The “idolatry of the actual” is the target of Our Shadowed Present: Modernism, Postmodernism and History (2003) by J.C.D. Clark, Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas (who has also taught at Cambridge, Oxford, and the University of Chicago). Clark diagnoses and treats the chronic intellectual illness of “presentism”, the privileging of the present, the discarding of the past except as nostalgia, always a sentimental distortion, or the deployment of it for utilitarian purposes, at best in law, at worst for propaganda. Along the way Clark explores the nature of nationalism and the guff often talked in the name of “tradition”. There is a particularly good chapter on “Challenging the American Public Myth” - “History, indeed, labours under a major handicap in all societies suffused with a sense of their own rightness or inevitability”; while in the chapter “The End of the Special Relationship” there is the salient observation that “British exceptionalism and American exceptionalism were, indeed, linked themes, but the first has been fundamentally reconfigured where the second has grown in strength.”
This isn’t a book review, it’s a cri de coeur (actually, it’s just a rant) piggybacking on a book, but The Shadow of the Present is a pertinent piece of polemic against Whiggism and “the [prevailing] assumption … that events and episodes are more ‘relevant’ to the present the closer they are to it in time.” On the contrary: “For individuals as for nations, the most formative events are not necessarily the most recent: they may come early in the life of either.” (I guess Christians should know this.) Clark argues that the present is always “shadowed” by the past, confirming Faulkner’s famous dictum that “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
But for Clark it is not only, with George Santayana, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, it is also that “To forget our history is not to be free, but to be mad.” This combination is the most worrying feature of presentism: it is an ideology of pathological hopelessness; its surface optimism is, in fact, infused by a deep-seated pessimism that sabatoges the future.
Of course there is nothing new in Clark’s thesis. As Cicero wrote: Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. (To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.) But then the people who need to know it wouldn’t know it, now would they?
(Btw, the patronising hauteur of the prevailing puerility, particularly in ecclesiastical circles, really pisses me off - e.g., the church fathers and reformers were writing in a pre-critical, pre-scientific era, so as people “come of age” (liberals usually, appealing, unbelievably, to Bonhoeffer, not to mention simplisticaly assuming a monolithic Enlightenment), we needn’t take what they say too seriously; or Karl Barth is passé (when he continues to make most modern theologians look like a bunch of odd-jobbers, if not bullshitters - cf. Stanley Hauerwas’ comment that there is “a ‘no bullshit’ quality to Barth’s thought”.)
Anyway, that’s my rant on what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”.