Reading The Economist kindled my thoughts (as commonly happens) a few days ago. A review of a new biography on Benito Mussolini ("The cruelest years", The Economist, 14 July, 2007) begins, "Ernest Renan, a 19th-century French philosopher, once famously observed that national identity requires a collective work of amnesia." Of course this article is suggesting that the Axis nations have struggled to forget their inglorious role in the Second World War in order to continue living with dignity. I began to wonder about collective amnesia in other societies.
It occurred to me that collective amnesia (or suspension of disbelief or even a noble lie to use Plato's terminology) is an understudied force in history. So many attributes of American society especially depend on noble lies such as that "all men are created equal", that all possess intrinsic rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", and that a wealthy, handsome and successful man is no better than a poor, ugly and miserable woman. This was not always so in history. Ancient Roman society had no such notions of equality and natural rights while birth, wealth and beauty meant everything for moving up the social ladder. The ancient Roman way is more intuitive - are not those gifted by nature more deserving of social goods as well? - while the American way demands feats of faith and imagination. And yet who would argue that the American way of equality and individualism is the worse of the two?
Josiah Ober, a classicist at Stanford University, observes similar suspensions of disbelief in ancient Athens in his book Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Ober argues that the masses' exposure to theatrical drama trained the citizen-assemblymen to suspend their disbelief when the predominantly upper-class and educated leaders of the assembly spoke negatively about wealth and likened themselves to the common masses. A kind of symbolic rhetoric developed which on the one hand was fraught with imaginative inconsistency, but on the other hand also preserved for several generations an unlikely society, one founded on ideals of equality and direct democracy in a time of tyranny and rigid stratification.
So, in the best of societies - those founded on democracy and respect for the individual - we observe ideals accepted on faith which otherwise run against the grain of observable reality. Students of history, it seems to me, would do well to study those imaginative ideals popularly believed for the greater good and the manner of their unlikely acceptance.