What On Earth Were They Thinking?

How often have you heard somebody question people who lived “back then,” in the swirling historical mist, who somehow just didn’t have the knowledge, the nuance, or the capability that we so proudly wield today?

“Things back then were just a lot more simple.”

“They just weren’t as developed back then as we are today.”

“Society back then was a lot less informed than we are today.”

It’s difficult to even confront such statements out of their context, but where I’ve had all three of these spoken to me in (separate) conversations, I challenged each impression as an insinuation that we’re somehow smarter than all the peoples of history, more skilled, more sophisticated, more aware, more woke (as they say, these days), that we’re, in the main, altogether better than our elders merely for having lived later than they did. These days, apparently, “we’re more evolved” – ha! 🙂  more evolved, that’s always a good one, as if back then everyone was Australopithecus while here we are jetting across the oceans, toting our iPhones, and drinking fine wines. Well, sure, maybe things have changed since back then, whenever “then” was. But, more typically I’ve found, contemporary judgments levelled upon history are borne of an unintended arrogance, a symptom of 20:20 hindsight and the self-righteous assurance that, today, we’ve finally seen the error – actually, make that the errors – of our ways.

Surely, these days, few – or any – would believe that we’re ignorant or unaccomplished or incapable, not the way someone might say of us while looking back from our future. At any given point on the historical timeline, I wonder whether a person at that point would feel as good about their era, looking back, as any person on some other point of the timeline would feel, also looking back, about theirs. Is it a common tendency, this judgment of contemporary superiority? These days, we might well feel superior to people who had no indoor plumbing or viral inoculations or Internet access, just as someone earlier would have appreciated, say, some technological tool, a hydraulic lift to raise heavy objects, or a set of pulleys, or a first-class lever – choose whatever you like! It really is arbitrary for a person, looking back at history, to feel better about contemporary life because contemporary life infuses all that person’s experience while history’s something that must be learnt.

I’d say that learning history means learning whatever has lasted and been passed on because what has lasted and been passed on was deemed to have merit. We’re taught the history that has been deemed worth remembering. What I’ve found has been deemed worth remembering (i.e., the kinds of things I learned from History classes) are the general mood of the times, the disputes and fights that occurred (violent or academic), a select handful of the figures involved, and an inventory of whichever non-living innovations and technologies simultaneously arose alongside it all. If, later, we demerit and no longer pass on what has lasted up until then, passing on instead some different history, then that’s entirely indicative of us, now, versus anyone who came before us, and it reflects changed but not necessarily smarter or better priorities and values.

For me, we shouldn’t be saying we’re any smarter or better, only different. So much literature has lasted, so much art. Commerce has lasted, institutions have lasted, so much has lasted. Civilization has lasted. Cleverness, ingenuity, shrewdness, wit, insight, intellect, cunning, wisdom, kindness, compassion, deceit, pretence, honesty, so many many human traits – and they all transcend generations and eras. People vary, but human nature perdures. I’ll trust the experts, far more immersed in specific historical study than me, to identify slow or subtle changes in our traits – hell, I’ll even grant we may have culturally evolved, after all – and I can only imagine in how many ways the world is different now as compared to before now. But what does it mean to be better? Better than other people? Really? And who decides, and what’s the measure?

We can measure efficiency, for instance, so to say technology has advanced and is better than before is, I think, fair. Even then, an individual will have a subjective opinion – yours, mine, anybody’s – making culture not proactive and definitive but rather reactive and variable, a reflection, the result of comprised opinions that amplify what is shared and stifle what is not. As we’re taught merited history, you’re almost forced to concur, at least until we reconsider what has merit. That’s a sticking point because everyone will have an opinion on what is culturally better and what is culturally worse. Morality inevitably differs, and suddenly we have ethical debate, even disagreement, even discord. But to say people or culture are better, I think, is too subjective to rationalize and a questionable path to tread.

Consider this as well: we each know what we’ve learned, and as individuals, we’ve each learnt what we value. But what we’re taught is what’s broadly valued and, thereby, prescribed for all. We’ve all heard that rather hackneyed epigram, that those who neglect history are doomed to repeat it. Well, maybe the ones screwing up just didn’t learn the right history to begin with. I tend to abide by another hackneyed epigram, that they are wisest who know how little they know. Real historical wisdom and real historical understanding would be seeing and thinking and understanding as people earlier did. But short of firing up the Delorean for an extended visit some place, some time, it seems to me that judgments about history are made with an aplomb that might be better aimed at acknowledging our finite limitations. We’re no angels. If anything, this error of judgment speaks volumes about us. Condescension is what it is, but in my opinion, it’s no virtue.

