Chapter 11: Possessing a Past Tense

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 11: Possessing a Past Tense

The month in which Thanksgiving Day falls reminds us that a serious test of character is involved in any man’s attitude toward his heritage. For Thanksgiving Day takes our thought away from the immediate foregrounds of our experience and recalls to memory our historic background. In this respect human life is like a landscape where on the level plain our tasks absorb our usual attention but where, above us and behind us like mountains, not always thought of but always there, stand our racial traditions, the nations that begat us, the families that have nourished us, the heritage that has enriched us. This simile of foreground and background makes one fact evident: we can more or less choose our manner of living in the foreground of our experience, but the background we cannot choose. That was given to us. That is our inheritance. We can choose only our attitude toward it. We can be grateful for it, live up to it, rejoice in it, and be worthy of it, or we can forget it, be irreverent concerning it, and unappreciative of it.

Fullness of life is in part a matter of the number of tenses which a man possesses. We begin in infancy with the present tense alone the clamorous needs, absorbing hurts, or satisfying pleasures of the immediate moment. As youth comes on we acquire a future tense. We begin to live, as Wordsworth sings, with

. . . hope that can never die,

Effort, and expectation, and desire,

And something evermore about to be.

Then, as a man grows older, he tends to acquire a past tense also. If he has lived worthily memory becomes a shrine with treasures in it too sacred to be given up, and far beyond the borders of his individual recollection he values the history of his race and the sacrifices which have purchased his liberties. One feels intuitively that a man’s spiritual quality in part is tested by this possession of a past tense.

To be sure, we need to guard ourselves against a false glorification of the past. A great deal of nonsense has been talked about the "good old times." It is said that one of the oldest documents of the race is a cuneiform fragment from one of the lowest strata of the ruins of Babylon, beginning with these words: "Alas! Alas! Times are not what they were!" The plain fact is that there never have been any "good old times."

Folk, for example, who wistfully long for the ancient days of religion’s ascendancy and who bemoan the degeneracy of these present times would do well to consider this. What good old times are they wishing to have back again? Times when Luther said, "I am sick of life if this life can be called life. . . . Implacable hatred and strife amongst the great . . . no hopes of any improvement . . . the age is Satan’s own; gladly would I see myself and all my people quickly snatched from it"? Times when John Calvin said, "The future appalls me. I dare not think of it. Unless the Lord descends from heaven, barbarism will engulf us"? Times when Henry VIII’s secretary wrote in grim jest to his friend Erasmus that the scarcity and dearness of wood in England were due to the quantities wasted in burning heretics, or when later the Puritan Cartwright, defending by Biblical texts the barbarities of religious persecution, exclaimed, "If this be regarded as extreme and bloodie I am glad to be so with the Holy Ghost"? Times when Governor Berkeley of Virginia in 1670 said, "I thank God there are no free schools, nor printing, and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government. God keep us from both"?

What "good old times?"

Controversy is bad enough among modern churchmen, but even that is better than it used to be. A century and a half ago some one wrote a pamphlet entitled, "An Old Fox Tarred and Feathered." Who was the "Old Fox" against whom this author entertained such bitterness? John Wesley, who for Christ’s sake and the Gospel’s probably traveled more miles, did more work, preached more sermons, won more converts, and was responsible for more practical philanthropy than any other man since Paul -- he was the "Old Fox" who was to be tarred and feathered. And if one asks who wanted to tar and feather him, the answer is Toplady. Not Toplady who wrote,

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in thee?

The same man! He wanted John Wesley tarred and feathered. Good old times, indeed!

Nor have there been any good old times in the nation -- none, at least, that we should have recognized as such had we lived contemporaneously with them. We remember with gratitude the voyage of the Mayflower as a glorious adventure of faith and enterprise, and so it was. When on the last day of May, 1919, Lieutenant A C. Read, the first man to cross the Atlantic in the air, brought his seaplane safely down in the harbor of Plymouth, England, he was officially welcomed by the mayor of that ancient town and an applauding multitude. The whole world was agog at the achievement and enthusiastic over it. But when the Mayflower sailed from that same spot three centuries before, there was no applause; few knew and fewer cared; the adventure was an obscure and apparently insignificant affair. Had we been there nothing could have persuaded us that we were living in any "good old times."

Here is part of a letter written by Robert Cushman on board the Mayflower before she finally left England:

"If ever we make a Plantation God works a miracle! Specially considering how scant we shall be of victuals, and, most of all, ununited amongst ourselves.

