What Was The Best Time And Place To Be Alive?
…For us, the question needs a little more thought. Anyone who dislikes pain, prefers their operations under anaesthetic, and has no wish to die of smallpox, might well choose to live now. We can balance that by awarding ourselves perpetual good health, but it’s harder to level the playing field when it comes to gender. Not many modern women, however frustrated with their lot, would choose to go back to long skirts, tight corsets and a general assumption that they are stupid. The same may apply to any European who isn’t white, and to anyone in the less affluent three-quarters of society. My children once went on a school trip to Apsley House, the Duke of Wellington’s home. I thought they were going to learn about lords; instead they were taught what it was like being a servant. Transport most of us to ancient Rome and we’ll find ourselves in a poorhouse or slave barracks. To give our question a chance, we have to assume that we can do our time travel, if not first-class, then in premium economy, switching genders if we feel like it, to land somewhere moderately comfortable.
This isn’t a question about technology, where the present will always trump the past. It’s about lifestyle and ideas, people and manners, things that ebb and flow. Armed with a passport to the good life in a time and place of our choice, not many will pass on the journey. Culture-vultures will book their seats in Shakespeare’s Globe in 1599 or the Cotton Club, Harlem, in the 1920s. Hero-worshippers will queue up to watch Michelangelo chisel stone in 1501 or Genghis Khan ride into battle in 1206. Epicures, the most prudent time-travellers, will follow Gibbon to Rome, or time their birth to dodge a call-up for the world wars and surf the Pax Americana.
Peace and stability are all very well, but several of mankind’s giant leaps have come in times of war. Democracy got going, and conversation buzzed, in Athens in the fifth century BC, with the Peloponnesian war raging outside. I’d brave the 16th-century Wars of Religion to catch the Reformation, or the Thirty Years War (1618-48) to watch the Enlightenment dawn. What I’m after is a sense of possibility. There’s a striking moment at the start of Thucydides’ “Peloponnesian War” when he surveys Greek history up to then. The striking part is, it only lasts a couple of pages. History is still on Series One. And maybe that sense of freshness is why the present doesn’t hold all the cards. Our own excitement in the rich, free West seems to have leaked away. A third of us can’t be bothered to use the votes Libyans are dying for. We have freed slaves, empowered women, shaken off tyrants. We should be living happily ever after, yet we’re not. Reason enough to tack against time and find a place where the future hasn’t gone stale.
It’s tempting to go by what you might witness—Socrates arguing with Plato in Athens, their contemporary Confucius riding through China, or Julius Caesar tangling with Cicero in 50BC Rome. But that would just be time tourism….