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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