Undeserved nostalgia?
May 6, 2008 1:06 AM   Subscribe

When was the past better than the present? I'd like to know the word or phrase that describes the romanticism people have of the past, e.g. "In those days, children respected their elders!". I was watching the documentary Born Rich and Cody Franchetti mentions that the encyclopedia was better in the early 20th century. Why? This feeling that "old ways are better" is not exactly nostalgia, because often people expressing this sentiment didn't actually grow up in this utopian past. But their feelings toward this time are exactly like nostalgia.

My memory may be failing me, but I recall learning in history class that people during the Renaissance had this love of all things ancient. Where did they get such an idea? It seems the opposite of the idea of "progress", which I associate with the Victorians, yet also associate with Enlightenment ideals which were born out of the Renaissance. Via searching Wikipedia, I find that this is the antithesis of "chronological snobbery". So what is it called?

Also, why is it prevalent? It's easier for me to understand the assumption inherent in Victorian's progressive ideas: we learn from the past's mistakes, so we don't make the same mistakes. But how does one intuitively decide that the present is decaying?
posted by Monochrome to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The idea of the Golden Age overlaps with what you're looking for. Some Golden Ages are mythical paradises lost; others are recollections of peaks of prosperity, military conquest or artistic achievement, etc., as for example in the Dutch Golden Age, or the golden age of Islam.
posted by misteraitch at 2:03 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I thought of ubi sunt, but according to Wikipedia that's not quite what you're looking for.
Sometimes considered to be a nostalgic longing for the clich├ęd "good old days", the ubi sunt motif is actually a meditation on mortality and life's transience.
Oh well. But maybe you could go with the people who sometimes consider.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:26 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would guess part of the belief in a golden age occurring in your parents' childhood is that you see it through the memories they choose to share.

I think belief in your own times being in decay is a natural result of ageing for some people, they may be becoming more more aware of their own mortality and more fearful generally at the same time that they become more aware of the corruption and discrimination around them and the fact that the grass isn't greener anywhere else. (When you were young, did you believe that the US was close to paradise? Has the distance seemed to grow a bit?)
posted by Idcoytco at 3:41 AM on May 6, 2008

I think it's got a lot to do with the fact that people don't really write down all the day to day petty idiocy that people get up to, and remember things in the past as being rosier. Loke Idcoytoco says, it's the memories people share. Your grandparents are more likely to tell you about the wonderful times they had growing up in the country as children than tell you about the siblings they lost to illness and how their father worked himself to death in the coal mines.

I enjoyed the following lines in Shakespeare's `As you like it', when Adam offers Orlando his money and service and Orlando sees this as an action of someone from a noble but long gone age.

O good old man, how well in thee appears
The constant service of the antique world,
When service sweat for duty, not for meed!
Thou art not for the fashion of these times,
Where none will sweat but for promotion,
And having that do choke their service up
Even with the having; it is not so with thee.
posted by tomble at 4:11 AM on May 6, 2008

A lot of people simplify the "good life" of the past to that time when they were children. How can any life compare to the protection and wonderment that a child feels? Sure in 1950s America, a proportionate slice of white men had a golden age but if you weren't a white man then it was less than ideal.

The only way that people get the impression that we are in a decaying age is probably by focusing on the negative news that the media presents. Of course, newspapers of every age have headlines of horrors, crimes, and death. I regularly go through old newspapers all the way to the mid nineteenth century and the amount of crime back then is just as prevalent as today.
posted by JJ86 at 5:45 AM on May 6, 2008

This isn't quite what you're asking about, but it seems worthwhile to point out that the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica is considered to be the best edition of that work ever published. Even though the general problem of "the past was better" is pernicious, one can see why a particular version of something from the past is better than all subsequent versions.
posted by OmieWise at 6:21 AM on May 6, 2008

Best answer: romanticism people have of the past <>
Now I want to know the phrase for when you want a better phrase than you already have, despite that phrase being perfectly fine. :)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:21 AM on May 6, 2008

whoops, that set of braces was a left-pointing arrow in preview.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:22 AM on May 6, 2008

Best answer: "Children no longer respect their elders and everyone seems to be writing a book." - Cicero, AD 43

Another reason for looking back at the past with rose-colored glasses is that the present is on the very edge of the future, and there's all kinds of uncertainty about that. Even now, even I believe our civilization to be on the edge of collapse.

But the past, well there may have been problems and unpleasantness. But a priori, we got through them and it all turned out mostly okay, didn't it?
posted by Naberius at 6:58 AM on May 6, 2008

Racial tensions aside, I can certainly see why, in America, people right now would pine for the "good old days."

The years between WWII and Vietnam were years of victory and growth, having pulled together as a nation to fight the closest thing to legitimate "evil" in Hitler, and having pulled our nation out of the Great Depression. FDR's New Deal and the general prosperity of the nation put more of the money in the hands of the poor and middle class than before or since.

