(un)common ground

a commonplace book

Using the Present to Inform the Past

Many of our favorite heroes, cities, and empires were guilty of crimes that would comfortably fit into the rhetoric of an ISIS or into the strategy of an Assad.

Simon Oswald, “Back from the Future: ISIS and the Impact of the Present on the Past in the Present,” Eidolon via Medium.com

This in discussing the tension in history between using the past do inform the present and the present to inform the past.

This sums up an article that essentially cautions against taking the past lightly. History loves “great men” and their wars and conflicts, and we focus on the figureheads of pivotal events, but often forget the victims, who suffered every bit as much as people in today’s Middle East. It ought to sober us, I think, when we reach for a history book that purports to praise or aggrandize an individual, particularly an individual who commanded armies or wielded a weapon as his legacy: “Achievements can overshadow atrocities, but they can never excuse them.”


I find it odd myself that people often say that we shouldn’t judge the past by the standards of the present. Why not? As Oswald says, we readily use the past to judge the present. It is this perhaps revisionist attitude that is responsible for attempting to clarify the history of colonial relations or slavery, for example–are these not good things?

History is a fraught field, to be sure. But worthy of thought.


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This entry was posted on October 14, 2015 by and tagged .
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