July 14, 2011

UK: Nostalgia is not what it used to be...

NORWICH, England / NetworkNorwich /  People / Columns / July 14, 2011

Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight takes a look at how we may judge the past versus the present in the human condition.


From my experiences, the majority of elderly people think the past was better than the present, and the majority of younger people think the present is better than the past. When I was a young boy I used to talk with my auntie’s elderly father about the times of change. He would tell me about his war-time experiences and his childhood too. He used to look upon his youth with fondness and the present with lamentation.

Now, I will, of course, happily admit that for those who are mature in years, some kind of nostalgia for history is understandable - after all, they were probably much healthier and more active and more energised in their youth, and they are probably (understandably) much less fit and healthy in old age. So quite clearly, if it were simply the case that one preferred the ‘present’ times because they point to contemporary social advancements then elderly people wouldn’t be so nostalgic for the ‘good old days’.

In all fairness, there are facets to existence that suggest their nostalgia is pretty justifiable; nowadays we have high rates of teenage crime and yob culture, our prisons are full, drugs are a huge problem, as is religious fanaticism, the binge culture, and vacuity of celebrity worship. We have greater profligacy, we have sabotaged and attacked the environment with the biggest onslaught that the world has ever seen, plus we have AIDS, too much poverty, and a general decline in human manners and respect for the elderly. So it’s hardly surprising that many people who were in their prime many years ago think the world has been better in times gone by – in some ways it has.

People change, society changes, and in each generation we make changes to laws and systems in ways that seem fitting to us. So while the elderly gentleman laments the loss of the good old days, the younger man thinks the present age makes the past seem crude and archaic. I want to stress one thing; there is no right answer – an elderly man who longs for the joys and respect of his youth may be fully justified in preferring the past to these modern times, so too the younger man for the ‘advancements’ of the modern age.

But this throws up a further issue – if feelings about the best years are only related to when we feel we were in our prime then we could be faced with a tautology, roughly akin to “The best times were the best simply because they were best for me” – and that won’t tell us anything about whether there is an overall standard by which we can infer progression or retrogression.

How then can we be sure that standards of living and morals really have progressed when if we talk to elderly people they would contend that the moral systems developed in their youth were better than those that had come before? Does this mean that people aren’t very good at assessing morality or that there is a more complex relativism that must be adhered to?

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James Knight
E-Mail: james.knight@norfolk.gov.uk

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