It is a familiar saying that the past is a foreign country. The phrase originated as part of the opening sentence of The Go-Between (1953) by L. P. Hartley. The sentence continues, “they do things differently there.”
For historians, it is a reminder of the complexity of understanding the past, even when an American is studying the history of America. Familiarity with the language, the names, and the places only enhance the illusion that the full complexity of past events is grasped by the modern story teller.
Hartley wrote the sentence, but he actually recycled an idea of Rene Descartes. In his Discourse on Method, he wrote, “To live with men of an earlier age is like travelling in foreign lands,” (quoted from R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History,(1946), p. 59). And the idea may well have been expressed earlier, whether or not Descartes knew that it had been.
The Bible says that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and it is no crime to recycle ideas, although it is good to give credit where credit is due. But in this modern world, full of marvelous technology, it is indeed humbling to consider that much of what we presume is new is actually just recycled.