“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859 [emphasis mine]
Our Siamese was walking along the edge of the kitchen counter this morning, and stopped when she came to my phone, which I’d just set down at the corner of the counter with the screen illuminated. The totally irrelevant, off-the-wall thought crossed my mind that, not so long ago, no cat would have encountered a cell phone and paused to give it a wide berth. Seventy-five years ago, dogs wouldn’t have been puzzled by the images on a TV screen. One hundred years ago, cows would seldom have been disturbed by the noise of planes passing overhead. Those reflections segued into some thoughts I’d been hashing through about history.
For the last couple years, I’ve been reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, in which a handful of people from the mid-to-late twentieth century go back in time 200 years. In book four, one of the two main characters, who had been a surgeon in Boston before her trip through time, has moved with her husband from Scotland to the Colonies, and they’ve claimed a land grant in North Carolina. Now, the woman has lived in the 18th century for a total of about four years at this point, across two different time voyages. Naturally, she’s had to accustom herself to a life much more primitive than the one she’d always known, in terms of conveniences, possessions, and, of course, hygiene. She’s also had to learn to preserve food, cook over a fireplace, grow her own vegetables, gather necessities such as rushes for baskets, and take a crash course, with no previous training, to master a hundred other skills previously unknown to her or to most other women in developed nations in the 1960s. She has studied with apothecaries, herbalists, and shamans to discover how to replicate some of the medicines she took for granted in her modern life, and she puts her surgical expertise to good use among all the populations she encounters. In the 1700s, and for millennia before that and afterward, almost into modern times, a woman’s survival of childbirth was a 50/50 proposition. Without the equipment and tools of the late 1900s, all the heroine’s knowledge and skills can’t significantly better those odds for her patients in the towns and villages she visits.
The food in the wilds of the Colonies in the 1760s consists of whatever can be grown, hunted, or gathered in the immediate area. Survival takes up most of every day, for all except the well-off urban dwellers in the cities of the Eastern seaboard and the owners of plantations. Settlers in the not-yet-tamed wildernesses eke out existences on the bare edge.
And yet, there are compensations: the beauty of the untouched land; the freedom to live with few restrictions; the solitude and lack of crowding; the neighborliness among other settlers in the small hamlets; the pride of dependence on self; the work that means something; the satisfaction of accomplishment. The pristine forests and rivers would go a long way toward making up for the primitiveness and the hardship of the daily routine, especially from a 20th– or 21st-century viewpoint. At the time the story takes place, interactions with the Native American tribes generally revolved around trade, and co-existence was relatively peaceful. There had been some violent clashes, but the worst of the conflicts would be decades into the future. Life was precarious, death sometimes seemingly by chance, when a minor accident could prove fatal, or measles could devastate a village. Leisure time was scarce, niceties were few, freedom came with a steep price.
But at least there were no bulldozers destroying the rainforest to make way for development and resource extraction. Other than in the biggest cities, there was no congestion or pollution. Each person’s contribution to an enterprise or a town meant something. Choices of occupation weren’t abundant, and were more often than not inherited, but the general feelings of meaninglessness and schadenfreude so prevalent today were unheard-of back then. There was minimal class mobility, but each person did usually know his or her place, and was assured of such. Norms were narrow, and deviation wasn’t tolerated as a rule, but conversely, colonial towns and settlements took care of their own. “Me-ism” was virtually unknown. When a group of people chose a territory in which to live, they helped each other clear land and build cabins and barns. They shared resources and put the welfare of the whole group first. As we’ve seen recently, such mutual support rarely exists today, even in times of need.
Bottom line, would it be better to live in the 1760s or the 1960s? How significant are the differences when it comes to quality of life? Most people are familiar with the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities, set out above, whether from English lit class or from hearing it quoted in dozens of films and TV shows. But fewer people know the closing part of that prologue, wherein Dickens says that the time period of his novel, some 60-odd years in the past, is similar to his own era. In other words, there are extremes in any given decade or century, and who’s to say whether a particular epoch is better or worse than any other? Ancient Roman society was quite sophisticated compared with that of the regression and loss of knowledge in the Dark Ages, which extended for roughly five hundred years after Rome fell. It took another half a millennium for Europe to crawl out of the pit into which it sank and reach the Renaissance. Despite the constant wars that characterized the Roman Empire, then, it could be seen as having been a better time to live than the next thousand years. We only know that, though, from a perspective 1600 years on. So is it all really relative? Is one timeframe good or bad only according to the judgment of history, and when all is said and done, do the peaks and valleys level out? My take is that, until 1945, the answer to that question was, “yes.” Until the end of World War II, there had always been conflicts and plagues and unpopular governments; likewise, there had always been times of plenty and Golden Ages. In my example of Colonial America versus the late 20th century, however, there was no fear in the 1760s that climate change would wreak havoc on societies everywhere, and also, no fear that the sight of a mushroom cloud would spell instant annihilation. Tens of thousands of animal and plant species had yet to be discovered back then, and human advancements weren’t pushing any of them to extinction. Since 1945, the capacity to destroy the world has become the most profound demarcation in history. That capability, combined with the slower destruction we’re inflicting on the environment, translates to a true “worst of times.” For most of human history, no one time period was the worst or the best, no matter how many thought it was so. We’ve reached a watershed that makes all the difference. In a thousand years, will humans have survived, and if so, will they look back from a place of true enlightenment and consider our time the darkest of Dark Ages?