Five Old-Fashioned Values We Rightly Reject

After a steady diet of period films, literature, and historical nonfiction, I’ve realized that in some ways, our culture has changed dramatically in the last 250 years or so. If you or I were transported to say, 1820, and we mingled with Americans then, we would struggle to fit in. We often grouse about the loss of shared values over time, and it is true that some of the beliefs that strengthened family units and held our culture together have been eroded. However, a few of those entrenched traditional attitudes were harmful and encumbered our progress. Some of them were held in opposition to the self-evident truths proclaimed in our founding documents, or worked against the family unit–and I say good riddance. Here are some examples:

Marrying Advantageously: One is probably wise to consider a prospective mate’s financial situation (especially to the degree that they reflect work ethic). However, novelists such as Jane Austen–who were contemporaneous to rank-and riches-conscious cultures–detail for us a milieu of shameless social climbing and gold-digging. Behaviors that would today be considered tacky seemed to be somewhat acceptable then, even expected: discussing openly how many pounds a year one was given as an allowance, or whether there was an inheritance to be had. One’s spouse needed to be of the right social class, and (as one biographer argued was true of George Washington’s marriage) even calculated to move one up the social ladder. We might argue that today’s criteria for marriage–a sense of romantic connection, for example–are even flimsier than they were in the past. Even so, we ordinarily do recognize today that character, kindness, and work ethic come into play in choosing of a good spouse and likelihood of a productive future together.

Looking Down on Earning One’s Wealth: The consensus today, partly evidenced by the way most Americans live their lives and discuss public figures such as Donald Trump, is that one’s living should be earned. We love stories of individuals clawing their way to a better life, and frown on accounts of inherited wealth that may bequeath unfair advantages or cheat the heir of valuable life experiences. We hold up as an ideal the prospering local business whose founder started from nothing and worked long hours to move forward. In the past, however, the best people in society wrinkled their noses at honest work for those in their station. Losing one’s status and having to become a governess (a job I would enjoy) was considered a shameful event to be painfully borne. The newly wealthy of the Gilded Age were not easily welcomed into the ranks of the noble classes because they (sniff) had earned their money. Apparently, one’s position was to be considered intrinsic to the individual, and not shaped by life choices and the availability of opportunities. A life of idleness was a respectable option.  And the upper classes wanted to keep it that way.

Condescension Towards the Lower Classes: The upper classes saw a clear divide between themselves and those born into families without title or rank. Perhaps in more feudalistic eras, nobility had served a function–that of providing structure and protection for those in their vicinity. However, as the world changed, the system became less necessary, even as the upper classes did what they could to preserve its advantages for themselves. Thus it was acceptable, despite feudalism being slowly replaced, for lords and ladies to stay separate from the common folk, even insisting that the masses adopt a particular manner of addressing them that would acknowledge their mutual stations. (Arguably, overt racism was allowed with the same mindset of protecting societal structure.) Today’s America does not tolerate such affectation, and anyone who behaves as the (en)titled did in the past would be shut out of our society. In order to progress, we must live together, work together, and do what we can to encourage all of our young people to take advantage of their opportunities.

Open Snobbery Within the Ranks of the Rich: In the old days, the rich ate one another. During the Gilded Age, for example, perhaps in attempts to protect their way of life, wealthy socialites were the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of society, deciding who was in and who was out. New wealth earned through involvement with railways and industry were understandably snubbed. These people were crude, ignorant, and alien to ways of the upper crust. Also, violating strict behavior codes in the past, or even associating with the wrong people, could get one pilloried and excluded. Perhaps snubbing wasn’t effective for those who didn’t prioritize being included in the top levels of society. But for those who held rank and privilege dear, excommunication would be devastating. Today, we are more likely to mix with almost any social group on the premise that we are all essentially the same. Such “mean girls” behavior acceptable in earlier ages is considered ugly and contemptible, and even the most celebrated among us are judged based upon whether or not they are friendly in person.