"If I should write to you of all things which promiscuously forerun our ruin, I should overcharge my weak head and grieve your tender heart: only this I pray you, Prepare for evil tidings of us, every day! But pray for us instantly! . . . I see not, in reason, how we shall escape . . . but God can do much, and his will be done!"

Possessing a past tense does not mean a false idealization of days gone by. It does not involve subjection to the tyranny of the dead hand. One need not deny the fact of progress nor blind his eyes to the miseries and sins of our fathers. But, for all that, condescension to the past or smashing attacks on its failures cannot exhaust a wise man’s attitude. Thanksgiving Day does represent an essential element in a good man’s life.


The plain fact is that the biggest part of our lives is our heritage. One must differentiate here between blood heredity and social inheritance. The first is a matter of the physical and mental traits which we carry over biologically from our forebears; the second is a matter of the social environments, the literary, artistic, religious traditions, the racial and national culture, into which we are born and by which our plastic lives are shaped and: molded. Even yet we do not know so much about biological heredity as some glib amateurs who write upon the subject seem to think, but this we do know: If we had been born of the most select eugenic blood that could be imagined and had been dropped as infants into an African jungle tribe, we should have grown up molded and conformed by the social heritage of that tribe’s traditions. We should have believed in its witchcraft, feared its devils, trusted its medicine men and respected its taboos. No blood heredity could have been strong enough to withstand the all but irresistible pressure of the social inheritance.

So strong is the social heritage that, when by some powerful force it is given a new direction, it can transform whole nations. Japan today is being made over with amazing rapidity, not by any change in biological heredity, but by the acceptance of many influential elements in the social heritage of the West.

On Thanksgiving morning, 1868, Henry Ward Beecher, in the course of his sermon in Plymouth pulpit, said: "My old fatherland is Germany, the home of our Anglo-Saxon blood. The old honest stock, the old sincere stock, the old domestic stock, it is. It is the Saxon stock that always ran toward republicanism. The monarchical stock -- the French stock, the Italian stock, the Spanish stock -- all ran toward Monarchism. . . . But the Saxon stock always ran for the common people and the commonwealth." How great a difference one finds when he turns suddenly from 1868 to 1914! Nothing had happened to the blood heredity of the German people, but something had happened to their social inheritance. That had been radically altered by influences whose figurehead in our imagination is Bismarck, until children were being born in 1914 into a social tradition far different from that of the peace-loving, domestic, artistic and democratic Saxon folk of 1868.

The thesis is not difficult to establish. Among the most influential factors in our lives is surely our social heritage.

Many modern folk have a quite unjustified sense of intellectual superiority over their ancestors because so many evils which our forebears took for granted we would not endure, and so many social improvements which seemed to them impossible we take for granted. But the difference between us and our ancestors does not lie primarily in individual increase of mental power on our part. There is no evidence that any man’s intellect on earth today is equal to Aristotle’s, nor do we know with any surety that the brain capacity of mankind as a whole is greater now than it was in the Ice Age. What has happened is mainly the slow accumulation of a social heritage. By long and patient processes of aspiring, thinking, trying, daring, and sacrificing, mankind has accumulated a cultural inheritance. That democracy can be made to work, that by the scientific method we can gain mastery over the latent resources of the universe, that trial by jury is practicable, that torture is a foolish method of seeking evidence in the courts, that chattel slavery is a failure -- such things we take for granted, not because we individually are wiser than our forebears, who disbelieved them all, but because we share in a social tradition which we did not even help to create, but which has shaped and conformed our thinking with irresistible power.

As one ponders this overwhelming influence of our social heritage, Thanksgiving Day gathers fresh significance. If we do possess in our racial and national inheritance institutions and ideas of priceless value, purchased by the sacrifice of past generations, we would better appreciate them and take care of them. And if in our social heritage there are perilous traditions and tendencies, we would better expunge them.

Suppose, for example, that in our generation we should outlaw war, should build substitutes in international coöperation to serve the purposes which war has tried to serve and lamentably has failed in. Suppose that the whole war system should collapse and machine guns go into the museums with the wracks and thumbscrews. Then our children would find war unthinkable, not because they individually were wiser and better than we, but because we had created a new social tradition which would shape the international attitudes of everybody born into it.


The initial response of a fine-natured man when he thinks of the best elements in his civilization and of the sacrifices which they have cost is gratitude. That, in itself, is an ennobling sentiment and in personal relationships is indispensable. No ingrate is fit to live.

