I have never really understood the claim that the ‘old days’ were somehow simpler or easier. Actually, they usually weren’t. We only think they were.
The cause is a curious mix of cognitive illusions, including the ‘recency’ phenomenon – by which whatever happened last week looms larger than something that happened last year or last century, even if it isn’t bigger in an absolute sense.
But the main reason why we imagine the past was an easier time is because we’ve not only solved whatever problems we had then, but we also know how they panned out. Whereas the problems facing us today – well, we haven’t solved them yet and don’t know.
The reality – which we tend to forget – is that back then, when ‘yesterday’ was actually happening, we hadn’t solved the problems of that day either and didn’t know how they would pan out.
So the idea of ‘yesterday’ being somehow ‘easier’ or ‘simpler’ is really as much illusion as anything else – and yes, it’s broadly that simple, in general.
That’s also true of more than just personal experience. As a couple of examples, two of the widely-held suppositions about the twenty-first century world is that the internet has shrunk our attention spans, and that we are busier than our parents. Neither, it turns out on due crunching of numbers, is strictly true.
Or take the idea that pre-industrial life was somehow better than our own – the fantasy, nostalgic ‘Merrie England’ that William Hazlitt coined in 1819 as the Early Modern world was swept away by industrialisation, and which gained new life in the 1960s at the hands of the counter-culture – I’m thinking not just of the way Tolkien’s work was catapulted to stratospheric fame on the back of it, but of direct appeals to that ideal in the lyrics of bands such as Steeleye Span.
The reality? Sure, Early Modern life didn’t have the specific problems of the transition to Industrial-age living, still less the problems of settled Industrial-age society. No! It had its own. Yes, Early Modern peasant rentiers had land from which to make a living, which industrial-age unemployed didn’t. But one of the biggest issues in Britain and Europe, as the Little Ice Age began to bite during the early seventeenth century, was being able to grow enough food.
In these sorts of measures it wasn’t a better life at all. Different – yes. Better? Simpler? Well, you could call it that. But I’m prepared to bet that those of the day didn’t think so.
No, they were yearning for the earlier, simpler time of the Roman period…
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015