Double Standards for Male Dalliances:  Faithfulness to one’s wife was not always upheld as virtue. Perhaps it was an ideal, but in practice, men often kept mistresses, visited brothels, or otherwise indulged in illicit encounters with other women when they were away from home. For instance, explorers of the past included journal entries that describe their exciting cross-cultural sexual experiences for posterity, apparently without much shame. As long as the naughty behavior wasn’t too open, society looked the other way for men. However, decent marriageable women and wives were held to a high standard if they were to avoid public censure. Even associating in the wrong context with a man to whom one was not married or engaged could open one to ruinous gossip. (This high standard for women was perhaps less rigid starting from the Gilded Age. Churchill’s American mother, for instance, had numerous affairs.) I am not sure when our culture began viewing adultery by either husband or wife, and even unfaithfulness in our serially monogamous affairs, as betrayal. Men who fool around on their wives are faithless scoundrels; women in extra-marital affairs are held equally culpable. We call it “cheating” and we have a body of music that laments the heartbreak it brings. Today, news of one’s husband acquiring a mistress would shatter the wife’s ability to continue her commitment, and we would all support her decision in bringing to an end such a sham marriage.

In light of these traditions of the past that we’ve justifiably rejected, we can agree that even though our culture has decayed in some ways, we have improved in other respects. These changes, arguably, have been brought about by the influence of the Bible and its explicit teachings on the God-given dignity of every man and woman, the importance of hard work, and the lifetime commitment of marriage. But that’s a discussion for another day.

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54 thoughts on “Five Old-Fashioned Values We Rightly Reject”

  1. I think the 5 all have to do with aristocracy, which as someone famously said, “never  got off the boat in America”.  Good on us!

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  2. Certainly the ones dealing with earned wealth and snobbery are evident in today’s American. It would seem to me that those characteristics were exactly what Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart was all about. In fact I would argue that the Victorian America was more welcoming of the nouveau riche than possibly today—although I suspect today is driven more by the politics of the particular riche than them being new. Victorian Americans were all about work as a means of improving one’s material as well as spiritual self. There is certainly nothing like that today.

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  3. Robert A. McReynolds:
    Certainly the ones dealing with earned wealth and snobbery are evident in today’s American. It would seem to me that those characteristics were exactly what Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart was all about. In fact I would argue that the Victorian America was more welcoming of the nouveau riche than possibly today—although I suspect today is driven more by the politics of the particular riche than them being new. Victorian Americans were all about work as a means of improving one’s material as well as spiritual self. There is certainly nothing like that today.

    But invigorating work was not for all the classes. What was good for thee was not good for me. I think the Victorians were still very class conscious.

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  4. Knew a young lady who liked to point out that her grandmother said “You should marry for love.  But it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one!”
    I thought that split the baby rather well.

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  5. The Age of Reason specifically was not about god.  The Age of Reason embraced the responsibilities of flesh, without apologies or amelioration.  Each part had an ethical – not moral – responsibility to the whole.

    “These changes, arguably, have been brought about by the influence of the Bible and its explicit teachings on the God-given dignity of every man and woman, the importance of hard work, and the lifetime commitment of marriage.”

    “Dignity”  Naked we arrive and naked we depart, having added mostly excrement to the world.  I don’t see no sewage treatment in the Word of God.

    I can tap a few keys and access the accumulated knowledge and expression of the whole of mankind over all time, plus Wolfram Alpha to solve the equations.  Bulk up and kick ass.  The Bible expensively cheapens life, whether dripping gold or shattering stained glass windows.

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  6. sawatdeeka:
    Marrying Advantageously:   …

    …  We might argue that today’s criteria for marriage–a sense of romantic connection, for example–are even flimsier than they were in the past. Even so, we ordinarily do recognize today that character, kindness, and work ethic come into play in choosing of a good spouse and likelihood of a productive future together.

    America has both embraced and rejected romance.

    The idea that there is some particular “soul-mate” for you and only your soul-mate will make you eternally happy has caused a lot of emotional wreckage over the years.  It made people in difficult marriages less willing to do the hard work necessary to preserve their marriages.  It enticed many to marry on the basis of some fleeting emotional connection, expecting that the emotion of the moment would be enough to sustain a marriage.

    But we also have seen Feminism move from advancing the true interests of women to advancing the true interests of Leftism.  Along the way, the idea got promoted that women should act like men and men should act like women.  The result is women pursuing the Playboy philosophy of sex as recreation, and men who make themselves unsuitable as husbands.

    We would do well to re-consider nineteenth-century attitudes about marriage, only, instead of thinking about the habits of the wealthy, look lower down the economic scale, to where real American workers live.

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  7. Uncle Al:
    The Bible expensively cheapens life, whether dripping gold or shattering stained glass windows.

    Uncle Al, I know you enjoy being a provocateur, and that most of your rhetorical flourishes are not intended to engage, but, still, this sort of line is just trolling.

