Looking Back

In this, our final Historical Perspective for the 1996-97 season, it’s appropriate to review the various times, places, and topics that we have examined during the last 30 weeks. We have looked at times so long ago that they are almost beyond comprehension. We have looked at times as recently as the last few decades, and almost everything in between, from Ancient Greece to medieval Europe to early America. We have examined a vast variety of topics, including childhood, disease, art, economics, exploration, diet, medical care, morality, sexuality, culture, living standards, housing, crime and punishment, air travel, and life expectancy. What have we seen? Have we learned anything? While we can’t speak for the readers, we as researchers, writers, and editors have learned quite a bit.

People are individuals, no matter which historical period they happen to live in. But if we generalize, it seems that the basic nature of people hasn’t changed over time. During the entire period of recorded history, people have needed and wanted the same basic things that we need and want today. People have always needed food, drink, clothing and shelter; and they have always had to devote considerable energies to providing these necessities of life.

Non-material needs haven’t changed much either. People still desire acceptance, prestige, and other social values. It doesn’t seem like a mother’s desire to care for her child has changed very much over the centuries. The desire for power and wealth also seems constant, although the way it is attained has changed dramatically over time and between cultures. And, of course, people have always had sensual desires.

So what has changed? Quite a bit. Although the fundamental needs and desires of people may not have changed very much, their chances of attaining those desires has changed immensely, especially when we look at modern, developed societies.

At the most basic level, the chances for survival are far greater in almost every way. Infant mortality rates are dramatically lower. If a child gets a cold, we no longer wonder if it will survive. The chances of a premature death from disease or accident are dramatically lower. Flying in an airplane today is safer than drinking water in medieval times!

Not only is mere survival far more likely, but surviving in good health is incomparably more likely. A man or woman of medieval times would look old in their thirties; today it is quite possible to stay healthy, active, and vital to a very old age.

Due to the economic development that has taken place over time, the average person is far wealthier now, and the economy is far more diversified. I believe it was George Washington who said “I am a soldier so that my son can be a farmer so that his son can be a poet.” Looking at the long stretch of history, our forebears were the soldiers and farmers. We have the chance to be the poets (or software designers, or entrepreneurs, or graphic artists).

The vast majority of people in the past needed to work the land in order to supply the basic need for food. In modern societies, less than five percent of the population supplies the dietary requirements of the entire society. This frees up the rest of the population for productive work in a bewildering array of professions and occupations.

The increase in wealth over time has also meant that many people have both the time and the money to enjoy leisure pursuits. Even if they had television and movies, professional sports, recorded music, and the Internet before this century, the average man or woman wouldn’t have had the time or money to enjoy them. (It could also be argued that a farmer worrying whether his wife was going to die in childbirth, his child die from the fever, or himself die from the plague, might not be inclined to enjoy the amusements of modern life.)

Life is so much easier now. While the daily grind may still seem like, well, a grind, it is far easier now than in the past. Spending eight or ten hours behind a desk may not seem like paradise, but most of us would find it vastly preferable to spending twelve hours behind a plow.

Travel is incomparably easier and faster. We don’t walk thirty miles to get to the nearest town. Communications are far faster — compare the speed of a horse with the speed of the Internet. Things that we tend to take for granted now — heating, air conditioning, drinkable water, personal hygiene — are all, historically speaking, recent developments. We don’t even have to get up in the middle of the night to put coal into the furnace.

In all material respects, the average person of today is better off. He or she is cleaner, better fed, lives in a bigger house, is healthier, better educated, and safer than his ancestors. While there are still huge differences between the rich and poor, distribution of wealth is now more egalitarian than in the past (the “middle class” is a relatively recent phenomenon). The cycle of recession and depression, of famine and plenty, is less pronounced now than in the past. The “poor” of today are rarely on the brink of starvation, at least in developed societies, and are, in most material aspects, far better off than the great majority of our ancestors.

There are many topics which we are saving for the next season of Historical Perspectives — the spread of literacy, freedom of movement and choice, the empowerment of the common man. There will soon be a new index of past Historical Perspectives, arranged by theme and chronology, as well as date of publication. And we hope you visit the Historical Perspective Web discussion area in Positive Talk.

If you have comments on the Historical Perspective, let me know at john@positive.net. I hope you’ve enjoyed the Historical Perspectives, and I look forward to bringing you a new batch in the fall.

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