The old days weren’t actually simpler – not really

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.

Inside the Green Dragon.
Inside the Green Dragon – Tolkien’s ‘Merrie England’.

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


14 thoughts on “The old days weren’t actually simpler – not really

  1. How I dearly wish I could have lived during those simpler times. *sigh* The Black Death. The Inquisition. Burning witches. Toiling dawn to dusk on someone else’s land. Such fond memories. Even the last century had wonderful moments no one would have wanted to miss: The Depression, two world wars, Nazis, internment camps, nuclear war, Polio…it all warms my heart. I grew up in the 60s/70s and there was a lot of great music, but I also remember the assassinations, nightly Vietnam body counts, drug culture, and social unrest.

    The fondness we have for the good moments sharpens over time despite distance while the ugly moments blur in our desire to forget them. How many remember that there were Apollo astronauts who died? I Love Lucy is painted over the top of McCarthyism and racial violence in the American south (which has, tragically, surged anew). My siblings, who grew up in the 50s, were taught to hide under their desks at school in case there was a nuclear attack. During my elementary years in the 60s I instead hid as around me one family after another that’d embraced life in the suburbs was torn apart by drugs, Vietnam, and changing social norms—my own included. Yet, I can talk to people who grew up at the same time and they’ve already forgotten. Some of forgetting is perspective, I suppose, but much of it is exactly what you describe.

    1. Yes, you’ve nailed it. I remember the Apollo 7 tragedy! Few do,though, I suspect. And absolutely, we think back to earlier times and remember it in terms of the pleasanter side without dwelling much on the darker aspects.

  2. Absolutely love this! Completely agree! Ever since I studied Classics at uni, my mantra has been “there is no such thing as the Golden Age!” Because, while human beings have been obsessed with the concept of the “good old days” as you called it, there is no evidence to suggest any “golden age” actually existed. It’s all just propaganda (either created at the time or in retrospect). I like what you said about knowing how it turns out- because it’s that complete narrative that people (often politicians and political commentators) exploit to make us believe that there was some perfect era and that we have to find some way of returning to it. (Gosh, that was a super dorky rant :p )

    1. You’re right – especially about the past being sold to us as something to return to. Isn’t. Especially the past that came before antibiotics, modern medicine, modern technology, along with the fact that industrialisation – for all the inequities and social issues it produces – also freed us from the tyrannies of muscle power and subsistence farming.

      1. Yup- I always point that out to people that get too dewy eyed about the past- I mean, who wants to live in a world where a) pretty much everything stinks, b) there’s no such thing as running water, c) a sensible cure for the bubonic plague is to strap a frog to your arm (or something to that effect), d) there’s bubonic plague! and e) life expectancy is around 30 (I went a little for medieval stuff there- which I doubt anyone wants to revisit- but you get the idea). Exactly!

  3. I just engaged in this sort of discussion at a family Christmas celebration. I am surprised at how “rose-colored” the view of the past can be. I would not want to go back to any pre-penicillin days and my guess is that any of our lower-class predecessors would eagerly switch time periods with us.

    1. No question about the transformation wrought by antibiotics! I wouldn’t want to go back before their introduction either. The scary part is the way overuse, especially in the farming sector, is very likely to breed the superbugs that will put us back to those times anyway.

  4. The simpler times of the Roman days LOL.
    I did a lot – and I mean a lot – of research for my Christian book series. It was not only Christians who ended up in the arena, it was perilous for all under them. Roman? No, not even they were safe. A perilous existance for all, methinks.🙂

    1. Sure was. And despite the elevation of that world in our own times, Roman life was no simpler than anybody else’s – in fact they had a lot of the problems we do because they had similarly urbanised large-scale societies. I seem to recall writings of theirs evoking nostalgia for what they presumed to be simpler times than their own. (Usually, I think, it had something to do with whatever the current Emperor was trying to do, by comparison with earlier ones – I am thinking of Tacitus, in particular).

  5. This is a great post, Matthew estimation point I have the same feeling about the past. When it was the present, it was messy, too. I have never understood why people do not see that because it is past, it seems safe or if not safe at least controlled. As his post so admirably states those times were not simpler.

    This post also reminded me of mindfulness, bringing Zen into our everyday. When we do that, we are present to the day’s trials and tribulations– doing the best we can. If we immerse ourselves in that experience, it is whole, and I think it is easier to let go of issues. That has been my experience.

    A most timely post, Matthew.
    Karen

    1. I often find myself thinking that today’s trials and tribulations are the worst I’ve had. And I have to consciously remind myself that, so far, for a variety of reasons, none of my various turns of fortune have matched one particular year – 1984. Letting go and being mindful, as you say, is the way ahead.

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