When trying to explain away an older thinker’s faults, we say things like “he was a man of his times.” This is generally used in a relativist context: whatever was true at the time was true for them, therefore we should simply accept it.
There is some truth to this. Obviously we are all products of a certain set of limitations of thought. The limits of discourse are set by society, the State, religion, what mainstream media exists, the education system in place, and so on. One of their roles is to establish which are the dominant positions and what can or cannot be discussed. A Catholic can debate whether he should eat fish on Friday, but not whether the Pope is infallible or not. A worker can debate whether his wages are high enough, but is not allowed to discuss the validity of the work contract.
Different times will have different limitations, and thus set different limits in people’s ability to reason.
This is also true of Anarchism. In fact, this is especially true of Anarchism. Our concept of freedom is extremely limited, simply because we are so far away from a time where this concept is fully understood that we stand more or less in the same perspective as an ant looking at a human being, or someone thinking about gravity pre-Newton. We have no idea what it really means or how it works, just the general direction to go towards or a general phenomena to look at. Once we get more powerful as individuals (freer, wiser, more confident) in a new form of society, we will be able to look at this issue with a new perspective, unclouded by fear, greed and stupidity, and be able to circumscribe the topic of “freedom” better.
However, I believe we must not use one’s “times” as an all-encompassing excuse. For instance, it does not excuse the inability to follow one’s own ideas to their logical conclusion. Someone “owning” slaves in the early 1800s may be excusable as being “part of their times.” Someone “owning” slaves while advocating an ideology of freedom for all men is not excusable.
Someone who advocates the existence of the State and hierarchies today may be excusable as being “part of their times.” Someone who advocates the existence of the State and hierarchies while also advocating an ideology of non-violence and non-exploitation is not excusable.
We must either admit logic as an absolute of thought, or else make logic relative also, and believe that what people said in the past really shouldn’t make any sense for us at all. I don’t believe most people would choose the second option. There is definitely a sense in which these people who wrote in the past are very much like us, regardless of the society they lived in, and that they should have at least some honesty and courage.
Unfortunately, honesty and courage are not common traits anywhere or at any time. In fact, we actively suppress honesty and courage in our societies, because of the inherent problem of forced cohabitation and the need for tolerence in a democratic melting pot. In a situation where any disagreement with anyone is suppressed, every individual becomes a censor agent for the State. This is the intellectual climate in which we live.
Since the most truthful ideas (such as Anarchism) are those which reject a system of things as being corrupt, and therefore imply dissent with a wide variety of social processes and people, the most truthful ideas must therefore be the most censored. And if that means inventing a stereotype in order to correlate dissent with violence (such as the bomb-throwing hate-filled Anarchist), then so be it. Dissent must be equaled with violence.
Well, don’t you know that atheists have killed the most people in history? It’s true, really, we swear. Hitler and Stalin were atheists, you know. What’s that you say? Atheism is not a moral position? But that’s impossible. Christianity is a moral position, atheism is against Christianity, therefore it must also be a moral position. Since Christianity is good, atheism must therefore be evil. QED, motherfucker!
So am I asking to fault past thinkers for not being courageous enough to go against the status quo? Isn’t that unfair, given that the status quo was more repressive than it is now? I don’t think so. All times have their limitations, and our time is no different. I make no pretense of being a great thinker, but I don’t shy away from saying things that I know are outside of the boundaries of public discourse, even when I am in public. It is true that I don’t stand to be imprisoned for it, and I don’t think anyone should be morally beholden to risk going to prison for his opinions. So there is a line there, a line of risk, that has to be acknowledged.
In the end, I think the issue is a little more complicated than “he was a product of his times” and that we shouldn’t lean on this as an easy way out of embarassing things people said in the past.