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  8. Condescension Towards the Lower Classes

    That one is alive & well today.  Don’t believe me?  Try phoning your Congressman — or even better, your Senator — and see how you are treated.  If you are not a known contributor, you get an e-mail address.

    Look at how the woman with a credential in Lesbian Dance from some prestigious college treats her illegal alien house help, or the plumber who unclogs her toilet.

    All that has changed is the definition of the Lower Classes.  Today, there is the Political Class (which includes a lot of bureaucrats, academics, media types, and crony CEOs as well as political insiders) and then there is the rest of us — the Great Unwashed left outside.  Democracy is Wonderful!

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  9. sawatdeeka:
    Marrying Advantageously: One is probably wise to consider a prospective mate’s financial situation (especially to the degree that they reflect work ethic). However, novelists such as Jane Austen–who were contemporaneous to rank-and riches-conscious cultures–detail for us a milieu of shameless social climbing and gold-digging.

    Hypergamy is as old as humans – even older since animals practice a form of it. It may be more subtly practiced now than before but there’s just a thin veneer of politeness over the underlying motivations. Sexual selection is what got us where we are today and hypergyny, specifically, is a part of that. Males and females have differing requirements and functions in propagating the species, which is what marriage is all about – or was until recently. Social climbing and gold-digging is alive and well; it’s just better hidden.

    sawatdeeka:
    We might argue that today’s criteria for marriage–a sense of romantic connection, for example–are even flimsier than they were in the past.

    Indeed. There’s a good case to be made that older models of marital matchmaking were more successful than the current one. The divorce rate is evidence in support, though there are many other factors at play.

    In the past, when most people lived closer to the edge of survival, they were far more practical in mate selection. The old models had their downsides, to be sure. On balance, it’s unclear if the recent approach is superior.

    sawatdeeka:
    Even so, we ordinarily do recognize today that character, kindness, and work ethic come into play in choosing of a good spouse and likelihood of a productive future together.

    Yes, but unfortunately people of marrying age are often poorly qualified to make those judgments, especially given the role of infatuation, and often use other criteria to select a mate. There’s good evidence that the human cerebral cortex is not fully developed until the mid 20s. Decision-making before that age might be sketchy. On the other hand, waiting too long to marry limits the number of fertile years for the female, which is one of the reasons fertility in Western nations has collapsed.

    All those traits you listed were also taken into account in prior eras, though they may have had less importance compared to financial considerations. Or perhaps the financial and status factors remain just as important but are less discussed.

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  10. Gavin Longmuir:
    Look at how the woman with a credential in Lesbian Dance from some prestigious college treats her illegal alien house help, or the plumber who unclogs her toilet.

    This reminds me of one wag’s observation: In their mating and migratory habits, liberals are indistinguishable from members of the Ku Klux Klan.

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  11. I would say one of the biggest changes since Victorian times is the idea of shame. I think the possibility of being shamed for immorality kept a lot of Victorians in line, which I believe on the whole was a plus for society. The idea has been completely reversed for some segments of our society now – lewd behavior can be proudly paraded and the people to be shamed are those who disapprove of such acts. Not an improvement in my opinion.

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  12. Also, violating strict behavior codes in the past, or even associating with the wrong people, could get one pilloried and excluded.”

    And today we have Twitter.  As the French would say — Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

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  13. sawatdeeka:

    Robert A. McReynolds:
    Certainly the ones dealing with earned wealth and snobbery are evident in today’s American. It would seem to me that those characteristics were exactly what Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart was all about. In fact I would argue that the Victorian America was more welcoming of the nouveau riche than possibly today—although I suspect today is driven more by the politics of the particular riche than them being new. Victorian Americans were all about work as a means of improving one’s material as well as spiritual self. There is certainly nothing like that today.

    But invigorating work was not for all the classes. What was good for thee was not good for me. I think the Victorians were still very class conscious.

    Sure but I think that was only reflected in those with exposure to the British education system. Folks like Morgan could certainly fit that mold, others were keen to pick up on the industriousness of young go-getters because that is how they themselves made it big. Rockefeller fits that description. Morgan came into life with his father already established as a banker/financier where Rocky started off as a store clerk and errand boy.

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  14. drlorentz:

    sawatdeeka:
    Marrying Advantageously: One is probably wise to consider a prospective mate’s financial situation (especially to the degree that they reflect work ethic). However, novelists such as Jane Austen–who were contemporaneous to rank-and riches-conscious cultures–detail for us a milieu of shameless social climbing and gold-digging.

