Myth: The best way to understand people in the past is with present-day attitudes.
Fact: Why are we even doing facts any more? Historiography is about interpretation! But it’s difficult to interpret past cultures through a present-day lens.
You might think, sometimes, that people in the past were really stupid.
They didn’t understand that germs cause disease; they didn’t have proper science; there’s a lot, we think, that they didn’t understand and we do. But we’ve got these wonderful things called science and progress, so we can look back on the past when they had less science and less progress and judge the past that way! Right?
Not quite. Here’s why.
The Past is a Foreign Country
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between
It’s a cliché now, but it’s a cliché for a reason: the past was seriously fucking different. People believed different things, went about their days differently, had a completely different conception of the world. Sure, there were some similarities – but generally the deeper you dig down, the weirder you find history gets.
Generally, it’s kind of difficult to think outside the belief system you have. If you’re really religious, and I tell you there’s no God, my atheism is probably pretty alien to you. If you believe in magic and I can’t see how your magic works, we’re not going to be able to agree. Actually, my no-gods-no-magic system might seem pretty alien or boring to you, just as believing in magic is pretty alien to me. And it might be difficult for us to bridge that gap.
When I do history, I’m always thinking about the beliefs people in the past had and the information they had, too – because the information they had would have been different, and sometimes they would have had less of it. I partly know this because people tell me this when I interview them – they’ll say “well, back in the 1970s we didn’t know this and that and the other…”. In their memories, it has a profound effect. And that was 50 years ago! Imagine 500 years ago! People change, cultures change, ideas change. If you want to understand how people think, you have to meet them on their terms.
Missing the Weird
Another reason presentism isn’t great for doing history is that it means you miss out on a lot.
Take thinking about science (again, yes, I know I harp on about this a lot). If you had a quick “history” lesson in a science textbook about Isaac Newton or Michael Faraday or Marie Curie or whoever, you might have read a couple of paragraphs that basically went: “Once upon a time people were stupid and didn’t know about this, then this super-smart-clever person came along and discovered a cool thing, now science is more advanced, the end.” It’s a kind of “history” that puts the cart before the horse: the writers know where they wanted to end up (telling you about the cool science thing) and arrange the history around that.
Most historians are a bit different. We don’t think about our work as leading up to a predetermined conclusion, but we do want to explore all the possibilities, the what-could-have-beens, the things that existed and maybe never really went anywhere – or maybe they do survive today, but not in forms we expect. The past is weird and presentism squashes and confines all that weirdness.
Our Weird Present
Now I’m going to go full wanky postmodernist historian and ask: how much do we actually know? How much have we actually progressed?
On the surface, I guess the answer is pretty obvious. Yes, we have made progress. Running water, heating and electricity are widely available in the West. We can talk to each other via phones and the internet at any hour of the day or night. We can fly around the world and even go to space. People centuries ago couldn’t have dreamed of doing this. We have made important breakthroughs. I don’t want to downplay that.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of knowledge we’ve lost. We don’t know how to make black glass. The secret to making Roman concrete was lost for thousands of years. Even closer to today, some people rely on ageing medical technologies and often people don’t know how to maintain or repair these old medical devices. Knowledge can and does disappear surprisingly quickly. That’s not progress.
And yes, we have all these devices – but how many people know how to build or maintain them? That’s specialist knowledge, developed over years, and it’s often difficult to explain to outsiders – I know, because getting people to explain their specialist knowledge to me is my job, and it’s a bloody hard one sometimes.
We also know more – at least, we think we do – but are we any more rational? I’m not convinced. People in the past believed a lot of strange things – but so do people today! 60% of American adults believe in at least one of spiritual energy within physical things, psychics, reincarnation or astrology. One in six Brits believe the moon landings were fake. A quarter of Americans also think that the Sun orbits the Earth, and they’ve thought this for decades.
Now, given that the examples I’ve given are from the US and UK, we could just throw our hands up and say Brits and Americans are uniquely stupid, and maybe the rest of the world has made some progress. I’m…not entirely sure that’s true? I think people in most countries have weird, entrenched beliefs, because most humans have weird, entrenched beliefs. We haven’t built up to this perfect period where everyone is super-smart and rational, and we’re not receding from an imaginary Golden Age of rationality. People are just weird. We’ve believed weird things since before we could write those weird things. The last ever human is going to believe some pretty weird shit, too. Understanding that weird stuff, with all its weird possibilities, is key to doing history.