My Struggle with Historical Presentism

Limited Thoughts on Philosophical Presentism

So it has come to my attention that I have been accused of presentist sentiments in my analysis of history. This accusation arose from none other than my cantankerous second personality, Mr. Critique. And this perturbs me greatly because I did not know, nor was I ever taught what presentism means. This is a result of my being quite the unschooled pupil. I was not aware that presentism is even a thing. 

Mind you, outside of the terms many uses I did not even think such a thing existed. On a philosophical level or say, a metaphilosophical level, presentism argues that everything that exists only exists now. The past is gone. The future doesn’t matter because it isn’t present, therefore, it isn’t real, and therefore, even the present that we ascribe to now will become the past by the time we acknowledge it exists thus making that present the past. 

It is a cyclical think-hole that I am way too young to comprehend and way too old to study. Maybe not, but not my niche at the moment. 

But the presentism I refer to isn’t one that delves between the philosophical aspects of time and reality, of ontological and epistemological arguments, of which, if I am to be honest, I’m not the most interested in at the moment. This is not to say that I think these ideas and thoughts are of little import, I believe they are of great import, and at times boring, but they’re just not things I’m grappling with in the year 2021. 

Not yet.

I will in due time. As it stands, as my mind stands today, I’m focusing on the formation of the Christian church, how the church became complicit in one of the most dastardly trades of all time, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. How the church promoted, participated, and benefited from the social construct of race and colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy in the west.

I’m looking into important figures and events.

Later, when I’m wiser, and yes, more humble, it may take some time, I’ll sit patiently and long enough to understand their epistemological arguments for said behaviors. 

For now, I’ll recount these events to the best of my abilities through the lens afforded me.  

And this is where I run into this new (to me) conundrum of historical presentism. 

Historical Presentism

This changes the understanding or rather the application of the term where it removes it from the abstract philosophical approach and becomes an applicable tool by which the interpreter of an event infuses his or her present moral judgments into past events. 

Historians pejoratively call this historical presentism. 

Usually, this negative connotation is ascribed to people who venture into an event as horrific as slavery.

Now, we all know that slavery is evil and our historians will even venture, feebly so, hesitantly so, to condemn slavery as evil. But historians hesitate to attribute a moral decision on the ills of slavery when they look at it or retell its presence in society former because they do not want to project modern moral standards onto previous generations who ascribed to a different set of moral standards; so they think. 

Meaning, because race-based slavery was such a widespread phenomenon in the formation of western society (slavery was a widespread phenomenon in the formation of many societies and kingdoms, not just western) historians want to bring our attention to the reality that it was inconceivable for the western mind to see it as anything other than commerce and trade. 

Jus’ ‘nother day ‘n slave ownin’ country is all!

Historians will promote the idea that for the 17th and 18th-century western mind, the ownership of a negro man, woman, and their children was as common then as us owning a VW Beetle, Ford Escape, or a Cadillac Escalade today. They will pull our attention to how people viewed and understood these systems and metrics then instead of allowing us to transport our nascent and more advanced moral standards to a time before us. 

This is quite a complicated process and to an extent, I will even promote this particular idea. But only to an extent. 

We must understand people within their time. I agree, to an extent.

But… what historians fail to do or willingly omit from their work is that many individuals who partook in the formation of western society and civilization despised slavery as an institution and despised it even more so as a racialized institution. Previously, long before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade began, slaves were comprised of every ethnic group imaginable. Blacks would enslave whites. Whites the not so whites. The lower whites would enslave the yellows. The reds enslave reds. And whatnot. 

I’m generalizing here for the sake of brevity.

Because before European scientists ventured to categorize people and classify them by the color of their skin and physical characteristics like hair color, eye color, nose symmetry, and whatnot, everyone was up for grabs on the possibility of becoming someone else’s slave. And even then, slavery had its limits as indentured servants would work under contract for some time and then be graced by the possibility of manumission. Some slaves were paid, albeit not much, for their labor. Others were delivered from slavery unto family inheritances and so on. 

Slavery in the former world was brutal and at times humane. Depending on the area of inquiry you will find benevolence or outright disregard for human dignity. None of it, however, was based on race.

