Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.
—Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown
In the most banal sense, something that stands the “test of time” is simply an object that has endured. This could be as simple as a matter of fact. Take the Parthenon, which has stood the “test of time” to the extent that it still quite literally stands in its original place, not only because of its material durability, but also because it was not torn down (though of course it did suffer an explosion). And though its repurposing—from temple to church, to mosque, to armory, to storage dump, to museum—could be an argument for its adaptability, its ultimate use as an icon points to something greater. Namely, that the Parthenon never stopped meaning something to someone—it gained a kind of historic and thus political and social worth, with images of the building and its decay often used as propaganda in support of Greek independence and Philhellenism just as they are used today to promote tourism.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Parthenon was demolished several centuries ago after suffering a period of neglect following the explosion. If this had happened, the building would not have stood the “test of time.” The Parthenon would have stopped meaning something to someone, and as a result, its status as an icon would have been discarded. It is through this counterfactual that we can appreciate the full rhetorical power of the expression “standing the test of time”; when an object ceases to be present, to be in demand, then it no longer merits preservation or life. But since the object of our inquiry is an ancient artifact to which we have considerable hindsight, any proclamation of its existence would seem to be rather meaningless and self-evident—and yet it is still uttered. Following from the idea that the “test of time” has more to do with public interest, we can say that it is really a test of social history, a form of idealized history wherein various activities can be classified as exemplars or ideals.
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