Appealing to the Past: A Clarification

In my thoughts I usually end up appealing to the superiority of the past in some ways. I want to be clear that this isn’t because I think that any age of the past was in any way perfect or didn’t have its own problems or even that there were times and places where people generally much worse or much worse off than we generally are today. I don’t idolize the past.

However, though every age of history has had its problems, they generally don’t have the same problems. If a problem exists in one age and not in another, then a good way of identifying how to solve that problem is to ask what changed between one and the other. Late twentieth century America does not have a malaria problem; late nineteenth century America did. What changed was that DDT was invented in between those two ages.

Now, the fact is many of our problems today did not exist, or not to the same extent, in most past ages. I think it’s therefore useful to ask what changed to create or exacerbate that problem. That points to how it might be able to be solved.

Well, that, and we don’t exactly have a lack of voices talking about the sins of the past and the improvements of the present: it’s one of the basic assumptions of modern culture. Thus I think the danger of dismissing the past unfairly or taking the present too much for granted is much greater than the danger of idolizing any past ages.

In short, I simply find it more profitable, as well as more interesting, to focus on the advantages of the past relative to the present.


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