We often think of the past as riddled with disease, violence, and poverty. We have a tendency to focus on major times of crisis in the past. What we remember about past societies are events like the Black Plague, the French Revolution, or innumerable examples of brutal warfare. These events stick out in our memory because (just like the people in the past) we have a fascination with periods of extreme crisis. These events shake up society, and unalterably change the course of history. On top of that, these events make great history books and even better movies. As a result, these times of crisis shape how we think about the people of the past. We view peasants in the Middle Ages as filthy, hungry, and bland – because that is how they are depicted in their times of crisis.
Do times of crisis accurately depict people?
However, these events were very rare, and they do not accurately portray past people. Imagine if future generations boiled our society down to just the terrorist attacks on September 11th. If they did, would they show us as a constantly nervous people who were always under attack? Our society and lives are much more complex than this. For example, smartphones have a bigger impact on our daily lives than the rare crises we may endure.
Are we being unfair?
So, if we are using a small group of people in an extreme situation as a characterization of everyone in that society, aren’t we being unfair? If it is unfair, then it is time that we take a look at past people and judge them based on their most common experiences – their normal, daily lives. This paradigm opens up a host of new and relevant questions that we can then ask about the past. Most prominently is the curious question… Are our lives better than theirs? If we are looking at the average day in the life of an average person in the past, were they happier than we are today? Major debates are occurring throughout the social sciences and humanities on this topic. While no consensus has been reached, this has allowed us to reflect and probe our own lives to see what we may have lost or gained over time.
Join the debate
‘Are we happier today than we have been in the last 500 years?’
Join us November 5th from 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., at the FRCC Larimer Campus in the Longs Peak Student Center. Hope to see you there!