Were people better off in the middle ages than they are now?

G. K. Chesterton writes, at the end of his celebrated book on George Bernard Shaw:

I know it is all very strange.  From the height of eight hundred years ago, or of eight hundred years hence, our age must look incredibly odd.  We call the twelfth century ascetic.  We call our own time hedonist and full of praise and pleasure.  But in the ascetic age the love of life was evident and enormous, so that it had to be restrained.  In a hedonist age pleasure has always sunk low, so that it had to be encouraged. 

How high the sea of human happiness rose in the Middle Ages, we now only know by the colossal walls that that they built to keep it in bounds.  How low human happiness sank in the twentieth century our children will only know by these extraordinary modern books, which tell people that it is a duty to be cheerful and that life is not so bad after all.  Humanity never produces optimists till it has ceased to produce happy men. 

It is strange to be obliged to impose a holiday like a fast, and to drive men to a banquet with spears.  But this shall be written of our time:  that when the spirit who denies beseiged the last citadel, blaspheming life itself, there were some, there was one especially, whose voice was heard and whose spear was never broken.

Chesterton was a Catholic conservative of the early 1900s, Shaw was a socialist, and both were famous for expressing their ideas in paradox.

Shaw, the leftist, associated progress with material happiness, while Chesterton, the rightist, said things were better in the Middle Ages.  Nowadays, the debates usually go in the other directions, with people on the left being less positive about material progress and people on the right saying that things are great now and are getting better.  (See, for example, Will Wilkinson’s skeptical take on happiness research.)

I don’t have anything to add here except to note the interesting switch of polarity, which reminds me of my thoughts here and here on the changing views of left and right regarding science.

P.S.  The connection here to "overcoming bias" is that the question, "Are things going well now?" is (a) politically loaded, and (b) is commonly treated as a factual question.  I suspect that Shaw and Chesterton (as well as modern commentators) are showing bias in that they derive their perspective on the pluses on minuses of a modern economy based on political judgments.

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    Douglas Adams:

    1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

    Does the “interesting shift in polarity” have anything to do with the age of those in the political movements? The “left” used to be the preserve of the young, until recently (1980-2000 in the US, for instance). Now, it seems the young are back on the left. That might explain the variation you noticed in attitudes to science and progress in the political movements – the young believe more in progress than their elders.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    I think it’s a huge stretch to say the right (particularly the populist right) have more of an affinity to science or think things are getting better than the left. Perhaps this shift has occured within the academy?

  • I agree there may be a generational aspect but it’s not as simple as young vs. old. I believe generations are formed by large important events, events that have a personal effect throughout a nation. The Great Depression, Vietnam, and 9/11 are all good examples. Each age group views the event from a different perspective, so a generation is born. The WWII generation no doubt saw Vietnam differently than the younger generation party because of the draft.

    For example, the day of 9/11 kicked the breath out of me. I could barely hold back tears. My students, at the Naval Academy no less, seemed unfazed and very business-like in their reaction. I thought of the husbands and fathers calling their families for the last time from the top floors of the WTC or from a plane. My students didn’t seem to be able to have an emotional connection to the event.

    My point is that generations are probably comparing the “current state” against different standards. Perhaps it’s the job market when they graduated school or the country’s external threats–daily bomb drills of the Cold War for example. A younger generation might think the current terror conflicts are horrible messes, but compared to the challenges the Soviets presented, things aren’t so bad.

  • The following statements are likely to arouse derision in three groups of people:
    If we have ways of measuring happiness, and we use those methods to measure happiness, then we can make factual statements about the results of those measurements. As it happens, we do have methods which claim to be measuring happiness.
    Whether those methods actually measure happiness is the next question. Answering it requires, at minimum, a definition of happiness. We do have definitions of happiness, and those definitions are similar enough to each other to indicate that there is some agreement about what happiness is. So in some cases we can convince a reasonable person that we have valid and reliable methods of measuring happiness. If we then had measurements of happiness in the middle ages and now, we could compare them.
    As it is, the best data on the subject can be found in the World Database of Happiness (google it).

