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Janus: of dogs, of men, of gods
Statue of Janus, Vatican MuseumLoudon dodd, CC BY-SA 3.0

My off-hand reference to the Roman god Janus at the turn of the year has had me thinking about looking backwards and forwards as fundamental human activities.

Rear-view mirror

Other species have memory, for sure, but deeper history, stories and cultural memory are (correct me if I’m wrong) unique to humankind. We live in the past as much as the present. Our circumstances and identities emerge from our histories (in both the sense of the actual things that happened in the past and of the stories we tell about the past) and we spend our lives looking over our shoulders to remind ourselves who we are and what the world is like. The past itself and the act of looking backwards shape what we see in the present.


And other species anticipate the future – from the cause-and-effect of physics understood by a dog catching a frisbee to the squirrel’s hoarding – but I don’t know that any of them really plan. Humans look (further) ahead, see what is likely, seek to change course. We also have visions of what is unlikely but possible, and the paths we might take – build! – to places that don’t yet exist.

These are among our most godlike powers, and the connection is frequently observed: the more clearly we look backwards, the better our forward vision becomes.*

*Funnily enough George Santayana did not say, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” but rather “Those who cannot remember…”

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...