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The Lethe River and the Value of Forgetting

The Waters of Lethe, Thomas Benjamin Kennington

...the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink a certain quantity, and those who were not saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary; and each one as he drank forgot all things. Plato

The Lethe River was one of the rivers of Hades* also known as the river of oblivion. The river functioned as a mind-wipe and was either positive or negative depending on what type of soul a person had. Heroes and virtuous folk drank from lethe on their way to Elysium to be freed from the sorrows and suffering of a past life. Where as mediocre souls drank from the river Lethe as punishment so that they would not know who they were when they arrived to work, machine-like, for eternity in the Asphodel Meadows. Does this make forgetting a good or a bad thing? Wouldn't the heroes want to remember their feats of bravery and achievements even if it meant reflecting upon the hurt and difficulty of their lives? If total amnesia was great for heroes, why was it bad for regular souls? Did the heroes retain free will or some other attribute that enabled them to be fulfilled in their sojorn through the underworld?

Forgetting is generally frowned upon. We are told 'lest we forget' regarding World War I because remembering the actions of our ancestors is the right and respectful thing to do. Also, learning from the past is also a moral good in the sense that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it and cyclical mistakes are bad. The aim of life is to learn, retain and react differently as our experiences build and our capacities change. A good person builds their goodness by learning from their errors, not by forgetting their past and repeating mistakes. Punishments such as prison must be remembered to act as a deterant against future crime.

However, forgetting is encouraged when reminiscing becomes too painful or disabiling. Those in broken love affairs re-write the narrative of their relationship to bolster their ego and reconcile the outcome. Modern society encourages us to forget inductive evidence for stereotypes and concentrate on only the person we meet as an individual.

At some level the value of memory ties in with the problem of evil. The problem of evil struggles to explain why a omnibenevalent, omniscient and omnipotent God could allow suffering. One answer is to claim that suffering builds character. One might respond that building character does not demand the degree of suffering inflicted upon the average person in one lifetime. In the same way, forgetting might be valuable in the sense that it can reduce suffering, just as offered by the river Lethe for heroes and the virtuous.

* Other rivers of Hades included: Acheron (river of woe), Cocytus (river of lamentation), Phlegethon (river of fire), Styx (river of unbreakable oath or hate)


Societies, as emergence engines, readily determine that which is worth remembering: good deeds, and their other-worldly rewards; evil deeds, and their other-worldly punishments. There is no reward for remaining part of the vast unremarkable majority. It's not surprising, with evolutionary forces at work, that successful societies would be those which adopt more tools which are beneficial towards maintaining that society, than otherwise.

I also think a change comes from the shift between determining a memories worth from the social/religious origin, to the individuals perspective. For example, you write "Wouldn't the heroes want to remember their feats of bravery and achievements" - isn't it possible that from a perspective which sees the Gods as the final and total arbiters of all that is fair and balanced, as more "real" than we view, say electricity, that having a reward equal to the work performed and (double negative) pain suffered would be a fair swap for the memories of such? Voluntarily letting go of the memory of ones greatness can also be seen as a humble and moral good.

But I think that can only occur in a society where this is no ambiguity or doubt, because in a society where moral behaviour is debatable and can swing wildly across the scale in one lifetime, forgetting becomes abhorrent as documented memories become the fuel of debate and thus moral and thus social refinement.

Such societal introspection seems to be a successful evolutionary strategy for those societies capable of weighing/distributing/calculating the data they produce. Of course, not all progress is good, but it seems more successful than stagnation.

And to take it one step further - the recent explosion in societal self-documentation. Youtube didn't even exist for the 2004 US Presidential election, and blogs were rarely used as a journalistic source - contrast this with last year - there were still smears and rumours and swiftboat attempts, but overall, facts and logic were successful in this new communication-rich environment. As an example of an non-US citizen, I know I was able to persuade at least one voter to switch.. so as communication between different societies continues to grow I expect we'll see more examples of "out-sourced processing".

Without wanting to place too much faith in evolutionary theory, there's a good chance it will mutually beneficial.
I missed a step - after the majority of a society stop believing in Gods as good/evil arbiters (low value to individual memory), and before the society is able to constructively utilise individual memories (high value), there's another stage. That is, when we have no faith in the ability of a society to preserve the memories which matter to us, that provides a motivational force for individuals to promote those ideas/memories/ideals/ideologies themselves. It's the perfect environment for fringe-groups to form as there is a lack of group intellectual capacity for those memes to survive in open competition with the rest of society.
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August 2016



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