The best of times, the worst of times…
Alan Jacobs, always worth reading, writes of a new book on the 18th Century that seems to paint it so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only:
Religion, he says, had become more purely moralistic than it had been in the Reformation era, and otherwise was primarily devoted to meeting the needs of the self. Deism was becoming more commonplace. Belief in the essential goodness of humanity became more and more prevalent. English men and women of the time were sure they had a stronger social conscience than their ancestors — more care for children and for the poor — and felt that progress was certain. Of course, the age’s confidence in its own virtue may not have been fully warranted: “Tears for the exploited, the unfortunate and the afflicted flowed freely, but sympathy cost little, and was only occasionally translated into action.”
Certainly there were major changes in child-rearing from the practices of previous ages: “Many ladies abandoned the wet nurse and experimented with breast-feeding; swaddling disappeared, partly in response to mothers’ new-found desire to fondle, dandle and dress their infants. … Though groups such as the Wesleyans kept faith with flogging, enlightened parents laid off the rod, trying reason, coaxing and kindness instead. Infants were hugged and petted more.” The spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child model of parental discipline was increasingly seen as benighted and cruel. But, Porter comments, “In polite society, greater attention towards the young perhaps led to over-protective parental anxiety” — the 18th-century version of “helicopter parents”.
There were few atheists, but also not so many orthodox Christians. “Many Georgians rarely went through a church porch between their christening and burial. Yet practically everyone, in his own fashion, had faith. Much of it was a fig leaf of Christianity covering a body of inherited magic and superstition, little more than Nature worship (the polite, doctrinally correct form of this was known as ‘natural religion’). But everyone had his own vision of a Creator, of a ‘place’ in Heaven, and convictions of Good and Evil, reward and punishment.” One might say that the typical 18th-century Englishman was “spiritual but not religious”.
Is any of this sounding familiar yet?
I thrill to such parallels, and am fortunate enough not to have the historical chops to knock holes in them.