The grace of gratitude, however, ought to extend itself to the whole social background of our lives, for the obvious reason that we all have two kinds of possessions: some we worked for, won for ourselves by our own creative skill; others were given us to start with. Now, these two kinds of possessions -- the things we achieve and the things we inherit -- demand of us two different attitudes. The first kind requires strenuousness; the second requires appreciation. We win the first by work; we win the second by thankful receptivity. So an author will have upon his shelves two sorts of books. Some he wrote himself. They are the output of his strenuous mental toil. The others are what Milton called "the precious life-blood of a master spirit"; they were written, not by the man, but for him; they are a part of his heritage and through appreciation they are his.

As between these two types of possessions we Americans notoriously have been obsessed by the first. We think chiefly of things to be achieved. In consequence we are very energetic, ambitious, pushing. But we are not inwardly rich. Strenuously absorbed in things to be done by us, we too often forget to appreciate some glorious things that already have been done for us. If some one is tempted to say that strenuousness is hard and appreciation easy, he displays his ignorance.

A deep and reverent understanding of and gratitude for the best heritage of the race is one of the fairest and rarest fruits of a mature soul.

One who lacks this expanded sense of indebtedness to the past is like a town I once visited. "Thirteen years ago," said my friend as he waved his hand out toward it, "there was nothing here and now look at it!" I did look at it. It was very raw. It was painfully extempore. It had all the virtues of enterprising youth -- briskness, energy, expectancy -- but it had the obvious lacks of youth as well. It had no past tense. As I looked at it I thought of other towns which also have a present and a future, but which have a past as well. One is aware in them of days gone by and, it may be, of high doings when folk thought and died for great causes. The past is not everything, and any generation or any man that tries to make it everything is lost. But neither are the present and the future everything. It is an ennobling experience to have a great past and to be gratefully aware of it.

How often one wishes that he could get hold of those easy-going batteners on public privileges, who saunter into life as though it all belonged to them in fee simple to possess, with no sense of indebtedness to the social heritage and with no consciousness of what it cost! How much one wishes that he could back them into a corner from which they could not escape and talk to them like this:

You are taking for granted what you have no business to take for granted. You act as though it were a negligible matter that for innumerable generations forward-looking men, paying a price in sacrifice which no imagination can compute, have been building up the decencies, securities, and opportunities of civilized life. The greatest day in any man’s life, as another put it, is when he turns the corner of a street and runs into a new idea. That is the greatest day in any civilization’s life, as well, and in our Western world it has happened three times.

Once our civilization turned the corner of a street and ran into Jesus of Nazareth. It never has been the same world since. Something happened at that meeting from which humanity never will be able to escape and never ought to wish to escape.

Again, our civilization turned the corner of a street and ran into the idea that if we patiently study the laws of nature we can gain such control over nature’s law-abiding forces as will enable us to transform the world. That, too, was a momentous day. This never has been the same earth since and it never will be.

Again, our civilization turned the corner of a street and ran into the idea that all of the people can be trusted in coöperative responsibility to bear a hand together in framing laws which then all the people together will obey. It was a prodigious idea. The arguments against it are clear, the perils of it obvious. It was an adventure in comparison with which Magellan’s exploit was simple.

The principles of Jesus, the power of applied science, the idea of democracy -- from these three things the most hopeful elements of our civilization flow. These things are the heart of the heritage which we hold in trust from our fathers before us for our children after us. God pity the man who ever grows so sophisticated that the thrill drops out from any one of them!


Indeed, at this special juncture of the world’s history, few things need more to be driven home on the public conscience than this simple but ominous fact: it is a good deal easier to waste a patrimony than it is to make one. One of the elemental mysteries of life is that destruction is easier than construction. It took a long time and hard toil to build the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the world, but a mad youth who wanted his name remembered threw a single torch, and in one night the temple was destroyed. It is easy to waste what it is hard to build.

This truth ought to come home to our generation with special emphasis because these have been prodigal years through which we have been living. Ever since 1914 the world as a whole has been spending its patrimony. One does not mean money alone, although a war that cost $186,000,000,000 is bad enough. One does not mean human life alone, although 10,000,000 dead on the battlefield is an expenditure not easy to exaggerate. One does not mean creative art alone, although one who has seen a ruined Gothic cathedral will readily agree that it is easier to waste than to build. One does not mean domestic life and happiness alone, although one who has walked through a ruined city like Bapaume, a skeleton in stone of what was once a living town, will not easily forget its horror. Rather, all these separate items of wastage are but symptomatic of that spendthrift prodigality which has been throwing away and still is throwing away great opportunities on which the weal of mankind depends.

