Cultures and the future

by Terence MacNamee

For a long time we have tried to understand other cultures by seeing them in relation to our past. When we look at exotic cultures – not just “primitive” ones either – we often see earlier stages in our own civilization miraculously preserved.

Sir William Jones was the great exponent of this approach in the 18th century. He went to India as a colonial judge, but he soon came to see India as a classical civilization like Greece and Rome, frozen in time: it still had its pantheon of gods, its schools of philosophy, its theatre, its learned language. Learned language? Yes, that was Sanskrit. Jones studied it, and realized that it was related to European languages. Indo-European linguistics was born.

Seeing other cultures as a reflection of our past is not a bad thing, because it allows us to appreciate them and see connections with ourselves. It makes the exotic familiar. But it also has its down side. We see other cultures as less far along the road of social progress than we are. They need time to catch up, we tell ourselves, and they will. The future means everybody else becoming like us. A comforting thought.

Yet there is really no guarantee that other cultures will want to become like us. Japan and China are modern, and India is to some extent, but they have no great desire to be like us. They have their own modernity. What is more, societies like China and India, since they have the population, represent the future of humanity. What if we saw them as our future – the future of our world?

In the West, we see the world in terms of history. There is the past, history, upstream; there is the present, cultures, all around us; and there is the future, downstream.To us, history is “our story”. It is the great series of myths that made us what we are, myths that live on in a timeless present-past, as Lévi-Strauss noted; history has the function for us that myth had in earlier societies.

We have always seen history as cumulative, as progress, leading up to ourselves. Yet the future is not necessarily what we would call progress. We can see that from the late Roman Empire. A Roman with an idea of the future would have had to resign himself to the idea that the Empire was finished and the barbarian tribes would take over. Few Romans, if any, did. They assumed the Empire was innately superior and would last.

Being aware of other cultures in the present is surely the one thing that can enable us to envision the future as more than a continuation of what we are doing now or the fulfilment of our wishes. By the way, the most important thing about the future is that it is not our future. Because we will be dead. There will be other people living then who may be our descendants, but they will not be us. The grim paradox of our humanity is that the future always belongs to others.