'The Living Past' by Ivar Lissner (1955)


A selection from The Living Past by Ivar Lissner, 1955.

Each day of your life happens but once, and can never be recalled. Will you waste this day? Only when you recognize what generations before you have striven for, thought, and achieved will you recognize and best employ the opportunities your own short life affords. And only then will you realize that you are set upon a veritable mountain of human history and civilization which others have built for you over thousands of years. You who live in the 20th century- do you ever reflect upon this? 


"There's a whole city down there," the fisherman said. He was right: you would only have had to step out of the boat into the water to find yourself standing on broad slabs of marble, the remnants of balconies, walls, and houses. The old man told me that on clear nights he had often seen the dim outlines of the submerged city below the surface [note: see J.G. Ballard's 'The Drowned World', 1962] 
We were off Comacchio, where the calm waters of the Valle del
Mezzano lagoon cover the ruins of the ancient metropolis of Spina. Legends thousands of years old tell us about this important Etruscan city, which reached its prime five hundred years before the birth of Christ and once dominated the Adriac. 
I had a strange feeling, standing there above the ruins of this once highly developed and pampered civilization. How many... cities still lay hidden and undiscovered?

By far the greater part of mankind's thoughts, dreams, deeds, and material achievements lies beneath the ground: under marshes, like the vanished city of Tartessus in the estuary of the Guadalquivir River; or under the seas, like Gondwana, the erstwhile bridge of land between South Asia and Australia.

Pythagoras armed himself with a letter of introduction to the Pharaoh Amasis and traveled to Egypt, where he learned the Egyptian language. He also spent some time with the Chaldeans and the Magi in Babylon and Persia.  

The number of notable Greek scholars who acquired the fundamentals of their knowledge from the East is extraordinarily large, and it was this knowledge which, developed and amplified, Greece and Rome handed on to the Western world. The Greeks and Romans were our masters, yet it was they who in a sense paid for our schooling, for they exhausted and weakened themselves so much in the process of exchanging and giving away ideas that they ultimately brought about their own downfall. Christ spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language, and his teachings conquered the West on the wings of Hellenism. In literature, we are still using the same themes which men evolved, expounded, and performed long ago in ancient Greece, and Euripides is a mute and constant collaborator in all our modern playwrights' most "original" ideas. Plato and Aristotle laid the foundations for our philosophy and ethics, and Athens and Olympia the home of our ideals of sport.

We have all been linked together for many, many thousands of years now, and the ties which bind us are not only ancient but re- markably far-reaching: they stretched nearly all the way around the world, long before the great age of discovery arrived. The gulf between Mesopotamia and China, for instance, was bridged by the
Asiatic steppe civilization of the Scythians, who made use of Mesopotamian and Chinese examples in evolving an art of their own. Not only was it very long-lived, but it traveled over enormous distances, borne along in the Scythians' carts and on the backs of their pack animals. Between the eighth and third centuries B.C. the Scythians dominated the greater part of what is now Russia. It is an astonishing thought that the golden fish, sixteen inches long, which was found in Germany in 1882 at Vettersfelde, Brandenburg, was a Scythian work of art dating from about 500 B.C., and that these same Scythians were in cultural communication with ountries as far away as Turkestan and China.

In China, the history of copper and its alloy, bronze, goes back to 1400 B.C. What is interesting, however, is that the idea of casting bronze was actually imported into China from the "Far West." In other words, East and West were interchanging cultural ideas 3,500 years ago.

In this manner ideas, discoveries and inventions have traveled back and forth across the world. Our whole Western way of life is descended from civilizations which once flourished in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Central Asia, and the islands of the Aegean. Yet the life span of the advanced civilizations known to us is incredibly brief. Ten thousand years are like a day in the lifetime of human evolution. [...] Man has been roaming the earth as a  two-legged creature endowed with intellect since the first Ice Age, or for about 600,000 years. We of today are not only burdened with the countless afflictions and everlasting mistakes of past millennia, but are also heirs to the discernment and knowledge which they have brought in their train. We owe the brief happiness of what we call our existence to countless millions of men who have long since crumbled to dust.

