Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Judging People of the Past

  Madame de Pompadour and the Marquis de Marigny by Alexander Roslin, 1754

A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time. - Louis L'Amour in "Education of a Wandering Man"

It appears to be absolutely logical that the people of a particular era could only have acted the way they did. They acted accordingly to their knowledge and their understanding of the world. This includes morality of the particular period. 

Yet, some questions come to mind: Are moral values universal or do they depend on the "fashions" of an epoch? What was right then may seem absolutely outrageous today. We are quick to blame. But who are we to judge from our own standpoint? Would we have acted differently if we lived then? Do moral judgments depend on the political and social contexts of a particular era or are certain moral truths valid universally and independently of time and place?

Evolution of the society includes evolution of consciousness. As both, the individual and the collective consciousness evolve, people gain more and more understanding of the human condition. And yet, moral relativism remains a haunting issue. We may intuitively believe that it is wrong to do this or that and act accordingly, but we may never be certain that the future generations would think of us as righteous. No matter how enlightened we may feel we are, it is possible that one hundred years from now our moral values will be judged as barbaric. And it is very much possible that we would not be judged from the perspective of our own times. The judging and the judged never share the same understanding or experience.

By Dominique Allmon ©2011