Thoughts on the myth that the past is miserable

As a historian I was always stunned how people always assumed the past was miserable.  All I had to do is mention the past and people automatically talked how miserable it was.

People wouldn’t even know a thing about the past but, yet, created a miserable perception of the times in their head.  I’d ask people questions about it and very few could answer any real knowledge of the past.  But they continued to believe that the past was miserable.  Some people were so convinced that all I could do wouldn’t convince them.

Here are a few things I’d watch people do:

–   I’d sit and watched many people literally make up things in their head so it would fit this point of view.  I was astounded how much was made up.

–  People would twist things out of shape.  They took information and twisted it around so that it would fit this point of view.  Because of this, misunderstanding and confusion about things were common.

–   They exaggerated any bad, terrible, or horrific events that did take place in the past.  It wasn’t uncommon for people to use a bad event as representative of everyday life.  That would be like saying that the whole 20th century was like living in a Nazi concentration camp!

–   They underemphasize the good points of the past.  It wasn’t uncommon that I’d tell them many of the good points and happenings of the past and it’d go through one ear and out the other.  For some people, it wouldn’t even register.  Some people were like in a denial about it.

This made me mystified why this would be so, as my inquiry is that, in general, people are no more miserable centuries ago than people are nowadays.  There were bad times, thats true, but people weren’t needlessly suffering all the time everywhere.  To say that in a generalized way is ridiculous.

My inquiry of this point of view kept taking me to Britain.  A lot of this point of view originates in Britain.  As such, it reflects British point of view, British mentality, and the British historical situation.  In many ways, its a projection of British mentality upon all the world and of history.

It has many elements that led up to its final development, which appears to of been in the 1800’s.   These include:

–  The conflict created by the Norman conquest and the social/political problems it created.  This created a distinct sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’.  It also help create a great sense of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.

–  Christianity, which emphasized misery and suffering.  It, in a way, brought the idea of ‘life as miserable’ into play with such force.  It also made it a common npoint of view in everday life, as Christianity taught poverty and suffering.  As a result, it was especially emphasized and, practically, glorified.

–  The Protestant Reformation, the rise of Anglicanism, and the split with Rome.  This gave the British the sense of going on their own in their own way.  Everything now was ‘their accomplishment’.

–   The political problems created by the Protestant Reformation.  This includes all the ideas used in the English Civil War, the rise of Parliamentary power, and such.  These created “new” ideas like liberty, freedom, and democracy which are often viewed as making modern people so much better than the people of the past.

–  Science and the enlightment.  This brought all this knowledge and points of view no one else in the world had.  This helped create a strong sense that everyone else was ‘backward’ and stupid.

–  Industrialization.  This created machines and brought new abilities never seen before.  Consumer products, clothing, bridges, etc. awed many people, impressing upon them their greatness.

–  The rise of the middle classes.  This helped Britain to develop into a power and impressed it upon the minds of the people.  They also helped develop science, technology, and industrialization.

–  The rise of the British Empire in the world.   This created a very strong national pride.  It also introduced the British to other people of the world, such as primitive tribes, old cultures such as in India, etc.  These people were a marked contrast to the British.  Compared to the ‘advanced’ British they appeared almost animal like.

It seems to me that the growth of the British Empire and British industrialization during the 1800’s is what really brought this point of view together.  This was when the British empire was gaining in power and prominence in the world.  As a result of this power it seemed to bring together many different and independant aspects of British society and the British situation into one, creating more of a unified point of view.  This point of view became very representative of British identity.  As a result, it became associated with British national pride.   This no doubt helped create the definate pig headedness that is commonly seen with this point of view.

One aspect of this is that it created a strong class struggle perspective in its outlook.  People are often looked at as being ‘primitive’ (lower class) or ‘advanced’ (upper class).  The past was generally perceived as being ‘primitive’, as they were not ‘advanced’.  They did not have all the new stuff that was developed by the British (science, technology, liberty, etc.).  With this class struggle perspective, the ‘primitive’ people were looked at in a similar perspective as lower class people.  These include:

–   They were looked at as inferior.

