People traditionally look at history from a “20th-century lens”, a way of envisioning what has happened as though judged by the standards of today. It’s not exactly wrong to look at the past in this way, and when doing so it’s easy to see how brutal our history was. War practically becomes the history of tyrants, mass-murderers, brutal conquests, genocides and pillagings. It’s fascinating if you can stomach that violence, but the notions past humans had and today’s human had are very different.
In a bold example, almost every culture that advocated for slaver saw slavery (in some ways rightly so) as necessary to their way of life. From the Ancient Greeks to the United States’ confederates, slavery was the backbone of their societies. Today, slavery is awful and regarded as one of the worst crimes known to man. Yet, for 90% of human history, it was more than simply a fact of life, but a core element to the organization of society.
Past societies saw slavery as necessary to provide a backbone for their massive empires and early industries. Today we value low wages, but we wish to ensure some degree of voluntary choice. Past societies value the latter, but not the former.
Indeed, stepping into the shoes of the past, one has to view that the world was keenly given and take, and empathy was only extended to your own kin. Aristocrats did not care about their serfs, nor at times did they recognize their value of human life. They were less like humans, and more like Siri in olden times.
War, too, had a very different connotation. We often look at the serfs and believe that their lives were entirely bound to their masters, but given the total chaos of the time periods of serfdom, social mobility still existed. It simply existed violently. Today many Muslims join the Islamic State, not for any devout faith in Islam, but because they see that they can make something of themselves via radical Islamic warfare. This is akin to how the past looked at war, something to exalt one’s self with.
Pillaging too, seemed a “respectable profession” more than an act of violence. Given the Vikings love of the act, great pillagers and warriors were more than praised but said to be taken to heaven by God himself should they die in battle. Great warriors earned not only prestige but whole cities from which to operate their affairs. Violence and war were firstly professions of prestige and respect, and secondly brutal.
Extending to the nation-state, success in war and brutality was essential. If a nation state couldn’t survive, they were doomed to become the pillaged slaves of invading masters, who themselves value the prestige of conquest more than anything else. Cultures were violent because the non-violent culture was cut down or enslaved before it had a chance to stand.
We look at violence today as unnecessary because it is largely unnecessary. We have less need for slaves to farm our fields or build our roads, because machinery and innovation have off-set the costs of low-wage labor, and mass production of agriculture by the use of innovation has succeeded mass-production by mass enslavement. Instead of refining the slave, we refined the product. Instead of refining war, we made the loot ample and available. Instead of refining violence, we nullified the incentives for it.
Thus, the warrior culture, which had to exist from Babylon to America, has been able to subside, and only now are there nation states who feel they may lay down their guard. For the first time in human history, there is peace as a standard, rather than violence— the past is difficult to understand because that simple fact is so treasured, it is hard to unsee.