Boots & Sabers

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2037, 29 Jan 18

Cultures Then and Now

I love reading old history books. For example, I have a history of WW1 that was published in 1919 – right after the war ended – by an American writer. It is full of one-sided versions of battles, missing information that has since been learned (like the internal political battles in Germany), and is still full of anger for the hated “Krauts” and “Huns.” It’s like reading two histories in one – one about the subject matter and one about the culture and mindset of the writer in the era the book was written.

In any case, I’m currently reading “History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a preliminary view of the ancient Mexican Civilization, and the life of the conqueror, Hernando Cortes.” Quite a title, eh? It was published in 1843 by an American historian William H. Prescott

It is a fascinating read for the subject, but also for the 19th century American perspective of ancient and current cultures. For example, read this excerpt from pages 72-73. After extolling the virtues and advanced nature of the Aztec and Tezcucan civilizations, Prescott writes:

“Those familiar with the modern Mexicans will find it difficult to conceive that the nation should ever have been capable of devising the enlightened polity which we have been considering, But they should remember that in the Mexicans of our day they see only a conquered race; as different from their ancestors as are the modern Egyptians from those who built, – I will not say, the tasteless pyramids,- but the temples and palaces, whose magnificent wrecks strew the borders of the Nile, at Luxor and Karnac. The difference is not so great as between the ancient Greek, and his degenerate descendant, lounging among the masterpieces of art which he has scarcely taste enough to admire,- speaking the language of those still more imperishable monuments of literature which he has hardly capacity to comprehend. Yet he breathes the same atmosphere, is warmed by the same sun, nourished by the same scenes, as those who fell at Marathon, and won the trophies of Olympic Pisa. The same blood flows in his veins that flowed in theirs. But ages of tyranny have passed over him; he belongs to a conquered race.

The American Indian has something peculiarly sensitive in his nature. He shrinks instinctively from the rude touch of a foreign hand. Even when this foreign influence comes in the form of civilization, he seems to sink and pine away beneath it. It has been so with the Mexicans. Under the Spanish domination, their numbers have silently melted away. Their energies are broken. They no longer tread their mountain plains with the conscious independence of their ancestors. In their faltering step, and meek and melancholy aspect, we read the sad characters of the conquered race. The cause of humanity, indeed, has gained. They live under a better system of laws, a more assured tranquility, a purer faith. But all does not avail. Their civilization was of a hardy character which belongs to the wilderness. The fierce virtues of the Aztec were all his own. They refused to submit to European culture, – to be engrafted on a foreign stock. His outward form, his complexion, his lineaments, are substantially the same. But the moral characteristics of the nation, all that constituted its individuality as a race, are effaced for ever.”

Wow. Good ol’ Mr. Prescott really hated Greeks. In any case, reading old histories is a good way to remind oneself that every human is full of biases and emotions that they are incapable of completely subjugating to an idealized standard. This is especially true when reading modern news stories.


2037, 29 January 2018


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