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