practice. Such through-Time application applies whether people are learning physical or intellectual skills or both. The role of perspiration, as well as inspiration, is the stuff of many mottoes: ‘practice makes perfect’; ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’; ‘stick at it’; ‘never stop learning’; ‘trudge another mile’; ‘learn from experience’.

Indeed, the entire corpus of knowledge and experience that humans have assembled over many generations is far too huge to be assimilated in an instant. (It’s actually too huge for any one individual to master. So we have to specialise and share).

So that brings the discussion back to the Past. It stretches back through Time and onwards until ‘Now’. Of course, we learn from it. Needless to say, it doesn’t follow that people always agree on messages from former times, or act wisely in the light of such information. Hence when people say: ‘We don’t learn from the Past’, they probably mean that it does not deliver one guiding message, on which everyone agrees. And that’s right. It doesn’t and there isn’t.

One further pertinent point: there are rumbling arguments around the question – is the Past alive or dead? (With a hostile implication in the sub-text that nothing can really be learned from a dead and vanished Past.) But that’s not a helpful binary. In other words, it’s a silly question. Some elements of the past have conclusively gone, while many others persist through time.4 To take just a few examples, the human genome was not invented this morning; human languages have evolved over countless generations; and the laws of physics apply throughout.

Above all, therefore, the integral meshing between Past and Present means that we, individual humans, have also come from the Past. It’s in us as well as, metaphorically speaking, behind us. Thinking of Time as running along a pathway or flowing like a river is a common human conception of temporality. Other alternatives might envisage the Past as ‘above’, ‘below’, ‘in front’, ‘behind’, or ‘nowhere specific’. The metaphor doesn’t really matter as long as we realise that it pervades everything, including ourselves.

1 Holy Bible, Acts 9: 3-4.

2 Ibid, 9:1.

3 J. Austen, Emma: A Novel (1815), ed. R. Blythe (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 398.

4 P.J. Corfield, ‘Is the Past Dead or Alive? And the Snares of Such Binary Questions’, BLOG/62 (Feb.2016).

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MONTHLY BLOG 44, QUOTATIONS AND IRONY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

Quotations should never be mangled and should always be cited honestly, with due attention to context. Yes – absolutely yes.  It’s axiomatic for all scholarship – but also for proper communications. It does happen that words are taken out of context and twisted into another meaning. But it’s never right.

To take an example: if a theatre critic sees a controversial play and writes: ‘The very last thing that I’d say is that this production is brilliant’, then the theatre’s publicity team could put the critic’s name in lights alongside the quotation: ‘This production is brilliant’. Factually, those attributed words are correct. The critic did write them. Yet the truncated quotation gives the reverse meaning to that intended. Both the critic and any members of the audience, who were deceived into attending on the strength of the critic’s recommendation, have grounds for complaint.

Another potential for misunderstanding comes when heavy irony is taken at face value. In one of Shakespeare’s famous oratorical set-pieces, Mark Antony mourns the assassination of Caesar by Brutus and his allies with the repeated phrase: ‘And Brutus is an honourable man’ … [They are all] ‘honourable men’. The stress upon the repeated phrase, like a refrain, urges the Roman crowd to understand that the words mean the reverse of what they apparently say.

By the end, the citizens turn against the assassins: ‘They were traitors: honourable men!1  On the face of it, Mark Antony has given Brutus a favourable character reference. In context, however, he stands condemned, not just as an assassin but as one who has basely betrayed his closest friend and colleague. ‘This was the unkindest cut of all’.

Nonetheless, there is a problem for anyone who uses irony. If the listeners or readers fail to get the implied message, then they will come to an erroneous conclusion. A Roman citizen who left the forum after the opening phrases of Antony’s speech (or who wasn’t listening carefully) could depart thinking: ‘I was sorry to hear of  Caesar’s death but it must be acceptable as Brutus, a man of honour, explained why he had to do it, and Antony confirms that Brutus is an honourable man’.

Irony, then, is powerful but risky. It depends upon an attentive community between speaker/writer and audience/readers which allows the words to be decoded successfully.

For historians, quoting from sources whose authors have long gone, there is always a challenge to understand meanings in their full context. When does a word or phrase in use mean its opposite? And did people in the past always get the hidden message?

