My generation tends to think of itself as the first generation to be moral, tolerant, decent, and good. We abhor racism, sexism, nationalism, and homophobia, crimes we set at the center of past societies—all of them. We have avoided the bloody vices of slavery, torture, pillaging, religious fanaticism, and witch-burning. History, to us, is a record of moral inferiority.

But we take too much credit for the progress. A generation is good or evil according to its genuinely possible actions. No one gets extra marks for avoiding the sin of pillaging villages when he has no villages to pillage. No man deserves a cookie for forsaking religious fanaticism when he lacks the gumption necessary to muster up a religious belief. We have been patting ourselves on the back for resisting the urge to burn a witch; a witch-burning generation may as well pat itself on the back for avoiding the atom bomb.

This vilification of the past to aggrandize the present only obscures the past. We frown at the Middle Ages as a time in which Westerners used the military power of the state for the goals of the Church—as if crusaders were modern liberals who could not keep their religious beliefs in check. But the categories of church and state were meaningless to the sacramental kingdom of King Louis IX, in which the spiritual and secular orders intertwined and interpenetrated to achieve the common “business of peace and the faith,” as Andrew Jones puts it. We drop this more accurate understanding of history in order to draw a flattering comparison between our age and our forefathers’. In doing so, we transform them into a generation that faced the same temptations as our own—and thereby become “the good guys” of the two. We resist the temptations; they didn’t. Moral arrogance and historical ignorance reinforce one another. To ennoble ourselves, we make irrational barbarians out of our ancestors and ignore the complexities of their times.

This same logic is present in our shudder over the techniques of punishment applied by our forefathers. From stocks to dunkings to lashings and hangings, they showed themselves to be a savage, heartless people. But the high ground we assume as a result doesn’t hold—as if all humanity faced the same temptation to make a public spectacle of punishment, and we alone had the will to resist. In truth, we do nothing particularly praiseworthy by condemning the hangings that we could not bear to see when we never experience the temptation to do so.

The historical facts are complicated. The University of Cambridge historian Helen Mary Carrel argues that most medieval punishments were administered by small communities who took responsibility for their own criminals. Shaming punishments—like shaving the head of an adulteress or dunking a crooked merchant in the river—worked, and they worked because a person really could be ashamed to have broken the peace of an actual community of neighbors. Now, our whole system of punishment involves the removal of the criminal from the community that he wounded. If medieval France put its offenders in the stocks, at least the offender remained in community with the people he offended. He would be the object of scorn and ridicule, to be sure, but another possibility was opened to him as well. He could become the object of mercy and charity, his shame (if he accepted it) serving to end the disturbance of the actual community he had offended.

Modernity allows for no such resolution. It builds massive cities of criminals barred from the communities they have offended. Except in cases of fines and community service, restitution becomes a managerial affair, in which useless time is paid to the placeless state. Modern justice looks like modern hygiene—the immediate scrubbing away of dirt, the excising of bad people from the community, a banishment that reinforces our notion that the criminal is a different kind of being who must be made to live with his type.

People who compare our system of justice to the medieval one without taking into account the public nature of punishment and penance misunderstand the past. They cease to see the thirteenth century as a patchwork quilt of genuine communities responsible for administering justice and keeping the peace in various ways: shame, work, money, or even prayers and pilgrimages offered by criminals in order to restore a disrupted peace. Instead, they imagine our ancestors quite like themselves: people in an impersonal society that deals out punishments according to rational exchange. Within this model, our ancestors’ punishments don’t look particular and communal. They look horrible. The properly serene and calculating Lady Justice lost her mind and began to hang thieves in cages; to send counterfeiters on grueling hikes to distant cathedrals; to whip cheaters outside of the grocery store.

It is easy and flattering to detach ourselves from an unfathomable, bloody history and to consider ourselves as the peak of ethical progress. It is harder to question whether our horror over communal punishments is not that they are cruel, but that they keep the criminal in our community, making us responsible for him even as they make him responsible for us. The old ways could be cruel and intense, but they kept the criminal close to everyone else. The new ways are less bloody and humiliating, more rational and bureaucratic, but they put the miscreant at a distance. The one allowed for a common experience of penance and reunification; the other doesn’t.

The seclusion of the modern criminal from society complements my generation’s detachment from the past. Why bother to understand a time and place that we already know is benighted? The way out of this triumphalism is the way of humility. One expression of it is precisely the sense of ourselves as historical creatures. We are alive now and look back to the fathers until we take our place among the dead and become judged by future generations.

A person is good not by avoiding those evils he already finds horrible, but by avoiding those evils that he finds attractive and available. We must measure a person’s virtues by his circumstances, not our own. This is not to rationalize evil deeds, but to prevent cloistered virtue from becoming a standard of conduct. Each generation faces its peculiar demons with better or worse results. On this issue, historical pride is the characteristic trait of my peers. Historical knowledge is part of the cure.

Marc Barnes is studying for his doctorate in philosophy at the Benedict XVI Centre at St. Mary's University, Twickenham, London.

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