Somewhere along the line, a select group of immoral scientists decided not only to invent race, as it is a social construct but also to dignify some races while denigrating others. And, as history has shown, you can see which groups have benefited and which have been exploited on the basis of race over the years. 

What I want to bring to our attention is that there is a class of reputable historians who want us to shy away from condemning previous societies for enslaving and owning slaves and also mistreating the same because by doing so we can fall into the all-too cyclical and dishonest loop of presentist historical analysis. 

I counter this argument with the fact that many, hundreds, and later thousands, and even later-er than that, millions upon millions of western minds fought in the social, then religious, then political, and finally on the battlefield to eradicate not only slavery but also race-based slavery in the west and in the world. 

Being a man of faith; not a good one, and having ascribed to the principles and worldview of Christianity, I have greater reasons to detest the pejorative moniker, ‘presentist’ because I believe morality to be universal and objective and not subjective and mutable.

Meaning, the same Bible that was used by my patristic church fathers in Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and beyond, is the same bible that slave overseers used when they set off to whip the skin and fat off the back of black people in the field.

The same Bible and divine literature that instructed its adherents to love one another, not creating division on the basis of ethnicity, class, sex, geography, language, and etc, in the first century also instructed its adherents in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and now the 21st century to do the same. 

Approaching morality from the metaphysical and universal, I can conclusively condemn the acts of slavery as it is presented in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and later in the American Deep South without the slightest hesitance! 

Again, I believe that historical presentism is only possible if the historian approaching time in question has a subjective moral framework.

However, condemning the ills of society former on the constant revelation of universal morals is not presentist but truest to the morality I ascribe to, which, to my limited understanding, is coherent with reality as reality is understood to us as a collective. 

So, even though I fight against anachronistic tropes and philosophical presentism (contrasted with eternalism or actualism) I am comfortable committing to historical presentism as an agency for good because the basis on which I condemn slave owners, slave traders, and slave murderers are on the same moral book they used to govern their life hundreds of years ago. 

Their failure to properly understand that same book is not a fault of mine nor is it a responsibility on my part to excuse their ignorance on the beauties of scripture when it calls us to love one another. In fact, I will go even further to accuse them of not only illiteracy, ignorance, and moral corruption through avarice and pride, but also condemn them of perverting the holy writ and abusing their fellow man, which, our Divine Christ, commands us to die for. 

Therefore, I will continue to learn about historical presentism, I will struggle with this idea, and I will also ask myself and the historians who accuse me and others like me of being ‘presentists,’ WHO is it that benefits from this avoidance? Who benefits when we fail to condemn the ills of society former? Who benefits when we’re amoral on something as universally evil as kidnapping, murder, rape, genocide, and land theft? 

Who benefits from the Doctrine of Discovery? From Manifest Destiny? From the Monroe Doctrine?

Who?

Could it be that the sentiment leading these same historians to hesitate on condemning these previous figures is the same sentiment that forced slave drivers to whip blacks without the slightest provocation on whether whipping people is right or wrong in the first place? 

We’ve yet to truly understand the reach and grip of White Supremacy in our society and I would not be surprised, although there is evidence yet to be compiled in its entirety if this cancer has not already infected the way we look at history. 

I presume the virus of white supremacy has infected the academia as we find resistance there anytime we venture onto subjects as tenebrous as slavery in the west.

Especially how we look at ourselves as the triumphant peoples of the Americas, continually so, and rarely, if ever, look at ourselves as the brutes we were. As the children of monsters. 

Anywho, go on about your business and I will get back to my research, where, upon my liberties, I will condemn the behaviors of the men and women who sought to enslave and eradicate my people, and by my people I mean humanity, not just black people. In enslaving blacks on the basis of race, little did they know that they had in fact enslaved themselves to the manacles of immorality.


Featured Image.

Published by olivettheory

My name is Jarrel and I'm a lover of words, people, odd behaviors, theology, independent films, all-immersive RPGs, Christian metal, podcasts, and history. Not in that order. I'm a writer... in training. Let’s read and talk about things together. This is my Olivet Theory. Husband - Dad - Dude

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: