The Best of Times

Claire Berlinski  asserts that:

In rare moments in history, ordinary men and women have been uncommonly contented. By contented I mean precisely what those men and women meant: This is not my judgment of them; it is their judgment of themselves, reflected in their letters and their arts. They were contented with their social and political lives. They found their daily activities pleasurable. They considered themselves remarkably  fortunate to be alive at that very moment, in that very place. They were sunny in disposition, at peace with themselves, and above all, optimistic.

She identifies six historical situations, ranging from Rome in 160-220 AD to the United States in 1952-1963, in which she believes this condition existed, and analyzes the factors involved.

Ricochet (which is where Claire’s post appears) is a membership site; comments may be read by all but comments may only be added by members.

28 thoughts on “The Best of Times”

  1. Interesting little essay there. I was born in 1959, the end of the Eisenhower Administration, so I can’t speak from firsthand knowledge about Eisenhower’s presidency. I find it amusing, though, in my old age, to hear the Great Critique of Eisenhower that ‘he didn’t DO anything!’. Well, despite the fact that he conceived, organized and executed the greatest infrastructure project since the Panama Canal and oversaw the introduction of nuclear powered ships and submarines, I will repeat an old management adage, that when things are going along just swimmingly in an organization but you can’t figure out what the management is actually doing all day, they’re probably doing a damn good job, just quietly, calmly, and unobtrusively.

    In my life, I’ll contrast the two presidencies that seem at polar opposites. First, the catastrophic presidency of Terrible Jimmy, which, like now, left me with the constant feeling that everything was collapsing, to that of Reagan, which seemed to bring an absolute renaissance to America. I don’t credit Reagan himself with all of that. There was a sea change that took place that year. It was like a large part of the country made a collective decision to change direction. American industry took a hard look at itself, its self interested management and unions, poor productions quality standards, lack of investment and innovation, and it changed direction as well. Those changes saw the introduction computer-aided design, analysis and manufacturing, and equally profoundly, the push-down of decision making to the levels where those decisions were implemented, but those making the decisions held accountable for the results. There’s a lesson in good governance in there, a lesson the founders, and average people once understood. It was also a time when people, especially in smaller communities, looked around their towns and said, ‘Hey, let’s clean this place up!’ I remember lots of decaying town centers getting completely refurbished, old buildings renovated, potted trees and flowers appearing outside, American flags hanging on storefronts. Lots of nice middle class housing was built. People everywhere seemed to decide they wanted things to work well and be nice. And they made it happen. In that sense, Reagan may have been a reflection of what people wanted rather than the cause.

  2. It seems likely that there were differences in contentment in different societies/periods according to an individual’s personality type.

    There is a SF story by Poul Anderson in which a man suffering from an incurable disease is put into suspended animation, with instructions to wake him up when the disease becomes curable. Wake him up they do, and cure him, no prob, but…

    Society is now very calm. Everything is group-oriented; there is no privacy and no conflict. People spend their time singing, dancing, pursuing crafts of various kinds. The protagonist becomes so bored that he actually loses his mind. (The society of the time doesn’t know how to cure this form of mental illness, so they put him back in suspended animation in hopes of a cure being developed sometime in the future.)

    There are people of other personality types who would be very happy if time-transported forward into Anderson’s imagined future society.

  3. Call me a spittle-flecked radical, but I’m a bit reluctant to choose a slave-holding era. How can we know that the slaves were content too?

    As for the US under Ike: would it be unfair to guess that one could be even more specific and propose California in ’52-’63 as the quintessence of content? (I didn’t see California until ’66, when it looked pretty good to me.)

    By the by, I can remember the later years of ’52-’63 but not in the US (though we had plenty of visits from American cousins); there were people everywhere telling me that I ought to be terrified by the imminence of nuclear armageddon. I decided that they were just chumps and ignored them. As later became clear, Kennedy almost managed to bring about said n.a. That’s the trouble with an Ike; eventually he retires and along comes a JFK, or in the case of JFK’s successor, a monster.

  4. I would suggest two periods where innovation and prosperity existed but which were followed by serious, or even catastrophic change for the worse. Those times would be the 1920s and the 1990s. In both cases, peace and prosperity were the basic conditions. The 1920s were the time of Prohibition which Progressivism foisted on the country (A fact largely forgotten) and the 1990s were a period when Islamic radicalism was growing undisturbed. In both cases the era ended suddenly.

  5. She compares apples and oranges. You can’t have 200 year blocks for Abbasid & Romans but only a decade of modern times.

    I would suggest America (Yankee America) between 1815 and 1860. The Han Dynasty c. 190-140 BC. Parts of the Song Dynasty are a strong candidate, though I would have to think harder to choose the exact dates. The first 80 years after the Tokugawa took over Japan is another option.

