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In his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx commented that "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." In this famous remark, as in so many other ways, Marx expressed with a unique stylistic genius the spirit of our age, which regards every impediment to its restless acceleration as a barrier to be overcome—as a dead weight that must be cast off if the two great reigning ideals of our time, the ideals of freedom and speed, are to be honored in the way they demand. To many today the past is a dead weight of this kind, a vast repository of error and prejudice, of silliness and superstition, a realm of moral and material backwardness whose only continuing utility for us is as a reminder of how brutal and stupid people can be. Those who see the past in this way, of course, are understandably eager to forget it, or to condemn it. They are anxious to move on to the future where life will be freer, and pleasures will come faster than ever before. But there is another and more positive way of conceiving the weight of the past. The past, it might be said, holds us in the human world in the same way that gravity holds us on the earth. Gravity is a burden. It makes life on earth heavy and hard. But without it we would all fly away into space. We would be separate spinning atoms, homeless in the void. In a similar way, the past grounds us in the human world of ideas and institutions, and it gives our lives a density and a depth that neither the present, which is transitory, nor the future, which is blank, can ever provide.

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