The past regained?

The idea that change as such is good, and resistance to change ignorant, weak, fearful, self-centered, and at least mildly pathological, goes with the view that the past is a mass of bigotry and oppression redeemed only by its foreshadowing of the here-and-now. There are obvious problems with such views:

  • If our past is good only to the extent it points to advanced liberal modernity, why should the past or present of other peoples be better? Doesn’t advanced liberal modernity—which includes what is called postmodernity—display in an extreme form the self-centered imperialism of which it accuses preceding views?
  • If people have always made a complete mess of things, why should that change? Supposedly “we” have everything figured out now. If so, who are the “we” and why should they be believed? Have “experts” been so unreservedly successful in dealing with human life that I should put myself totally in their hands? Why should I trust “expertise” any more than any other claim of irresponsible power?

Such objections won’t carry much weight with most people unless they’re backed by facts. How does the present compare with the past? How did pushing for change or opposing it contribute to making things better or worse? And what sorts of changes turned out one way or the other?

Those are vast questions, and they’re made harder by the circumstance that neither the past nor many aspects of the present are immediately available to us. That makes them mostly the domain of experts. Unfortunately, expertise is a social institution that claims social and even political power, so the experts aren’t disinterested. Regardless of the care and integrity many of them display (others of them display nothing of the kind) professional and institutional biases do matter, especially in the development of overall consensus views and in popularizations. The message of the history taught in the schools, for example, is that we should accept what the social groups and institutions now dominant tell us to accept. PC and multiculturalism mean rule by managers and experts, so the school curricula experts and managers put together tell children PC and multiculturalism are good.

You’ve got to start somewhere, so I’m inclined here at Turnabout to supplement my complaints about the present with random comments about how the past was better than people let on these days. The point is not that nothing was bad back then, but that the evils were not so bad, nor the glories of the present so good, that the past becomes radically inferior to the present and thus something to be ashamed of and do away with in every way possible. Life at all times is a complex mass of things, and the modern idea that it can be radically simplified, transformed and improved is a destructive illusion.

A comment to start with: it’s thought that toleration of slavery within Christendom is a terrible black mark against Christianity, and that supposed changes in Catholic doctrine on slavery justify attempts to purge doctrine of “oppressive” features like Christian sexual morality. On the question of changes in doctrine, read this account of historical Catholic views of slavery. The changes have not been nearly so great as advertised. It does seem—from the Bible as well as from history—that Christianity does not immediately forbid slavery simply as such. But slavery simply as such is only a legal institution that subjects one man to the rule of another without his consent. Its specifics have varied a great deal, especially as a practical matter. In Muslim countries, for example, slaves have sometimes ruled entire societies, because in the absence of public life they were the only men whose loyalty could be to the state and thus to something vaguely approximating the public interest. In antiquity enslavement of a conquered army might often have been the practical alternative to killing them all, and slaves were often included in an extended conception of family. Why then is slavery simply as such supposed to be such a supreme horror—why is the individual will supposed to be such a supreme standard—that no consideration could justify cooperation with such an institution, and any society that includes it and any way of thinking that compromises with it is immediately and totally discredited? Does such a view of slavery show increased moral insight, or is it a side-effect of the moral deterioration that makes self-ownership the one ultimate principle of morality?

3 thoughts on “The past regained?”

  1. “I’m inclined here at
    “I’m inclined here at Turnabout to supplement my complaints about the present with random comments about how the past was better than people let on these days.”

    Good. I like that idea.

    We are wealthier today than in the past. The claim is made in The Republic that ‘wealth affords a good man the luxury to be good.’ That is true for us today, I think. But we moderns like to think that our goodness is more than just riches. Of that I am skeptical.


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