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Sunday, May 24, 2020

An illusion

The idea of living at a late date in history is kind of an optical illusion. Every date in history is the latest moment of history so far. The illusion is caused by the fact that we are thinking only of the centuries that have already passed, not of those that are yet to come. So if you were at 1,000 A,D. you would be thinking of everything before you and not everything that would come afterwards. You would be justified in thinking that you were at a late stage of human history. Now this belief seems naive, when attributed to someone of that period, because we know that a lot more came to pass after that.  But it seems justified to us. This could be a story for Borges, a kind of "refutation of time."

So too our condescension toward the past. Someone posted in Facebook about Unamuno's racism, and then I thought that everyone was racist back then. That is true, that we should understand the context of things like that. But our own moment could be just as prone to error, in other ways, as his. It doesn't excuse me to say, of some erroneous or toxic belief of mine, that others share it at my own historical moment, because who is to say that it is an early or too late time in our historical development? I think about it in terms of the advice I would give to my former self. Well, I can't listen to the advice that my future self could give me either.


Thomas said...

I'm not sure this is true, but I imagine that if I, in this body, were magically transported back to the 11th century, even to a relatively high-status position in society, I would quickly die from the unsanitary conditions, bacteria and toxins that I'm not resistant to, but the "locals" are immune to.

Could your "toxicity" (as seen from the future) and Unamuno's (as seen from the present) not be similar? I haven't thought this through, but that does seem like a possible excuse, a legitimate. Your personality isn't actually harmful today, even though the same beliefs may be harmful in a 1000 years. And, like most people, you've probably spent your life learning how not to hurt people -- i.e., learning what the people around you can tolerate in the way of action and emotion.

Just because we're insufferable to our descendants doesn't mean we're not good to our contemporaries.

Jonathan said...

It's a thought experiment so there isn't really a right or wrong answer. So there are two facile solutions. 1) Condemn Unamuno's racism as if he were our contemporary. 2) Just say that everyone was racist back then. I cannot accept either one.

Jonathan said...

The example I like to think of is being vegetarian. In the future, everyone is vegetarian, and then they could look back on me and see that as a major character defect. Jonathan should have known better, because there were vegetarians in his own epoch.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I find it all very unsatisfying too. It would be interesting to find a way beyond those two facile choices.