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John Ulric Nef – The continuing significance of the past

September 25, 2014

“The greatest classical, medieval and early modern philosophers were concerned with the whole universe and the whole of knowledge. Even if the generalizations found in their works, as well as the particulars, were obsolete, they could at least teach us better than contemporary works how to see the whole, because in recent times the art of looking at the whole has been largely lost. They can do more, for not all their generalizations are in fact irrelevant to our time…. [They]give meaning and strength to general propositions, such as these: Truth is preferable to falsehood, voluntary agreement to agreement by force, loyalty to faithlessness, love to hate, beauty to ugliness, courage to cowardliness, humility to pride, temperance to gluttony, justice to power. …

The great thought and literature of the past can provide us with other materials besides propositions which have rough general validity at all times and places. They can also provide concepts together with vocabularies of words and phrases related to existence as a whole, rather than only, as today, to some special subject of study… Doubtless these vocabularies cannot create ready-made the common universe of discourse which we lack: where discussion would be possible in simple meaningful words capable of embracing the particulars of modern learned disciplines. Much special knowledge has been acquired since the Western peoples had such a universe, so that the words and concepts of the past cannot always be stretched to include all the new materials and theories. But those old words and concepts can help to provide the foundations. The magnificent Gothic cathedrals were built about earlier churches, the remnants of which often remain. Great new edifices of the mind might make use, in a somewhat similar way, of past edifices.”

(from The Universities Look for Unity [1943])

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