Vol. 3, Issue 2
September 23, 2012
Autumn has begun (at least in the northern hemisphere). I trust you're all welcoming fall in appropriately celebratory ways, getting warm sweaters out of closets and checking the schedule for football, deer hunting, or mid-term exams. And I hope you enjoy this small bouquet of musings.
IN THIS ISSUE:
1) COGITEM -- Looking Back From the End of History
2) DE ASTRIS -- The Equinox and the Advent of Autumn
COGITEM -- Looking Back From the End of History
The last issue of Scholegium argued that we do not leave history behind but rather we add layers to it, just as a growing tree does not leave behind it's earlier growth but adds new outer layers, accumulating a greater bulk and solidity. The past, all of it, is our life; it's our foundation and what gives meaning and solidity to the present. To dismiss the past as irrelevant is like wanting to keep the branches of a tree hanging in mid-air and growing while chopping away the trunk. It's absurd.
But let's think a little further about this. We moderns tend to think that the present alone is important and the past irrelevant; and it's not surprising that we think that way because we are exceedingly arrogant creatures who believe that if we live in this age it must therefore be important. But in fact it is the other way around. History -- the STORY -- is all there is and all that is important, and the present is just the very tiny, relatively insignificant outer edge, one more onion-thin layer increasing the massive edifice that we call history. Our time is one more chapter added to the growing book. Our own present significance we will never know; only those who come after us will be able to judge about us. It's only when you turn the last page of a book that you can assess it; it's only when the credits roll and the music swells importantly and the people get up and stumble up the aisles over the popcorn buckets at the end of the movie that you can evaluate the movie fairly; it's only when Croesus dies that Solon can say anything about the happiness of his life as a whole. Count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last, says the Chorus at the end of Oedipus the King. Likewise, we in the present are utterly unqualified to judge of the importance of our own age and all its works. The age is not over yet, not enough time has passed; we're too close to the detail and far too emotionally involved.
But we can study the past far more dispassionately and with far more help. Unlike the present, the past is fixed and stable. Whether our view of it is equally stable is another question, but the past is done changing. And the past has context -- not only did the fourteenth century happen, but so did the fifteenth, and so the fourteenth century has context because it has a before (the thirteenth) and an after (the fifteenth). It's the middle of something to which there is also a beginning and an end. We, on the other hand, have a before but we have no after... yet. We're the middle of something to which there is beginning but no end that we'll ever see. So we don't have enough context to study ourselves well -- but the past does.
Of course this way of viewing history and the present is flawed, because all ways of seeing things with our finite biased perspective are flawed. Our knowledge of anything in the past is continually changing as new information comes to light and new theories better account for the epicycles and we become more aware of our own ignorance. But to say that this view is flawed is not to say that it's wrong. To begin with, God Himself expects us to study and learn from and remember the past. It's precisely the failure to do this that God warned His people against in the Old Testament, and that brought them so much misery when they didn't listen, and that the Church is warned against all over again in the New Testament. "These things were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come."
And to see history this way -- to see it as more knowable, and therefore more usefully studied for wisdom than the present in the thick of which we are so deeply mired -- is to begin to have just exactly that wisdom that we need in order to get through the mire of the present. We don't ignore the present -- but we can't do anything about it till we've learned to live in the past.
DE ASTRIS -- The Equinox
Autumn officially began in the northern hemisphere yesterday (Saturday, September 22, 2012) in the morning, and from now on until late March the nights will be longer than the days, with the longest night and shortest day coming on the Winter Solstice just before Christmas. Day and night are roughly equal in length right now, with sunrise coming around six in the morning and sunset around six in the evening - or it would, that is, were it not for Daylight Savings Time. Subtract an hour from the time on your watch at sunrise or sunset and you'll see. It's not true that you can balance an egg on its end during the equinox but there are other fun things you can do: sometime in the next day or two mark, if you can, the spot on the horizon where the sun rises and sets. Next spring at the vernal (spring) equinox the sun will be back at exactly those spots. Night becomes more important during the next six months since we spend so much of our time in it. Imagine what life in the dark six months of the year was like before electric lights - how much more sleep would you have gotten! For a pleasant and thought-provoking read during the coming long evenings, pick up A. Roger Ekirch's At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.