Moral arrogance and historical ignorance reinforce one another. To ennoble ourselves, we make irrational barbarians out of our ancestors and ignore the complexities of their times.
“A generation is good or evil according to its genuinely possible actions. No one gets extra marks for avoiding the sin of pillaging villages when he has no villages to pillage. No man deserves a cookie for forsaking religious fanaticism when he lacks the gumption necessary to muster up a religious belief.”
“This vilification of the past to aggrandize the present only obscures the past.”
“We drop this more accurate understanding of history in order to draw a flattering comparison between our age and our forefathers’. In doing so, we transform them into a generation that faced the same temptations as our own—and thereby become “the good guys” of the two. We resist the temptations; they didn’t. Moral arrogance and historical ignorance reinforce one another. To ennoble ourselves, we make irrational barbarians out of our ancestors and ignore the complexities of their times.”
“In truth, we do nothing particularly praiseworthy by condemning the hangings that we could not bear to see when we never experience the temptation to do so.”
“The way out of this triumphalism is the way of humility. One expression of it is precisely the sense of ourselves as historical creatures. We are alive now and look back to the fathers until we take our place among the dead and become judged by future generations.”
“A person is good not by avoiding those evils he already finds horrible, but by avoiding those evils that he finds attractive and available. We must measure a person’s virtues by his circumstances, not our own. This is not to rationalize evil deeds, but to prevent cloistered virtue from becoming a standard of conduct. Each generation faces its peculiar demons with better or worse results.”