When Jonathan Swift published his Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick (1729), he provided an exercise in sustained irony that revealed itself through the moral enormity of the proposed solution. ‘A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food.’ Poor parents would solve their financial problems by selling their children, who would provide good food for the rich. Infanticide? Cannibalism? Class callousness? Swift does not advocate these. Instead, his irony conveys outrage at the poverty of the poor and the indifference of the rich.

Jonathan Swift’s famous use of sustained irony in his Modest Proposal (1729)Why am I writing about this now? Because I am currently thinking about the use of evidence and the dangers of inadvertent misinterpretation. The question really arises when using a lot of sources in a historical collage.

I have just done that in an essay, published in Social History, on eighteenth-century Britain as an ‘Age of Infidelity’.2  It cites at least 75 contemporary verdicts on the state of religion and irreligion. Many are book titles, some are declarations within books, some are printed texts reporting upon speeches and sermons.

A proportion of these works were clearly using overblown rhetoric, uttered in times of crisis. When John Bowlder agonised in 1798 that the British nation’s lack of faith seemed to portend nothing less than ‘the eradicating [of] Christianity in this Quarter of the World’,3  it is hard not to smile. Religion had more staying power than he was ready to admit. On the other hand, Bowdler’s deep anxiety was typical of many committed Christians in the later 1790s, when Britain was struggling in the prolonged war against France. Why such extreme danger? It could only be that God was angry with the nation for its irreligious ways.

Bowdler not only wrote to chastise the people but took practical steps to offer a remedy. He co-founded the Church Building Society, which provided new places of worship in the newly expanding towns. In my Social History essay, I am able to give further information about Bowdler, as he was a particularly notable contributor to the debates. His name on its own attracts interest. Two of his children, Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler, removed all the saucy bits from Shakespeare, in order to make the bard acceptable for respectable family reading. Their reward was much public ridicule – and the invention of a new verb ‘to bowdlerise’. Such contextual information illuminates the era’s culture wars, in which the Bowdlers were eager partisans.

But, in an essay of approximately 7,000 words, it’s not possible to devote equal attention to the other 74 eighteenth-century contemporaries – laypeople as well as clergymen – who expressed views on the state of religion. It would overrun the restricted length of a scholarly essay – and confuse the unfolding analysis. Naturally, I checked all the sources that I used, for both content and context. And I especially searched for rival tracts, arguing that the eighteenth century was an ‘Age of Faith’ or equivalent.

Is it possible that I missed some exercises in irony? Logically, yes, although I hope not. (Please check my sources, all duly footnoted!) Sustained Swiftian-style irony is comparatively rare. Moreover, people writing on the state of irreligion tended to be heated and passionate rather than coolly playing with double meanings.

What I do claim to have found is not a debate without the potential for irony but instead one which circulated a new eighteenth-century cliché. It stated that the era was ‘an Age of Infidelity’. By this phrase, the commentators did not refer to people’s unfaithfulness to their marriage vows. That constituted ‘conjugal infidelity’, plentiful enough but far from unique to the eighteenth century. Nor did the commentators refer to apostacy: Christians in this period were not turning into Islamic or Jewish or any other religious variety of ‘infidels’.

No, it was the spread of secularisation that was being noted, chiefly in alarm: the advent of a society, officially Christian, where people had the option of not going to church, not following Christian lifestyles, and (even) not sharing Christian beliefs. It is possible that some eighteenth-century references to the ‘Age of Infidelity’ were meant ironically. But, if all that the commentators left were the unvarnished words, then they are liable to be read literally.

Ironists beware. Unless your double meaning is suitably signalled, it will become lost in time.

1  W. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (written 1599/1600), Act 3, scene 2.

2  P.J. Corfield, ‘“An Age of Infidelity”: Secularisation in Eighteenth-Century England’, Social History, 39 (2014), pp. 229-47; available via Taylor & Francis publishers online = www.tandfonline.com.

J. Bowdler, Reform or Ruin: Take Your Choice! (Dublin, 1798), p. 21.

4  For the CBS, now part of the National Churches Trust, see www.churchplansonline.org.

See Wikipedia, sub Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825): en.wikipedia.org.

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