Our debt to the past
We publish here an essay written by Lakshman Kadirgamar to the 1949 Trinity College Magazine when he was a 17-year-old student there

How often we revolt against the past. How often we question the purpose of learning history. To many the past is dead. The knowledge of it is drudgery. But to the imaginative observer the past presents a fascinating spectacle of human fortunes. We realise our debt to the past when we see the thread of continuity that runs through the ages, from the dawn of history, linking up, and giving significance to the efforts of humanity.

If the past is viewed objectively we see it as one continuous, ‘living’ period of development. Every minute slips into the past and as civilisation grows in age, the past is growing too.

We form new ideas of the past, our interpretation changes. We can never shelve the past. Every moment of our lives, we hark back to the past. Often we are overtaken by tragedies, shattering events like war, momentous publications like “Das Capital” and “Origin of the Species”- that give us a new orientation of the past. The point to remember is that the past lives and grows. It never dies.

The past is very tolerant. It has witnessed man’s first attempts at civilisation. It has blessed the beginnings of culture and given to the crudest achievements the sanctity of age.

The past has witnessed man’s ceaseless struggle with nature. How can we disregard the civilising process? We must know something of the Ur and Mohenjadaro civilisations and the Chinese and Middle-Eastern cultures; of the beginnings of literature and philosophy in the Vedas; of primitive drawings on cave walls; of crude sculpture — for, the knowledge of these is essential to a better understanding of modern civilisation.

We have much to learn from the past. The ancient Sinhalese engineers were the best in the world. Apart from inventing the sluice gate, they developed tank construction to such a pitch of excellence that it has excited the wonder and admiration of all ages.

We learn not only from the triumphs of the past but also from its mistakes. The past is a faithful record — failures, disasters, tragedies, are clearly imprinted on the page of History.

An analysis of the causes of wars gives us valuable information about the reactions of individuals and nations to certain events. The failures of the past have inspired us on to greater effort. One generation failed to perfect the aeroplane; the next invented the turbo-jet engine, while there is little doubt that the succeeding century will be the realisation of inter-planetary travel.
The history of international diplomacy gives us vital clues to the understanding of a country’s traditional foreign policy. For instance we know that from the nineteenth century Britain has been suspicious of Russian intentions in the Mediterranean. This will always be a keynote of British policy. A. L. Rowse goes as far as to say that if Chamberlain had a sounder knowledge of German history, he could have averted the catastrophe of 1939.

The past is prophetic. Growing impulses and tendencies of one age find expression in another. The Russian revolution had its seeds far back in history. Oppression and discontent gathered through the ages and burst with startling violence in 1917.

A good knowledge of past conditions is a valuable guide for the future. We can see the beginnings of movements. We know exactly how they sprang; we get some idea of how they might develop and end. We also look to the past for ratification and confirmation of many of our actions.

In many countries custom and tradition is part and parcel of the law. When constitutions are to be amended or new ones created we look for historical precedent, because we have confidence in decisions of the past — that have received the assent of time. The past, as a whole, plays an important role in shaping the future. It is difficult to break with the past. It should be our aim to reconcile ourselves with the past. Not exactly to fall in line, but to realise, to learn, to benefit from our heritage. The aim of history is:

“To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild-flower
To hold infinity in the palm of our hand
And eternity in an hour.”

- L. Kadirgamar, U. E. Arts (Essay submitted at an examination)

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