Friday, 22 November 2019

Maybe Victorians were smarter than we are

How did two people who had once filled each other's universe manage to hold together as the tide receded? Why, by the world-old compulsion of marriage, he supposed. Marriage was a trick, a sham, if you looked at it in one way; but it was the only means man had yet devised for defending himself from his own frivolity.

Edith Wharton - The Gods Arrive (1932)

It is worth remembering that by our standards almost all Victorians were poor simply because our general prosperity has increased so enormously over the past century or so. Victorian elites may have lived lives of pampered comfort but today, the majority of us live lives which are at least as comfortable as the most pampered duke or duchess.

This prosperity divide is important because it reminds us that Victorians were much closer to the edge than we are. Closer to infant mortality, childbirth mortality, hunger, disease, destitution, slums and a host of other horrors our prosperity and knowledge have mitigated or virtually removed.

Victorians were aware that life is uncertain and felt the precarious nature of life much more acutely than we generally feel it. Uncertainty was their lived experience. They knew nothing else and neither were they constantly persuaded that smoothing out life’s uncertainties ought to be some kind of human right.

In other words Victorians had an acute understanding of how important it was to defend themselves against a whole host of threats to their well-being. They understood why family life, thrift and hard work were the essential basis of an increasingly technical and urban population. From this it follows that they knew how vitally important it was to defend themselves, their families and their country against anything which threatened the basis of their existence.

Even by Edith Wharton’s time the threats were receding. Consequently social constraints were eroding as the consequences of frivolity became less appalling. Incompetence and a feckless life were less hazardous for a much greater number of people. But feckless is not smart.

Victorians understood how a sustainable culture remains sustainable, how it is defended and the compromises we have to make in defending it, how we have to sustain a restrictive bias towards our own culture because that is what sustains us now. In this respect yes - maybe Victorians were smarter than we are.


Sam Vega said...

"we have to sustain a restrictive bias towards our own culture..."

That's a nice phrase. It seems obvious, the sort of thing that only a simpleton would question. But it's now on the very edges of social respectability, only seen on blogs like this, and probably heading towards illegality.

Graeme said...

Ah yes, but the Victorians didn't have the benefit of Greta Thunberg. You see, civilisation gets better and better... Lol

A K Haart said...

Sam - yes, as if an important section of society no longer has the moral courage to learn the lessons of success.

Graeme - poor Greta - I wonder how history will tell her story.