Opinion: Should we judge those from the past by the standards of today?

Imagine a world in which millions of people are abducted from their homeland against their will, shipped off to a distant country, transported like cargo in the most inhumane conditions, tortured, brutalized, raped and even killed. Working in the most gruelling conditions, exploited for the production of cash crops such as cotton and tobacco, the average life expectancy of these people is a mere 21 years. With little choice, they are bought, bargained and traded like tokens signifying power and wealth in the country they are shipped to. The rich owned hundreds of these people, while the poor owned fewer. This society, of course, harsh as it may seem today, was the United States throughout the 17th century.  

While today, we perceive the United States as a nation staunchly devoted to the belief that “All men are created equal endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as stated in the American Declaration of Independence, in the 1700s, practices such as slaveholding were legal in several parts of the country. 

American historian Barbara Tuchman once said, “Nothing is more unfair than to judge the men of the past by the ideas of the present”. Barbara Tuchman’s quote, in essence, summarises one side of an argument that several historians face in the representation of historical events. The debate is centred around whether it is apt for historical figures of the past to be judged by present-day standards. Historians such as David Armitage, for instance, put forward the view that judging by present-day standards is the only way to assess the relevance of historical study in the modern context. Approaching historical study with this perspective, however, has its fair share of repercussions. This response will not only illustrate the implications of judging historical figures by present-day standards but will put forward the view that making these anachronistic moral judgements encourages a tainted and biased representation of historical events and individuals. The response will further support the view that historians of the present must judge the past on its own terms while historians of the future should judge the people in the present by existing standards. 

To begin with, the primary flaw in the use of present-day standards to impose judgements upon historical figures is the misguided notion that contemporary humanity is “morally superior”. This judgement in itself is widely considered to be a condemnable fallacy of historical study referred to as “presentism”. The Oxford dictionary defines presentism as “uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts”. First referenced in the book Historical Fallacies, Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, historian David Fischer states the flaw of presentism lies in the fact that cultural and moral ideals are constantly evolving, and the use of current standards encourages moral complacency. The fallacy has caused the legacies of several significant historical figures to become subject to exhaustive scrutiny.  

Thomas Jefferson is one such figure. Distinguished and esteemed as a founding father of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s indelible legacy has undoubtedly played a vital role in present-day American Democracy. This legacy, however, has in recent times been questioned for its ethicality and moral validity. Jefferson pushed for the idea of equal rights for “all men”. Records, however, of his role as a slaveholder have come to the forefront, threatening to defame his contributions to the country. While the contradictions and hypocrisy of his political beliefs and private life might have been evident, slaveholding, particularly chattel slavery, was a legal and widely practised reality in several parts of America at the time. This, however, didn’t prevent him from voicing his desire to end slavery in the long run through the gradual emancipation of slaves. By the standards of his time, Jefferson was undoubtedly an outspoken statesman. In fact, the abolitionist movement only rose to prominence in the 1830s, long after Jefferson’s prime. To therefore condemn Jefferson’s legacy entirely would be intellectually invalid and would encourage a notion of present-day moral superiority. 

Another significant flaw of presentism lies in the assertion that it causes the audience to “reduce the imperfect work to its imperfect author”. This means that, more often than not, in an attempt to condemn or pinpoint specific moral or ethical flaws or perspectives in an author, the work of the artist or historical figure is often dismissed or disregarded. Louis-Ferdinand Céline is one such 18th-century novelist whose legacy stands to be to be tarnished by present-day moral standards. Despite the undoubted brilliance of his books, however, particularly Journey to the End of the Night, his works continue to be disregarded in several spheres due to controversies about Louis-Ferdinand’s association with anti-semitism. Condemnation of Louis-Ferdinand as a writer entirely, however, due to his personal beliefs “reduces the imperfect work to the imperfect author”, preventing people from being able to view the beauty of the books themselves. 

Modern attitudes towards John Stuart Mill in the present day, too, reflect the flaws of presentism. As a former member of parliament in the United Kingdom, Mill played an essential role in promulgating the cause of liberalism and was a foremost proponent of utilitarianism. He, however, held harsh views towards Indians and the East India Company’s rule in India, pushing the idea of the White Man’s Burden on several occasions. To this day, he is often condemned for the views he puts forward in his book “Considerations on Representative Government” in which he defended the East India Company and its intentions in India while putting forward the perspective that people in countries such as India “must be considered unfit for more than a limited and qualified freedom”. 

