The Past 150 Years: Looking Backwards

“The Man on the Rack,” Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1761

The Past 150 years: Looking Backwards

I’ve said, and I believe, that our lives are the true stories of who we are – something we find out as we try out the deeds that appear to express who we are — and self-correct as we discover what we left out or did to excess.  I learned this partly from perceiving what ill-wishers were up to: they divined the intended plotlines of their victims and worked, intelligently and persistently, to thwart their stories. 

Since I didn’t find that my discovery had been noted in extant philosophic books and articles, I decided to write the book myself.  Titled A Good Look at Evil, it’s available at Amazon and now as an audiobook as well.

So much I can affirm with some confidence.  But what of the big story?  What of history itself?  Aren’t the short stories of our respective lives embedded in a bigger story – the human epic?

         “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”

Despite Jean-Francois Lyotard’s famous pronouncement, he cannot close the case against the big story since — in the very sentence where he tries to close it — he relies on two meta-narrative markers, which he himself has lined up in chronological order: first, modernism and then post-modernism, its successor.


In brief, we can’t help thinking in chronological narratives: when we number the items on our to-do list, when we celebrate birthdays, mourn deaths, recall our parents and their stories, provide for and anticipate the future, near or far.  We may not know just how it went before we got here, or will go when we are gone – or even how precisely to portray it now — but we do think and feel that we are part of a larger story on the big timeline called history.

Out of curiosity, the other day I decided to try to portray the shape or sense of the last 150 years, using whatever evidence I can call to mind.  As hardly needs saying, this ain’t the God’s eye view.  But what the heck, you gotta start somewhere.  (You wanna set me straight?  Be my guest!)

Let’s begin with the time leading up to World War I.  In Queen Victoria’s heyday, educated people hitched their rides through time to beliefs — Christianity, the Enlightenment and the progress of modernity.  Thus Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson, celebrates Victorian beliefs:

Yet I doubt not thro’ the ages one increasing purpose runs,

And the thoughts of men are widen’d with the process of the suns.

But such beliefs were loosening their hold, even before the first World War produced its more obvious prompts for disillusionment.  How and why?

First, an aestheticism took hold of cultivated minds: art as its own support,  ungrounded by nature, psychology, theology or history.  One thinks of Oscar Wilde, Charles Beaudelaire, J. K. Huysmans, certain members of the Bloomsbury circle.  Swells with a certain deliberate preciosity, a curling of the well-born lip — a warrantless sense that one is simply delicious — just as one is.

Second, the influence of Nietzsche is being felt, along with his clinical counterpart, Sigmund Freud.  The dark, post-Kantian Romanticism of Schopenhauer, has taken a still-gloomier turn with the input of Charles Darwin.  We are not what we are cracked up to be.  We are more like apes in well-cut suits.  Our professed ideals are like the suits.  We don’t look like that late at night, when the moon is full, under the suits.

Third, none of this is particularly good for the image of the feminine in the culture.  Upper-class women’s agitation for the vote and higher education is being heeded.  But the new psychology will tend to regard women as defective men, who can’t help envying the male in his possession of his sex organ.  It’s preposterous, but we are social creatures.  So, of course, women will begin to think of themselves that way.  And along with shorter skirts and bobbed hair, they’ll be admonished to be “healthier” by acquiring bachelor-style promiscuity.  It’s not especially healthy but, to flatter the men, women will do their best to believe it.  And women will be scared into “proving” that they are not repressed.

Meanwhile, anthropologists are sending back their selective reports from far-away islands.  Two generations later, the natives will be studying anthropology themselves.  In these first reports, the impression is being conveyed that value judgments ought to be suspended – not merely as a tool of research — but indefinitely.

So there is less self-righteousness;

 also less righteousness.

Two great mass movements, communism and fascism, will mobilize these developments for the purpose of deciphering and dominating world history.  Although western-style democracies will prevail over the totalitarianisms of the twentieth-century, the foundations of cultural self-confidence remain undermined.  We don’t go back to Tennyson.

Instead, varieties of extreme skepticism sweep over the ramparts of western culture.  As happened in ancient times, the notion of equality is still misused to discount achievements of effort, talent or character.  Distinctions between degrees of merit will be attributed to luck and accident and deemed invidious. 

As trade and communication go global, we see and feel a newly expanded sense of human community.  However, received opinion is taking in the big picture negatively: in the form of inherited guilt that must stain entire civilizations and all their members.  This is not the healthily bestirred conscience that you can do something about.  Instead, anybody and everybody stands ready to denounce and be denounced.  It’s one big world, we’re all in it together, and it’s being denounced in its entirety, in advance.

Can we get to the plus side?  People are lighter than they used to be.  Not so stuffed and weighted down by inherited stations and attitudes.  Women have been conceded rights they never had before.  Americans of African descent can now claim their lens on our shared history.  Irrelevant snobbisms are somewhat discredited.  The dentistry is definitely better!  Materialist mechanism is dying as a force in culture.  This means values — ethical, aesthetic and personal — will no longer be seen reductively as epiphenomena.  Promises and commitments will be understood in their inbuilt seriousness.

With the decline of reductive views, cynicism and absurdism will shrink in scope and intellectual influence.  Partly as a result, good and evil will get more chance to be recognized as conscious choices.  Since there’s no replacing it, reason might even regain its rightful place in public conversation.  Traditional faiths may be weakening, but there is also more room for living meaningfully and worthily.  Conceivably, religions might even help.

The planet we love?

I suppose we can struggle through, with God’s help.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to The Past 150 Years: Looking Backwards

  1. Abigail says:

    Thanks so much, castaway 5555! I wasn’t expecting much response from this column, so am very interested to see that thoughtful people do react to it. We’re not encouraged to look at the big story nowadays. So we get afraid to look. But the wide-angle picture is a mixed one, not entirely discouraging. There’s good news as well as bad.

  2. castaway5555 says:

    A good read for me … I posted on my Twitter and FB page … I mention two other truth-tellers, Heather Cox Richardson and Kristin Kobes DuMez … I hope the three of you could all have coffee together.

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