‘Why study humanities?‘ The Conversation, 21 March 2014
Revised version of a talk to students in which Gaita talks about Indigenous Australians, Socrates, philosophy, the importance of becoming acquainted with great thinkers from the past, and the significance of his book (later film) Romulus, My Father.
On the past, Gaita says,
critical engagement with the past helps us to establish the kind of distance from the present that is necessary if we are even seriously to try, without self-deception, to resist becoming merely children of our times, in the pejorative sense of that expression. We exist in the present and hopefully we can love the world we are born into, but the present can be tyrannical unless our consciousness of it extends a long way into the past. We can dream of the future, and those dreams can sustain our struggles for a better world, but the future does not exist and no one knows how it will be. It cannot nourish us as only something real can do.
Dictators know this, which is why they rewrite history to suit their political ends and deny their subjects independent access to their past. They do it because they know that resistance to their rule will wither unless hope is nourished by trustworthy access to the past. People who fight against oppression need to know that their ideals are not mere dreams, that they have been inspired, at least in part, by something real to which sobriety requires them to be answerable.
Rather than alienating us from the times into which we are born, the past can yield to us a timeless love of the world that will protect us from cynicism if we are unfortunate to live in circumstances to which disillusionment appears to be the only truthful response. Sometimes people live in dark times.