    Why do these statements arouse derision in some? One reason is a sort of embarrassment people feel in talking about happiness. The second reason is a disbelief in the possiblity of measuring non-material things, usually found among physicists, absurdly enough.
    The third reason is mostly found among economists of a certain school, who are distressed because of the lack of a high correlation between wealth and happiness. This so upsets them that they want to throw all the happiness research away, almost always without actually examining the research itself. A clearer example of cognitive bias could hardly be found. But often these economists pride themselves on their clear thinking.

  • TGGP

    Interesting you bring up Brown v. Board as an example of quantitative reasoning, since the famous doll study used in it did not actually show that black students in integrated schools were less likely to prefer the white doll.

    I would also add that while Pinker is not as far left as Chomsky, he does still identify himself as being to the left of center (focusing on IQ also has a liberal history behind it). Similarly, though some people view economists as generally being right-wingers, it really just looks that way when you compare them to sociologists. Disputes within academia can be hard to map onto broader political disagreement because academia is so unrepresentative of the general public (Dan Klein found clusters of conservatives and libertarians to be approximately equal in size, and both were dwarfed by “establishment” liberals and the progressive left). A negligible portion of scientists don’t believe in evolution, while only 40% of Americans think the statement “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” is true and nearly 40% say it is false. Even Americans who do believe in evolution are basically just accepting the authority of scientific figures without having a real understanding, which is why they tend have a Lamarkian understanding of evolution rather than a Darwinian one.

  • Joseph Delaney

    “The third reason is mostly found among economists of a certain school, who are distressed because of the lack of a high correlation between wealth and happiness. This so upsets them that they want to throw all the happiness research away, almost always without actually examining the research itself.”

    I think that this is one of the most interesting things that I have read about. I think that Bruce’s suggestions of going deeper into the research is the right way to approach the problems. In particular, I think that certain logical things need to work out. For example, if people are so poor that they are starving then it would make sense that they are less happy that those who are able to earn enough to eat.

    Byt the same token, vast wealth and power should be at least partially correlated with happiness.

    However, the middle incomes are the interesting part. In physics we had a long history via Aristotle of thinking that objects with less mass (feathers) fell more slowly than obejcts with more mass (cannon balls). A second variable (surface area to mass via air resistence) explained this apparent anomoly.

    So I think that figuring out why wealth and happiness appear to anti-correlate is a fascinating research problem.

  • Michael Crichton

    There is evidence that in many respects people were more lively in the Middle Ages; they were also, on average, quite a bit younger. But in fact we will never know for sure, and it is certain that our perceptions of the past are heavily prejudiced.

    As for the subsequent discussion here, everyone gets in trouble with left-right distinctions because they are essentially meaningless labels. For example, you identify Chesterton as rightist, as most people would, but his views on Shaw and Wells and his criticisms of their political enthusiasms are indistinguishable from those of George Orwell, whom we term leftist. Then again, if you want an argument, you could consider carefully whether German National Socialism is properly regarded as left- or right-wing. (Or, indeed, how either Orwell or Chesterton categorized German Nazis from the left/right perspective.) Whatever you conclude, many will disagree with you.

    Left/right doesn’t imply meaningful, reliable distinctions and arguably hasn’t for decades, if not centuries. It’s the political equivalent of astrology. (Don’t vote for him, he’s an Aries. Duh!)

  • Michael,

    I agree that left/right boundaries are fluid but at any given time they seem to mean something. I agree that Orwell and Chesterton both criticized Shaw and Wells as being essentially silly and not understanding human nature–one could call that a conservative critique. On the other hand, on economic and social issues, Orwell favored socialism and class levelling, which was certainly not Chesterton’s position. So I guess I’d say that Orwell and Chesterton had similar criticisms of Shaw, but Chesterton’s was consistent with his “right” perspective and Orwell’s was consistent with his “left” perspective.

    Just as, in the 1960s, the “new left” was criticized as self-indulgent both by traditional conservatives and traditional liberals: conservatives criticized the self-indulgence as a rejection of tradition, and liberals criticized the self-indulgence as a distraction from the political fight.

    I think the Nazis, at least in the beginning, are characterized as a populist right-wing party. Once they took power and were running the country, I agree that they were beyond left or right. (Similarly, it would be difficulty to put Stalin, Mobutu, and other dictators on a left-right scale; it’s hard to judge this in the absence of political competition).

