In Praise of Past Times

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

For several months now, I have been lifting quotes from a website called Laudator Temporis Acti, a blog site where I go to get inspired. And it never fails to do so. The Latin means, roughly, “One who praises past times.” About half of my long quotations are lifted bodily from the site, with the only acknowledgment being a tag at the end that reads laudator-temporis-acti.

Run by a scholar in Conyers, Georgia, by the name of Michael Gilleland, the website pays homage to the thinking of times past, from ancient Greece and Rome through the nineteenth century. Each quotation is well documented. When translation is necessary, an honest attempt is made to get to the gist accurately and, sometimes, elegantly.

Some people—my own brother included—think that I live in the past. If that were so, why would I be blogging here? Why would I own a cellphone? Why would I drive to work in an automobile? No, I like to investigate the past because nothing serves to help me understand the present than to see what is both constant and meritorious in the human condition. That’s why I am concurrently reading Marcus Tullius Cicero and William H. Prescott (History of the Conquest of Peru). Oh, I could be reading something contemporary about philosophy, but I probably wouldn’t understand it as easily as I could understand the Roman. And I can (and will) be reading contemporary books about Peru, but it was Prescott who originally got the ball rolling. Everything since published about the Inca owes a debt to the Harvard-educated historian of the 1800s. And no one has written on the subject more eloquently.

I don’t frequently recommend websites, and none do I recommend so whole-heartedly as Laudator Temporis Acti. I visit it several times a week and urge you to do so as well. Among other things, you will discover what William Faulkner did, that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past” (from his Requiem for a Nun).

Sir Walter Scott, Bookworm

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott

He at this time occupied as his den a square small room, behind the dining parlour in Castle Street. It had but a single Venetian window, opening on a patch of turf not much larger than itself, and the aspect of the place was on the whole sombrous. The walls were entirely clothed with books; most of them folios and quartos, and all in that complete state of repair which at a glance reveals a tinge of bibliomania. A dozen volumes or so, needful for immediate purposes of reference, were placed close by him on a small moveable frame—something like a dumb-waiter. All the rest were in their proper niches, and wherever a volume had been lent, its room was occupied by a wooden block of the same size, having a card with the name of the borrower and date of the loan, tacked on its front. The old bindings had obviously been retouched and regilt in the most approved manner; the new, when the books were of any mark, were rich but never gaudy—a large proportion of blue morocco—all stamped with his device of the portcullis, and its motto, clausus tutus ero—being an anagram of his name in Latin. Every case and shelf was accurately lettered, and the works arranged systematically; history and biography on one side—poetry and the drama on another—law books and dictionaries behind his own chair. The only table was a massive piece of furniture which he had had constructed on the model of one at Rokeby; with a desk and all its appurtenances on either side, that an amanuensis might work opposite to him when he chose; and with small tiers of drawers, reaching all round to the floor. The top displayed a goodly array of session papers, and on the desk below were, besides the MS. at which he was working, sundry parcels of letters, proof-sheets, and so forth, all neatly done up with red tape. His own writing apparatus was a very handsome old box, richly carved, lined with crimson velvet, and containing ink-bottles, taper-stand, &c. in silver—the whole in such order that it might have come from the silversmith’s window half an hour before. Besides his own huge elbow chair, there were but two others in the room, and one of these seemed, from its position, to be reserved exclusively for the amanuensis. I observed, during the first evening I spent with him in this sanctum, that while he talked, his hands were hardly ever idle—sometimes he folded letter-covers—sometimes he twisted paper into matches, performing both tasks with great mechanical expertness and nicety; and when there was no loose paper fit to be so dealt with, he snapped his fingers, and the noble Maida aroused himself from his lair on the hearth-rug, and laid his head across his master’s knees, to be caressed and fondled. The room had no space for pictures except one, an original portrait of Claverhouse, which hung over the chimneypiece, with a Highland target on either side, and broadswords and dirks (each having its own story), disposed star-fashion round them. A few green tin-boxes, such as solicitors keep title-deeds in, were piled over each other on one side of the window; and on the top of these lay a fox’s tail, mounted on an antique silver handle, wherewith, as often as he had occasion to take down a book, he gently brushed the dust off the upper leaves before opening it. I think I have mentioned all the furniture of the room except a sort of ladder, low, broad, well carpeted, and strongly guarded with oaken rails, by which he helped himself to books from his higher shelves. On the top step of this convenience, Hinse of Hinsfeldt—(so called from one of the German Kinder-märchen )—a venerable tom-cat, fat and sleek, and no longer very locomotive, usually lay watching the proceedings of his master and Maida with an air of dignified equanimity; but when Maida chose to leave the party, he signified his inclinations by thumping the door with his huge paw, as violently as ever a fashionable footman handled a knocker in Grosvenor Square; the Sheriff rose and opened it for him with courteous alacrity,—and then Hinse came down purring from his perch, and mounted guard by the footstool, vice Maida absent upon furlough. Whatever discourse might be passing, was broken every now and then by some affectionate apostrophe to these fourfooted friends. He said they understood every thing he said to them, and I believe they did understand a great deal of it. But at all events, dogs and cats, like children, have some infallible tract for discovering at once who is, and who is not, really fond of their company; and I venture to say, Scott was never five minutes in any room before the little pets of the family, whether dumb or lisping, had found out his kindness for all their generation.—John G. Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart., Vol V