    Hypergamy is as old as humans – even older since animals practice a form of it. It may be more subtly practiced now than before but there’s just a thin veneer of politeness over the underlying motivations. Sexual selection is what got us where we are today and hypergyny, specifically, is a part of that. Males and females have differing requirements and functions in propagating the species, which is what marriage is all about – or was until recently. Social climbing and gold-digging is alive and well; it’s just better hidden.

    sawatdeeka:
    We might argue that today’s criteria for marriage–a sense of romantic connection, for example–are even flimsier than they were in the past.

    Indeed. There’s a good case to be made that older models of marital matchmaking were more successful than the current one. The divorce rate is evidence in support, though there are many other factors at play.

    In the past, when most people lived closer to the edge of survival, they were far more practical in mate selection. The old models had their downsides, to be sure. On balance, it’s unclear if the recent approach is superior.

    sawatdeeka:
    Even so, we ordinarily do recognize today that character, kindness, and work ethic come into play in choosing of a good spouse and likelihood of a productive future together.

    Yes, but unfortunately people of marrying age are often poorly qualified to make those judgments, especially given the role of infatuation, and often use other criteria to select a mate. There’s good evidence that the human cerebral cortex is not fully developed until the mid 20s. Decision-making before that age might be sketchy. On the other hand, waiting too long to marry limits the number of fertile years for the female, which is one of the reasons fertility in Western nations has collapsed.

    All those traits you listed were also taken into account in prior eras, though they may have had less importance compared to financial considerations. Or perhaps the financial and status factors remain just as important but are less discussed.

    No woman would give a second thought about Brad Pitt or George Clooney if the were both homeless. So yeah, definitely alive and well today but not spoken of.

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  15. Also Austen was poking fun at the marry-for-status culture of her time. Surely you cannot read the romance of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and conclude that Austen was approving of the status marriage prevalent in her time? This is what made Austen ahead of time.

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  16. I will conclude with this: the world would be a lot better off today if we acted more like the Victorians than if we continue in this Age of Aquarius. Their manners were better, their clothes were better, and their music was better. Fellas you ain’t lived until you see a woman without her bustle.

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  17. You say “our culture has changed dramatically in the last 250 years or so”.  250 years is about how long we’ve had “sentimental marriage”.  Traditionally marriage was always about property and inheritance.  I don’t see why that’s   a bad thing.
    Furthermore,I think it’s still going on.  When a young girl gets pregnant, the idea that she should marry the baby-daddy Is the last thing on anybody’s mind.  Her middle class parents often insist on keeping the young mom and baby at home, let her take some time to consider whether it’s really a good idea to get married.  This attitude is nothing more than the fear that the union might not be “advantageous” to the girl in the long run.   Which in itself is stupid: for two young people with no property, divorce can be obtained  very cheaply in  like, 12 weeks.   There IS no “long run”.
    As for “social climbing” , I think everybody should aspire to it.  Isn’t that just another way of saying people want “a better life”…?

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  18. drlorentz:
    In the past, when most people lived closer to the edge of survival, they were far more practical in mate selection. The old models had their downsides, to be sure. On balance, it’s unclear if the recent approach is superior.

    I think it is clearly inferior.

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  19. Hypatia:
    You say “our culture has changed dramatically in the last 250 years or so”.  250 years is about how long we’ve had “sentimental marriage”.  Traditionally marriage was always about property and inheritance.  I don’t see why that’s   a bad thing.
    Furthermore,I think it’s still going on.  When a young girl gets pregnant, the idea that she should marry the baby-daddy Is the last thing on anybody’s mind.  Her middle class parents often insist on keeping the young mom and baby at home, let her take some time to consider whether it’s really a good idea to get married.  This attitude is nothing more than the fear that the union might not be “advantageous” to the girl in the long run.   Which in itself is stupid: for two young people with no property, divorce can be obtained  very cheaply in  like, 12 weeks.   There IS no “long run”.
    As for “social climbing” , I think everybody should aspire to it.  Isn’t that just another way of saying people want “a better life”…?

    Another way marriage, or non marriage, is still an economic decision is the effect of welfare. I was stunned and heartbroken to see that a pregnant unmarried daughter is regarded as a valuable economic asset in poor rural New York State. Her welfare checks may be essential to covering her parents’ expenses. No shotgun wedding there.

    Shotgun weddings are better.