Below is an extract from his book in which he delves deeper into this belief 

“People must be considered unfit for more than a limited and qualified freedom who will not cooperate actively with the law and the public authorities in the repression of evil-doers people who are more disposed to shelter a criminal than to apprehend him; who, like the Hindoos, will perjure themselves to screen the man who has robbed them, rather than take trouble or expose themselves to vindictiveness by giving evidence against him”. 

His controversial moral beliefs, however harsh as they may seem in the present day, in no way are a cause to discount his progressive contributions to present-day British Democracy. The hypocrisy of judging historical figures such as John Stuart Mill by present-day standards, ironically, lies in the fact that today we would be unable to criticise the mistakes and misapprehensions of “imperfect people” like John Stuart Mill if it was not for their contribution pushing the ideas of free speech and liberalism. 

Judging people from the past by present-day standards also encourages people to fall for what is known as “The Historian’s fallacy”. The Historian’s Fallacy, a term coined by English poet Matthew Arnold in his book “The Study of Poetry”, refers to the tendency of writers to make judgements with the luxury of hindsight. In other words, it condemns the making of historical judgements that dismiss the fact that “people of the past had no inkling of the future”. Historical knowledge, Arnold asserts, is the result of an accumulation of observations and trends placed in context, observed over several years; hence, Arnold states, judging people by the knowledge that we know of only in hindsight is a grave historical fallacy. 

Additionally, formulating judgements while presenting history often leads to the oversimplification of historical narratives. This idea was first put forth by the author Herbert Butterfield in his book “The Whig interpretation of history”. The book was revolutionary because it first referenced the concept of “Whig History”, which as Butterfield described in his book, was “the tendency in many historians… to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present”. Butterfield’s perspective summarised that the so-called Whig historians often judged historical figures through oversimplification of motives. The oversimplification of historical narratives he stated, “achieve drama and apparent moral clarity by interpreting past events in light of present politics”. These abridgements or abridged history, as Butterfield puts it, however, were flawed in that they explained a turn of events in reference with their result as opposed to the cause by which they truly arose; in other words, they encouraged a flawed teleological understanding of events. An apt example of this misapprehension is outlined with clarity in Butterfield’s book through his description of the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants. 

The Catholic-Protestant conflict was often portrayed as a conflict between the “friends and enemies of progress”; this narrative was presented by historians such as William Stubbs, Thomas Babington Macaulay, as Butterfield hinted, were presumptuous as they oversimplified the narratives without bringing out the nuanced motives of parties. Butterfield believed The Whig historical narrative portrayed “Protestants and whigs…as the perennial allies (of progress) while Catholics and tories have perpetually formed obstruction”. In simplifying the motives of historical figures in this way, he asserted that Whig historians made the mistake of assuming protestants were the sole party responsible for the creation of the modern world as opposed to the notion that the modern world was formed as a result of the conflict between both parties- the Catholics and the Protestants. 

Recognizing the flaws in the abridgement of history, Butterfield provided an alternative method to judge people of the past. He suggested the method of “technical history”, which promotes the idea of “judging the past on its own terms” by mandating a detailed analysis of different perspectives and factors in the historical context, as opposed to viewing a conflict or event from the perspective of the victors or the result. 

In recent times, certain historians have made the argument that to steer clear of presentism would be to encourage moral relativism while essentially encouraging the justification of immoral behaviour during historical times. This assertion, however, can be rectified. Historical figures must be judged by the context and morally acceptable cultural and societal ideals at the time. To illustrate, Hitler’s fascist rule and the Holocaust are events that at the time caused the deliberate oppression and genocide of the Jewish Race. To judge and condemn Hitler for his actions keeping in mind present-day standards could be considered intellectually invalid due to the presentism fallacy. However, Hitler’s actions in the 1930s and 1940s were by no means adherent to the morally acceptable standards at the time. To, therefore, condemn Hitler’s actions with regard to the only historical contextualisation at the time would be valid. 

History’s role in influencing the present and the future is undisputed; the presentation of historical events and figures, therefore, becomes all the more important. The fundamental role of the historian is to present a multidimensional impression of the past, portraying individuals and their nuanced motives as a result of circumstance and the historical contextualization of the time. While it is inevitable that historians of the future will judge prominent present-day figures for their actions and role in society, it is essential that they do so while refraining from presentist tendencies, for cultural ideals in society are constantly evolving. Historians of the future must therefore judge us by the morally acceptable cultural ideals of our time, for as historian Ashley Cruseturner fittingly states, “we should understand, but not excuse, the situation of the times. (We should) use these reflections to institute substantive change…not symbolically condemn someone relegated to the grave”. 

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