Closing Thoughts

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
Ecclesiastes 7:10

I’m going to close my thoughts on declinism (mercifully, as I know most of you aren’t as interested in it as I am) with a few interesting observations others have made about it across the centuries.

“There are few suppositions which have passed more currently in the world than this, that the former days were better than these. It is generally supposed that we now live in the dregs of time, when the world is, as it were, grown old; and, consequently, that everything therein is in a declining state….

Is it not the common practice of old men to praise the past and condemn the present time? And so it will be, till we, in our turn, grow peevish, fretful, discontented, and full of melancholy complaints, ‘How wicked the world is grown! How much better it was when we were young, in the golden days that we can remember!’…

But let us endeavour, without prejudice or prepossession, to take a view of the whole affair. And, upon cool and impartial consideration, it will appear that the former days were not better than these; yea, on the contrary, that these are, in many respects, beyond comparison better than them.”
John Wesley, 1787

“We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who say society has reached a turning point – that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason. … On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1830

All men are possible heroes: every age,
Heroic in proportions, double-faced,
Looks backward and before, expects a morn
And claims an epos.
Ay, but every age
Appears to souls who live in it
Most unheroic. Ours, for instance, ours!
The thinkers scout it, and the poets abound
Who scorn to touch it with a finger-tip:
A pewter age, mixed metal, silver-washed;
An age of scum, spooned off the richer past;
An age of patches for old gabardines;
An age of mere transition, meaning nought,
Except that what succeeds must shame it quite,
If God please. That’s wrong thinking, to my mind,
And wrong thoughts make poor poems.
Every age,
Through being beheld too close, is ill-discerned
By those who have not lived past it.
***
‘Tis even thus
With times we live in, evermore too great
To be apprehended near.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from “Aurora Lee” (1856)

“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening — on a lucky day — without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).”
Barbara Tuchman, 1978

“It’s easy to focus on the idiocies of the present and forget those of the past. But a century ago our greatest writers extolled the beauty and holiness of war. Heroes like Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson avowed racist beliefs that today would make people’s flesh crawl. Women were barred from juries in rape trials because supposedly they would be embarrassed by the testimony. Homosexuality was a felony. At various times, contraception, anesthesia, vaccination, life insurance and blood transfusion were considered immoral.”
Steven Pinker, 2011

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12 comments on “Closing Thoughts

  1. Laurie Graves says:

    Hear, hear! I am as interested in this topic as you are, so you could never post too much for my taste. The only qualifier I would add is that despite the very real gains we have made, there are large problems to face—climate change especially comes to mind. To paraphrase the English writer J.B. Priestly, while we should never aim for utopias, we should always strive for improvements. I suppose it is a tricky thing to strive for improvements while at the same time remaining clear-eyed about the past.

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    • Bill says:

      Maybe the human tendency to fear the future and romanticize the past contributes to our progress. If despite progress we still focus on the remaining negatives, maybe that helps motivate us to address them. How’s that for finding something positive about declinism? 🙂

      We do face environmental challenges. I worry also about the future of the working class in our “new economy” and about our debt and over-consumption. I hope that it a few years we’ll have moved on to new things to worry about, and that we don’t even remember how we used to worry about the things that trouble us now. By then we’ll be insisting that everything was MUCH better back in the twenty-teens. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, for me past good old days were during the growing up years when I didn’t have to think about mortgages and car repair. I didn’t have to think about buying clothes and food. I didn’t have to think about right and wrong because my parents made sure I knew what was right and what was wrong. I toddled off to college at age 19 for two years but was still tied to my parents’ bank account. I came of age at 21 when I was married and drafted into the military all within a year. I bought a new car just before being drafted and put it in storage during the two years of military service. Life was good in my assigned position in Germany for 18 months. There again taken care of by my Uncle Sam. My wife was allowed to be with me in Germany. After 18 months in Germany, the trip home involved extra things. A son was born in Germany, a daughter was on the way, a new Volkswagen bug was purchased and life was good. Life hit me about age 25 when no one was taking care of me except me. Yeah, two car loans, mortgage for a house, and family to provide for. Yes, I did yearn for the good old days when responsibilities were nonexistent and life was free and easy. Some time we get a mythical idea that life was grand for parents and grand parents because they didn’t have to deal with our life issue. Every generation has different life issues that make us yearn for the good old days. 🙂

    Have a great closing thoughts day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      If only I’d known how great those days were. But I stressed and worried over the things that teenagers and young adults always seem to worry about–relationships, school, my inadequacies, my ambitions, etc. I remember that I thought life would be so much less stressful once I was out in the real world and had a job. Little did I know…

      I’ve appreciated your thoughtful comments on these three posts. I know they’re not the kinds of things people come here expecting to read.

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  3. avwalters says:

    While I generally believe that, given the options, our better selves will present, I’m no optimist about the dark side of human nature. The problem is that we have become so damned efficient in the devastation we can commit. And pitted against the dark forces of profit, and the lack of any sense of future or conscience in the “corporate person, I fear we are playing an ugly game of brinksmanship with the planet. The shame of it is that the evil is done for no good purpose or outcome and is so brazenly selfish of the few against the many.

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    • Bill says:

      I hear ya and that is a perfectly reasonable point of view. I’ve just come to believe that “arc of history” is upward and I’m encouraged that we’ve so often managed to learn from our mistakes. Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future returns.

      I like this from Dr. King “I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.” And yes, I do know what happened to him. But the world is a much better place because people like him could foresee a better world and they didn’t surrender to despair.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Scott says:

    I sure try not to pine for the past (I don’t have much of a habit for that anyway) Another thing, though…. I try not to look too forward to the future either. If all I do is say I can’t wait til… and won’t it be great when… then I miss out on all the here and now. Everything isn’t always wonderful, but I make a conscious choice to be in a good mood and smile at the day (most of the time.). I’m not going to get any do-overs, huh? (I would be lying though if I said I wasn’t looking forward to my house being under roof.)
    I don’t think you were saying to look forward to the future since it’ll be much better than today, but I thought it a pertinent point.
    Enjoy, Bill. (are you getting back to daily posting? 😉

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    • Bill says:

      I don’t have a regular posting schedule anymore. There have been several in a row because the last 3 were originally one post. Because that would have made it ridiculously long I broke it into three and put them out three days in a row.

      I used to spend way too much time looking forward to the future. I’m over that now, even though I need to get better about slowing down and enjoying the present. I’m optimistic about the future but not in the sense that I expect my personal future to be better–I realize I’ve got it very good right now. My optimism is most for the people of the world who are struggling with things that poverty, disease and violence that I hope and expect will be defeated in the future. We’ll see. If the next 20 years bring as much progress as the last 20 then it’s going to be an exciting thing to witness.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Tuchman has always been one of my favorite authors, Bill. Her ability to make history sing is phenomenal. I remember my dad, when he reached my present age, quite convinced that the world was ‘going to hell in a hand basket.’ I reminded him that he had lived through the first world war, the Great Depression, the second world war, McCarthyism and threat of nuclear annihilation. –Curt

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    • Bill says:

      I’m re-reading The Guns of August now. She is a very gifted narrative historian. The quote in the post comes from A Distant Mirror, which I’d like to read again as well. I loaned my copy to a friend years ago and never got it back. That risk is one of the reasons I don’t like loaning books. 🙂

      My mother thinks the world is going down the drain too, despite the fact that she and her descendants are living lives better than she could have possibly imagined in her childhood. As I’ve been saying, it’s just human nature that we think that way.

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