One of the standard comments one hears when listening at keyholes is that old farts like me pine for a golden age and waste their time on this earth wishing those times would come back. I hasten to disagree. Heartily! As one of those old farts who looks at current events somewhat askance, I can say with no fear of contradiction that there never was a golden age and that I, for one, do not wish that days gone by would return.
At the same time, those of us who level criticism at current events have a legitimate concern that something precious has been lost in our notion that progress is invariably a good thing and restraint is a burden. At times they are not. Take the Victorian age, if you will.
I am perfectly aware that the Victorian age in England, to focus exclusively on that country, was an age of terrible suffering for a great many people. Poverty was rampant, child labor was commonplace, as was the lowly esteem in which women were held. Many were the woes of the period that Virginia Wolff and others in her Bloomsbury Group were quick to note — as was Charles Dickens. Still, there was something there beneath the surface that was worth preserving and it has been lost. I speak of the restraint of many people and the sense of the obligation that a great many of the wealthy felt toward those who depended upon them for their livelihood. We stress rights without regard to the fact that rights, except in the case of children and the mentally challenged, necessitate responsibilities. In the Victorian age this was not the case: rights took a back seat, for a great many people, to the responsibilities that they felt for their fellow humans and their determination to help realize the “common good.” There was about that age a sense that the future depended on the good behavior and the accordance with duty of those who lived in the present.
In a word, I look back not to pine after a golden age that never was, but to try to see what it is that we have lost and to determine whether it is even possible that some semblance of that sense of what truly mattered can still be salvaged. In the process I take comfort in the fact that the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb spent her life studying the Victorian Age and concluded many of the same things I have concluded while I merely skimmed along the surface of knowledge about an age she knew so well. It’s not so much that she agrees with me, but that I find myself agreeing with her. She must therefore be right. It follows, does it not?
In sum, looking back can be justified only if it helps us to see things more clearly and in the process also enables us to understand ourselves and our age a bit better. There was never a golden age. But there were times when certain things that no longer matter mattered a great deal — and had we not tossed them aside those things might have made us a better people, not to mention also a happier people, than we are at present.
In any event, those who know nothing of the past, and especially those who think the past somehow “irrelevant,” are not in a position to criticize those who look back in order to see more clearly what lies around them. And they shouldn’t dismiss out of hand those of us who think that much that is going on around us could be so very much better if there remained a semblance of those values that were held dear in the distant past. Progress may or may not be a good thing. But it happens. What matters is that we measure it carefully against what is being lost in the process. I don’t want to live in an age of slavery, child labor, debilitating illnesses that can now be cured with a pill, or an age that fails to allow that women are entitled to the very same things as men. But I don’t like living in an age of chaos and violence that centers around a shriveled-up self and takes no account of others or the responsibilities we all have to our fellow humans. It’s a question of keeping one’s bearings and finding a balance.