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The Birth of the Past

Zachary Sayre Schiffman foreword by Anthony Grafton

Publication Year: 2011

How did people learn to distinguish between past and present? How did they come to see the past as existing in its own distinctive context? Zachary Sayre Schiffman explores these questions in The Birth of the Past, his sweeping survey of historical thinking in the Western world. Today we automatically distinguish between past and present, labeling things taken out of context as "anachronisms." Schiffman shows how this tendency did not always exist, and how the past as such was born of the perceived difference between past and present. Schiffman takes readers on a grand tour of historical thinking from antiquity to modernity. He shows how ancient historians could not distinguish between past and present because they conceived of multiple pasts. Christian theologians coalesced these multiple pasts into a single temporal space where past merged with present and future. Renaissance humanists began to disentangle these temporal states in their desire to resurrect classical culture, creating a "living past." French enlighteners killed off this living past when they engendered a form of social scientific thinking that measured the relations between historical entities, thus sustaining the distance between past and present and relegating each culture to its own distinctive context. Including a foreword by the eminent historian Anthony Grafton, this fascinating book draws upon a diverse range of sources—ancient histories, medieval theology, Renaissance art, literature, legal thought, and early modern mathematics and social science—to uncover the very meaning of the past and its relationship to the present.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Front Matter

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pp. i-xii


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Americans know that history matters. Jurists and politicians, pundits and bloggers invoke history to support their visions of the form of government we should live under and the sort of wars we should wage, the schools and universities we should build and support and the ways in which we should exploit our natural resources. But as Jill Lepore and others have pointed out, most of the history...

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pp. xiii-xvi

The intuition that inspired this book occurred to me more than thirty years ago, while I was crossing a quadrangle at the University of Chicago, trudging along in my customary state of graduate-student befuddlement. Somewhere around Botany Pond I experienced a brief moment of intellectual clarity, the memory of which has stayed with me ever since. I had been musing about the Renaissance “attitude toward the past”— the ever-elusive subject of my dissertation— when I suddenly...

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Introduction: The Past Defined

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pp. 1-13

The title of this book invites reflection, for it posits the birth of something forever and always dead. To explain away this paradox, one might presume I am referring to the birth of what will become the past; but if I were, I would have entitled the book “The Birth of the Present”— a questionable project for a historian. One might ...

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Part One. Antiquity

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pp. 14-74

Flatland. Arguably the greatest of all historians, Thucydides remains at best intensely difficult for modern readers and at worst utterly boring. In part the reason for his inaccessibility lies in his deadpan description of even the most horrific events, embroiling a complex cast of characters— aloof statesmen, pandering demagogues, egocentric rogues, decent fools— depicted with the severest economy of expression. The pulse of the narrative barely quickens as Spartans slaughter the courageous...

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Part Two. Christianity

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pp. 76-134

Can’t Get Here from There. Between antiquity’s profusion of pasts and modernity’s single, unitary past lies an unbridgeable divide, though we fail to see it as such. Looking back from our side of the divide, we naturally assume that earlier notions contribute to later ones, that some feature or features of classical thought evolved, perhaps in combination with other elements, to produce what we regard as “the” past. We thus have convenient recourse to the commonplace about Western civilization as the coming together of two traditions— the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian—whose mixture combined...

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Part Three. Renaissance

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pp. 136-198

The Living Past. An icon of High Renaissance art, Raphael’s School of Athens adorns a room in the Vatican’s papal apartments, the Stanza della Segnatura, or “Room of the Segnatura,” so named for the papal tribunal that originally met there. By the time Raphael began decorating this room around 1508, it was intended to house Pope Julius II’s library and serve as his personal study. The pope commissioned from...

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Part Four. Enlightenment

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pp. 200-265

In Montaigne’s rambling essay “Of Coaches,” which (among other topics) entails a famous denunciation of Spanish cruelties in the New World, we find a remarkable estimation of the Aztecs and their encounter with Cortés and his conquistadors. Montaigne begins with a relatively short sentence that frames Aztec virtue in classical and Europe an terms, but this estimation gives way—in the long-exhaled...

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Epilogue: The Past Historicized

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pp. 267-278

The Spirit of the Laws heralds a comparative tendency in French Enlightenment thought subsequently epitomized by Voltaire’s sweeping history of civilization, the Essai sur l’histoire générale et sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations (1756), translated as the Essay on Manners. An immense labor for even so prolific an author, the seven-volume Essay recasts the story of universal history—which had previously been shaped around the biblical account of humanity—in a comparative...


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pp. 279-289

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 291-307


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pp. 309-316

E-ISBN-13: 9781421403373
E-ISBN-10: 1421403374
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421402789
Print-ISBN-10: 1421402785

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Western countries -- Intellectual life.
  • Historiography -- Western countries
  • Historiography -- Philosophy.
  • Civilization, Western.
  • History -- Philosophy.
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