Friday, May 11, 2012

History Mythical Enemy No. 1: Times Were Simpler Back Then

Lot's of people say it. Lot's of people think it: "I wish I lived back then, when times were simpler."

I remember the first time the absolute balderdash of this saying really hit me. I was watching a television show (which shall go unnamed), where the host was staying with an Indonesian tribe, who happened to practice cannibalism, for a week or so, trying to convey to the audience a sense of their lives and culture. And at the end, when summing it all up, he described their lives as simple as they cooked over an open fire and hunted for subsistence and slept in elevated dwellings in the trees.

Except, ten minutes earlier he had been describing the fact that this tribe had, only two years before, eaten a man from the neighboring tribe because they believed he was possessed with evil. Now there was a social need to interact with the people of tribe #2 again, and they were dealing with that awkward "Hey, I ate your cousin" problem.

What about that is simple!?

The fact is that human lives are messy and always have been.

As best as I can tell, the idea of a "simple" life seems to be one that is not necessarily easy and devoid of work, but rather one where the choices and conflicts of social life are absent. A Simple Life is one where you know what you have to do, and you do it: You get up in the morning. You plow your field. You bake your bread. You go to bed satisfied at a job well done and know that you will do it again tomorrow.

Sadly as far I can tell, this has never exisited. One has only to look at the twisted web of Nancy Shippen Livingston's, ill-fated marriage and custody battle for her child to find examples of this. Or what about Harriet Livingston Fulton's rather awkward marriage?  Her husband seemed more devoted to his friends the Barlows than he did to her. When he died, she remarried, left her children with relatives, and ran away to England with her new husband.  That could not have been simple either--for her or the children.

Or consider the complex nature of the relationships developed within the Livingston's household as a result of slavery. Slaves might have been loved by their owners and sometimes viewed very much like a pet (and I use this analogy with belief that keeping children enslaved as errand runners or dressing adults up in clothes you find cute is a pretty misguided way to view and treat a fellow human being), but they did not free them. The reasons not to free slaves were also complex, ranging from a widespread belief in African Americans' childlike intelligence to an understanding that without protection from the law, they were vulnerable and economically at risk. Or possibly it was the fact that you were essentially setting free an expensive piece of livestock. Treating slaves with dignity (when it happened) may have been nice and all, but those people were still enslaved.

This yearning for simplicity is nothing new.  When Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz visited Chancellor Livingston 1797, he wistfully described a tenant farmer sitting on his porch and surveying his corn field.  "This was a farmer who, from the position of overseer or manager, has today become the owner of an excellent homestead.  Considered the best farmer in the whole neighborhood, he has now passed his cares on to his son, leaving for himself only supervision and rest... We left him untroubled in sweet contemplation."

This passage always seemed to me like Niemsewizc was wearing uncharacteristically rose-tinted glasses.  Worries about crop success or failure, what prices he could get, whether or not his sons were ready to be entrusted with the farm, etc. cannot have been absent from this man's mind. Nagging wives, lost friends, and social injustices, whether nearby or afar may have plagued his thoughts.  He had lived through the American Revolution, and war too leaves long-lasting marks on people.

Each generation has had its own proponents of the Simple Life.  "From the cradle to the grave, in his needs as in his pleasures, in his conception of the world and of himself, the man of modern times struggles through a maze of endless complication," wrote Charles Wagner--and that was all the way back in 1901.  I wonder what he would think of today's 24-hour news channels, Facebook, and smart phones?  But his age was also bombarded with intimidating new technologies: telephones, monstrous ocean liners, and (very soon) airplanes.  I have no doubt Mr. Wagner felt just as assailed by his world as we do today.

Some musings about the Simple Life have become proverbial, such as the famous Walter Scott line, published in 1808 "Oh what a a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive!"  Here is complaining about the complexities we bring on ourselves as opposed to those from outside forces.

And if you want to go way back in time, you can remember Hamlet.  As with all of Shakespeare's work, it is the human complexity that makes the play ring so true today.  Hamlet is compelled to avenge his father's death by killing King Claudius, but his own fears make it take half the play just to make up his mind.  Shakespeare's characters are forever trapped in their own tangled webs, which Hamlet intones to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how

express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

in apprehension how like a god! 

For Shakespeare, nothing is ever simple.

So the next time you find yourself musing about the Simple Life, keep in mind that at no period in history has life ever been simple--at least not since humans developed these big brains.  But you don't have to feel bad about it.  You can be counted in with many great thinkers wishing for the same. There is nothing wrong with trying to create a Simple Life scenario in your head, just remember that the only way you're ever really going to see the real Simple Life, is if you take steps to simplify your own life today.

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