Cultural Caviar

Is the Present Better Than the Past?

October 06, 2011

Multiple Pages
Is the Present Better Than the Past?

This week sees the publication of Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker explains his book here.

I got the book to review for a fortnightly conservative magazine whose name is an anagram of WIN A REVELATION. So far I’ve only read a hundred of the 800-plus pages, so it would be wrong to engage with Pinker, even if I hadn’t already contracted with someone else to do so. Here I want to mull the somewhat larger and much more ancient issue: Is the present better than the past?

The sages of Old China looked back to a golden age of heroically virtuous emperors and alleged that everything had gone to the dogs since their bountiful reigns. Subsequent historians wrote up the dynastic histories in terms of “good first” and “bad last”—that is, of a noble founder sweeping away the rotten old dynasty to establish a fresh new one, which then proceeded to rot down in its turn. Wall charts of Chinese history have the past at the top. In Mandarin, “upper week” means “last week,” while “lower week” is “next week.”

Against this is the millenarian strain, strong in Judaism and Christianity, which sets utopia in the future. Karl Marx worked up a materialist version of the idea, promising us bliss in a future of pure communism. How this ever captured the Chinese imagination, I shall leave for another time.

“Perhaps it will end just fine. We don’t know. It’s never been tried.”

This controversy was the first I ever engaged with, way back in my infancy. I heard it around the house as a constant dialectical refrain all through childhood and adolescence.

My sire was a gloomy reactionary (it travels on the Y chromosome) who loved the past, hated the present, and dreaded the future. Life, on his reckoning, was never better than during his pre-WWI childhood. England was England back then, dad would tell you on no prompting at all. Women knew how to behave, the workshy went hungry, and food had some taste. I can see dad now in my mind’s eye, holding up his hand to mark off his thumb’s top joint: “Sundays we had a ham on our plate this thick!”

My mother took the opposite line. What about little kids going barefoot to school? Old folk shunted off to the workhouse? Titled parasites living in affluent sloth while intelligent, capable men labored in poverty? Her family had been poorer and bigger than dad’s. Working as a nurse she had seen the great improvements in hygiene and public health across the 20th century’s middle decades. As a housewife, she greeted with joy every new labor-saving gadget that came on the market.

Y chromosome notwithstanding, reason tells me that my mother had the better of the argument. We are cleaner, healthier, safer, and better-looking than our forebears. (Look at their teeth.) I would lodge three qualifications, though.

First: With the gains have come losses, most notably the slipping away of trust and common understanding chronicled by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. I’ve written about this elsewhere in connection with Robert A. Heinlein’s contribution to the 1950s radio series This I Believe. Heinlein:

I believe in my neighbors…in my townspeople…in my fellow citizens.…For the one who says, “The heck with you, I’ve got mine,” there are a hundred, a thousand, who will say, “Sure, pal, sit down.” I know that despite all warnings against hitchhikers, I can step to the highway, thumb for a ride, and in a few minutes a car or a truck will stop and someone will say, “Climb in, Mack. How far you going?”

Fifty years ago hitchhiking was a normal mode of travel. Like many of my generation, I hitchhiked across Europe and back one summer college vacation. Nobody hitchhikes now. You’d have to be crazy…or if you weren’t, drivers would assume you were and drive on by.

Second: All that steady progress, from the Enlightenment to the later 20th century, was accomplished by European populations in nations where discriminatory laws and customs excluded non-Europeans from most kinds of participation. It is not known whether progress can continue in nations with large, fully engaged admixtures of non-Europeans. It might, and of course we are all supposed to believe that it will, with obloquy and ostracism heaped upon doubters; but that belief has no empirical foundation. It’s merely an act of faith.

A young friend visiting London wrote this to me in an email:

As I stood there in Waterloo Station waiting for the train, I noticed how few actual English people there were. The exact thought that went through my head was something like, “Wow, it must be bad here when it is rare to hear English spoken without a foreign accent.” As I stood there, most of the people in the station were speaking English either with some African, Indian, or Arabic accent; that is, if they were speaking English at all.

John Cleese recently recorded the same impression. I have had the same experience, in America as well as in England. It is usually followed by the thought: “This will not end well.” That may just be dad speaking to me through the Y chromosome. Perhaps it will end just fine. We don’t know. It’s never been tried. Never, before modern air travel and the modern conception of “rights,” have all the big old branches of Homo sap. mingled in such numbers under an egalitarian regime. It’s an experiment. Experiments sometimes succeed and sometimes fail.

Third: The question, “Is the present better than the past?” prompts another question—“For whom?”

Samuel Pepys’s Diary: October 20th, 1660. This morning one came to me to advise with me where to make me a window into my cellar in lieu of one which Sir W. Batten had stopped up, and going down into my cellar to look I stepped into a great heap of turds by which I found that Mr. Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which do trouble me, but I shall have it helped.

Transported back 350 years to an age when wealthy senior government officials lived over cellars heaped with ordure, you or I would suffer greatly. Just the stink would drive us mad. Pepys, however, was a cheerful and busy fellow who got much pleasure out of life. 

You have to exercise some historical imagination. There is no possibility of you or I being transported back to 1660, nor even 1960. It can’t be done. The past belonged to the people who lived in it. We know about their lives but they did not know about ours; that asymmetry vexes the argument.

I don’t have an answer to the question, “Is the present better than the past?” Perhaps there isn’t one. Or perhaps there is one, but in some other place—a place where mum and dad have quit arguing at last.


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