We should hardly be judging the past as any less able or intelligent or kind or tolerant or virtuous as us, especially not if we aim to live up to today’s woke cultural embrace of acceptance. Being different should never be something critiqued; it should be something understood. Conversely, in proportion to how much we know, passing judgment is assumptive, and we all know what Oscar Wilde had to say about assuming (at least, we know if we’ve studied that piece of history). At the very least, we ought to admit our own current assumptions, mistakes, errors, accidents, troubles, disputes, and wars before we pass any judgment on historical ones. On that positive note, I will say that considering all this prompted me to notice something maybe more constructive – so often, at least in my experience, what we seemed to study in History class were troublemaking causes and effects, bad decisions, and selfishly motivated behaviours. Far more rarely was History class ever the study of effective decision-making and constructive endeavour – maybe the odd time, but not usually. Maybe my History teachers were, themselves, stifled as products of the system that educated them. What could they do but pass it along to me and my peers? Considering that, I might more readily understand how people, alive today, could conclude that all who came before were simply not as enlightened, as sophisticated, or as adept as we are now.

Yet that merely implicates contemporary ignorance: assumptions and mistakes still happen, errors still occur, accidents – preventable or not – haven’t stopped, troubles and disputes and wars rage on. If the axiom of being doomed to repeat history were no longer valid, we wouldn’t still feel and accept its truthful description, and it would have long ago faded from meaning. All I can figure is that we’re still poor at learning from history – the collective “we,” I mean, not you in particular (in case this essay was getting too personal). We need learned people in the right positions at the right times, if we hope to prevent the mistakes of history. Not enough people, I guess, have bothered to study the branches of history with genuine interest. Or, no, maybe enough people have studied various branches of history, but they don’t remember lessons sharply enough to take them on board. Or, no no, maybe plenty of people remember history, but the circumstances they face are just different enough to tip the scale out-of-favour. Epigram time: history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. Or maybe we’re just full of ourselves, thinking that we’ve got it all solved when, evidently, we don’t.

It also dawned on me, considering all this, that high school “History” influences what many people think about broader “history.” My high school experience, university too, was mostly a study of politics and geography, and toss in what would be considered very elementary anthropology – all this as compared to those other branches of historical study. Archaeology and palaeontology come to mind as detailed, more scientific branches of history, but there are so many – literary history, philosophical history, religious, environmental, military, economic, technological, socio-cultural as I’ve already indicated, on and on they go, so many categories of human endeavour. I’ve even come across a thoughtful paper contemplating history as a kind of science, although one that is normative and susceptible to generational caprice. One final epigram: history is what gets written by the winners.

And that’s really the point here: throughout what we call human history, where we’ve subdivided it so many ways (right down to the perspective of every single person who ever bothered to contribute, if you want to break it down that far), it’s people all the way back, so it’s all biased, so it’s neither complete nor even accurate until you’ve spent oodles of time and effort creating a more composite comprehension of the available historical records. And, dear lord, who has time for that! History, in that respect, is barely conceivable in its entirety and hardly a thing to grasp so readily as to say, simply, “Back then…” History is people, and lives, and belief inscribed for all time. To know it is to know who lived it as well as who recorded it. Knowing others is empathy, and empathy is a skill trained and fuelled by curiosity and diligence, not emotion or opinion. Emotion and opinion come naturally and without effort. For me, valid history derives from informed empathy, not the other way around.

As far as recording history for future study, ultimately, it will have been people again recording and studying all of it, “it” being all of what people were doing to attract attention, and “doing” being whatever we care to remember and record. It’s all a bit cyclical, in itself, and completely biased, and someone will always be left out. So people might be forgiven when shaking their heads in judgment of the past because, without empathy, what else could they possibly know besides themselves?

3 thoughts on “What On Earth Were They Thinking?”

  1. Also interesting to think of places and times where the past seemed like the best time. My prof pointed out the incident when an English ambassador to Iran in the 19th century was asked to wear the dress of an Elizabethan. They wanted to hark back to the Safavid greatness of the 1600s. For the progress-minded Enlightenment European this seemed ridiculous. For the Iranian courtier who was asking, the mocking of your grandfather’s dress was also ridiculous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read the full article that you sent. Fascinating. Such a focus upon clothing and presentation, takes up the first 4-5 pages. The descriptions of the various relationships, all their interactions and concern, all bathed in a kind of pretense yet a personal tone, on some level, too. I love these firsthand accounts,

      The respect for the past reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Crisis in Education.” She argues in favour of the past being the best frame for young people, who will go on, themselves, to renew things as they grow older and repeat the process with their own children – “‘let you see that you’re worthy of your ancestors’,” she describes, quoting Polybius – a cool link for that guy

      The crisis, of course, is what you mention, too, the change in attitude from reverence for conservation of tradition, “the realm of the past,” she calls it, to a post-Renaissance shift in attitude for progress and the future.

      Thanks for sharing! And give the bonnie land a hug from me!

      Like

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