judging the past by the present

This will probably come as a great surprise to many of you, but I have never been accused, at any point in my life, of being “in style.” It just isn’t my thing. It’s not that I haven’t tried. Some people try really hard to get better at golf yet still slice every drive out of bounds. Some people try really hard to be in style yet still somehow wear a cowboy hat in their senior picture. I’ve come to believe that some people have the skill set to be consistently on the cutting edge of style, and the rest of us will find creative ways to justify wearing our pajamas to Walmart.

But whether you are consistently in style or not, we have all had the experience of looking back on our old pictures and cringing. What was I thinking with that haircut? Oh, those glasses were a bad choice. That silk shirt is so ugly that a hipster wouldn’t even ironically wear it.

But if you think about it, this judgment isn’t totally fair. What is “in style” is always determined by an ever-changing context – a time and a place.  If you were a suburban teenager in 1990 who wanted to be in style, this is what you would look like.



Yes, it’s ridiculous now, but at the time, every cool kid that I knew in eighth grade couldn’t wait until the weekend to go to the Merry Go Round and get a new I.O.U. sweatshirt and some fresh Skidz.

There’s a lesson here. You can’t always judge the past according to a standard that didn’t even exist at the time. Think about it. It’s very likely that twenty years from now you will look back at pictures from today and cringe. I mean, sure, you think you’re cool now, but this look will not age well.


My dad shared some wisdom with me a long time ago when he pointed out that jeans and a t-shirt never go out of style. It’s typically those who try the hardest to be in style today that will be most horrified tomorrow. Today’s “holey” jeans are tomorrow’s Skidz.

There is a fallacy of thinking that some people call presentism which is to introduce present-day ideas and assumptions into the interpretation of the past. Typically, we engage in presentism when we judge the past according to some recently-arrived-at idea.

One example is with the Medieval assumption that the earth was the center of the solar system. There is a contemporary snobbery towards all those hopeless, backward (and by that we mean “religious”) people and institutions who didn’t immediately change their entire cosmology because of the new insights of Copernicus. But would we have been any different? If you lived in a world where virtually every person assumed belief X and then someone proposed a competing belief Y, are you sure that you would immediately change your worldview to match the new belief? It seems that we should not only be charitable towards those who resisted Copernicus but also acknowledge a sort of wisdom in their position. It’s folly to willingly and quickly change your worldview every time someone insists on a new idea. A person who is easily convinced to change her core beliefs is not particularly virtuous.

The truth is that regardless of what you’ve heard, hindsight is never 20/20. Our understanding of the past is often frustrated and inhibited by reading current fashions and ideas into it – or rather, imposing those current fashions and ideas. There are plenty of historical examples to choose from. Abraham Lincoln was racist because he didn’t possess the type of uncompromising racial sensitivity that we would expect of a leader in the 21st century. Charles Darwin was a great biologist, but also a Victorian misogynist. Is it okay to grieve the passing of Billy Graham even though his views on sexuality and the so-called “Billy Graham Rule” are regarded by many as hopelessly unfashionable to today’s cultural assumptions? Heck, should we even dare to be entertained by The Office in our enlightened age given its problematic racial and sexual politics?

Presentism deceives us into thinking that simply being in the present time is to have arrived. That those in the past – no matter how virtuous – deserve a measure of condemnation for simply not being in the present. And those of us privileged enough to live in the present time will never stand condemned by our progeny. The fashions and ideas of our time are the apex of history, and we will never be proven embarrassingly wrong. I’m quite sure that the “progressive” eugenics movement cheered and championed by the likes of Margaret Sanger never dreamed that it would one day be judged as monstrous and regressive.

But the example of Margaret Sanger brings up an important point. Is it ever justified for us who are living today to condemn those who lived in the past for their backward ideas? Do the dangers of presentism rule out all historical judgments?

Alan Jacobs, in his book How to Thinkargues that we should generally show compassion and grace to those who lived in different times than we. We should acknowledge that had we lived in different times or places, we may have held similar beliefs. However, he does make a distinction with the likes of Margaret Sanger and John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was a graduate of Yale and the Vice President of the United States. He was named in 1957 one of the five greatest senators in American history. But he was also an unabashed promoter of slavery. Jacobs calls him the “single most passionate and influential advocate for slavery in his era.” And a present-day assessment of his legacy should rightly condemn him for this. Jacobs says,

But here I think we need to make a vital distinction: between those who held what we now believe to be a profoundly mistaken view, or tolerated such a view, simply because it was common in their time, and those who were the architects of and advocates for such a view.

I will add what Jacobs only implies. In order to keep from both the twin dangers of presentism and relativism, we have to arrive at and defend universal standards of morally upright behavior. Slavery and eugenics is always wrong because basic human dignity is always right. To advocate for either of these is equally wrong in every culture – even if it has become fashionable in a culture for a time. Principles like this are the jeans and a t-shirt of morality.






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