Our growing unwillingness to understand the past

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

I was recently reading the works of the 17th-century antiquary John Aubrey, who at one point mentions a ghost craze that had broken out in Cirencester. The ‘apparition’ was reported to have disappeared with ‘a curious perfume and most melodious twang’. Reading this I unconsciously got ready for a man as wise as Aubrey to pooh-pooh the whole thing, pouring scorn on such superstition. But no; while Aubrey does indeed have a correction, it comes via his friend — one Mr W. Lilly — who ventures that the common view is wrong, for he ‘believes it was a fairy’.

One of the most familiar joys of reading is the moment of recognition, when a hand seems to reach out across the centuries and a voice seems to say: ‘I was there too.’ But an equal shiver of pleasure can come from reminders that people in the past were different. It is a point that the movies can almost never bring themselves to understand. In films today almost all characters from the past think, talk and act as we do. It doesn’t matter whether it is ancient Egypt, 18th-century England or the interwar period (like this year’s BBC version of The Pursuit of Love). The makers don’t realise that people in the past weren’t the same as us. Of course they had the same immutable human passions and flaws. But their preconceptions, preoccupations and priorities were often wholly different. Not least because they didn’t know what we now know.

And therein lies a great temptation for all of us in the present time. We know that today a man of Aubrey’s learning would not have speculated on whether the apparition in Cirencester was a sprite. He would have understood that there are no such things. But from such realisations can come an unsuitable pride. It is one reason why our age has such a presumptuous desire to make judgments over everyone in the past. Since they did not know what we know, we have an inbuilt tendency to assume that this must mean we are somehow better than them.

The most obvious example is that every-one now knows which side they would have been on during the second world war. In large part because we know how history went. Yet history is less clear as you are living through it. If say, you were a Dutchman in the 1940s, you had no damn idea how long the present order was going to last or even if it would ever end.

The fact that we seem to have a growing unwillingness to understand the past is demonstrated all around us. Just last month New York City Hall removed a statue of Thomas Jefferson, because (in the words of one council member) the Founding Father ‘doesn’t represent our contemporary values’. Leave aside what those surefire ‘contemporary values’ might be. How can a country behave like this towards one of its founding geniuses? How could Thomas Jefferson, after 187 years, get crated up and wheeled out through the back door of the New York council chamber? Only because today we know that owning slaves is wrong and think that this should have been obvious. Even though most people in recorded history did not. But I cannot help fearing that out the back door with Jefferson goes the possibility of understanding why people in history didn’t think like us.

This bothers me more and more. I mind the historical presumption. Because if there’s one thing the past couple of years have given me, it’s a little taster of how people in history must have felt.

The coronavirus is minuscule by the standards of historical challenges. It is not the American war of independence. It is not the second world war. It is not even equivalent to the Spanish flu of a century ago. But still our ability to see more than a couple of inches in front of our faces remains humblingly limited.

At the beginning of the crisis we feared it might be an ebola-like thing. A few people said it wasn’t, but it seemed too early to tell, and those of us not trained in understanding pandemics held back for fear of the bodycount that might yet come. People talked about civil liberties being curtailed, but many more — as the polls showed — were more concerned about safety than liberty.

In the US there were those who lamented the direction this would go in. But in our own country, and much of Europe, we went along with a set of new rules and social changes that seemed implausible until the very moment they occurred. People said we would not have forced vaccinations, and then countries like Austria and Germany made sure that life became effectively unlivable for people who had not agreed to be jabbed. Down the line from there, in places like Singapore, the Covid emergency has allowed the state to go full surveillance on its citizens. TraceTogether is the mandatory app that everybody there must have on their phones, while keeping these phones on them at all times.

When I hear of such places, or witness some of the scenes that have come out of the Covid detention facilities in Australia, I worry whether my most lunatically paranoid friends are correct. Maybe a right once given up is never returned. Maybe the British government really will keep telling us of every new variant of this wretched virus and each time subject us to further lockdowns. Perhaps there will be variants that we should ignore and risks that we should once again acquaint ourselves with. Then again, perhaps there will be one variant about which we regret taking that view. I don’t know. I know what level of risk I am happy to take. But that level is different even from some of my closest family and friends.

All of which is to say that this seems a strange time to be so unkind towards people in history. Better to try to learn, understand and be kindly towards them. Remembering that, like us, when they were alive they didn’t have much of a clue what was going on either.

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