One sometimes hears, even from others on the conservative side of the political spectrum, that the past wasn’t really better than the present. After all, they say, look at how much we have gained through progress. Our lives are longer, our health care better, our food more plentiful and safer, the number of conveniences in our everyday lives are uncountable in their great quantity.
And, this argument typically continues, we must remember that alongside any virtues we might recognize in the past came a lot more suffering and pain.
Let’s look seriously at this argument.
First, it is not clear just how much suffering we are talking about when we discuss the past. We do not, after all, have much in the way of an empirical record of the everyday experience and psychological state of the typical member of a society in, say, the Middle Ages. Only elites in that time were literate and left written accounts of their experiences. The illiterate masses left no written accounts of their daily lives. Yet we have other evidence of their condition, and the unrelenting misery we assume was their lot appears to be an exaggeration on our part.
For example, the Inquisition left us something close to ethnographic reports of some French villages in the late 13th century, which are preserved today as a set of records called the Fournier Register. The historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie used these records to produce his magisterial book, Montaillou, which documented the history of a medieval French village of the same name. The attitude of the itinerant shepherds in the area, who were among the materially most impoverished, is described by Ladurie as “easy-going, often friendly.” He gives an account of the town’s inhabitants’ “convivial evenings … devoted to words rather than wine … The peasants … were connoisseurs of eloquence, even if they were no great orators themselves.”
There was significant respect for the rights and property of others, and a broad neighborliness as a moral baseline. Crimes of property were rare in a community where all knew all, and murder too was quite uncommon. Socializing involving music, dance, and prayer was an important part of their daily lives, and love in both its ideal and carnal forms was a constant feature of their interactions. They enjoyed midday naps, and they turned full workdays into half days whenever material necessity permitted. Ladurie speculates that “it may be that the people of Montaillou wept slightly more easily than we do, both in happiness and in sorrow.” And what is more human than tears?
Romanticization, of course, is to be avoided here. The people of Montaillou bathed infrequently, and they suffered for this unhygienic regime. They spent time mutually picking the lice off one another’s scalps and bodies. Yet even this behavior, which we might see with disgust, having never had to do it, is part of the social bond of reciprocity and exchange that linked them. Indeed, Ladurie describes it as “an ingredient of friendship … [that] impl[ied] relations of kinship or alliance.” We can see the sociality of the act still today in our primate relatives who have not yet invented soap and insect repellant.
If romanticization is a potential pitfall in my endeavor here, I respond that my opponents must take the same care with the tendency we moderns have to imagine that everyone who didn’t have a hot water shower in their home must have lived a life of intolerable suffering. It is only by historical presentism that we assume a lack of fulfillment among those of the past who lacked jet airplanes, antibiotics, and mail-in ballots (and even representative democracy!).
Peasant labor was terribly hard, it is undeniable. But the people in Ladurie’s narrative got to watch kings and queens walk the earth, and they believed those kings and queens were the elect of God. What do we have to compare to that? Watching LeBron on television score 20 points in the 4th quarter, or sitting en masse to watch Taylor Swift prance around on a stage and caterwaul in the distance?
I think they had it better.
And just what have we gained on them that is not narrowly technological? I pose this as a deadly serious question. Even what seems the most obvious advance—greater average longevity—must be properly understood. For what exactly does the average contemporary American do with the additional decades of life today? They use that time mostly to watch more vapid television and to listen to more contemporary “music” that consists of the endless repetition of the same two-note bass line and lyrics about revenge shootings and the actions of genitalia. They also play more hours of mindless video games on their phones. They drink many more sugar-filled drinks and eat much more carbohydrate-dense food, and because of this activity many of them pass the extra years they have taking many medications to keep their diabetes and the other pathologies created by their lifestyles (mostly) at bay.
On what grounds, then, do we consider such lives more fulfilled and human than those of the peasants depicted in Jean-François Millet’s painting The Angelus, who humbly pray in their potato fields the prayer that marks the conclusion of the workday? Yes, the Millet is just a painting, but Ladurie and other evidence suggests to us that it was inspired by people who really existed.
Those people of the past lived without all the technological advances we have, and yet they still built Notre-Dame and invented plainchant and designed and constructed vessels that made it all the way around the world driven by nothing but the power of the wind. Yes, we’ve been to the Moon. I do not think, however, I am the only person who finds Notre Dame and plainchant more moving inventions than a video of astronauts bouncing around on the Moon’s surface.
Even with our technological advantages, we are still outflanked on all sides by the same world that presented obstacles to our ancestors. The weather alone is a constant source of trouble to us. I was in Clearwater Beach this summer just a little over a week before a hurricane hit and flooded the restaurants and stores in which I had only just dined and shopped. Cities and many of the people living in them disappear in earthquakes in the news regularly. Much of what the natural world does to try to devour us remains largely beyond our control. Our antibiotics are, as we speak, being outmoded by microbes. Children still die of cancer, and that can reliably be expected to continue. In fact, more die of it now than did previously because of all the carcinogenic waste modernity has pumped throughout the environment. And now children die too in new ways those in the Middle Ages could not have imagined—e.g., in auto accidents, from bacteria in their mass-produced food, via insane school shooters, and by the industrial efficiency of modern medicalized abortion.
Few of us perhaps would willingly trade places with someone living without the advantage of antibiotics. But if we had lived in a world without antibiotics, we would never have known what a handy thing they are to have. Somehow, humans in the world before antibiotics developed ways to cope with the inevitability of loss—and note well, this inevitability is for them and for us. And as part of what many misunderstand as our progress, we are in the process of trying to dismantle the main institution—religion—that did that healing work for our forebears, in our foolish confidence that we have outgrown such benighted ways.