What is the optimal distance from the past to have a satisfying knowledge of it?

It is easy to develop a better understanding of Renaissance Venice or Florence by simply visiting the cities, as much of their past remains to be seen.  Ancient Greece of course is much tougher, though still there are shards of significance.  I am pleased that I can read Shakespeare without a translation, although I suspect this won’t be true for most educated Americans a century from now.

To maximize the total joy from understanding and consuming the past, how close to that past do you wish to be?  One thousand years from now, assuming things are still up and running, you will have another thousand years of history to consume, enjoy, and perhaps grieve over.  But many important eras will seem strange or incomprehensible to you, beyond your intellectual grasp.  You might not know what “colonial America” really was, whereas today I know actual people who live in colonial homes, for instance in Alexandria, Virginia.

Is having a longer past to look back upon always more rewarding?  Or would you rather have a shorter past to ponder, but be closer in time and sympathy to some of the most foundational developments?

Would you prefer to see them inaugurate those space colonies, or instead have some partial grasp of what “The Enlightenment” really was about?

Is there a worry that human history could become like one of those never-ending, exhausting series of fantasy novels, where only the diehards care about volume 27 and the ongoing saga of the Mrithythambs and their struggle against the Kohnipoors?  One of the advantages of living in the current day is that you can have a pretty good and internally coherent narrative for what has happened from the ancient Greeks (or earlier?) up through the current day.

For this post I am indebted to a lunchtime conversation with S.


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