Friday, February 01, 2019

'The Feelings of One Age'

We are experiencing a revival of the time-honored practice of erasing history. Stalin had former comrades he no longer favored, and in some cases had already shot in the head, airbrushed from photographs. Lately, censors of the past have toppled statues, pried plaques from the wall and painted over offending murals. Their rationale for vandalism is the unenlightened waywardness of our ancestors, who simply refused to behave like us. In “Characteristics” (1823), William Hazlitt saw it coming:

“Some persons are exceedingly shocked at the cruelty of [Izaak] Walton’s [The Compleat] Angler – as if the most humane could be expected to trouble themselves about fixing a worm on a hook, at a time when they burnt men at a stake ‘in conscience and tender heart.’ We are not to measure the feelings of one age by those of another. Had Walton lived in our day, he would have been the first to cry out against the cruelty of angling.”

In a few more sentences, Hazlitt puts a finer point on it: “Man is naturally a savage, and emerges from barbarism by slow degrees.”

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