When people talk about the ideas and character of periods in the past they often speak as if what they are saying is true for whole populations of people, when in reality they are looking only at the writings of a specialized intellectual elite. It is time certainly for academics to stop this self serving habit, as well as reporters and commentators who draw on their work.
To distinguish between these thoughts, and the thinking of the society as a whole is a difficult task with many problems. But at the least serious intellectual people should stop this habit of sounding like they speak for a whole population when they do not.
The 18th century was “the age of reason” for some thinkers and salons in Paris. But until someone goes back and interviews the variety of people of 18th century France and England, we really don’t know how such ideas lived in the people of that time. There is work to do this – Annales historians and others – but some of such reseaqrch is difficult and some also beyond our ability to recapture. In some cases – and often – the past is gone.
In another way the past is still with us. Those of the world who live without cars, and trains, and telephones, and electricity, and good water supply and anti-biotics and life’s daily uncertainties that technology has modified for some share ways of thinking with people of the past who also lacked these capacities.
And so it is only by blinding ourselves to some of these conditions that we do not see the presence of that kind of past in our world today.
Among the many books that can give us a sense of some of the conditions in the world today are the writings of the Peace Corps worker Moritz Thomsen.