Let us travel in time, in what the historian calls the long duration. The famous – and nowadays so recurrent – axiom coined by Cicero, historia magistra vitae (“history as a master of life”) was logically born in a society whose thought, under a cyclic conception of Time, was dominated by the belief in the degrading and corrupting nature of it and, consequently, by its constant renovation. Showing how human nature would be immutable and ahistoric, this almost chronological synthesis of the Greco-Roman world was adequate for the need of disguising forgetfulness and of transmitting an amount of exempla to the future generations.
However, the revelation of the Jewish-Christian deity, installed in its eternity, created a Time that -– as a creature with a concrete beginning and end – was guided through an eschatological goal. Thus, this new order enabled the emergence of a new man and a new time – conceived as absolute and unrepeatable phenomena. The creation of the world is now identified as a unique Alpha and the rhythm of History will be organized according to irreversibility – since it is the great allegory of the creating deity. By substituting the hero by the martyr, the imitation was under the service of the City of God, which inscribed the biblical and Christological exemplarity in the saving path of man.
The Emancipation of Present Happiness
The modern experience of time will read the ciceronian maxim in an apparently contradictory manner. First, an open future will take place, whether of the cyclic eternal return or the transcendence of Jewish-Christian end. This means that, admitting the infinity of Time (and, so, of space), the perfective possibility of man would not accept imitation. On the other hand, past – by virtue of the beliefs in Progress – was always more imperfect than the present, and the future – being forged in the past – will always be qualitatively superior.
As a result, History becomes master of life not by imitation, but through the selection of past(s), its affiliation with present and its employ as a legitimating argument of the prevision of the time to come. The exempla begin to be perceived as a potential instrument for the emancipation of present – directed to the completion of a future Happiness. The great man becomes a mediating moment – thus, a pioneer of a not yet plenitude.
Demanding a New Reading
The last decades of the 20th century were marked by the so-called information revolution and by the technological boom which spread across the various stages of public and private sphere, nurturing the fall of cultural barriers but also the discrepancy between a world that sees and a multiplicity of worlds which are seen.
Undoubtedly, this may imply an increasing participation of the individual in the process of global communication – and globalization; nevertheless, the dyssynchronies foreseen by the Enlightenment are, more than ever, flagrant and susceptible of being misused. Hypertrophied by the superabundance of information and the permanent digital referentiation of the world (signs of an undeniable postponement of futurity), memory demands a new reading of the role History may have.
The Cold Practices of Patrimonialization
If phenomena like the policies of memory or the patrimonialization answer to a kind of aesthetics of the ephemeral, which is simultaneous and ironically developed to accumulate and to mask the feeling and the idea of loss, they also claim that the dialogue between the legacy of experience and the human need of an horizon of expectancy should result in the transmission of a wisdom – here understood as the superior virtue that makes the sage intimately aware that knowledge can only be connected to truth when at the service of humanity.
This interpretation of the axiom of Cicero is essential, in so far as it allows us to redeem the past from the cumulative and cold practices of patrimonialization. The historia magistra vitae should be under the aegis of a conscientious historiography, aware that – if it is from itself the gradual construction of our pre-comprehension of the world and of our ability to represent it is formed – the knowledge of the past will only be valid if at the service of an actualized hermeneutics: the alterity should be listened as the previous stage of he who remembers, and not as a foreigner and mute heritage where the experience of the Other cannot be read.
The historian has at his disposal the crucial tools to escape from the historicist vices of the XIXth century, the policies of silence of the XXth century, and from the contemporary attraction to presentism. That is why History should be narrated released from the seductive prediction of the end. The feelings of expectancy depend on a voluntary process of activation – in case of a critical position towards past – or ignorance. Hence the urgency to develop a critical position concerning the inevitable selection of memories. And the role of the historian is to welcome, to receive, to form, and to share what we may call wisdom – which will only be wisdom if humanly pre-occupied.