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HIstorical Consciousness

Giovanni De Sio Cesari

All peoples compile their history to leave its memory to posterity: we could say that civilization truly begins when some means are invented to fix words in writing and thus the story can be transmitted without time limits. But historical consciousness is something else: it is the awareness that everything changes, that the world of the past is not ours and vice versa, and it is a discovery of the West perhaps no less important than scientific discoveries. Until the 1700s, even we Europeans considered Greeks and Romans as contemporaries; there was a continuous reference to them in every aspect of life with the idea that they could still be examples to follow for contemporaries. However, slowly the idea took hold that the world of the ancients was something very different from the modern one, that what could be judged good and just in ancient times might not be so in our era and vice versa. The turning point came with idealism, which spread historicism, the idea of progress as the key to understanding reality. Later, especially in the 19th century, it was realized that the new is not necessarily progress, it can also be regress: it depends on the parameters of judgment, but the idea of change remains. There has also been talk of the self-centeredness of each culture in the sense that every civilization uses its own parameters of judgment that cannot be considered valid for other civilizations. The essential point is that we have convinced ourselves that we cannot judge the past with the parameters of the present just as it is not possible to judge the present with those of the past. For example, for the classical world, an Achilles who violently assaults a maiden (Briseis) after massacring her family is a hero, for us, he would be the worst of criminals. Similarly, Muhammad, who marries Aisha, a 9-year-old girl, was considered by contemporaries as the saint sent by God, for us, he would be a despicable pedophile.

Historical consciousness has spread throughout the Western world, which is therefore predisposed to change, while in other civilizations, there is a pretense of remaining anchored to principles considered eternal and immutable. Let's make, for example, a comparison with mass Islamic culture that has not yet been Westernized, in which this process has not occurred. A pope who today proclaimed a crusade would be drowned in ridicule, while an ayatollah who proclaims jihad is followed by masses of aspiring martyrs: the difference does not depend so much on religious differences (which certainly exist) but on the evolution of the West, on the historical sense that pervades it. The consequence is that in Europe, even at the religious level, norms need to be adapted: Pope Francis is very different from Innocent III, while in the Islamic world, there is a thought of returning to the early caliphs because the rules are eternal and do not change over time. After all, in the past, holy wars were proclaimed by both religions.

Even regarding the condition and function of women, there was not much diversity in the past in the Christian and Muslim worlds. However, now it seems abysmal because the West has embraced changes, the unfolding of reality, while the Islamic world still considers the differences in male and female roles and conditions as something eternal, immutable, let's say natural and not linked to the historical moment.

Historical understanding is very important. We tend to believe that our principles are the true and just ones and therefore those who do not share them are barbaric and evil. In the end, it's a natural illusion. Realizing, instead, that in the past or in other places there are different, perhaps opposite, principles makes us understand that it is an illusion, that they correspond to different needs and conditions. We Westerners have discovered (or invented) history and therefore adapt our judgment to the times. It is true that God's law is immutable, however, it can always be interpreted, so Pope Francis is not comparable to Innocent III, certainly not. In the Islamic world (I would say non-Western), instead, what was right 1000 years ago is just as right today: this creates an unbridgeable gap between the world that is changing ever faster and the claim of the eternity of principles