“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”
Not many people these days would be able to do this kind of thing ‘without hesitation’ (“ Oh, yes, 96 to 180AD, I remember it well…”), but Gibbon makes a good point: we organise our lives around a concept of human happiness and prosperity. It’s very important to us both within our national economies and or household economies to know whether things are getting better or worse, and whether this trajectory, once identified, is ‘normal’ or ‘exceptional’.
Gibbon’s intuitive opinion, ‘without hesitation’ was not only that happiness and prosperity were getting worse but that this had been the normal state of the world for a period of roughly 1600 years since the end of the Roman Empire. The former view was somewhat tempered by the latter. Since decline amounted to a long-term trend, it was nothing much to get excited about.
The industrial revolution made Gibbon’s historical reconstruction with its mood of nostaligia seem ‘ridiculous’ (J.C. Stobart). Not at first, since the dark satanic mills actually produced a decline in life expectancy, at least until roughly the middle of the 19th century. But it transformed the way people in England regarded the Golden Age. Now, with new and wondrous inventions appearing seemingly every year, it was increasingly obvious that the best was yet to come, not in the afterlife, as previously, but in the here-and-now or, to be precise, the here-and-soon. We are still living in this brave new world of constant progress and the pace of fabulous change continues to increase. (more…)