I have to make a public confession — I’m irrationally clinging to a belief. My only excuse is that I just don’t know better.
Just about everything we know about how people thought about abstractions in the past comes from the things those people wrote. But there weren’t always a lot of writers. To be a writer, you had to already be a pretty exceptional person. And most of the stuff those people wrote is lost to time, often because it was simply garbage. So what remains is really just not a fair sample. So if I want to know how people in the 18th Century thought about one another, the best I can do is read some period literature and try to learn about the authors and try to divine how well the authors themselves understood people. If they did a good job, their characters might actually be reliable.
But that’s total crap. There’s just no way to do that. Besides, my irrational belief has to do with something that is inevitably colored by the author.
See, I think that in the 18th Century, people were better at describing personality, character, human nature, all that stuff that I have so much trouble describing that I can’t even label appropriately in this very sentence. And those vastly superior descriptions surely came from vastly superior understanding. Subtleties of character, moral nuance, all that jazz? No problem. People just got that stuff.
But come on. Of course the great authors of all time got that stuff, that’s no great insight. Even though most people I encounter in daily life (myself included) don’t, there’s no reason to believe that it’s because we’ve lost something. No reason at all.
But I’m still convinced that we have.