We spend a part of the first class discussing the fallacy of “presentism,” through which the values, mores and conventions of the present day are used to judge, almost always harshly and sanctimoniously, our predecessors. Will Durant wrote of the tendency for humankind, at each point of the modern era, to imagine that history is a straight line upward, leading to the “us” of the current day. We seem especially vulnerable to this conceit these days.
The European peoples of a century ago fell hard for the errors of presentism. They were riding the tide of a century of stunning economic improvement and technological advances, every bit as transformational as those of the past few decades. Between 1815 and 1914, Britain’s per capita gross domestic product grew nearly three times as fast as it had in the preceding century. The steam engine, the sewing machine, the railroad, electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane and so many more breakthroughs convinced the people of 1914 that a Golden Age had arrived, in which a benevolent science was on its way to conquering distance, want and the tedium of daily work.