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The future behind us

We’re pretty convinced that the future lies ahead of us. But according to Bernard Knox, the ancient Greeks were not. In Backing into the Future he writes:

“ The future, invisible, is behind us. ” the Greek word opiso, which literally means ‘behind’ or ‘back, refers not to the past but to the future. The early Greek imagination envisaged the past and the present as in front of us–we can see them. The future, invisible, is behind us. Only a few very wise men can see what is behind them. (p. 11)

G.W. Whitrow in Time in History quotes George Steiner in After Babel to make the same point about the ancient Hebrews:

…the future is preponderantly thought to lie before us, while in Hebrew future events are always expressed as coming after us. (p. 14)

Whitrow doesn’t note that Steiner’s quote (which Steiner puts in quotes) comes from Thorlief Borman’s Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. Borman writes:

…we Indo-Germanic peoples think of time as a line on which we ourselves stand at a point called now; then we have the future lying before us, and the past stretches out behind us. The [ancient] Israelites use the same expressions ‘before’ and ‘after’ but with opposite meanings. qedham means ‘what is before’ (Ps. 139.5) therefore, ‘remote antiquity’, past. ‘ahar means ‘back’, ‘behind’, and of the time ‘after; aharith means ‘hindermost side’, and then ‘end of an age’, future… (p. 149)

This is bewildering, and not just because the Borman’s writing is hard to parse.“we also sometimes switch the direction of future and past.”

He continues on to note that we modern Westerners also sometimes switch the direction of future and past. In particular, when we “appreciate time as the transcendental design of history,” we

think of ourselves as living men who are on a journey from the cradle to the grave and who stand in living association with humanity which is also journeying ceaselessly forward. . Then the generation of the past are our progenitors, at least our forebears, who have existed before us because they have gone on before us, and we follow after then. In that case we call the past foretime. According to this mode of thinking, the future generation are our descendants, at least our successors, who therefore come after us. (p. 149. Emphasis in the original.)

Yes, I find this incredibly difficult to wrap my brain around. I think the trick is the ambiguity of “before us.” The future lies before us, but our forebears were also before us.

Borman tries to encapsulate our contradictory ways of thinking about the future as follows: “the future lies before us but comes after us.” The problem in understanding this is that we hear “before us” as “ahead of us.” The word “before” means “ahead” when it comes to space.


Borman’s explanation of the ancient Hebrew way of thinking is related to Knox’s explanation of the Greek idiom:

From the psychological viewpoint it is absurd to say that we have the future before us and the past behind us, as though the future were visible to us and the past occluded. “…as though the future were visible to us and the past occluded. Quite the reverse is true.”Quite the reverse is true. What our forebears have accomplished lies before us as their completed works; the house we see, the meadows and fields, the cultural and political system are congealed expressions of the deeds of our fathers. The same is true of everything they have done, lived, or suffered; it lies before us as completed facts… The present and the future are, on the contrary still in the process of coming and becoming. (p. 150)

The nature of becoming is different for the Greeks and Hebrews, so the darkness of the future has different meanings. But both result in the future lying behind us.

One Response to “The future behind us”

  1. So basically we’re walking backwards…

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