Nostalgia is not what it used to be...
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight takes a look at how we may judge the past versus the present in the human condition.
From my experiences, the majority of elderly people think the past was better than the present, and the majority of younger people think the present is better than the past. When I was a young boy I used to talk with my auntie’s elderly father about the times of change. He would tell me about his war-time experiences and his childhood too. He used to look upon his youth with fondness and the present with lamentation.
Now, I will, of course, happily admit that for those who are mature in years, some kind of nostalgia for history is understandable - after all, they were probably much healthier and more active and more energised in their youth, and they are probably (understandably) much less fit and healthy in old age. So quite clearly, if it were simply the case that one preferred the ‘present’ times because they point to contemporary social advancements then elderly people wouldn’t be so nostalgic for the ‘good old days’.
In all fairness, there are facets to existence that suggest their nostalgia is pretty justifiable; nowadays we have high rates of teenage crime and yob culture, our prisons are full, drugs are a huge problem, as is religious fanaticism, the binge culture, and vacuity of celebrity worship. We have greater profligacy, we have sabotaged and attacked the environment with the biggest onslaught that the world has ever seen, plus we have AIDS, too much poverty, and a general decline in human manners and respect for the elderly. So it’s hardly surprising that many people who were in their prime many years ago think the world has been better in times gone by – in some ways it has.
People change, society changes, and in each generation we make changes to laws and systems in ways that seem fitting to us. So while the elderly gentleman laments the loss of the good old days, the younger man thinks the present age makes the past seem crude and archaic. I want to stress one thing; there is no right answer – an elderly man who longs for the joys and respect of his youth may be fully justified in preferring the past to these modern times, so too the younger man for the ‘advancements’ of the modern age.
But this throws up a further issue – if feelings about the best years are only related to when we feel we were in our prime then we could be faced with a tautology, roughly akin to “The best times were the best simply because they were best for me” – and that won’t tell us anything about whether there is an overall standard by which we can infer progression or retrogression.
How then can we be sure that standards of living and morals really have progressed when if we talk to elderly people they would contend that the moral systems developed in their youth were better than those that had come before? Does this mean that people aren’t very good at assessing morality or that there is a more complex relativism that must be adhered to?
Not only do many elderly people doubt this progression, I know that some Christians do contend that moral progression is a myth – but in the case of Christians, I think a lot of that boils down to how broad their thinking is (or a lack of broadness thereof). An ultra conservative Christian might look at present liberal trends like widespread approval of homosexual relationships and gay-marriage as representing a severe decline in morals compared with those of 50 years ago. To such a man, a society may have moved away from what most traditional Christians would view as moral rectitude.
I think the only way to have lucidity is when we consider whether as human beings we are improving the standards of living and becoming more moral, we must look to have the biggest picture in mind, and not just focus on one or two bad things in the present that the past did not have (or vice versa) as this will not help induce clarity. We can perhaps answer the question if we think about the situation in the following way.
For those who contend that morals have progressed, there is a necessary chicken and egg question – are the present morals more fitting to us because they are better or better because they are more fitting? Does the modern mind say they must be better because they are ours? Or does human rationality insist we acknowledge that the present systems must be better because we have centuries to improve upon the past efforts and incorporate those improvements into our societies? Whichever we choose, it has to be acknowledged that such an assumption entails a standard to work towards – even if that standard is only a deeply abstract concept. I hold this view because when I hear people say “Progressing towards being more moral” I can’t help but notice an imputed standard towards which we might or might not be progressing. What could we be progressing towards if there is no standard to progress towards? If the bus stop is as mobile as the bus how can we progress towards it?
Please let’s be clear, I think it’s pointless for a theist to argue the existence of a moral standard as an argument to demonstrate that God exists, but that is not the principal interest here – we only want to acknowledge that there is no use talking of progression unless we have some overarching idea of what ‘better’ and ‘worse’ can mean. Of course even though when one looks at the past few thousand years one sees that as humans we are progressing towards greater moral rectitude, one must acknowledge that we've had help - systems have been put in place, sequential changes have been made, gradual progressive innovations, laws, improved understanding of the human mind and its emotional accretions, to name but a few - all of these have aided our progress and helped us in creating a world in which we are, to the greatest extent, much better equipped to be more moral and more considerate. One look at a Stone Age man compared to someone of today will tell us quite evidently that we are capable of making progress over vast timescales.
But if this is so obvious then why does the picture Jesus paints seem to contain the perpetuation of human badness, to the point that our nearing the second coming will bring greater tribulations than we have seen before? The answer, I should imagine, is this.
Although we have made good progress, I don’t think the human heart has altered all that much in doing so. I see no reason to doubt that the understanding of the Bronze Age men was as acute as ours in knowing what is morally right and wrong, and being aware of when they had been wronged, so in the sense of the intrinsic human heart, I see little change. If you want evidence, read any writings between, say, 1500 BC and 100 BC, and when ethical issues emerge in those texts, you'll see the same cries for justice and moral correctives that have been seen for centuries henceforward, right up to the present day.
Whether one is a theist, agnostic or atheist, all the hints are that humanity is built as much for the journey and the growing as the destination – we are always on the move.
Destinations, unless they be Christ Jesus Himself, are always sampled in our ‘work in progress’ mood, and that is why any perceived moral progressions are ultimately unsatisfying to the heart of man – they must be, because they are not Christ, and if there is a standard then I see no one making a greater claim to it than Christ Himself.
Next time out I will look in more detail at what I think the question ‘Is the world getting better?’ really means.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk