PHIL 231H Student

what’s past is prologue

Oh no. Here comes the history major coming to fight anyone who slights history. Well ok, I resent that, but I get it. I tend to make it no secret that I love history. I love learning about it. I like engaging with others who love it. That said, just because I may love it, doesn’t mean that others even like it. It also doesn’t mean that every part of history, every story or artifact, is useful in today’s world; including the technology of the past.

The modern “civilized world” doesn’t need the abacus because we have calculators. Bronze hasn’t been thought of the metal of choice for tools and other metalworks for millennia. The gun killed the sword as video killed the radio…star. But did it? I mean, I think abacuses are cool; I’d love to have the patience to learn how to use one just for funsies. Bronze is actually still used quite a bit today for things like:

  • marine tools/architecture because it has high corrosion resistance
  • castings for a number of industrial tools because it’s easy to make and manipulate
  • sculpture (of course)
  • instruments and instrument strings for pianos, guitars, sitars, etc.

And I know plenty of people who still listen to the radio, just as plenty of people still enjoy swords (fencers, cosplayers, collectors).

Slight side tangent before I make my final point.

There’s a very famous quote from The Tempest by Shakespeare (that I used as an eye-catching title), “Whereof what’s past is prologue.” Good line, solid quote. History sets the precedent for the present. The problem with that quote is (like with many other quotes) only half is quoted today and therefore taken out of its full context. The full quote is, “Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come, in yours and my discharge.” The past is done, it’s history, it’s written, and it can’t change. But the future is still wide open; it’s not wholly based upon your yesterday, it’s subject to change based on the choices you can still and will make.

Here’s the thing though…the prologue is still written. The prologue doesn’t just go away because it’s “irrational, superfluous, utterly obsolete.” History doesn’t go away because time marches on. Saying history doesn’t matter anymore because we’ve moved onto the next chapter is irrational. Humans didn’t stop burying their dead just because they started using cremation, too. We didn’t stop playing live music just because of the invention and innovations of sound media (phonographs, vinyl, CDs, etc.). We didn’t stop using candles because we have lightbulbs.

What’s past is prologue, but it has meaning to the present that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s still written and meant to be read and underestood.

2 replies on “what’s past is prologue”

The thing about prologues is that, yes, they happened before the story and frame what’s to come, however, they aren’t always touched upon by the protagonists of the book. The author could very well use the prologue chapter to introduce the villain and their origins so that the audience knows what’s going on, but never once mention it to the characters. In that case, the protagonists usually have to utilize some sort of document or flashback detailing the event to know what happened. Or it just gets lost to history and the only things they have to go on are what they see right in front of them.
My point is, we don’t always know how we got from point a to point b. We theorize that we started out with about nothing when our species first emerged on the earth. We know we got here, where guns and WIFI dominate regular usage. We don’t know exactly how the Minoans and then the Myceneans fell and gave way to Ancient Greece; just that they did. And nobody wrote anything down during the Dark Ages of Greece, which puts a big blank spot in the history book. That’s why archeologists and historians exist: to record, discover, and re-record our history with that new context. They take what we know to be true in the present and combine it with new findings from analyzing the past to rediscover that prologue and how we got where we are today. We may still feel the effects of the people who come before us, but we don’t always understand that influence until we go looking for it.

I’m wondering who thinks the past doesn’t matter? Is this prompted by the voting discussion? I generally agree here…it appears to me that no one studies history any more and even when people do, they do so with a lens, merely looking to confirm some thesis they have about the present.

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