Each era fancies that it is the most important in world history. Because of this obvious fallacy I have developed a dislike for such phrases as "We have now reached a turning point. . . ." or, "We live in a time of drastic change. . . ." -- the stock-in-trade of public speakers. For when has there been a time without a "turning point" or "drastic change?" The golden ages of the great civilizations were only the peaks that emerged from the infinite ocean of the primitive. And even the greatest creative ages have no inkling of their own towering sublimity so that the loftiest art and the greatest naïveté very often live side by side. We need the distance of centuries or millennia before we can recognize when and where Homo sapiens scaled the steepest cliffs of human achievement.

There is nothing very new about our way of life or the age in which we live, nothing very new about our ideas or scientific methods. We have taken over much more from the East, from Greece and Italy, than we realize. [...] We imagine that our wide knowledge... represents progress, and pay far too little attention to man's inner self, his mind and soul. Yet I submit that the nations and eras which did not merely strive for material comfort, but constantly thought in terms of eternity, were probably more "progressive" and certainly wiser than ourselves.

Whether we of today, with our "exact sciences," are pursuing more perilous chimeras than the ancient world did remains to be seen. The only certainty is that if the intellectual development of the West continues lagging, as it has, behind our indisputably great scientific achievements, we shall one day be like small children playing with large and dangerous toys which they do not understand, or will become specialist technicians pressing buttons and unleashing forces whose moral implications we no longer are capable of assessing.
 What would happen if we could look back and see with our own eyes all the sufferings and struggles which man has experienced during his hundreds of thousands of years as a human being? Would we turn to salt, like Lot's wife? I do not think so. For it was not Sodom and Gomorrah that brought us through the ages to our present state, but nations and individuals, endowed with an endless store of patience, who always built anew upon the ruins of yesterday, accumulating a vast treasury of ideas which their descendants one day committed to stone, clay, and parchment.

This book was not written in a day; it was not written in haste nor from the desire to exploit our contemporary appetite for the historical past. When I began to gather the materials that went into the making of this volume, people were interested in totally different matters. I have worked on this project for many years, trying to condense the enormous bulk of material, to crystallize it, to highlight it-for we know too much and, therefore, as it were, too little.

In my view, the known span of human history is so brief that we may for once be pardoned if we try to isolate and define the essential features of the past, its nations, countries, and civilizations. We only learned how to write four or five thousand years ago, but the most important events in our history occurred at widely separated points in that tiny portion of earth-time. Every civilization, every race, has furthered at least one side of human development in its own inimitable fashion; and in the prime of every civilization lie the seeds of its death.

This is not a history book, nor is it exclusively concerned with ancient civilizations. All past history once lay in the present, and all present history is rooted in the past.

We must always be on our guard against the temptation to apply the restless, progressive standards of the West to civilizations which should be assessed by quite different criteria. Our Western standards are not by any means applicable to every race on earth. Neither dynamism nor progress, in the Western sense, necessarily make for human happiness. The slumbering, dreaming existence of the Pacific races, for instance, with its careless tranquillity and unconsciousness of sin, its elemental rhythms of joy and sorrow, is probably much closer to the secret of living.

I am not saying that the West is likely to meet its doom any sooner than the East. That would be a contradiction in terms, for the East is appropriating all the most dubious achievements of the West and furiously copying them. China, Japan, India, and Asiatic Russia are even more obsessed with progress today than the West. There seems to be little to choose between any of the sections of modern humanity: they have all lost the art of living.



The value of Egypt's bequest to humanity, and to Western civilization in general, is well-nigh inestimable. She gave us the smith's trade, architecture, the stele, the art of stone masonry, some aspects of the religious concepts of the West, monasticism, the principles of governmental organization... the civil service, chronology and geometry, glass making, fine clothing and jewelry, furniture and houses, a postal service, and medicine. All these things were passed on to us by Egypt of the golden age when we still lived in forests and steppes.



Not sure where in the text this is from:
History is imperishable. Unseen and unrecognized, the past lives on in its quiet, imperceptible way. Whether lying dormant in the unfathomable sea of the millennia or buried beneath the ground and swathed in a vast winding sheet of earth and stone, "past civilizations" are still with us even though their tangible remains lie hidden and still un-discovered. All civilizations that have ever been live on in us, and our lives are rooted deep in the remote, mysterious and ancient civilizations of the past. It is our task again and again to rediscover these civilizations, which have a strange way of falling silent as if they no longer lived in us and we in them. But once a civilization has existed on earth, its effects are permanent. A memory, a new discovery, a visit to an exibition - any one of these may suddenly alert us to their mute presence. And when this happens we feel a strange desire to weep for something that is near us, yet cannot be recalled.