Re-evaluating Historical Figures: A Necessary Anachronism?

Re-evaluating Historical Figures: A Necessary Anachronism?

Image: Nil Taskin Digital Art

In the quest to understand our past, it is imperative that we evaluate historical events and figures within the context of their own time, avoiding the pitfalls of ‘presentism.’ While anachronism can sometimes offer fresh perspectives, it is equally important to anchor our analyses in the realities and norms of the periods we are studying.

An anachronism is something that is out of its proper time or chronological order, particularly something or someone that belongs to an earlier time but appears in a later time. Anachronisms can occur in various forms such as literature, movies, art, or everyday conversations, where something is not in its historically accurate context.

Here are a few examples, with a focus on more recent years:

1- Technological Anachronisms in Movies and TV Shows

In a movie or TV show set in the 1990s, if a character is using a smartphone, it would be an anachronism because smartphones were not available during that time.

2- Literary Anachronisms

In a historical novel set in the 18th century, if characters discuss events or ideas from the 20th century, it would be an anachronism as those events and ideas did not exist during the time the story is set.

3- Fashion Anachronisms

In a movie set in the Victorian era, if characters are wearing clothing styles from the 1920s, it would be an anachronism because those clothing styles did not exist in the Victorian era.

4- Language Anachronisms

In a play set in ancient Greece, if characters use modern slang or terminology, it would be an anachronism, as the language would not match the time period.

5- Historical Anachronisms

In a movie or TV show set during World War II, if they depict events or historical figures that did not exist until after the war, it would be an anachronism.

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Recent Specific Examples:

1- In the TV series “Bridgerton” (2020), there are several intentional anachronisms, including the use of modern music and some fashion choices that do not align with the Regency era in which the series is set.

2- The movie “The Great Gatsby” (2013) features contemporary music from artists like Jay-Z, which is an anachronism considering the story is set in the 1920s.

Anachronisms can be used intentionally for stylistic choices or can occur unintentionally due to oversight or lack of research.

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Criticizing historical figures

Criticizing historical figures using modern values and understanding can sometimes be considered a form of anachronism, particularly when it involves applying contemporary moral judgments to people from a different time period. This is sometimes referred to as “presentism,” a specific kind of anachronism where present-day ideas and perspectives are applied retrospectively to past events.

In the case of Christopher Columbus, criticisms from younger generations often focus on his treatment of indigenous people, his role in facilitating colonialism, and other negative consequences of his voyages. These critiques are generally based on a more comprehensive understanding of the negative impacts of colonialism and a more inclusive consideration of the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples, perspectives that were not widely held or articulated at the time Columbus lived.

However, it is also essential to note that critiquing the past with a modern perspective can also be a way to foster a more nuanced understanding of history, encouraging people to consider the full scope of historical actions and their consequences, rather than viewing them through a narrow or romanticized lens.

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So, in this sense, while it might be seen as a kind of anachronism to criticize Christopher Columbus based on modern values, it can also be a valuable part of a broader historical discussion and analysis. It encourages a more comprehensive and critical engagement with history, which can be seen as a positive development.


Nil Taskin