When we look back in history, it can seem self-evident that previous generations were poorer in almost every way imaginable. To us, they had fewer material resources, a benighted mindset, poorer social structures, rudimentary health systems and a throwaway attitude towards human life. Yet, such a way of looking at the past may be deeply biased.
It may well be an illusion to think of our times as objectively “better” than in the past. Instead, we might only be considering how the past complies with the current zeitgeist. The further back in time we go, the less familiar things become. If we were to apply a percentage to how things comply with the present, then starting at 100% (now), we see this percentage reducing the further back in time we went.
No matter what period people are born into, it’s likely that they would apply the same bias. Whether they lived in the 1920’s, or the Middle Ages, or during the Roman Empire, they would always start at 100%. Their sense of the past would be framed completely by their present, possibly making them believe they were living in the most perfect of ages, irrespective of how bad these same ages might seem to us now.
Such an outlook means we must look at history not as objectively imperfect, but rather relatively different compared to the world we live in today. In the values we measure highly today, the past is unlikely to match up well. However, other measures, of lesser importance to us today, might have been deeply prized in another time. Where a time in the past is 100 – X percent like this world, this missing X becomes hugely interesting. It defines something that we would struggle to appreciate now, but nevertheless would have been crucial to the lives of people of those times, and vitally important if we wish to properly understand historical contexts.
Examples of that missing X could be music, folklore, poetry, humour or religious practice, all now lost to the sands of time. It could be skills and handiwork, no longer practised. It could be the toys and games played, the foods and the sports, of which we know little. All of this possibly lead to lives worth living for those times. When we hear older people bemoaning how older times were better, perhaps we hear echoes of this missing X.
The missing X applies not just to time, but to space too. Foreign cultures may not be poorer to our minds, as they are different. To understand it properly would require living there. To make a spot assumption that our culture is somehow better (or for them to assume it for themselves) is dangerous territory indeed.
All this is not to say that the values of our time are worthless and immaterial. Issues such as feminism, LGBT rights, racism, slavery, child-cruelty, empiricism, medicine and science have made this world a better place and, I would argue, objectively so. However we still need to be mindful of a creeping bias that turns the past into a caricature of itself. Making this mistake blinds us to what might really have been going on. At best, it leads to an imperfect view of our past. At worst, it deepens prejudice and intolerance.