Whether we are speaking of an individual or a whole nation, the process of coming to terms with the past is a crucial one in order to move on from a traumatic event. It matters not if we’re referring to the so-called closure[1] (moving on after the end of a love relationship) or to the notion of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (a composite German word that describes the processes of dealing with the past – Vergangenheit = past and Bewältigung = coming to terms with, mastering, wrestling into submission)[2]. What is important is that dealing with the past is primordial, thus there were many philosophers who approached this particular issue. Among them are Theodor Adorno and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Theodor Adorno’s essay, Was bedeutet die Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit? (What is meant by the working through the past?), focuses on Germany’s attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust. Adorno claims that contemporary Germany is trying to work through the past. This, however, is only appropriate for the victims of the past. He argues that the roots of National Socialism still exist. In order to work through what has happened, people need to open up to the possibility that it might happen again. Guilt, Adorno explains, is irrational in the sense that it has no relation to present external circumstances. But it can become an automatic response to a certain situation. If the topic of the Holocaust comes up, some might feel guilty – an ancestral guilt, if not a personal one.

He believes that the people’s alienation from democracy reflects the self-alienation of society, concluding that people view themselves as powerless in relation to a government that they support unconditionally – and inside this view lie the roots of National Socialism. Adorno cites parents who try to make Nazism sound better, because of their embarrassment when asked questions about the former ideology. He wonders how far it is advisable to go into the past when attempting to raise public awareness, and whether precisely the insistence on it does not provoke a defiant resistance and produce the opposite of what it intends. But he does argue that making people aware could never be as bad as leaving them unaware.

Further on, he approaches the issue of racism. Anti-semites, he believes, should be made aware of the mechanisms that cause racial prejudice within them. People must also have the knowledge of the few durable propaganda tricks that are attuned exactly to those psychological dispositions we must assume are present in human beings. Only by knowing how they can be manipulated will the individuals identify and avoid these attempts. But is this social education enough? There’s no doubt that it leads to social enlightenment. What if Nazism begins to appeal once more to people? Only by showing them that they have nothing to gain will they avoid it. Only by reminding them that it leads to war, suffering, and privation under a coercive system, and, in the end, probably the Russian domination of Europe will they fear its return. This argument is much more appalling to them than an appeal to the suffering of others, which we stop thinking about relatively quickly.

But while Adorno’s view focuses on coming to terms with a traumatic event that affected the whole world, Ralph Waldo Emerson explores the issue of the individual’s fear of the past coming back to haunt him:

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. For Emerson, dwelling on the past is as bad as conformity. One only needs to rely on his present self: why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory?

He strongly believes in living in the moment and “thinking in the moment”:

Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.

He argued that it matters not if what you think tomorrow will contradict everything you believe today. Man changes and has the right to change, so the fear of being misunderstood should account for nothing. Emerson thought that one should not be afraid or ashamed of one’s past, because the only time that truly matters is the present and the only beliefs that are of any importance are the present ones. He believed that one should not dwell on the past, fear the future, conform to society’s principles. He asserted that a true man should stand on his own feet, have his own belief system and remain true to his essence, thus continuing the Enlightenment tradition.

In the end, it seems that the best way of  coming to terms with the past, no matter if it’s the past of an individual or the legacy of a nation, is to understand it, accept it and move on. One must not dwell on the past, but forgive his wrongs and the wrongs that were done to him. Yet one must not forget, because those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.[3]

Cited works:

ADORNO, Theodor, Was bedeutet die Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit?
EMERSON, Ralph Waldo, Self-Reliance


[1] source: The Urban Dictionary
[2] source: Wikipedia
[3] George Santayanaphoto source