I once had the idea of producing a short anthology comprised entirely of the beginning sentences of well-known novels. Some of the great writers are able, in their opening sentences, to give a sort of omen or portent of what is to come.
Consider, for instance, Melville’s Moby Dick, whose opening sentence is a bare three words: “Call me Ishmael”. We know, instantly, that this will be a book which includes some sort of biblical theme and will have some deeper meaning than the general storyline indicates. Or, an even more famous example from the opening of Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …”
But, for the age in which we now live, I think that the opening of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, sums up our situation precisely: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.
Hartley was, of course, referring to the reminiscences of a single person, but his short aphorism stands as a perfect summation of our own times. No other period in history has so dismissed the past as has our own. It is true that during the heady years of the Renaissance and the so-called Enlightenment that followed later, the whole medieval period was not just ignored but actively condemned. But even here, the history of ancient Greece and Rome was greatly admired and actively studied.
I do not suggest that history is no longer studied at schools and universities or that we are uninterested in history. On the contrary, we now have a television channel called The History Channel and there is a huge interest in genealogy.
No, the past is a foreign country to us because we can only examine it through a very narrow lens or, more precisely, two narrow lenses: the idea of progress and the idea of popular evolutionism. We imagine that all past eras are merely a sort of lead-up to our own and this, in turn, leads us to suppose that we are more civilised, more “advanced” and more peace loving than our ancestors.
By way of example, in 2011, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker produced a very popular book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker argued that the last century was probably the most peaceful in history, with proportionally fewer deaths to warfare and violence than any previous period. In short, we are becoming more peaceful.
There were a few dissenters when the book appeared, but, by and large, it was enthusiastically received and was shortlisted for major awards. Both liberals and conservatives applauded it. Indeed, such was the enthusiasm that the University of Edinburgh, in 2013, asked Pinker to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures on that very topic.
Such is Pinker’s conviction that our own era presents “a shockingly happy picture”, that he is able to dismiss (via statistical sleight of hand) the Great War (estimated 15 million killed), Stalin’s rule of terror (estimated 20 million), World War II (estimated 55 million), Mao’s regime in China (estimated 40 million), and so on. I could fill at least another page with the atrocities of the 20th century. You will note too, that I have left out the appalling carnage of unborn infants in more recent times – something conveniently overlooked by Pinker.
But, such is the nature of our view of the past that all this is as nothing compared with medieval witch burnings, the Wars of Religion, and so on. Here, the actual numbers involved pale into insignificance when compared with the barbarities of the 20th century. Even the Black Death, where estimates of 75 to 200 million deaths are sometimes given, could probably not measure up to the killings of the 20th century and it, remember, was not the result of “man’s inhumanity to man”, but the result of a disease agent.
Moreover, I wonder if Pinker’s supporters ever stop to consider the psychological situation of humanity today and not just the material circumstances of modern life. Are people “shockingly happy”? I think not. A large proportion of the population takes anti-depressant drugs and suicide rates are alarmingly high.
Of course, when you put this situation to them, they reply by saying that “if our ancestors had access to anti-depressants they would have taken them” or “of course suicide rates were low back then, because people were scared of eternal damnation in hell if they took their own life”. In short, no argument will convince them to change their attitude to the past.
Our problem can be more simply stated. When we now delve into some book of ancient history and read there of wars, of horrific crimes, of slavery, of rape and pillage, we immediately project our own situation back to those times. We particularly bring to the interpretation of the past our own modern view of human freedom. But, for the ancients, their notion of freedom was quite different from ours. In other words, we have lost the ability to immerse ourselves in the past without bringing along a great deal of modern baggage.
We forget, too that the very reasons that ancient historians recorded terrible events was because they thought them horrific too. Anyone who has read Homer’s Iliad with even an ounce of attention will note just how the horror of each death on the battlefield is conveyed to the reader. Each of the slain, Homer reminds us, had a mother, or wife, or daughter, and so on. Even the very spirits of nature – the Nereids of the sea – are drawn in to the lamentation and grieving.
And yet, American writer and evolutionist Jonathan Gottschall can dismiss the Iliad as little more than “a drama of naked apes – strutting, preening, fighting, and bellowing their power in fierce competition for social dominance, beautiful women and material resources” (The Rape of Troy, 2008).
The very best historians of the past are always those who can immerse themselves in their era of study as if they were part of that civilisation under study, not onlookers. This is why C.S. Lewis is such a good historian of medieval literature and why Helen Waddell can give us such an absorbing account of the early Desert Fathers.
For the average lay person though, perhaps the best way to come to some understanding of the past is to choose personal accounts from some distant era and try to gauge not the material circumstances of the time, but the social and psychological ones. Here, perhaps, I could make a specific recommendation.
Just off the west coast of Ireland and close to the Dingle peninsula lies a small group of islands known as the Blasket Islands. Until recent times, the largest of these was permanently inhabited, and the physical and social conditions of its inhabitants had changed little for hundreds of years – no electricity, no phones, no cars, no newspapers, and no shops.
They, like the generations before them, eked out an existence by fishing and a little agriculture. Their island was pounded by winds and storms and crashing waves. So, what were their lives like?
We are fortunate to have a first-hand account in a book by one Maurice O’Sullivan, translated from the Gaelic and titled Twenty Years a-Growing (1953). When you read this book (it has been reprinted many times and is easily found), you will instantly realise that, even though these people endured enormous hardships and dangers, they were for the most part happy and lived fulfilling lives. They sang and danced, told stories and above all else, loved their island home.
I am sure they would regard our modern, largely urbanised existence as being horrible beyond endurance. They would have a great deal of trouble trying to understand how we should choose to live as we do.
And, I confess, so do I.