If the past is another country, the study of its thought-forms, its insights and its foibles has all the complexities of foreign travel. Some intellectual historians write travelogues - guidebooks for the relentless time-traveller who likes to collect funny foreign experiences but cannot stay longer than a bargain-break holiday allows. The inhabitants of the past, for them, are curiosities to be treasured chiefly because they show us how far we have come. Others return from the past full of evangelistic zeal, eager to show their readers how the ancients have been misunderstood, and to restore respect for our ancestors, who were less strange than the superficial tourist would think. In a culture which moves restlessly on and discards the past as it goes, scholars who can recapture a sense of kinship with past intellectual giants are ever more necessary. Tourists need constant reminders that they and the people they are observing share the same humanity; empathy needs to replace curiosity. Yet the greatest historical scholars are those who can restrain both tendencies - the laudable desire to see the relevance of past to present, as well as the cruder antiquarianism that sees only its alien character. Such historians remember that shared humanity consists, precisely, in irreducible individuality: by living long in a past culture, they have come to see that human beings are always aliens, even in their own country.
LRB 16 March 1989 | PDF Download