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  • One of the things that separates confident from diffident people is their approach to history.

  • Broadly-speaking, the unconfident believe that history is over; the confident trust that it's still in the process of being madeone day possibly by themselves.

  • The way we enter the world carries with it an inherent bias towards an impression that change has finished, and history has been settled.

  • Everything around us conspires to give off a sense that the status quo is entrenched.

  • We're surrounded by big people who follow traditions that have been in place for decades, perhaps centuries.

  • The house we live in appears as immutable as an ancient temple.

  • The school we go to looks as though it has been performing the same rituals since the earth began.

  • We're constantly told why things are the way they are and encouraged to accept that reality is not made according to our wishes.

  • We come to trust that human beings have fully mapped the range of the possible.

  • If something hasn’t happened, it’s either because it can’t happenor it shouldn’t.

  • The result can be a deep wariness around imagining changing the world.

  • There's no point starting a new business.

  • (the market must be full already)

  • Pioneering a new approach to the arts.

  • (everything is already set in a fixed pattern)

  • Or giving loyalty to a new idea.

  • (it either exists or is mad).

  • When we study history in a certain way, however, the picture changes sharply.

  • Once time is speeded up and we climb up a mountain of minutes, and survey centuries, change appears constant.

  • New continents are discovered, alternative ways of governing nations are pioneered, ideas of how to dress and whom to worship are transformed.

  • Once people wore strange cloaks and tilled the land with clumsy instruments.

  • A long time ago, they chopped the king’s head off.

  • Way back, people got around in fragile ships, ate the eyeballs of sheep, used chamber pots and didn’t know how to fix teeth.

  • We come away from all this, knowing at least in theory, that things do change.

  • But in practicealmost without noticingwe tend to distance ourselves and our own societies from a day-to-day belief that we belong to the same ongoing turbulent narrative and are, at present, its central actors.

  • History, we feel, is what used to happen; it can’t really be what is happening around us in the here and now.

  • Things havein our vicinity at leastsettled down.

  • To make us braver about the idea of changing things today, we might turn to some striking lines in T. S. Eliot’s cycle of poemsThe Four Quartets.

  • So, while the light fails, on a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel, History is now and England.

  • Winter afternoons, around 4pm, have a habit of feeling particularly resolved and established, especially in quiet English country chapels, many of which date back to the middle ages.

  • The air in such chapels is still and musty.

  • The heavy stone floors have been slowly worn away by the feet of the faithful.

  • These are not places and times to think about changing the world.

  • Everything hints that we would be wiser to accept the way things are.

  • Walk back home across the fields, light a fire and settle down for quiet evening.

  • Hence the surprise of Eliot’s third line, his resonant: ‘History is now and England.’

  • In other words, everything that we associate with historythe impetuous daring of great people, the dramatic alterations in values, the revolutionary questioning of long-held beliefs, the upturning of the old order.

  • All this is still going on.

  • even at this very moment, in outwardly peaceful, apparently unchanging places like the countryside near Shamley Green, in Surrey, where Eliot wrote his poem.

  • We don’t see it only because we are standing far too close.

  • The world is being made and remade at every instant.

  • And therefore any one of us has a theoretical chance of being an agent in history, on a big or small scale.

  • It is open to our own times to build a new city every bit as beautiful as Venice, to change ideas as radically as the Renaissance, to start an intellectual movement as resounding as Buddhism.

  • The present has all the contingency of the pastand is every bit as malleable.

  • It shouldn't intimidate us.

  • How we love, travel, approach the arts, govern, educate ourselves, run businesses, age and die are all up for further development.

  • Current views may appear firm, but only because we exaggerate their fixity.

  • The majority of what exists is arbitrary, neither inevitable nor right, simply the result of muddle and happenstance.

  • We should be confident, even at sunset on winter afternoons, of our power to join the stream of history.

  • And, however modestly, change its course.

One of the things that separates confident from diffident people is their approach to history.

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B1 UK history eliot confident winter approach settled

Why You Can Change The World

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    Jerry shiu posted on 2019/03/22
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