If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Saturday 16 February 2013
Read gnomica 1-250 here!
If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.
Pearl Buck (26 Jun 1892 – 6 Mar 1973)
This winner of the Pulitzer for fiction (The Good Earth) in 1932 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 also put this basic idea in another way: “One faces the future with one’s past.” Or something like, ‘The girl is mother to the woman.’
Buck’s observation about ‘today’ and ‘yesterday’ and the nexus between them is one of those seemingly self-evident truisms, and to the extent that it is I delight in the formulation as much as the next person. But when I sit down and think more closely about it, I am not quite as enchanted. An immediate question pops into my mind: Why should I want to ‘understand’ today, and what would be the actual point?
Let me free-associate.
To be sure, a ‘today’ has a ‘yesterday’ just as a person is become what she is because of what she has been. Nihil ex nihilo is the Latin expression: “nothing [comes into being] out of nothing”. The Roman poet Lucretius (c. 99 – 55 BCE) in his de rerum natura [‘On the nature of things’] makes this point, channeling the earlier (late 6th – early 5th centuries BCE) Greek philosopher Parmenides, one of the so-called pre-Socratic philosophers trying to come up with more than a purely mythic understanding of how things came to be as they did, and what their constituents might be.
I’m not sure that Buck in turn was channeling Lucretius here, but who knows? Her advice is nonetheless not without merit as it stands, and taking it seriously could even prompt one to give closer heed to all one’s todays on the understanding that the way they are lived is very likely to exercise considerable influence on the kinds of tomorrows that will inevitably come along. I elect then to see her comment as more of a forward-looking protreptic rather than retrospective regret over not having done the right things while there was still time and opportunity to exercise such concern for what was to follow.
My point would be that, valid as Buck’s comment may be – as far as it goes – merely to ‘understand today’ hardly seems a sufficiency. Doesn’t one rather want more overtly to live today reasonably? On my understanding, then, it is the action that should count – all the ‘understanding’ in the world of something like why today is what it is will guarantee nothing about how today is being or actually could be lived – the groundwork for that reality will in a sense already have been laid down yesterday and no amount of understanding that fact today will alter it. Today is already in full spate, so to speak, and at this point pretty much all one can do in effective terms of Buck’s observation is try to guarantee that the today that is tomorrow’s yesterday will have set the proper parameters for the happy unfolding of that tomorrow.
Not that there is anything wrong with securing an ‘understanding’ of any today in terms of what went on yesterday, but it seems a rather unproductive, sterile exercise as far as today is concerned. In my view such an understanding may well be interesting from a purely intellectual vantage but it promotes very little if any effective advantage for the living of today.
That was all set up yesterday.
NOTE: At this point I am going to take a break – the relentlessness of pressuring myself daily to come up with reasonably-sounding (IMO) material pushes me to take a break until I no longer feel the need to take a break from these daily effusions. Stay tuned – and thanks for reading!