Now we have illegitimate wars, oil barons etc. making tons of money, and a government that many consider to be out-of-touch with the needs of the people. That, and compared to our unparalleled educational systems and "obvious" superiority, America is rarely "number 1" in education or industries, and it stings our pride.
posted by explosion at 7:01 AM on May 6, 2008

I like the phrase "rose-colored glasses". Also a line from a Sage Francis song: "Don't get fancy with your paintbrush when you reminisce."
posted by mgogol at 7:10 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Uh, Burkean-style conservatism? Also consider the possibility that a belief that the past was generally better than the present is the result of a kind of survivor's bias - for the reason that the people who suffered and died in the past (for lack of modern medicine, lack of modern enforcement of civil rights, what have you) are no longer around to say, "Hey things weren't so great, since I and many other similarly situated people died who, today, would live."
posted by chinston at 8:23 AM on May 6, 2008


It sounds like it's being used that way in this quote:

At best, atavism is a harmless fantasy, not sustainable with any degree of persistent realism under skies crisscrossed by satellites and jet aircraft.
-- Shiva Naipaul, "Aborigines: primitive chic in Australia", New Republic, April 22, 1985
posted by selfmedicating at 8:40 AM on May 6, 2008

The idea of progress can be traced back further than the Enlightenment, as it almost sputtered to life during Hellenistic times (see: J.B. Bury, The Idea of Progress).

I think perceptions about whether progress is happening or not depend on the rate of change, which is always accelerating. As you note, none of the people nostalgizing these past "Golden Ages" were alive during them. But they also couldn't see any change between the past and the their present, because the changes were too slow and subtle until the Enlightenment. If you've been using a cart your whole life, and your grandparents used carts, and when you dig in the ground you find the remains of similar carts from the past, it seems like carts have always been the same. In times before refrigeration and nutrition and shiny, durable modern materials, things wore out and rusted and decayed very quickly, including people. If everything in the world is "old" because nothing changes on a human-perceptible scale, then it would be natural to assume that in the past those things were better because they were the same, but fresh and new and not worn out.

Douglas Coupland, "The Past Sucks"
Next time somebody annoys you by romanticizing some hell-hole of a previous era, listen carefully--you'll hear any number of caveats being placed on their projected experience: "I have to be rich"; "I have to be a member of the ruling class"; "I have to have all my vaccinations"; "I have to have my contact lenses"; "I have to have my appendix out first"; "I have to have my Walkman and my New Order CDs." Tell these people to keep their gobs shut. Say to these annoying people, "Hey kids-the past wasn't like a trip to Waikiki: the only sure thing about the past is some ghastly disease, carnage, toil that defies all description, starvation, and boredom of a sort that makes waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles seem like Disneyland on heroin."
posted by jbrjake at 9:16 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In Catholic theology, there's a concept referred to as 'antiquarianism' (which, like everything else--literally--that ends in -ism, has been condemned insofar as people adhere to its tenets in their purest form). Antiquarianism, at least in Catholic terms, means an untiring devotion to restoring or even preserving the outward, man-made manifestations of Catholic life and discipline--divinely revealed teachings, disciplines, and Sacred, or "big-T," Tradition being immutable--exactly as they were in the first century. It's a denial that there may occur a legitimate, organic development of outward Catholic life. (It's assertedly what the Protestant self-styled 'Restorationists' aspire to.)

You can spot an antiquarianist very simply, among believers and non-believers. If they ever say with regard to a man-made, "little T," tradition, "Well I'd like to see what [insert name of first- or second-century writer] would think about that," there's an antiquarianist. It presupposes that there is no authentic organic development of the outward aspects of Christian life.

E.g., early Catholics only worshiped in houses and catacombs, therefore we can only worship in houses and catacombs. Okay.

I'm only telling you this because, to these people, OLDER = BETTER. Which is exactly what you're talking about, only applied to a specific context.
posted by resurrexit at 10:23 AM on May 6, 2008

Best answer: I learned the really useful phrase "decline narrative" from this post by Miko. I gather it refers to the persistent perception that something is in decline, despite the fact that many people in the so-called golden age of the past also thought things were in decline. So either decline is perpetual and we're going to bottom out sometime or, more likely, that things are really declining only because we say they are, and not from any objective measure.

It's like those "death of the newspaper/book/reading/good manners/safe streets" stories you read in the news from time to time: you can pull them out any time you want to fill a slow news day, because they're pretty much always accurate (which means they're also pretty much always inaccurate). Realizing this has done wonders to keep me from being nostalgic on principle, as a way of dealing with my disgust at certain parts of life. The answer is not that bad things have started happening only now that I'm around to see them. The answer (much more disturbing) is that they've always happened.
posted by roombythelake at 11:25 AM on May 6, 2008

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