Discover more from Regress Studies
Who Cares About the Past?
An Inaugural Regress Studies Symposium
What have we lost to the past?
Limiting ourselves to the material and technological, here’s a non-exhaustive list.
There are cities and civilizations reclaimed by the jungle: the Mesoamerican Toltecs, Khmer cities and their hydraulic marvels across Cambodia, great Amazonian societies. The Mississippians with their great mounds, Carthage, razed and salted. Pre-Mongol Baghdad, the greatest city in the world. The mysterious peoples of Gran Patajen, the Tiwanacu, and the Nazca line drawers.
We’ve lost vast libraries of human knowledge, like Alexandria, of course, but also more recent cases: thousands of texts during the English dissolution of the monasteries, Leuven in 1914, the great Polish Krasinski and Zaluski troves in 1944. We know many of the texts we’ve lost: Aristotle’s dialogues, Pindar and Sappho’s poetry, Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, works of Sulla, Cicero, Caesar, the vast majority of Maya and Aztec literature, Incan quipus, an epistle to Corinth, the Yongle Encyclopedia, Shakespeare’s Cardenio. Two of Bach’s Passions, George and Martha Washington’s letters, Carlyle’s first draft of The French Revolution, all of Hemingway’s work pre-1922, Walter Benjamin’s final manuscript. And there are others we’ve lost which we can’t know, of course: countless oral traditions, for instance, including works of Homer.
Losses of the natural world come readily to mind for Americans: bison on the Great Plains, or beavers great and small, or the passenger pigeon, the mammoth, or perhaps the dodo bird. In 1497, John Cabot's crew reported that the Newfoundland sea "is full of fish that can be taken not only with nets but with fishing baskets." Oysters were the size of dinner plates in the Chesapeake Bay, said the first European explorers. Salmon in the Pacific Northwest was so plentiful that even during the Great Depression it sold for the contemporary equivalent of a dollar per pound: poor man’s food.
Then there are losses of craft, of techne, and of ability: Dhaka muslin, or bardic chant, or poetic navigation. Greek fire, whatever the antikythera mechanism slotted into. Oppenheimer believed ancient Indian civilizations had already come upon atomic power and more besides.
And there are more esoteric claims of loss, if you’re interested: Atlantean geoengineering, alchemical knowledge, Lemurian stone cutting, the Giza power plant. The Book of Thoth, which contains secrets to comprehend the speech of animals.
Does it Matter?
Here’s a question: does it all matter? That we lost all those things, the troves of human knowledge, the jungle-devoured cultures, the technological advances, the keys to understanding the ancient Hittite jokes? Really, who cares? I had this argument with a friend last fall. He suggested (I paraphrase) that the great texts that were lost can’t in fact have been a great loss, because human reason is such that, if we didn’t have Aristotle, someone else would have invented him. Moreover, by definition and by Providence we weren’t meant to have those lost texts, because they’re lost.
I asked four friends, each of whom works with the past in some way, to weigh in on this question: why care? They contributed mini-essays below.
Brief introductions: Wendi Yan is a new media artist and historian of science, whose Tiny Museum of Mammoth Technologies is one of the most striking physical art installations I’ve experienced. In addition to being the managing editor of,reads more than anyone I know. Ruby Thelot is a designer and classicist whose essays on virtual realms, digital communities, and artificial intelligence have deeply shaped my thinking. And I have shared an essay byon this newsletter before: he’s an incisive critic and polymath.
For Wendi: I’d be curious for your thoughts about this question in the context of geological time. What have we lost that we’re not even aware of? Have we lost parts of the past that we could never have known about? What does it do for us to become aware of the grand sweep of history that we missed out on?
Up until the late 18th century, the Western world still considered the Earth’s history to be just thousands of years older than humans’ own history, if not specifically dating back to 4004 BC. Through the “time revolution” of the 19th century, the West discovered what later came to be known as “deep time.” It vastly enlarged humans’ perception of the timescale of the universe, which, just like what Copernicus did with the spatial scale, revealed humanity’s smallness against the Earth.