–   They were perceived as miserable as a result.

–   They were to be despised.

This means that a lot of the perception of history, as well as the interpretation of historical events, has the influence of the British class struggle.  Because of this, it means that a lot of the interpretation of history from this point of view is distorted.

Because of the rise of learning, books, the university, public education, etc., during and after the Victorian era, this point of view has now become rampant and common place.  It’s point of view can be seen in some form somewhere in almost all the history books.  As a result, I look at a lot of historical interpretation very suspiciously and have to look at any historical interpretation with great scrutiny.

One thing that made this point of view so prevalent is that the British had all these new things that no one else had and in which made them very different from everyone else.  These included things like science, technology, industrialization, machines, democracy, etc.  These, in this mentalities point of view, made the British ‘upper class’, or above everyone.  They were modern, ‘advanced’.  This is the origin for the common belief in Britain in the Victorian era that they had gone beyond everyone else.  They had ‘progressed’, while everyone else had remained in a more backward state.   I’ve heard many references of how the world needs to ‘catch up’.  Remember that modern ‘progress’ was a result of British national pride.  Because of this, they greatly emphasized it and made it a point to express.  It created, basically, a very bigoted way at looking at things.  With this point of view, anyone not ‘progressed’ in their way was perceived as backward, therefore inferior, therefore miserable.

Some of the traits seen in this point of view:

–  They assume the past is miserable.  Accordingly, they assume modern times is great.

–  They devalue old institutions and ways.  Accordingly, they promote modern institutions and ways.  They often congratulate themselves too and bemoan how the people of the past don’t have what they have.

–  They speak of the people of the past as if they were stupid and dumb.

–  There is a lack of respect for the people of the past.

–  They looked at everything simplistically.  Hardly ever do they take all these factors and situations into account in historical events.  It’s not uncommon that a bad situation will be described as being a result of a single thing and thats it!

–  They look at things from a black/white point of view.  That is, things are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  They do not take a well rounded point of view, reflecting the variabilities of situations.  As a result, there are gross generalizations about things.  For example, if a small group of people were living off of garbage then it means everyone was living that way.

–  They often  tend to be pigheaded about it and bigoted.  They are unwilling to see any other point of view.

–  A lot of their viewpoints and opinions is really a form of self glorification.  If you read between the lines you can see that they are degrading the past so they can raise themselves higher.

Whenever I hear these themes I immediately question that point of view.  This point of view may be so dominant that I will often disregard whatever is said.  This is because once this point of view is taken it seems to permeate everything.  As a result, it ends up distorting and twisting everything out of shape.

This point of view is not a well rounded point of view.  I believe it to be a poor way at looking at the world and history.  It is too narrow minded and self glorifying.

This point of view would extend beyond Britain making great impact in other countries.  One country that was greatly impacted by this point of view is the US.  In many ways, the US took off where the British ended, and brought it into a whole new perspective.  Though there are traits of it seen in the US in the 1800’s, this point of view really didn’t seem to hit the general population of the US til after WWII.  It’s interesting that this was a period of time where the US gained great power in the world and identity, developed a stong economy, created new things, etc.  This is a situation similar to what we saw in Britain in the 1800’s . . . and yet it caused a similar response.  Like the British, the US saw itself as the great ‘advanced’ people of the world and that everyone else was trying to catch up.

This point of view even extends beyond the people of the past.  Not only are the people of the past viewed in a bad light but any ‘non-modern’ people are.  This means any people living in primitive societies, in small farming villages, in old societies (like India or China), etc.  This point of view is reflective, really, of a greater mentality that began to appear in Britain at this time.  Basically, anyone, whether from the past or in the present world, who is not like them is ‘backward’ (lower class).   As a result, they are inferior and to be despised.  Accordingly, this means that they are the greater and more ‘advanced’ people (upper class).   What happens, then, is that this point of view becomes a general bigoted and snobbish way at looking at the world.

This entry was posted in Christianity, Christian conversion, Post-Christianity, and Christian influence, Historical stuff, Modern life and society, Science and technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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