Self-clarification on a problem of history

A: I suspect that a lot of the moral stories we tell about history need to be critiqued.

B: Why’s that?

A: I was just reading a history of the Medievals and I was struck how I read the various accounts of their laws as intolerant, or in need of being justified as tolerant. The author seemed to be writing that way as well.

B: What’s so bad about that? Was he unfair?

A: No, all the facts were basically right, and his account was nuanced and balanced and in line with most of the scholarship.

B: Okay – so where’s the problem?

A: I don’t think the Medievals cared about tolerance one way or another.

B: That’s probably going way too far. Tolerance is just putting up with things, and putting up with things is just part of being human.

A: That’s exactly wrong! That’s an apologia for tolerance – but somewhere along the way it became a virtue, applied in a definite set of cases and denied to others. More importantly, somewhere along the line it became a taboo, but it was in no way a taboo for the Medievals.

B: So what? Maybe it should have been.

A: Okay, but isn’t this important to an account of history? Assume that a hundred years from now the word decisive  is the virtue of having definite and emphatic opinions on the moral value of everything. So Richard Dawkins and Archbishop Levebre are seen as models of decisiveness, and everyone else (and presumably most of the tolerant) are seen as running afoul of a taboo and lacking clear-minded virtue. On this account, most of our skepticism and tolerance is (boo!) indecisive. But isn’t this to judge us by a game we aren’t playing? What would you understand about our virtue of tolerance by describing it as violating the self-evident goodness of decisiveness?

B: Maybe we could avoid the problem by focusing on the goods people sought and not the standards we think they fall short of.

A: Right, but I want to go further: don’t describe people relative to future states or developments. We describe the life of cavemen as brutal and short, but the Olympians have just as much reason to describe the life of a wealthy 90 year old in his first bout of declining health in the same way. Both descriptions are a failure to understand the actual life that is lived in history. Both introduce a comparison that did not enter into the life at all. We think we’re getting a history when in fact we’re getting something that has never and can never exist- the “brutal and short” caveman life that was lived neither by him nor by us.

B: Describing people relative to the future is what history does.

A: I thought what it did was describe them as they are.

B: Okay, but people really do exist relative to the future.

A: I don’t exist like that, except where “future” is so vague and undefined as to explain nothing worth knowing about my life.

B: But aren’t there hidden perfections and faults in things that become manifest over time?

A: Maybe there are: but are we trying to understand persons or some grand sweep of history which, since it was unknown to them, must be by the same token unknown to us?

B: Okay, try saying that same tendentious thing in reverse: are we trying to understand the true character of persons, which can only be manifest over time, or are we going to pretend that everyone’s goals are as valid as anyone else’s and that history doesn’t let us see who the real winners and losers are?


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