So 2017 has come and – save for a few hours now – gone. Despite having been trained as an archaeologist and maintaining a website about the ancient world, I prefer not to look back, but to look forward. I’m optimistic about the future and I think you should be, too.
Whether you agree or disagree will likely depend on a number of factors. Let’s focus on external factors. If you live in the United States and you detest the current occupant of the White House, you’ll probably feel like 2017 was just dreadful. Likewise if you’re in the UK and you opposed Brexit. Revelations in recent months about just how awful men in power can be towards women may also have you fearful for the present.
Then there are wars, the threat of war from North Korea and other places, the threats posed by powers hostile to democratic countries (here’s looking at you, Russia), widespread poverty, famine, natural disasters, and so on. And I haven’t even touched upon social inequality in modern Western societies, comparatively high levels of unemployment among millennials, the devastating effects that are the result of climate change, and so on.
You might think that now is a terrible time to be alive and that things will only get worse. But you’d be wrong.
The power of nostalgia
Some people would love to live in the past. I wouldn’t. I love studying the past, and if I had a functioning time machine I wouldn’t pass over a chance to visit it. But I would never want to actually live in the past. It would be an absolute nightmare for me.
If I lived in Roman times, I might not have survived my infancy. My mother might have died in childbirth, leaving me to be raised by just my father (unlikely) or perhaps a slave or wetnurse (probably). Hygiene was relatively poor back then, and I would probably have suffered from parasites regardless of my social class. Antibiotics didn’t exist, so if any part of my body got infected I’d have to rely on Roman-era medicine and – quite literally – pray for the best. Eye problems, too, were rampant among the ancient Romans, and if my eyesight was starting to go there were no spectacles that I could fall back on. That’s assuming I could read in the first place.
Most people who claim they’d love to live in the past mean that they’d love to be a politician or some other wealthy landowner. Of course, those people were a minority. Most people in ancient times were farmers. Farming, especially without the convenience of modern farming equipment and machines, is laborious, back-breaking work. And then, of course, there are the slaves. If I were a slave, I’d be someone’s property, to be kicked around or sold on for no reason whatsoever. I might even have worked in the silver mines or something, and likely died at an age where today I’d still be in the prime of my life. And if I were a woman, I would have fewer rights than men did – let alone if I were a female slave.
So, no, I would most definitely not want to live in the past. I wouldn’t even want to go back to, say, the 1980s, when I was born and raised. No internet, no smartphones, no Netflix, no hybrid cars, no Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Voyager? No, thanks. These might, for the most part, be unnecessary conveniences, but why on Earth would anyone want to do away with advances and conveniences for the sake of living in the past?
To be fair, though, the idea that the present is terrible isn’t a new phenomenon. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod, who was more or less a contemporary of Homer’s (ca. 700 BC), gives an overview of the different ages of men in his epic poem Works and Days. He starts with a Golden Age, in which the world was ruled by the Titan king Cronus, followed by a Silver Age, a Bronze Age, and an Age of Heroes, before arriving at his own period: the Iron Age.
Needless to say, Hesiod’s own age was the most dreadful. In M.L. West’s translation, Hesiod laments: “Would that I were not then among the fifth men, but either dead or born later!” The iron race to which he belongs, “will never cease from toil and misery […], in constant distress, and the gods will give them harsh troubles.” And like the other races before, Zeus will destroy these mortals, too, at the moment when children are born that are already “grey at the temples”, and when people no longer respect their elders, nor be friendly to people in general.
The past, in other words, is always better – even the mythical past. After all, the past is set in stone: there are no surprises. The future, in contrast, is uncertain. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? After all, history itself is the story of the rise and fall of countless civilizations, is it not? What’s to stop our modern world from collapsing? And aren’t the signs of the Apocalypse all around us right now?
Hope for the future
We shouldn’t want to live in the past. And I’m not just saying that because it’s obviously impossible. What we should do instead is study the past. There are many reasons that you should become a student of history, not least for all the reasons we went through in the first episode of our podcast.
Importantly, studying the past affords us with an idea of how things came to be. It offers the strongest evidence that things, on a whole, have a tendency to continuously improve. If you study the past, you’ll see that there’s every reason to be optimistic about the future.
Of course, there have been various disasters, like the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (AD 476) and the end of a number of civilizations at the end of the Bronze Age (ca. 1200 BC). To some individuals, close to the heart of where those disasters were felt most keenly, it must truly have seemed like the end of days. But for those further removed from the centres of power, life might have continued in more or less the same way as always, with change being affected over the long term.
Archaeologists in particular focus not on individuals, but on humanity as a whole. When seen from a long-term point of view, the “collapse” of a civilization isn’t so much an end point, as it marks a transformation. The end of the Roman Empire in the West wasn’t the end of history, but a turning point; a transitional period. From the ashes of Rome arose the medieval kingdoms of Europe. From the ashes of the Bronze Age civilizations emerged the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Greek city-states, and more.
The end of the Bronze Age also ultimately led to the Iron Age, which marks an important technological advance: iron requires greater temperatures to be worked than tin and copper, the constituent metals used in the production of bronze. (In fact, one of the ways to guage technological development is by calculating how much energy the society in question is able to harness.)
When viewed over the long term, the general trend is that human civilization is continuously improving. The “Idea of Progress” may be unfashionable, and certainly isn’t linear, but the proof is undeniable. People live longer and healthier lives today than at any other point in history. Infant mortality is, on average, lower than ever. Technology has made the world increasingly smaller. Over the next century or so, we’ll likely venture beyond our planet and settle other places in the solar system.
Naturally, this doesn’t mean that things improve in and of themselves. People need to actively work at making things better. But if history tells us anything, it’s that good people outnumber the bad. Regardless of whatever tyrant or unethical group of oligarchs might be in charge, they won’t last forever. Tyrants never establish lasting dynasties. And when these bad people eventually fade from the scene, more often than not the activities of good people will come to the fore, making the world a better place for all.
Things are improving all over the world. Suffering is, of course, undeniable on the level of specific individuals and even groups of people, but on the whole humanity is doing pretty great. History shows that things will only get better in time. Optimism ultimately triumphs. Good people are ultimately the ones who have the most lasting impact.
All this to wish you a wonderful New Year from all of us here at Ancient World Magazine.