  6. I can’t speak to the other times but the 1950s – well, were a time of contentment until 1957, when Sputnik was launched. Then the country went into a near state of panic. Fall our shelters, hand-wringing – the works.

    I did read a fascinating book on Chicago and the World’s Fair – Devil In The White City – and the 1890s seemed pretty “content” (serial killers aside)

    If you Chicago Boys haven’t read this you should pout it on your list – about the building of the Chicago World’s Fair, and … a serial killer who makes the criminals today look like Girl Scouts.

  7. Too bad we don’t have an edit function.

    Or we don’t spend more time looking at our posts before we hit “submit”

  8. I was in college when Sputnik was launched. It was to be a great boon for engineers but no panic that I recall.

    What scared me at that time was Neville Shute’s novel “On the Beach.” He had written two prophetic novels before. The first was Ordeal which predicted the Blitz and was written in 1938. The second was No Highway which had predicted that a new airliner would crash from metal fatigue. That one was written six years before the new DeHavilland Comet began to crash and the cause was eventually found to be metal fatigue.

    The fact that he had written two novels that predicted the future scared the crap out of me and I nearly dropped out of school. It was 1957 and the world was going to end. That was a time of many predictions of nuclear war ending in disaster. Collier’s magazine even had a special issue on the third world war in 1951. At least we won that one.

    The movie that was made from On the Beach was pretty good and had a big cast. I still cannot reread the book. Shute did not like the movie because the two main characters had an affair. He was rather puritanical about sex out side of marriage.

  9. >>The fact that he had written two novels that predicted the future scared the crap out of me and I nearly dropped out of school. It was 1957 and the world was going to end.

    I remember reading something written by someone who’d spent time with Oppenheimer in the 50’s. He was overwhelmed with the feeling that everything was soon and inevitably to obliterated in a nuclear war. He thought building a highway bridge to be a waste of effort since it was all going to be destroyed. On the other hand, my parents thought the 50’s and early 60’s were wonderful.

    There’s an old saying that where you stand on something depends on where you sit.

  10. Thoughtful, educated people seem to be especially prone to being influenced by big, confident predictions made by people whose opinions they respect. Yet such predictions are often wrong because most big predictions are wrong.

    This may be where “Never take counsel of your fears” and similar heuristics come from.

  11. To me the defining line between the idyllic 50s and the turbulent 60s was the Kennedy assassination. With Sputrnik the realization came of ICBMs in the not to distant future – and the Russians were way ahead.

  12. “and the Russians were way ahead”: and yet all JFK’s talk of a “missile gap” was simply lying for electoral purposes.

  13. I got over it but I was in a bit of a tailspin for a short while.

    Fortunately, fraternity parties intervened and I recovered. I watched “Animal House” last night and it brought back fond memories. As is my wont, I read the Wiki article about the movie and the two writers had been in fraternities in college and used many of their own memories. That is probably what made it so good. Chris Miller was at Dartmouth and it was really about Dartmouth when it was all male, and Harold Ramis was a ZBT at Washington U. I was glad to see the Jewish fraternities were as silly as we were.

    The fraternity movement was still popular when I was in medical school and even there it was fun. I was a Nu Sigma Nu, which seems to survive only at Penn medical school. I’m glad to see there are still some medical students enjoying themselves. There were four medical fraternities, aside from the honorary ones like AOA , and the others were pretty uptight, having lectures as their social events. Our one rush event was a flag football game with the freshman class. The loser bought the beer.

    Pledging was totally voluntary; the students chose and the fraternity had no option about who joined. The result was groups that had similar interests. There was no “best” fraternity although we liked ours. We were the only one with a female member. We also had two Jewish members at a time when Jewish medical students were under considerable pressure to join Jewish fraternities as it was anticipated that they would be practicing in Jewish medical communities. I thought it took guts to decline the pressure.

    Our medical fraternity even had a basketball team in the East Los Angelus Industrial League, which included a couple of rather scary looking teams and their fans. We had a couple of college varsity players, one from Stanford, and did well in the league.

    In spite of worries about nuclear war, it was a nicer time to be young and in college and grad school. Not as much sex, of course, as the birth control pill was still in the future but that seemed less of an issue. Oddly enough, I recall no transgender students. Times were good. Vietnam came along later and the big event of my time was the Berlin Wall the building of which pulled me out of medical school for a year as my reserve unit was called up to active duty. Other than that, it was a time of hard work and the expectation of rewards. Mixed with a bit of fun.

  14. “all JFK’s talk of a “missile gap” was simply lying for electoral purposes.”

    And he knew better as he had been briefed by Eisenhower. He declined most of the briefings as he knew he would hear things that conflicted with his speeches. Obama was not the first empty suit although Kennedy had some spine. I voted for Nixon and have never regretted it.

