The history of writing history, or “historiography,” includes a phase that is sometimes called the Whig School of history. Historians in the late 1700s and increasingly in the 1800s assumed that things were getting better, and had been improving since the Renaissance. If you were to draw their view of humanity as a line, it started on a high note with Creation, dropped into a hole after the fruit incident, climbed some, dipped with the Flood, crept up again to Greece and Rome, dipped after AD 475 “when the barbarians kicked in Rome’s door” as one of my mentors likes to say, then inched up again. The line begins to shoot near vertically after 1815 or so. Humanity was moving upwards and on wards and things could only get better. Of course, like most things in academia, counterarguments arose, mostly from the Marxist side of the aisle once there were enough Marxist historians to become well known.
Marx himself tended toward a similar linear pattern, although he emphasized how each stage grew worse and worse until conditions triggered a revolution and a new group (the bourgeoise, then the proletariat) overthrew the old oppressors. The global economic Panic of 1873 took some wind out of the optimist’s sails, and there were always people around who firmly believed that everything had been going to Hell in a Handbasket since Adam and Eve. Sort of like the salafist strain in Islam, those who see the times of the Prophet Muhammad as the best of times, his four successors as flawed but still great (the Salafs) and then it’s been downhill ever since. Lost golden ages are popular in many societies, and among historians.
I have trouble with the gloom and doom, or the gradual grey depression school of history writing. Right now it is popular to take stories of great men and women, or good periods of history, and turn a halogen spotlight on every possible flaw and failing, then announcing that they must be replaced with [insert obscure victim-group individual] as role models. Environmental history and labor history have a tendency to do this with society overall, often using the Industrial Revolution as the Fall. Before then humans lived in greater harmony with Nature and while there were local problems, plagues and climate events kept population numbers in check. Then came mechanization, and steam power, and factory labor and mass-production and the invention of the chemical industry and DOOOOOOMMM! Impoverished masses toiling away in soot-filled hells of labor, making cheap goods for starvation wages, trapped in wage slavery and destroying their environment, blinded by the cultural hegemony and blandishments of Christianity and the factory owners.
Blargh. If you want to look around, you will find that the ancient Chinese, classical Greeks and Romans, the Mesopotamians, and others caused pretty hard-core environmental damage without any recourse to capitalism or steam-power, thank you. And people flocked to factories because they offered opportunity lacking on farms. Yes, the environmental conditions stank, like the Thames and other rivers did, but everyone knew that was not ideal and people tried to find ways to reduce pollution, because pollution was inefficient. Their initial efforts were not ideal, because technology and knowledge were both lacking at the time, but gradually progress was made.
And that’s what the anti-Whigs seem to miss. Humans have made amazing progress toward individual liberties and physical comfort over the past thousand years or so. Heck, five hundred years. Charles V, king of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, ruler of the Americas and Europe, would have given his eye-teeth for air-conditioning, easy-to-launder and plentiful clothes, the variety of food we have today, and especially antibiotics and pain-killers. Not opioids, but ibuprofen. We have light that does not leave soot behind on everything and that does not flicker when someone sighs. We have access to information through the printed word that he could not have imagined, and probably would have given at least one of his offspring to have use of.
Five hundred years ago, the idea that an individual’s personal belief or lack there of was their own business was wildly bizarre, and dangerous. You belonged to a group, and that group determined your rights and privileges. In the West, Russia, and other parts of the Eastern Orthodox world, baptism meant you had citizenship rights. To claim that baptism needed to wait until an individual was mature enough to decide that they truly believed? A rejection of civil society as well as of deity. You were in a group. The group said “Here are your rights and privileges. Here the limits. Period.” Slowly, slowly, the idea of freedom of conscience grew stronger. Slowly, the idea that not only was each individual valuable in the sight of the Lord, but also independent of birth-group and birth-station grew stronger, first in England and then elsewhere. Less than three hundred years ago, a group of men (supported by their wives in most cases) declared that “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”
About that time, technology started developing that made clothing cheap. And new crops and technologies made food less expensive. You had the agricultural revolution in England, the Industrial Revolution’s two great waves, and cheaper presses that made information far more available. (Although, with in 75 years go Gutenberg’s press opening for business, over 11,000,000 books and pictures had been printed and passed around.) Even in Europe, the standard of living and the ideas of individual rights, at least for a broad swath of the population, increased. Things were looking better. The future was bright. Children were no longer dying so early so often. The last purely environmental famine in Europe was in 1846-47.
Outside of Europe, ideas and new foods and new technologies were also spreading. The colonial powers introduced things to Asia, Africa, and the Americas. They also mis-managed all sorts of matters, often with dreadful results, but vaccination, improved transportation, better farming practices, education, and other practices crept into use. And those people who had the opportunity heard about all men being created equal and having their own rights, and began asking the colonial powers to live up to their ideals. And/or using that technology and those systems to in turn make themselves rich and to oppress their neighbors, because humans are human.
Then came WWI, and European culture and confidence was broken, or at least bent terribly out of shape. WWII shattered a great deal of what remained, and the Soviet Union and modernist philosophy tried to finish off the bits before they could be reassembled. However, in the US and other places, the ideas of individual freedom and material improvement continued and remained an ideal. And that ideal spread. Even people who had never seen a live American or read the Magna Carta heard that they had worth and value just because they were human. They were more than just interchangeable parts for the government to use at whim and discard at whim.
Is the world we live in perfect? Heck no. We still have corporate ideologies like Islamism and Marxism that insist your value is only that of your group and of your usefulness to the State. We have environmental problems, although I’ll take LA or Denver in the early 1970s over Paris in the 1700s any day. Smog is bad. Filthy water and piles of horse and cow dung are worse. Are things better for a whole lot of people, and does the potential exist for even more improvement? I firmly believe so, so long as we are willing to make the effort and try.
Some years ago, after the terrible earthquake that leveled Bam, Iran in 2004, I read an essay by a rabbi. He pointed out that fatalism like that in Islam looked at the destruction, sighed about the will of G-d, and rebuilt with the same materials in the same place, or abandoned the place and started all over. Non-fatalistic beliefs like Judaism and Christianity looked at the destruction and said, “Hmm, let’s use what G-d has given us to find out what broke, and why, and how to prevent it,” and came up with insurance and building codes and research into seismology and materials science. And trained rescue dogs, and developed emergency food rations and water purification systems, and you get the idea. Overly simplistic and it leaves out a lot, but I think the rabbi hit something pretty key. The world is better when we look at it as a challenge, not a hard limit.
The world is improving. It doesn’t always seem like it. There were and will be rough spots. There will be horrible events, some self-inflicted, some caused by natural processes over which humans have no control (yet. Why not turn the Yellowstone hot-spot into a giant geothermal energy generator and siphon off some of the heat and pressure and reduce the likelihood of an eruption?) Individual freedom is always under threat, because there are always going to be people who want to control everyone else, and people who want someone else to make the decisions and take responsibility. It’s not a straight line of improvement, but life gets better.
Let’s keep working, keep improving, keep striving to be our own people, take responsibility for our own actions and our own persons. Ideas are dangerous, especially ideas like individual worth, and the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Let’s spread those ideas. Let’s show the rest of the world just how good things can be. We are stewards of a wonderful, fearful, magnificent gift. Let’s make it even better.
Edited to add: Welcome, Instapundit Readers! Thank you for your interest and for stopping by.