Yet today, we still don’t know how the origins of human civilization looked like, and how that intersected with the Earth’s own evolution. We significantly underestimate how far humans and megafauna like mammoths traveled in “prehistoric times.” We have crude speculations about how humans organized themselves socially in paleolithic times. We don’t really know how humans were doing in the Ice Age.
As Marcia Bjornerud argued in Timefulness, most of us humans are temporally illiterate, utterly unaware of the scale of the Earth’s history before our appearance, and too shortsighted to see its importance in guiding our environmental actions.
When “ancient” means Rome in 0 AD, when popular media falsely portrays 10th century Vikings as barbarians, how is it possible for us to make reliable sense of the humans that sculpted the bronze “alien” heads of Sanxingdui in 2000 BC and built Stonehenge in 4000 BC?
Perhaps it is the necessity of modernity to hold relentless prejudice against prehistoric humans. I find it rewarding, following Claude Lévi-Strauss, to frame mythological thought as “neolithic science.” We could see progress through a more expansive lens when we examine what was happening in “prehistory,” a concept that is itself encoded with bias toward a particular frame of science.
A most curious—and haunting—case for me is the mammoth huts discovered in today’s Ukraine and Russia. Dated to 25,000 years ago, these huts comprise bones of at least 60 mammoths, at around 40-foot diameter. Historian of Science Claudine Cohen called it belonging to “a mammoth civilization,” which not only ate mammoths, built such mammoth structures, but also wore mammoth hide and wore sculpted pieces from mammoth tusks. These huts could be for daily living, or ritual purposes—how the Ice Age humans lived alongside mammoths, we don’t really know.
In recent years, some scholars have started to write histories that zoom out, spatially and temporally, from the human-centric perspective of history (e.g. Daniel L. Smail’s neurohistory, or Martin J. S. Rudwick’s deep history). Compared with how much we know about the American Civil War, or World War II, we know very little about the history of the Earth with humans as one embedded component. We have perhaps been writing too much human history. But we have lost, or perhaps never really gained, the perspective of humans continuously interacting with their environment, co-evolving with the Earth.
For Isaac: You might consider notes on Amazon civilizations; if they were, of what sort were they, and what might we stand to gain from encountering them?
Only one group of men from the Old World ever saw the civilizations of central Amazonia in their flower. This was the expedition of the Spaniard Francisco de Orellana in 1540-1. Rumors—and were they not mostly true?—of La Canela, a land of cinnamon plantations, had trickled in from east of the Andes. They pulled Orellana and his forty-nine men down a river which began in the uplands of eastern Ecuador and which, to his shock, did not seem to end. In those hills they left behind a host of 220 Spaniards and 4,000 natives under the command of Gonzalo Pizarro, half-brother of the executioner of the Inca; Pizarro stumbled naked back into Quito two years later, leading eighty men.
Never before, and never again, will the recollection of an entire civilization fall to the pen of one man. Gaspar de Carvajal, a priest from those rugged marches of Extremadura which rendered up so many conquistadors, had found his way to Ecuador and thence to Orellana’s brigantine; to his account, Relación, we owe our eternal thanks. What he saw was so fantastic that it was immediately discounted, and thereafter forgotten: Cities of wood which stretched for over a hundred miles, flotillas of thousands of armed marines, floating musical orchestras, undulating flash mobs covering the hills, even glazed pottery and naturalistic painting equal to that of Europe—all gone a century later, when Europeans next sailed the mighty length of the river. Old World disease had claimed as many as 95 percent of the basin’s people, in an apocalypse that went all but unrecorded.
Yet the past forty years of archaeological work have revealed that Carvajal was not hallucinating. Long considered to be a “counterfeit paradise”—a lush but sparsely populated waste—the massive region was, in fact, home to a series of complex, dynamic civilizations. Painstaking pedological and botanical surveys have revealed, for example, that vast swathes of the Amazon Rainforest—at least an area the size of France—are actually a project of ancient, intentional human cultivation: the world’s largest garden. Extensive road networks, some nearly 150 feet wide, once crisscrossed the basin. In some regions, people built wooden bridges that were at least a half-mile long.
