The fight of old and new


It seems with time that the one great divide among people is that between the old and the new. Science, perhaps, is the sole human endeavour where linear, unmitigated, and peer-reviewed, progress for the sake of an abstract ideal of truth and nothing else, triumphs over human differences. And even then, the ends to which that scientific progress is employed, remain rife with the divisiveness observed in other, more egoistical human concerns. But step away from pure science, and virtually everything worthy of contention among men falls into either one of these two camps. Civilization and politics, the culture that arises from them, down to our very idea of what it means to be human, a man, or a woman; the fundamental fight of opinion is between That Which Was (The Old), and That Which Can Be (The New).

Nobody with the benefit of an education wants to remain holed up in the past. The past is romanticized to an absurd degree, partly because historical timespans – to say nothing of geological and cosmological timespans – lie far beyond human comprehension. Therefore, we have the tendency of ascribing the higher value to a bygone time, and in the process often view its obvious deficiencies with fawning, prejudiced eyes.

Having said that, the past, by virtue of its always being less densely clustered than the present, appeals to those among us with a simmering sense of discontent and displacement in the current time. Not because we would want to be transported back to a time of disease and internecine strife (though how wonderful the notion of might makes right feels sometimes); that would be thoughtless, for we are ultimately creatures of habit and of this time, however out of place we may think we are. But, rather, the past appeals to us because we we can’t reconcile ourselves with the callous disregard with which it is treated by the present. That the past is less densely clustered or more distended than the present means that it is an epoch fertile with observation and introspection, in the relative absence of constant, invasive, distracting influence; hence, also worthy of study.

Both That Which Was (The Old) and That Which Can Be (The New) have their endgame as That Which Will Be (The Future). If one thinks of these three concepts in pure, Hegelian dialectical terms, then it is obvious that That Which Will Be has as its natural predecessor That Which Was. Hegel’s dialectic postulated three stages of development for any concept: the establishment of a premise, its rejection, and, ultimately, the synthesis of the positive (thesis) and the negative (antithesis). At any given point on the curve of this development, all three stages remain immanent or innate in the overall structure or the eventual truth; meaning, in other terms, that the past is obstinate and will be heard at all costs. Also, the second stage of rejection does not imply a summary dismissal of what has gone before; Hegel was at pains to stress that the first stage, or the premise, has useful parts, even imperative parts, worth preserving for posterity, a caveat that has become increasingly obscured to those on the side of That Which Can Be, come what may.

Those with the sense of dislocation previously alluded to are not hopelessly idealistic; what they long for is a rightful synthesis of the past and the present. They cherish That Which Was, are inspired by it, and are guardedly optimistic about That Which Can Be as long as it is no mere fabrication from thin air, and knows its place in the scheme of causality.


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