Presentism Defended: Part 2

John Milton, who in his Paradise Lost selflessly gave the world the image of hell as a lake of fire, was also the 17th century’s greatest proponent of freedom of speech: as long as you were a Puritan (like Milton) or an Anglican (like the king) you should be able to say anything you like–as long as you did not attack Puritanism or the Anglican Church. Catholics, on the other hand, were but the puppets of a Satanic pope, disloyal British subjects who therefore should be allowed no such rights. John Locke, another Puritan and one who greatly influenced the founders of the American republic, held similar views.

This is all mildly interesting from an historical point of view, but presents the moralist with certain problems, such as whether Milton and Locke’s anti-Catholic views should diminish their high historic reputations as champions of the rights of man. Fortunately historians do not meddle with morality, nor do they sit in judgment of historical figures, at least not those historians who follow Henry Steele Commager, the Amherst don who preached that the duty of the historian “is not to judge but to understand.” In his essay “Should the Historian Sit in Judgment?,” Commager writes:

…when we come to pronounce judgment on slavery, we are met at the very threshold with the most intransigent consideration: generation after generation of good, human Christian men and women not only accepted it but considered it a blessing … Clearly we cannot fall back on the simple explanation that all of these men and women …were bad … It is absurd for us to pass moral judgment on slaveholders, absurd to indict a whole people or to banish a whole people to some historical purgatory where they can expiate their sins.

Moral considerations then should be left to ethicists and moral philosophes. But donning the robes of the moralist presents problems of its own, notably the problem of Presentism, that is judging historical figures by contemporary moral standards. The popular view is that contemporary man is morally superior to his ancestors, and given time, he will reach a state of moral perfection, or something very near. This despite the knowledge that today and for the past three thousand years the West’s Judeo-Christian moral principles have been largely set in stone beginning with Moses’ climb up Mt. Sinai.

The charge of Presentism seldom prevents the non-historian from reconsidering the evidence and handing down his own brand of retroactive justice. Such reconsiderations have led some Native Americans, for example, to regard Columbus as a genocidal maniac akin to Hitler. Some African-Americans regard Washington and Jefferson as greedy Neolithic slavemasters. But mostly Native and African Americans object to the continuing deification of men they regard as cretins and villains. Time does not necessarily heal historical wounds, and around the globe peoples and races continue to maintain hostilities going back hundreds, even thousands of years, regardless to what extent moral standards and notions of right and wrong have changed or “evolved.”

When we read of some great intellectual humanist posthumously accused of anti-Semitism we are surprised and shocked–surprised because no matter how distant their era we know these men to have been mainly of sound mind and principles. Indeed many of these accusations by contemporary biographers seem rather weak and are often based on little more than a single dubious public statement such as Erasmus’, “If it is Christian to hate Jews, then we are all good Christians.” Interestingly many of these Reformation-era intellectuals accused of anti-Semitism turn out to belong to the group of Northern Humanists closely linked with the Catholic Church (the bible translator Erasmus, and the saintly Sir Thomas More), or those who considered themselves holier than the Roman Church (Luther and Calvin).

Though I use the acid test of anti-Semitism to examine their moral bona fides, I might just as well ask whether these men were particularly superstitious, if they, like Luther and Calvin, condoned burning witches and heretics, if they considered Africans to be nothing more than potential property and held women scarcely a step above indentured servants. It is something of a relief then to find that most of the pre-eminent intellectual thinkers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (a time of fierce anti-Semitic violence and expulsions) were not anti-Semitic, nor did most advocate burning heretics and witches. Among those artists and intellectuals who seem to have had little or nothing hateful to say publicly against Jews, Protestants, Catholics or women one finds Abelard, Bacon, Cervantes, Copernicus, Dante, Da Vinci, Descartes, Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Newton, Petrarch, Rabelais and Shakespeare, to cite but a few examples. There are exceptions. Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta often gets tagged as anti-Semitic because, even though it is peopled with unpleasant characters, the Jew Barabas is the most unpleasant of all. Chaucer likewise is written off as anti-Semitic because of a story included in his Canterbury Tales. “The Prioress’ Tale” tells the story of a Christian boy killed by ghetto Jews (Jews had been expelled from England some 100 years before Chaucer’s writing). It was an old anti-Semitic tale by then, but whether the anti-Semite is Chaucer or the Prioress-Narrator is still a matter of debate. Some scholars suspect Chaucer was satirizing the anti-Semitism of ignorant peasants and church leaders. To me it seems unlikely that a satirist and social critic as brilliant as Chaucer would have meant a poem as loathsome, melodramatic, and ham-fisted as “The Prioress Tale” as anything but a satire of Christian hypocrisy and the Blood Libel, and the fact that most of the other tales satirize some smug, self-righteous group or other only bolsters that opinion.

