At the start of his novel The Tale of Two Cities (published in 1859, two years before the outbreak of the Civil War in the U.S.) Charles Dickens wrote:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
Charles Dickens set his story during and after the French Revolution, then barely seventy years or so in his past, a historical hinge that had transformed one of the central nations of Europe with whom the British had frequently come to blows against: The Seven Years War of 1754-1763 (also known as the French and Indian War), when Americans allied with the British against the French, the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), when the French had allied themselves with the nascent U.S., and what came after the French Revolution and the Terror (1789-1799) described by Dickens: the rise of Napoleon, who had been ultimately defeated by the British at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. For well over a century, France stood as a British foe and a long term source of problem and concern and even in 1859 when Dickens wrote his novel, the French could hardly be considered friendly toward the British.
History and its words can help us keep the horrors of the last few days in some kind of perspective. As we witness police shootings and terrorist attacks, coups and the disruption of another election it is all too easy to imagine that the world is coming apart at the seams and that we stand on the brink of utter ruin and disaster.
Billy Joel’s old song, We Didn’t Start the Fire, comes to mind sometimes. It appeared in 1989 and consisted simply of a list of famous people and events from the 1950s up through the time the song appeared. To the driving rhythm of the music, Billy Joel chanted out the names of politicians such as Harry Truman and Richard Nixon, sports celebrities such as Joe DiMaggio, book and movie titles such as The Bridge On the River Kwai and The Catcher in the Rye, political controversies, names of criminals, scandals, and assassinations.
The song serves to remind us that the world never changes: life is a constant drumbeat of bleeding leads and new fads. Just as people in the past freaked out over comic books and hula hoops or pet rocks imagining they somehow signified the death of society or moral breakdown, so moderns will decry new games like Pokémon Go and popular music and television. Elvis Presley was destined to bring down the republic with his rocking hips, just like the flappers of earlier eras, or rappers of today.
In the fifties we feared that communists were infiltrating the highest offices in the land and that the Russians any moment might march across the plains of Europe or launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike from Cuba. Now we fear the coming of ISIS and that some of our corrupted politicians would like to impose Sharia laws on American citizens.
The fact that we feared such things as communism and nuclear strikes in the past does not mean that such fears were illegitimate. What it means is that we rose to the occasion and were successful against the scourges of humanity, whether Nazism, fascism, or communism. The German Nazi state now lies rotting in the dustbin of history, joined by the old Soviet Union. The later rise of Napoleon III in France in Dicken’s day did not signify the return of the first Napoleon defeated at Waterloo, and the French state, though embroiled for decades by flirtations with dictatorship and extremism, ultimately settled down into a stable democratic state and later became a good friend of both the British and the Americans by the time the twentieth century arose. Likewise, the rise of Putin in Russia or a dictator in Turkey does not signal the return of the old Cold War.
The world, as Billy Joel’s song title reminds us, has always been burning: it has always been filled with problems and pain, suffering and misery and fear of what’s to come—even as it has always had good things going on at the same time, too. And somehow, in its spurts and halts, its ups and downs, the world’s overall trajectory has remained upward.
Yes, we face problems and yes we are going to have dark days. But the sun has always come up. Somehow, we have always found the solutions we needed. So why should the future be any different? Ask yourself the simple question: would you want to live in Dicken’s world? A world where slavery was legal and you couldn’t get an orange in winter? A world with no electricity and no television, a world where children labored long hours in factories and mines, and where dentistry and medical science were primitive jokes? Or is today just a bit better, what with hot showers and indoor toilets, among other things?