Recently I have read some books about animals I happen to appreciate. It was striking to read, for example, that Pandas were still largely unknown in the west and in much of China as late as the 1930’s when various adventuresome types of people came into the remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau in order to find and capture the animal and bring it to the attention of curious people in the West. As late as the late 19th century the panda as well as the echidna were thought of as possibly mythical animals. And yet both animals are not only very real and somewhat mysterious even now, but are animals of major importance in the image of China and Australia, respectively. One does not have to go back very many decades before there are many things that one simply does not know about. When one thinks of the fondness of people for various animals as well as various foods, it is striking to think of the lack of knowledge that one has of these matters when one goes back only a few decades, or a couple of centuries at most. The people of the past, to be sure, had their own ways that are obscure to us, but it is worthwhile to know that the things we take for granted about our world are not always of long duration.
This is true in many ways. As someone who likes to go out to eat at restaurants, it is striking to ponder that the first restaurant existed in late ancien regime France, as a result of someone breaking guild laws that had prevented people from invading the realm of caterers whose job it was to prepare meat dishes and who jealously guarded that privilege from those outside of their guild. As someone who is deeply fond of eating salads with olive oil and vinegar-based salad dressings, it is deeply curious to realize that these salad dressings spring from the early 20th century when refrigeration became regular, and were apparently not heard of before these days because of the problems of storing and keeping such dressings beyond their initial use. It is the source of frequent humor to note that famed comedienne Betty White is in fact older than sliced bread. As late as World War I, Italian cuisine had not reached mainstream American eating habits, despite the fact that as of this date millions of Italians had been living in the United States since the late 19th century. It is also worth noting, while one is on the subject of Italian cuisine, that a great deal of what is so striking about that cuisine depends on food brought from other areas, not least of which are the tomatoes and maize corn that are used in pasta dishes and polenta, respectively. Even the chili peppers that one finds so often in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine in various curry dishes comes from the Americas and was apparently unknown to those areas before the sixteenth century when the Spanish and Portuguese first connected the world together in recognizable global trade ways by connecting the Americas to the existing trade networks that bound Europe, Africa, and Asia together.
There are various ways that the past is another country. Some of these are easy to conceive. Our contemporary fondness for video games, for example, only goes back a few decades, because it depends on technologies that did not exist until relatively recent times in personal computing, television and other screens, as well as the programming. Even very simple games like pong, for example, are not very old at all. Technology is not a difficult thing to recognize, as it was only less than two centuries ago that there were any means of communication or transportation that were faster than sailing ships and people on horseback to communicate news or to bring people from one place to another. In many ways, the spread of mass and fast communication and transportation has reduced freedom by making people who were once free to decide things on the spot subject to the oversight and rule by people in distant places that are still connected. Our celebration of the invention of various technologies allows us to recognize a world as alien without computers, container ships, television, radio, telephones, automobiles, railroads, and steamships, to give but a few examples.
It is also rather straightforward to recognize the way that the past is another country when it comes to cultural ways, given the massive amount of cultural change that has happened over the course of the last few decades. If any of us were to be transported a century ago, we would be alien peoples. Worse yet, for the pride of most of us, is that we would not only possess cultural ways that would lead us to be viewed as wicked in the extreme, but we would also lack a knowledge of the ways of the past in ways that would allow us to be respected as people of intellect and culture. We would lack the knowledge of vital prestige languages and our knowledge base would not be broad enough to fit in with a world where breadth of knowledge was viewed as being as important as depth of knowledge in particular specialties. One of the many things that keeps our contemporary society so divided as it is at present is the way in which our knowledge and interests are so narrow and provincial, even among cultural and political elites, in ways that are contrary to the greater and wider interest of people in more aspects of life. These are aspects of life that would make us aliens to those of the past and make the past alien to us in ways that we often do not pause to reflect on.
Unfortunately, there are negative effects of a world where change and novelty for the sake of change and novelty that are also not often reflected on. It is not hard, in a world where things have remained as they have been for decades and centuries and millennia, to recognize the unchanging value of moral standards, however difficult it is to obey them. The superficial ubiquity of change, in ways that we have discussed of technology and personal habits and tastes in food and other matters, tends to obscure the general consistency that exists in terms of the moral nature of mankind. Human nature changes far less readily than human habit, and yet we judge those things that speak to the darkness in human nature as if they were as easily obsolete and out of fashion as those aspects of life that deal with human habit. We tend to view divine law or even commonsensical and prudential standards of tact and etiquette and restraint as being as easily out of fashion as last season’s fashion and art monstrosities, to replaced at will by something that captures our own shallow and ignorant interest more. And that is a great shame, as it prevents us from understanding ourselves, understanding others, and understanding where we all came from and where we are going, while being self-deceived in the belief that we are wise and progressive beyond the ancients and beyond those who are not enlightened as we are.