When was the best time to be alive . . . with a clear conscience?
Last year I speculated on when was the best time to be alive – in the UK and with a fair wind, at least – and came to the conclusion that being born in 1943 would have enabled you to live most of your life before entropy, in the form of PPIs, tuition fees, etc. set in.
But you would still have been aware of the suffering of others, be it homelessness at home or famine abroad. Like every small child I was exhorted to finish what was on my plate and to be grateful I was not starving, when most of the time I would have been more grateful to see the disgusting cabbage and soggy carrots parcelled up and despatched to people who really needed it. But the message hit home and the unfairness began to rankle. I then hit on the brilliant idea – so simple, yet no one else seemed to have thought of it – of putting all the money in the world in a pile and dividing it equally among its inhabitants, only to be assured gloomily that within a year we would be back to haves and have nots.
As yer typical bleeding heart liberal, I spend quite a lot of time having fruitless internal arguments with myself that go something along these lines: ‘Can I really justify buying this meal/book/CD/cardi? I don’t really need it and I could give the money to a good cause. But when you think that the Government is spending £3bn a year on Trident, surely that money should be redirected before I have to stop buying things. And anyway, if I and others don’t buy things, what will happen to all those poor restaurateurs/writers/ publishers/musicians/knitters?’ I say fruitless, because this argument never ends up with me giving everything away and going to live in a large jar in the market place like the Greek philosopher Diogenes (though I think technically that would probably constitute a public order offence).
So do you need to go back to a time before mass communications, a time of greater certainty, to be able to live with peace of mind? What about the Victorians? Satisfied that ‘God made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate’, the Victorian upper and middle classes could be confident they were doing the right thing. And yet – with all that visiting the poor and sick in their foetid hovels, bearing trugs of goodies, didn’t the story of the rich man, the camel and the eye of a needle at least flicker intermittently across their conscience?
No, it’s got to be France in the reign of Good King Henry (1553–1610), whose legacy of development benefiting all classes of French people can still be seen. It was his aspiration that every one of his subjects should be able to enjoy a chicken on Sunday. So as an inhabitant of, say, a small town in the south of France – in a relatively brief post-serfdom, pre-Thirty Years’ War interlude – you could be an upstanding, devout citizen, basking in the beneficence of your maker and the mutual respect and support of your neighbours, with no photographic evidence of the distress beyond your boundaries and hence a clear conscience – unless you inexplicably found the death of all those chickens weighing in on you.
I’m sure there are other possibilities: if you want to debunk this one or propose another let us know.