Historicizing History/Contextualizing Context

We take the idea of anachronism—the awareness of the difference between past and present—for granted as a commonsense principle, yet this idea has a history with a point of origin, before which the past did not exist as a conceptual entity. Ancient historians—such as Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, and Tacitus—did not differentiate systematically between past and present. Although a sense of difference began to germinate in the work of Christian writers like Augustine, Gregory of Tours, and Bede, they nonetheless conceived of past, present, and future as coexisting in the omnipresence of God’s mind. Following Petrarch's lead, Renaissance humanists began to disentangle these temporal states in their desire to resurrect classical culture, creating a "living past" of vital importance to the present. In the French Enlightenment, this temporal amalgam gave way to a sense of temporal difference, when Montesquieu—under the influence of Descartes and Malebranche—adopted a relational viewpoint that sought to compare historical entities, situating each in its own distinctive context. In the wake of Herder’s historicism, this contextualizing impulse subsequently became historicized, yielding our modern conception of the past as a distinctive space lying "back there" in time.