Nostalgia & Sentiment

The idea behind nostalgia is not just a yearning for a more congenial & favorable past, but to bring some of the glory & values from that past into the present. Becoming nostalgic, or going ‘retro’ in the modern lingo, is a sentiment that affirms the human impulse in us, and should not be dismissed as a sign of weakness or vulnerability or backwardness. After all, we all have a memory, don’t we? There’s obviously much about the present that is not right, that makes us discontented. A focus on the present & future will not cure us of nostalgia, which can be a productive sentiment–history often has lessons we need to heed.

However, I quote two insightful passages from Steven Pinker’s recent piece on why we should resist singing praises of the past & berating, bemoaning or generally underming the present:

“In 1777 David Hume wrote, “The humour of blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature.” A century before him, Thomas Hobbes identified its source: “Competition of praise inclineth to a reverence of antiquity. For men contend with the living, not with the dead.” People also blame the present out of historical ignorance and statistical illiteracy, and because they mistake changes in themselves—the responsibilities of adulthood, the vigilance of parenthood, the diminishments of ageing—with changes in the world.

“Regardless of its causes, thoughtlessly blaming the present is a weakness which, even if it is never outlawed, ought to be resisted. Though commonly flaunted as a sign of sophistication, it can be an opportunity for one-upmanship and an excuse for misanthropy, especially against the young. And it corrodes an appreciation of the institutions of modernity such as democracy, science, and cosmopolitanism which have made our lives so much richer and safer.”

Pinker insists that “We should stop idealizing the past and appreciate the present.”


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