One pattern of thinking is that everything was better back in the Good Old Days — a point in time that continually shifts according to the perspective of the observer. For much of Europe’s history, it was the Garden of Eden; a modern American might put it in the 1950s. Whenever it was, it was better that now, and we are continually falling from that idyll.
Another pattern is the gospel of progress. We’re getting better all the time. We’re continually climbing from the pit of our unenlightened past, improving on what went before, heading for the stars. Tomorrow will be brighter than yesterday was, and the day after that, brighter still.
The former is more or less a conservative paradigm; the latter is a liberal one (or perhaps it would be better to say progressive.) Taken in their pure form, both are lies.
Because human history isn’t linear. It squiggles and loops and goes in three directions at once. There was a fluorescence of female intellectualism in eighteenth-century London that withered in the nineteenth, but less than we have now; New Kingdom Egyptian metallurgy and sculpture made medieval Europeans look like enthusiastic but not terribly bright seven-year-olds, but their realism doesn’t match Michaelangelo; Minoans had better plumbing than Renaissance Italy, but no hot showers. And the problem is that buying into either lie blinds you to important things: the injustices hidden beneath the happy mask of Leave It to Beaver, the risk of those injustices coming back again in the future. Or new ones. It isn’t just two steps forward, one step back — maybe five steps back and three to the side and then do a backflip and end up facing a different direction entirely.
And yet it’s so tempting. It’s a lot easier to hold onto the notion of a line than an n-dimensional Gordian Knot with multiple strings whose number changes every time you look at them.
I know that I tend toward the liberal pattern of thinking. There’s a lot of truth in it, especially if you pick a certain set of strings and decide those are how you’re going to measure progress. Of course, there’s truth in the conservative pattern, too — especially if you pick different strings. But the more I read of history, the more it all dissolves. (Of course this post is brought to you by my research. I figure the eighteenth-century intellectuals gave it away, if nothing else.) History is really damn complicated, and it really is going in all directions at once. And no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to keep all its twists in my head, never be able to grasp the whole of it.
But I can think about which strings I’m picking, and which ones the person I’m reading has picked. And I can try not to make my own patterns too neat.