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  20. Robert A. McReynolds:
    Also Austen was poking fun at the marry-for-status culture of her time. Surely you cannot read the romance of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and conclude that Austen was approving of the status marriage prevalent in her time? This is what made Austen ahead of time.

    Yes, I know that she was poking fun at it. I brought her in to say that she described it for us so that we can see what it was like.

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  21. Jojo:

    Hypatia:
    You say “our culture has changed dramatically in the last 250 years or so”.  250 years is about how long we’ve had “sentimental marriage”.  Traditionally marriage was always about property and inheritance.  I don’t see why that’s   a bad thing.
    Furthermore,I think it’s still going on.  When a young girl gets pregnant, the idea that she should marry the baby-daddy Is the last thing on anybody’s mind.  Her middle class parents often insist on keeping the young mom and baby at home, let her take some time to consider whether it’s really a good idea to get married.  This attitude is nothing more than the fear that the union might not be “advantageous” to the girl in the long run.   Which in itself is stupid: for two young people with no property, divorce can be obtained  very cheaply in  like, 12 weeks.   There IS no “long run”.
    As for “social climbing” , I think everybody should aspire to it.  Isn’t that just another way of saying people want “a better life”…?

    Another way marriage, or non marriage, is still an economic decision is the effect of welfare. I was stunned and heartbroken to see that a pregnant unmarried daughter is regarded as a valuable economic asset in poor rural New York State. Her welfare checks may be essential to covering her parents’ expenses. No shotgun wedding there.

    Shotgun weddings are better.

    Yuh, were s’posed be so pro-family but in practice the system works to discourage stable nuclear families.

    We have,  as I have mentioned, an unconscionably high incarceration rate.  One of the collateral civil consequences of a conviction,   about which defendant need not even be informed before pleading guilty (and sump’n like 97% of criminal cases do end wth pleas not trials) is that  the con can never live in public housing.  Parents  can’t go home to spouse and kids even if they wat to; the whole family could be evicted.

    Also states now are passing laws forbidding people under 18 from marrying even WITH parental consent. (Again, as I said above, Why?  It’s hardly an irrevocable step..)

    I was so horrified by this story from a few years ago: a couple came to a magistrate in Delaware  to get married.  The dad was over 21, the pregnant bride only about 16. Her mother was with them to give consent to the marriage, as Del law provided.  The officious busybody magistrate didn’t like it; he told them come back tomorrow—and had the dad arrested for having sex with a minor.  …Aaaaand another  baby’s chance at a two-parent household bites the dust.

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  22. Hypatia:
    Traditionally marriage was always about property and inheritance.  I don’t see why that’s   a bad thing.

    I have heard this frequently over the last few years. And I agree that probably there were eras where property and inheritance were major factors in bringing two people together. But whether or not the union was about material concerns in the minds of those making the decisions, marriage in fact and in principle still creates a new, hopefully stable unit where children can be born and cared for materially and in other ways (whether or not the couple follows through is another matter.)   The couple had to actually live out the union, and one reads about royal marriages, for instance, from 1600’s where the life together was good or bad or a mixture of the two (for example, Henry VIII was married to his first wife for about two decades before deciding he wanted to try something different. And his instability had a real effect on her. Their marriage was a fact, even though it was probably intended to bring political benefits.)

    And even in very materially minded eras and contexts, such as what Austen describes, surely people knew better. As another in this thread has commented, Austen presents a healthier ideal that surely resonated with her audience: one in which husband and wife appreciate one another’s character qualities and have affection for each other. I just finished watching a miniseries based on a Trollope novel, and the way the networking, wangling, and manipulation for advantageous marriages are presented makes it clear that the author was critical of that behavior. Like Austen, he seemed to approve more of unions where the couple understood one another and shared values and goals. Manly love and affection for a woman, plus high moral character, seemed to be an ideal for Trollope.

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  23. MJBubba:
    The idea that there is some particular “soul-mate” for you and only your soul-mate will make you eternally happy has caused a lot of emotional wreckage over the years.  It made people in difficult marriages less willing to do the hard work necessary to preserve their marriages.  It enticed many to marry on the basis of some fleeting emotional connection, expecting that the emotion of the moment would be enough to sustain a marriage.

    I agree that this impossible ideal has been very destructive. Marriage is real life, which always has challenges to work out. We’re never going to get away from that. Expectations are important, and unrealistic expectations reveal immaturity and selfishness that is part of the human condition and that we hopefully grow out of.

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