Past and Present - Encounter Books

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Past and Present

The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Post-Modernists

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Publication Details

Hardcover/ 256 pages
ISBN: 9781594039256
AVAILABLE: 4/25/2017

Past and Present
The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Post-Modernists

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner. In Past and Present, an eminent American historian and cultural critic shows the truth of that statement. The common theme of the twenty essays gathered here is the intriguing, often unexpected ways in which the past continues to illuminate the present.

Gertrude Himmelfarb helps us find a new perspective on contemporary issues through a trenchant analysis of debates and thinkers from earlier times.

The topics of the essays vary widely, from the disorders of modern democracy to the challenges of postmodernism, from the Victorian ethos to the Jewish question. The thinkers examined range from Edmund Burke to Leo Strauss, from Cardinal Newman to Lionel Trilling. The political figures who appear here are also diverse, from Benjamin Disraeli to Winston Churchill, from the American founders to Queen Elizabeth II.

Running through all the essays as a first premise is the conviction that the pursuit of knowledge and truth, however difficult or discomfiting, matters immensely in the “practical life,” to use Trilling’s terms, as it does in the “moral life.” Past and Present is a notable contribution to this endeavor—to understanding where we have been, where we are today, and where we may be (or should be) going.

About the Author

Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emeritus at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, has written extensively on intellectual and cultural history with a focus on Victorian England.

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A wise historian and a good friend, the late J.H.Hexter, recalling the impassioned political views of some of his colleagues, told me that he did not share their concerns only because he did not have the time or mind for them.

Apart from family and friends, he explained, he spent most of his waking hours teaching, reading, and writing about Tudor and Stuart England. He knew more about the relations of the royalty and nobility than about Congress and the president, was more familiar with the Elizabethan Poor Laws than with the American system of social security, was more involved in the debate over the rise and decline of the gentry than the rise and decline of the proletariat. Immersed in the past, he did not have to be cautioned against the “Whig fallacy”: interpreting the past in terms of the present, imposing the values of an enlightened, progressive present upon a benighted, retrograde past. Had he ever been tempted to write about the present, he might have been inclined to reverse that order, imposing the values and perhaps virtues of the past upon the present.

That, indeed, is my temptation. More mindful of the present than my friend, I am sufficiently stimulated by the past to relate it to the present. Most of these essays were written a decade or two ago, but the earliest of them, dating back more than half a century, sets the theme for the others. The quarrel between “ancients and moderns,” memorialized by Leo Strauss, can be applied to history as well as philosophy. Just as a philosopher today may look to the classics for the enduring truths of humanity, so a historian may find that his past, the period in which he is professionally engrossed, resonates in his own present, the period in which he happens to live. In the same spirit, William James’s “once-born / twice-born” adage may be given a larger latitude. Normally confined to the realm of religion, it may be extended to history – to the historian who finds in his study of the past something like a rebirth, a new perspective on the present.

In one way or another, to one degree or another, the essays have the same effect, setting past and present in an active, sometimes adversary relationship to each other. The American “War on Terror” provoked by the 9/11 attack recalls Edmund Burke’s war against the “Reign of Terror” launched by the French Revolution. The contrast between those wars, the one pursued resolutely by Burke and the other irresolutely by America, may be seen as an object lesson in history, pitting past against present – in this instance, to the credit of the past.