“If you could go back in time to any period in history, which would you live in?” It is a common fantasy to imagine how one life would be different in a another time and place. Everyone has answered this question at one point or another. Occasionally, someone will try to be smart with his answer. He will object to the premise itself. Why would anyone would want to go back? Living any time but now would be terrible. Modernity is the only sensible time period to live in. Progress has made all of our lives so much easier.
The core of the argument is that modernity offers all sorts of comforts and securities. The people of the past could only dream of what we have now. Modern people lead longer and safer lives, just look at how much longer we live now. Humans used to live short, harsh lives, struggling against the elements.
It was a matter of life and death for our ancestors just to find food, shelter, and clean water. They had no rifles to defend themselves when dangerous predators attacked. They had no restaurants to gorge themselves when on they were hungry. There was no doctors to prescribe antibiotics to them when they got sick. They must have been miserable. It is no wonder that our ancestors only lived to middle age.
To any one with a cursory understanding of history, it is obvious this is an extremely narrow-minded perspective. Even if one accepts his assumptions, the argument itself is flawed. It assumes that our ancestors lived shallow and unhappy lives. It assumes that physical security and longevity are sole determinants in living a fulfilling and meaningful life. They are not.
This is plainly observable by noticing the amount of unhappiness still present in modern society. Progress has never brought about a utopia. It has only brought security to the individual. It has prevented much of the pain and suffering caused by hunger, pestilence, and the climate. Instead, modern man must worry about problems on a global level. He worries about pathogens and pesticides polluting his food and drink. He worries about power mad politicians sparking a global thermo-nuclear holocaust. He worries about overpopulation and pollution destroying the environment.
Modern man has just as much to fret about as his ancestors did. The difference between the two is the scale of the issues. Modernity has brought problems that are much harder to address. No one person, tribe, or even nation can solve them any more. For example, not even the richest billionaires on the planet have the power to solve world hunger.
As a consequence, the modern man has an overwhelming and deep rooted sense of powerlessness. Compared to his ancestors, he can do little to influence the environment around him. Where once a man could defend his family against raiders and thieves with his own weapons, modern man must rely on the police to protect them. When a man grows his own food, he need not worry about what chemicals he was feeding to his family. Whatever sense of pride and security man once got through self-reliance has disappeared with the introduction of modernity.
Any sane individual would want to live in a society where they can make a difference. Powerlessness breeds depression and despair in everyone. Man gets a sense of purpose and contentment from setting attainable goals and solving them. Modernity is the systematic concentration of the power of life and death to the hands of an increasingly smaller amount of people. True freedom is known to less people today than any time in history. The past wasn’t a horrible place to live and die, modernity is.