Those Who Don’t Remember

Tripp was querying me about history, historicism, texts, and ancient credulity. He called my attention to Paul Cantor’s article at the Claremont Review of Books — an article I found very impressive, though I applied the brakes at the sentence, “Historicists always stress the integrity of a culture and treat it as a seamless whole, set apart from the rest of the world,” a sentence that casts the rest of the argument in doubt. The point is not an oversimplified generalization about what historicists always do, but the rare and extraordinary circumstances in which cultural production demonstrably attains a currency and affective power across the boundaries of cultural difference. Let’s not a write a check we can’t cash by saying that this or that work attains universality; we don’t need to. And sometimes historicists overestimate cultural seamlessness, but more often they attend to the complexities of how cultures determine meaning, and how meaning resounds beyond the cultural limits we might anticipate. (Speaking as a biblical theologian and a defender of a traditionalist-classicist approach to liturgy, I’m vigorously in favor both of attending to ancient texts both in their antiquity and of allowing that they may harbor dimensions that bespeak an unanticipated contemporaneity.)

This came up partly in response to Tripp’s having heard from someone about how foolishly credulous people were in the ancient world — so I pointed him to Lucian’s “On Sacrifices” and Plutarch’s (warning! subsequent link leads to a PDF) “De Superstitione.” And of course, to illustrate the foolish credulity of twenty-first century people, there’s always Fox News.

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