Better times lie before us

In the Hebrew language you refer to the past as what is in front of you, whereas the future lies behind you. What you know and can see is what has already happened, the story of your people; the future is unknown and shrouded in darkness, you cannot see it, which is why it lies at your back. In our more modern languages that grammatical assumption has been reversed: tomorrow lies before us (“i am looking forward to…”) and the past is behind us (“back then…”). To us the past is hidden below the ground in sand dunes and burial grounds, and we must unearth it and decipher it, whereas the future is only a few days away, barely a little misty, and we can almost already see it. We now look expectantly to the possibilities of the future and are glad to have the unchangeable past behind us.

We can imagine two people standing back to back on a timeline. The first, an ancient, looks toward the past and cannot see the future (one must admit, a slightly more accurate metaphor); es modern counterpart is turned around and looks towards the future, keeping the past behind e.

Now we might add another layer to that picture. In both cases the individuals consider that (on the whole) what lies before them is better, the the present is relatively bad, and what lies behind them is even worse. However, the good that lies in front of the ancient is the past, whereas the good that lies in front of us moderns is the future. To the ancients Eden was the best of times, as was the Golden Age or the rule of the China’s first and supremely wise kings, Yao and Shun; now we have fallen from Eden through sin, our age is that of Iron and kings are evil or incompetent. The modern view is, of course, that we once lived in caves without central heating, but that tomorrow we will cure cancer and have flying cars.*

Both ancients and moderns view the good as a Bad->Better vector that begins here & now and points forward, either to the past or the future. Our conceptions of morality, ancient and modern, are thus closely linked to our conceptions of time, the good being understood as a “better”, a point in time that defines a preferred direction. The ancient view was tragic in that its “better” lay in an unreachable past that was inexorably moving further and further away from us. Our modern view is more “dramatic” or “comical” in that it follows the direction of time instead of working against it: the better lies in the future, where time is heading anyway: we only need to wait and see and all will be well — or much will be better.

 

*This view is that of Enlightenment modernity, the one that “believes” in progress, the (almost inexorable, if slow) advance of democracy and human rights, the gradual, if haling, perfectibility of humankind. However, there is also a newer contemporary view that follows the ancient moral time-line, namely the environmentalist movement which believes the future will likely be bad (destroyed ecosystems, out-of-control weather) and that the (recent) past or present is better (non-genetically modified foods, untampered climate, large bio-diversity). This ecological view has the same Bad->Better vector for describing morality as do the two systems i described above, though it is pointing in the ancient direction, towards the past, though it is anchored in the future and points at the recent past.

 

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