We know that many Greek and Roman intellectuals (Seneca, Juvenile, Horace) were critical of Jews, largely due to the latters’ refusal to convert and worship the Greek or Roman gods, and this in turn led to periodic persecutions and subsequent revolts, and the occasional accusation of ritual murder. During the Reformation these remained among the reasons Christians persecuted Jews, the major change being the appearance on the scene of Christian rather than pagan persecutors. Imagine then some Middle Age moralist, say a Dante, suggesting that the Classical Romans and Greeks were not anti-Semitic because they were a primitive people who lacked the progressive values of the Medieval Dutch peasant.

Conservatives love to accuse others of Presentism, but are they any less guilty each time they praise a Copernicus, Edison, Bell, Newton, or Magellan? When lauding Luther, contemporary Lutherans do not put themselves in the role of a 16th century German peasant and conclude that Luther was a brave and brilliant man. Rather they view him from our own modern perspective where Brother Martin remains brilliant and brave. Then, without detecting a note of hypocrisy, they ignore or dismiss Luther’s sins as quite common and normal for the moral standards of his time and place. But as author Ibn Warraq says of Mohammed and other early Muslim leaders, “if we cannot condemn [their] faults according to contemporary standards, then neither can we hold them up as the wise and tolerant lawgivers whom contemporary moderates praise.”

In order to really comprehend the hypocrisy of Presentism’s critics, one must put one’s self in the boots of the same Medieval Jew so mercilessly victimized by Luther and the Catholic Church. Perhaps Luther honestly did not think persecuting Jews was evil (though in his earlier writings–before he despaired of converting Jews–he preached religious tolerance), but the persecuted Jew knew it well enough. Many theologians and conservative historians maintain that it is quite possible that Luther, et. al., could be blissfully ignorant of the evil of anti-Semitism, but is not this the equivalent of excusing Nazi soldiers for massacring Jewish civilians since the soldiers truly believed it was fine to kill untermenschen? If anything Luther is more to blame because he was the equivalent not of some Bavarian foot soldier, but of a Goebbels or Himmler. Presentism, it seems to me, is simply a convenient way of letting Luther, Jefferson, Washington and their ilk off the hook for crimes against humanity. I doubt you will find one intellectual who will honor as heroes the settlers who gave American Indians blankets tainted with small pox. But are not these intellectuals guilty of Presentism, for at the time were not tainted blankets just another legitimate weapon to be utilized in the Indian Wars?

The reputations of Luther, Calvin, Jefferson, Washington, (though not Columbus), have survived the evils they committed. Perhaps rightly so, for it may be argued that the good they did outweighed the bad. (On the other hand, some scholars have noted that the fact that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves gave a legitimacy to Southern slaveownership that allowed the practice to continue through the Civil War.) More, many of the writings and teachings of these men continue to influence the actions of our contemporaries. Luther’s anti-Semitic writings were used in our own lifetime as highly effective Nazi propaganda, including his “Last Sermon” containing the infamous “Warning against the Jews” used by the Nazi Bishop Martin Sasse as a means of stirring racial hatred and inciting good Lutherans to persecute Jews. One may excuse Luther and blame the Nazi propagandists, but one cannot escape the fact that the Nazi propagandists were inspired by Luther’s vitriol and bile, or that in the days following Kristallnacht German newspapers published statements by Lutheran theologians who announced they were pleased that the persecution began on Martin Luther’s birthday.

The danger comes when we use the charge of Presentism to excuse these sins. Next time some know-it-all comes at you with the charge of Presentism, why not ask him or her why if the slave knew slavery was wrong, the slaveowner didn’t? Why if the Jew knew anti-Semitism was wrong didn’t the Christian? If the heretic being roasted at the stake knew he was innocent, why didn’t the Inquisitors?

Much of the opposition to Presentism seems to rest heavily on the contention that contemporary man is far more morally advanced than was, say, Renaissance man, though there seems scant evidence to support this. Today Jew-hatred remains curiously strong in Eastern Europe, even though few Jews survive there. (On a recent trip to Poland I noted a disturbingly vast amount of graffiti reading “Jews to the gas” and “Jews out, Poland for Poles” even though there are but a handful of Jews remaining in the country.) Americans and West Europeans seem as divided as ever over race. Whites still flee areas the moment blacks move in, while sending their children to majority white private schools—though admittedly other factors play into this phenomenon including the prevalence of crime, drugs and the disgraceful conditions in many city public schools. Today women are largely equal to men before the law and outnumber them in universities and schools of law, but it was largely something women had to force down the throats of men like bad medicine. Gays and lesbians remain second-class citizens, and drug addicts are treated as criminals instead of the sick individuals they are.

Perhaps the reason we relate so well to men like Jefferson and Luther is that we well understand where they are coming from. Perhaps it is not such a stretch to put ourselves into their shoes and adopt their way of thinking. Perhaps their values are not that different from ours, no matter how much we like to pretend they are. And perhaps that is why we are so eager to defend them.

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