One who loves ancient Greece turns back in days like these to the fifth century B. C. Man was there presented with one of the supreme chances that history records. The Persians had been driven back into Asia; Europe was safe and Greece was the hope of it. Democracy was understood in Greece as it was not going to be understood again for centuries. Science was growing in Greece as it would not grow again until the Middle Ages had come and gone. Socrates and Plato were teaching truths about God and immortality that would not be so well taught again for five hundred years. Then with this patrimony in their hands, the Greeks wasted it. Athens and Sparta, who should have stood together for the furtherance of their heritage, fought through long years of bloody warfare for the selfish leadership of Greece. That struggle was a fatal blow to Greek civilization. They threw away their heritage.

In spite of the startling resemblance between that old situation and ours, we still may hope that the chance for Western civilization is not yet gone. Only, we cannot be prodigals and waste it any more. We must have men and women who understand the priceless values handed down to us. We must learn to fear and hate our spendthrift ways. As long as this generation lasts, an urgent need will press upon us for constructive spirits in home, church, nation, world. We cannot stand wasters. A little more careless, thankless prodigality and our patrimony will be finished.


To this end we in America may well refresh at Thanksgiving time our conviction that we have a great heritage worth keeping and improving, and may well resist the too fashionable impression that our chief business with the past is to escape from it. The idea of progress has created that impression. We take it for granted that since the world is progressing we, of course, are better than our sires. We should not be too sure of that. It is none too clear in spite of M. Coué, that "every day in every way we are getting better and better."

To be sure, we use electric lights where our fathers used tallow dips, and ride in express trains where they had to go in ox-carts. To be sure, we can say "Hello!" over a wire to a man a thousand miles away, and our houses are filled with comforts and conveniences of which a medieval king never dreamed. And when we undergirdle such material advances with a doctrine of evolution popularly misinterpreted to mean that we are all upon a funicular railroad going up, no matter what we do, we gain a happy-go-lucky philosophy of life. But it is worth considering that it always is possible to improve the instruments of life and still to leave life itself static and unredeemed.

The plain fact is that man’s life and progress do not consist in the abundance of the things that he possesses.

Is the spirit of our homelife in America better than our fathers’? The old New England family has been made to seem hopelessly dour, somber and lugubrious, but one has doubts about the picture when he runs upon a letter like this, written by John Winthrop to his wife in 1637, after they had been married twenty years:

"Sweetheart, --

I was unwillingly hindered from coming to thee, nor am I likely to see thee before the last day of this week: therefore I shall want a band or two: and cuffs. I pray thee also send me six or seven leaves of tobacco dried and powdered. Have care of thyself this cold weather, and speak to the folks to keep the goats well out of the garden. . . . If any letters be come for me, send them by this bearer. I will trouble thee no further. The Lord bless and keep thee, my sweet wife, and all our family; and send us a comfortable meeting. So I kiss thee and love thee ever and rest

Thy faithful husband,

John Winthrop"

All I have to remark is that if this is being a somber Puritan, I wish that we had more homes in America similarly Puritanical after twenty years.

Is our inward spiritual life better than our fathers’? It is easy to caricature the religion of our sires. To win a chance to laugh at it one need only suppose it identical with the intellectual formulations and practical expressions which were characteristic of their time. But, surely, the moral pith of our fathers’ faith was no laughing matter. They were God-fearing men in this deep sense: they feared God so much that they did not fear anybody else at all. An aged minister gave me the blessing of the older generation on the day I was ordained for the ministry. He stood at the end of a long life and I at the beginning of mine. This was his benediction: "Young man, never you fear the face of mortal clay!" That was the spirit of the fathers at their best and it is a great heritage.

There is a kind of patriotism which the sooner we end the better. It is narrow, bigoted, sectarian, provincial; it lives on prejudice and it makes for war. But there is a patriotism that need never end, though internationalism grow and bloom and bear its long-prayed-for fruit. To be devoted to the best spiritual traditions of your own land, to be glad about them, to be proud of them, to rejoice in them, to want to live up to them, and be worthy of them, and because of them to hope and work that the Republic may play an honorable part in the world’s life, -- that is great patriotism. May it never end!