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Future Past. Time and Teleology in (Ancient) Historiography

Grethlein, Jonas

In: History & Theory, 53 (1 October 2014), Nr. 3. pp. 309-330

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The historian’s account of the past is strongly shaped by the future of the events narrated. The telos, that is the vantage-point from which the past is envisaged, influences the selection of the material as well as its arrangement. While the telos is past for historian and reader, it is future for historical agents. The term ‘future past’, coined by Koselleck to highlight the fact that the future was seen differently before the Sattelzeit, also lends itself to capturing this asymmetry and elucidating its ramifications for the writing of history. The first part of the essay elaborates on the notion of ‘future past’: besides considering its significance and pitfalls, I offset it against the perspectivity of historical knowledge and the concept of narrative closure (I). Then the works of two ancient historians, Polybius and Sallust, serve as test-cases that illustrate the intricacies of ‘future past’. Neither has received much credit for intellectual sophistication in scholarship, and yet the different narrative strategies deployed by Polybius and Sallust reveal profound reflections on the temporal dynamics of writing history (II). While the issue of ‘future past’ is particularly pertinent to the strongly narrative historiography of antiquity, the controversy about the end of the Roman Republic demonstrates that it also applies to the works of modern historians (III). Finally I will argue that ‘future past’ alerts us to an aspect of how we relate to the past that is in danger of being obliterated in the current debate on ‘presence’ and history. While the past is present in customs, relics and rituals, the historiographic construction of the past is predicated on a complex hermeneutical operation that involves the choice of a telos. The concept of ‘future past’ also differs from post-structuralist theories through its emphasis on time. Retrospect calms the flow of time, but is unable to arrest it fully, as the openness of the past survives in the form of ‘future past’ (IV).

Document type: Article
Journal or Publication Title: History & Theory
Volume: 53
Number: 3
Publisher: Blackwell
Date Deposited: 17 Mar 2016 08:34
Date: 1 October 2014
Page Range: pp. 309-330
Faculties / Institutes: Philosophische Fakultät > Seminar für klassische Philologie
DDC-classification: 800 Literature and rhetoric
870 Italic literatures Latin
880 Hellenic literatures Classical Greek
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