My mum used to tell me that everyone sees the world through their own pane of glass. As each year passes I understand better what she meant. The things you’ve learned, the things you’ve experienced, and the things you believe are the authors of your consciousness. Well a huge part of my own experience and education has been studying human history and it does have a real effect on the way I see things. Historical perspective has a tendency to make beautiful things ugly. Here’s an example:
Paris is known for it’s beautiful broad avenues. Most medieval european cities get harder to navigate as you get closer to the center, yet somehow Paris has a network of wide streets making transportation much easier and defining the esthetic of the city. But how did Paris get so lucky? Well it was planned that way. In the early to mid nineteenth century, Emperor Napoleon III had a Baron by the name of Haussmann plan and execute the urbanization of Paris which involved, among other things, the destruction of ancient neighborhoods to make way for huge, modern thoroughfares.
That’s nice! Now here’s the historical perspective. Many historians today view the project as a method of authoritarian control. During the french revolution, just a few years previous, revolutionaries barricaded the narrow streets and were able to hold off large numbers of government troops from a defensive position. Broad avenues made the construction of barricades difficult, it facilitated the easy movement of huge armies right into the heart of Paris, and it made it possible for the first time to use artillery inside the city. When you understand how these broad streets were designed to put down the people of Paris, they’re somehow less beautiful.
It’s not all bad though. Some things that look quite boring become incredibly beautiful in historical perspective. Here’s an example:This is a drawing of a 5cm stone that was found in Germany in 1999. It’s discoverers believe it to be a piece of quartzite carved by geological forces to vaguely resemble a human form, then carved with stone tools to accentuate the shape and dyed with red ochre. Why is this important? Because this stone is dated to between 300 000 and 500 000 years old. That puts it at least 200 000 years older than the emergence of decorative markings on human artifacts. The dating and the process itself makes this stone a little more than instinct and less than art. In this tiny rock we may be seeing the emergence of the human sense of aesthetics: the evolution of beauty itself.
The right answer is rarely as simple as we like to think. To understand why you think and feel the way you do, you have to understand from what perspective you are seeing things. History is my filter, yours is something different. The real answer is only visible when all the filters are removed. Then the truth becomes true for everyone.