The Ethics of Nostalgia

Similar to the ethics of regret, what occurs in nostalgia appears, initially, to be no different. A human being contemplates a particular thought (or a set of thoughts)—which occurred in the past—and enters a sentimental state of longing for it. The human being may spend minutes or hours thinking about the particular thought. At some point, the philosopher in us asks the question: what’s the point of reminiscing about the past?

For some of us, thinking about the past serves as an escape mechanism. You are presently in a not-so-good state, and so you attempt to escape the present by reminiscing about the (better) past. You leave your depression behind, so to speak.

But then there are some of us—myself included?—who do not feel that way about nostalgia. I walk away, often times it seems, more depressed. “God,” I think to myself, “If only I were able to go back in time. Scoop up the past like a heap of ice-cream and savor it. Just one more time.” But you realize that such an event is highly unlikely. No amount of contemplation brings you a millimeter closer to the past. You dwell in bittersweet waters. You contemplate the past—wade in deep nostalgia—to be fully cognizant of the fact that the past is past.

Despite the depressing notion that nostalgia serves no real function (that is, it does not really take you back to the past), nostalgia does serve some function: it makes us aware of who we are, who we’d like to be, and where we would like to go. In reminiscing about a friend, for example, you realize that that particular friend is whom you miss dearly. Such nostalgia stimulates activity, ethical activity. You pick up the phone and call the friend. You write a letter, hoping to hear back. You spend some time looking for the particular friend. Everything you do in the present is intimately tied to the past. In a state of nostalgia, the past is absolutely determining the present (and, possibly, the future). Nostalgia causes one to rethink the point of one’s life. Nostalgia is a state in which an existentialist perpetually finds oneself. The existential thinker is always concerned with his own being. The existentialist is always concerned with the meaning of existence. And nostalgia fosters meaning. It helps us reevaluate where we want our lives to go. It allows us to recalibrate our actions. Nostalgia gives us a second chance at life. It speaks directly to us—for the past is where we have all come from. Nostalgia gives us the experience of the past in order to better our future. Blessed are those who wade in nostalgia, for they shall inherit a better future.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Nostalgia

  1. I published this on my now inactivated blog. Thought it was relevant to this thread.

    Would Paladin Have Shot Bin Laden?

    December 15, 2011

    The question is rhetorical, as it would be if posed about Matt Dillon, Lucas McCain, or any other hero of the old TV westerns. Running through those post-WWII morality plays were common themes of courage and decency, a manly code of honor. Only bounty hunters, always depicted as a despicable breed, played it safe and deliberately brought ‘em back dead instead of alive. Real men, the heroes that boys of that era (like me) looked up to, wanted to grow up to be like, risked their lives to capture the bad guys, no matter how vicious and dangerous. And once captured, the bad guys were to be brought in to stand trial, even if that meant you had to stand up to a crowd of otherwise law-abiding citizens itching to stretch a rope.

    No matter how mythological this Old West code of honor may have been, it reflected an ideal of American society that survived into the 1970’s, a value system internalized by members of a generation who later fought for civil rights and refused to fight an unjust war. As has been noted, the best part of the counterculture, the idealism as opposed to the hedonism, judged America by American values and found it wanting. Watch again those old westerns and what do you see when Native Americans, Blacks, Mexicans, or other miscellaneous “foreigners” appear as characters? Generally, they are virtuous and deserving of respect. Often, they are noble victims of small town white American ignorance and bigotry.

    The Navy Seals who shot an unarmed man in the face in front of his family, rather than capture him so that he could face trial, did not grow up with Paladin, Matt Dillon, and Lucas McCain. A more militant code of honor had become popular, with a coarser kind of courage. While willingness to risk your life was still admired, only a fool failed to maximize his odds and seek every advantage. Overwhelming force was always to be preferred. And if decency might increase the possibility of defeat, then you chose to win ugly. The new hero was no longer the man of principle who hated violence and used it only as a last resort. No, the new hero was a fierce warrior who gloried in being “a lean, mean fighting machine.”

    As a man moves into his autumn years, it is natural for him to become nostalgic, to remember what seem to have been better days and lament what has been lost. Thus I find myself sitting on the couch, watching reruns of the westerns of my boyhood. Inside, little has changed. I still see men that I aspire to be like, living by a code of honor that continues to call to me. But outside, much has changed. The ideals and myths of manhood that a boy takes into his heart and hopes someday to embody have been altered to the point that I feel like “a stranger in a strange land.” It makes me less regretful that the leaves are falling and the cold wind has begun to blow. As necessary as they may be, as hard as it is to become one, I want no part of a Navy Seal-worshipping world, celebrating assassinations.

    So when I cash in my chips, they will not have to pry a gun from my cold, dead hand. In my day, there were other ways to fight the bad guys. But they will have to pry a remote.

  2. Thank you for your kind words. My blog went into suspended animation because of some health issues. But I’m about to retire from law practice and will have the time (and, I hope, the health) to bring it back. Until then, and thereafter, I will continue to read and occasionally comment on the insightful, provocative entries you are dauntlessly putting, as they say, “out there.” By your picture and bio, it would seem that we’re bookends in the journey of life, joined together at least by one significant link: I, like you, (I assume) have read virtually all of Kierkegaard and was his “disciple” for most of my life. I eventually parted ways, at least somewhat (sort of like he did with Regina, or is it Regine), due to his strict Christian orthodoxy, which he used, ironical guy that he was, to cut apart the state church of his day. Before I went to law school, I graduated from seminary, and it was Soren, more than anything else, that kept me from getting a church position and making a comfortable living on the gospel.

    • newtonfinn, I wish I had read all of Kierkegaard – unfortunately, I am still reading and re-reading him. I probably won’t have read all of him until 5-10 years from now. That’s a long time, but I have a short attention span and read several books at a time (science, religion, philosophy, history, etc.). S. K. is certainly worth the effort, however.

      It’s funny how Soren keeps people OUT of church. Oh boy. Kierkegaard, as you know, did not want to have any disciples. But things didn’t go as planned. Interesting that you went into law instead of theology. One of my theology professors, Jerry Sittser (from Whitworth University), used to say that theology majors (I was one) do well in theology, law, or philosophy. You confirm his beliefs.

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