    Liberal and conservative represent actual policy positions but are also often defined as opposition to the other, which creates instability and definitely makes it difficult to align across countries and over time.

  • Joseph Delaney: Yes, the relation between wealth and happiness is a fascinating research problem. I didn’t mean to give the impressioon that they ‘anti-correlate’, instead , there is a very weak, slightly positive correlation, often not even statistically significant, and in any case, not linear at all. But as you suggest, the positive correlation is quite high if you just consider the low end: countries where people don’t have enough to eat or a living place or have war are much less happy than those in countries where they have the basic minimums of enough to eat and a place to live, and no war. Where the correlation disappears is at the higher levels of wealth, in that the very wealthy countries are not noticably happier than the mid level ones. I can send you the links for the figures if you want.

    One proposed explanation that economists can live with is the diminishing marginal utility of consumption — once you have one car the second car is not as valuable to you as the first, and the third is even less valuable, and by the time you get to the fourth, you’re like — whoa dude, stop already with the cars! That’s a soft limit on the effects of wealth on happiness. There are also two hard limits, one being that even rich people have only 16 hours a day to be happy in, and the other is that they can only do one thing at a time, so if they have 6 houses, they can still only be in one at a time. Also we can add that the determiners of happiness seem to be largely temperamental, in other words, you are doomed to your level of happiness, also that two other main determiners of happiness, namely anti-depressant medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy to stop doing things that make you unhappy, are so cheap they are available to everyone.

    An important qualifier seems to be that if you make comparison processes salient — hey, I’m not as rich as him — you get more effects.

    However, your paragraph on the physics analogy — I’m not sure what you are getting at there.

  • What were ‘the colossal walls that were built to keep happiness in,’

    and is it really true that ‘humanity never produces optimists till it has ceased to produce happy men,’

    and when did we ‘impose a holiday like a fast and drive men to a banquet with spears.’

    Spears?? What?

  • Joseph Delaney

    Bruce Bitton:

    “I can send you the links for the figures if you want.”

    I would highly appreciate it.

    “However, your paragraph on the physics analogy — I’m not sure what you are getting at there.”

    What I was trying to say (badly) is that when you have a large range over which a variable is measured (i.e. the range of wealth from homeless person to Bill Gates) then there can be effects that dominate at one end of the range. These effects could could lead to misleading inferences if you compare the two ends of the distribution.

    Air Resistence is almost always ignored in physics problems because it is small compared to other effects. However, very small objects with a large surface area are a case where this small (but highly non-linear) effect has a strong effect on the results.

    So, what I was wondering about with wealth and happiness is if the weak correlation could be partially due to multiple effects (all of which make sense independently) but, across the large range of wealth, could lead to counter-intuitive conclusions.

    So, perhaps, this is a problem best tackled with analyzing across a restricted range? I do not know; I am just speculating.

    “An important qualifier seems to be that if you make comparison processes salient — hey, I’m not as rich as him — you get more effects.”

    This would be very depressing if a large portion of the positive emotional effects of wealth were due to relative effects and not absolute effects of wealth. This would suggest that absolute increases in wealth don;t help much and that happiness for one person is at the expense of another.

    I would have a strong personal bias against accepting such a view!


  • Is my definition of happiness unique? It is:

    “Are you happy living in this moment, or would you rather it be some other moment?”

    If you are very unhappy, you’ll very much want another moment.

  • Having just read Timeline, it strikes me that it may be the real Michael Crichton above. If so, cool.

    Anyway, I’d agree that classifying Chesterton as a rightist seems a bit weird. He was very conservative in religious and social terms, but in matters of economics, he was a distributist, and his writings are full of venom directed towards capitalists. So he doesn’t map onto current political categories very well.

  • Re-reading the other comments, I think you can see why my definition (which I of course think is the proper one), is somewhat wealth independent. People in many states and stations can be happy in the moment … and if they are much of the time, they are happy in general.

    I think this explains the decreasing returns, wealth-to-happiness, and might be a prescription of what to look for when you have a little wealth put by.