  15. Ya, I’d have to agree with the post about 14th century Mali…but seriously, I was born in the time of Ike, and things seemed pretty regular until the later sixties. Then the circus came to our little town, in the form of a massive state university, with a colorful cast of characters. Most everyone I’ve known seems to have experiences colored by either WWI, the Depression, WWII, so yeah, the fifties, early-mid sixties was when everyone seemed content.

  16. The Sixties was the era after the war generation spoiled their pampered kids who hated them for it. I was too busy with medical school and a surgery residency to indulge but I watched it with revulsion, I was married in 1960 so missed the pleasures of “the pill generation.”

  17. I have a friend who was in Berkeley in the early 60s – both he and his wife knew Mario Savio – said he was a self-absorbed jerk

  18. I disagree with the premise of the article, and the question to the readers to submit their own contented era.

    As I have mentioned in other contexts, there is a film of Queen Victoria’s funeral, attended by all the nobility of the world, some scenes of which are utterly fascinating, given our knowledge of what was to come.

    The jerky, black and white images of the various kings, queens, aristocrats, etc., tottering around in magnificent uniforms, accompanied by their wives in the elaborate gowns and hats of the 19th century, is a display of power and, I assume, self-assured contentment with the arrangement of the world par excellence.

    And yet, within a generation, most of it would be swept away, and replaced by screaming totalitarianisms that destroyed almost all of their world.

    Contentment in the real world is usually more self-delusion than a justified peace of mind.

    There never was a time and place where everyone, or even most, was content with the world around them.

    Read the opening chapters of Mitchner’s Hawaii. Even living in paradise isn’t enough for people to be content.

  19. For those a bit younger it was nuclear disarmament protests, MAD, nuclear winter, “The Day After”, and various other apocalyptic movies, reports, songs, and communiques.
    If we stayed the current course we were supposedly all doomed.
    The stock market even collapsed one day for no reason.
    We were so busy worried about how bad we had it that nobody noticed how good things really were.
    Almost right after all that we won the Cold War and the War of Economic Ideologies.

    That era was probably the perfect case study for the madness and stupidity of crowds.

  20. 2009-present, where we have had the great fortune to be guided by the light bringer, the healer of the planet’s woes, the harbinger of multicultural and multiracial harmony, the…

  21. There is a SF story by Poul Anderson in which a man suffering from an incurable disease is put into suspended animation, with instructions to wake him up when the disease becomes curable.

    What was the title of this one? I thought I had all of his work, but I do not recall this story.

  22. The point over there about the Roman era after 160 was a good one. Marcus Aurelius died as one of the last victims of the Antonine Plague which raged from 166 to 180 AD.

    was an ancient pandemic brought back to the Roman Empire by troops returning from campaigns in the Near East. It has been suspected to have been either smallpox[1] or measles,[2] but the true cause remains undetermined. The epidemic may have claimed the life of Roman emperor Lucius Verus, who died in 169 and was the co-regent of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, whose family name, Antoninus, was given to the epidemic. The disease broke out again nine years later, according to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, and caused up to 2,000 deaths a day in Rome, one quarter of those infected.[3] Total deaths have been estimated at five million.] The disease killed as much as one-third of the population in some areas and devastated the Roman army

    Not a good time to be a Roman.

  23. Perhaps we were not meant to stroll to the harmony of the lute, but march to the beat of drums. I think I stole that from a Star Trek episode, but it is essentially true. It took me quite a while to understand how well I had life. There was always food on the table and a roof over my head, and education for all who desired so – from public school, to town libraries that carried all the knowledge in the world. Maybe we do need someone to whisper in our ear (like Roman Emperors), that all such things are fleeting.

  24. It took me quite a while to understand how well I had life. There was always food on the table and a roof over my head, and education for all who desired so – from public school, to town libraries that carried all the knowledge in the world. Maybe we do need someone to whisper in our ear (like Roman Emperors), that all such things are fleeting.

    My parents, both born in the midst of the Great Depression, used to say that to me whenever I complained about something. Do you have food in your stomach? Are there clean clothes on your back and more in you closet? Is there a roof over your head? Is there heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer? Yes? Count your blessings. You’re a very lucky person. Now go cut the grass. :) I couldn’t see that, of course. It was all terribly unfair.

    I feel that way, sometimes, listening to Leftists. You have no idea how lucky you are, do you?

  25. David Foster
    Claire has announced the contest winner: Turn-of-the-century Sweden.

    So why did so many Swedes immigrate to the US in the latter half of the 19th century, if it was such a great place? Perhaps Sweden considered itself better-off for having gotten rid of the riff-raff.

Comments are closed.