What are we to make of this? Most obviously, the stunning fact of mass landscape modification, of a continental jungle-garden marbled with intensive fishing and turtle-trapping operations, provides archaeology with its largest piece of evidence yet that intensive farming is not required for civilization. And the student of history learns that entire worlds can disappear, and that man is capable of neutering his own inborn primal curiosity through his countervailing attachment to consensus.
For Ruby: “...we live in the age of twilight knowledge: we do not own the information and we do not know how it is produced.” That’s you. Does historical retrieval change the nature of our age? I find out how knowledge was produced, I reground myself, I encounter my ancestral heritage. So what?
It isn’t historical retrieval per se: my beef is with our current culture of epistemology. We mistake data for knowledge, facts for comprehension. Like King Thamus speaking to the God Toth in Plato’s Phaedrus after the god presents him with writing, I see our contemporary rapport to knowledge as one fraught with issues.
“And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only the semblance of wisdom, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much while for the most part they know nothing.”
My exhortation is that we return to a culture of experimentation, where we test knowledge ourselves, and do the math, dance the dance, if you will. The experiment represents the willingness to physically engage with knowledge, to produce it ourselves. I understand this is difficult, but at the very least we should try to acquire context around the data and facts we are presented with. Context illuminates the twilight. The facts that abound in our modern world are too far removed from us, we are alienated from them. To find out, to reground oneself, to encounter ancestral heritage is essentially a journey in acquiring context.
To quote an ancient Chinese proverb: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”
For Chris: You once accused me of impugning your sense of wonder for misrepresenting your argument about the lost Aristotelian dialogues. In my defense, you did say they might have sucked, and who cared anyway. Would you recapitulate your position for us here?
When we are talking about the past we are always talking about the present. We have a lot of the past still about, around and inside us, but we don’t have those things for themselves, anymore than we have the toys of our childhood or our families’ stories. These things can sit on the shelf and weigh on our hearts to move us in many ways, but what I have from the childhood doll in my hand is different from what it was to me at the age of four. In the present all these things we’ve piled up about ourselves cannot escape having grown old too, having been abroad in the world and changed.
For the reader I’ll recap: Santi impugned my sense of wonder because I provoked him with the claim that there was no great reason to mourn the lost dialogues of Aristotle—and with the suggestion that they were not so great in the first place. I’ll happily retract the second, on the grounds of humility, but on those same grounds retain the first. We’ve lost many things to accidents over time, but the only things we can truly mourn are the things which we have known and have lost.
The story is familiar (I assume) to Regress Studies readers: Plato’s student, the founder of the Lyceum and the tutor of Alexander, composed a number of luminous works, comparable to his teacher’s, all of which are now lost. The student of philosophy is left only with his lecture notes, cribs of his doctrine, with—their readers must complain—no poetic power. All that I want to suggest is that we have no grounds to consider this a great bereftment.
When we realize the value of studying ancient philosophical texts, we realize this through some community, some school of learning and study, through conversation and through reading a tradition of thinking. For millennia these conversations have proceeded without reference to these texts, and the conversation we continue between one another continues in the same way. Insofar as we regard this activity as profitable, we do not regard it atavistically—we know it as something personal to us which has been given to us to continue. When I turn to the classical philosophical texts, I am not seeking to uncover “what Plato thought,” as though having Plato, the son of Ariston, on hand to answer my questions would provide a useful shortcut. When I open these texts I am seeking to understand what has been handed down to me and to grasp a little better what has been considered worthwhile about continually reading these very old books. What I hope to obtain by doing so is to be able to answer the questions I encounter in the present—the reason I hope for this is because many others have obtained the same. This is not the case when I wonder what it would be like to read the books Aristotle wrote, which we no longer have with us and which no one now living has read, and this for many centuries.
When I read a book such as the Republic, it doesn’t provide me with a table of new knowledge which I lacked. It shows me a way of thinking, it demonstrates for me what this way of thinking might look like, it lets me into a world. I have my curiosity about what those vanished books might have contained, but just curiosity. I cannot imagine what they said, and it does me no good to try. We cannot lose what no one has ever had.