  • Doug S.

    According to this book, the effects of income on happiness look like this:

    1) The effect of absolute income on happiness is non-linear; money has decreasing marginal utility. Raising the income of the desperately poor has a bigger effect on happiness than raising the income of people who already have more than enough to meet basic needs such as food and shelter. Being rich won’t make you happy, but being poor will make you miserable.
    2) The effects of relative vs. absolute income actually have been quantified. If everyone gets a raise, your gain in happiness is 2/3 of the increase that you would have if only you get the raise. Because people do care about both relative income and absolute income, people will tend to try to earn more income than is socially optimum. Therefore, the income tax is actually a Pigovian tax on a negative externality and actually increases net happiness.

  • Joseph Delaney: I’ll send u the links, send ur address to bbrittonva@yahoo.com

  • Why compare with the Middle Ages? If one is going to push such comparisons to the limit, why not go all the way back to paleolithic man? Marshall Sahlins in his _Stone Age Economics_ presented evidence that in hunter-gatherer societies, in fact people had considerable amounts of leisure time. Humans had physically and socially evolved and adapted to that sort of economy; we were suited to it, and it is not clear that we have been as physically suited to any society as much since. Also, drawing on the happiness lit, given that there were no societies around with agriculture or industrialization to dominate and provide a demeaning comparison, people were free to be happy in their “primitive” but well-adapted states, probably much better off psychologically than in either the Middle Ages or now.

  • Stuart,

    I didn’t label Chesterton as a “rightist.” I called him a “Christian conservative.” A conservative can be anti-capitalist. Depending on the social and political context, support for capitalism can be a liberal or a conservative position.


    I suspect Chesterton used the Middle Ages as a comparison to be provocative–to make the point to progressive socialists such as Shaw that material progress is not the solution to happiness. I doubt he would’ve picked the Stone Age, or anything B.C., as his comparison point.

  • Douglas Knight

    Barkley Rosser,
    You put in a caveat about the absence of agricultural society. Given the choice, as in colonial North America, disproportionately more people flow to the hunter-gatherer society than to the agricultural.

  • Hunter-gatherers get wiped out because ag societies support larger populations, and of course urbanized and metal-using socieities (and later fully industrialized ones) produce weapons that allow for the more complete military domination of such societies. So they disappear. Chesterton lacked both the knowledge and the imagination to go all the way back. The Middle Ages were quite sufficient for his shockingly conservative argument.

  • Alan Gunn

    “Nowadays, the debates usually go in the other directions, with people on the left being less positive about material progress and people on the right saying that things are great now and are getting better.”

    I don’t think these debating positions really contradict the historic pattern of the left being more materialistic than the right (as Bertrand DeJouvenel pointed out in “the Ethics of Redistribution”). Some of the arguments about whether we’re better off materially are just directed at the incumbent administration: if you don’t like the president, you claim that he’s wrecking the economy, and vice versa. And the left continues to go on at length about redistribution. The right’s answer to this, in Chesterton’s time and today, is, at least in part, “money isn’t everything.”

  • Yes sir. They had love.

    No sir after the IT we have the rich love rich and poor… they are pests.

    This is what I read..Since the 1980s, wealthier people have moved to the suburbs while the poor remain in inner cities, the JRF added.

    Society polarised

    Looking at wealth patterns over the past four decades, the JRF found that the gap between rich and poor actually narrowed in the 1970s.

    But during the 1980s and 1990s inequality had increased, as a “polarisation” in British society had occurred.

    Sir. Darfur is dying. Somalia and Sudan are beleived to be breeding grounds of Taliban. We are not sure but the countries are to be included in the charter of African unity. Sounds all crazy but there it is.
    Hence yes and no.

    Firozali A.Mulla MBA PhD
    P.O.Box 6044
    East Africa.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    If you’re commenting from Tanzania, very cool. It’s a bit of a mystery why there are not more contributions to blog comments and discussion boards originating in the USA from a broader range of non-USA countries, given that there are many millions of people on the internet for fun and communication in these countries. Brazil tends to be a notable exception (and they’re not even common wealth!). I would expect more posts from people native to and living in countries like India, Nigeria, and the Phillipines.