In a story about the origins of confessional apps like Whisper and the now-defunct Secret, I recently mentioned The Athenian Mercury, a British periodical of the 1690s that is widely credited with inventing the modern advice column. "I would honestly love to read a compilation of questions & answers from the Athenian Mercury," somebody wrote in the comment section of that story. To which I say: Me too!
Perusing these inquiries feels a little bit like wading through fields of Google auto-complete. There's something satisfying (and, okay, a little voyeuristic) about knowing the questions tugging at another person's mind. And while contemporary advice columns have a reputation for being pretty narrowly self-concerned—people often ask what to do about specific, personal problems—The Athenian Mercury dealt mostly (though not exclusively) with big, existential questions. Or, as Josh Sternberg wrote to me on Twitter, "17th-century people had a different definition of 'advice;' they were a contemplative people on the cusp of enlightenment."
Right. But also they were just people. Our awkward, curious ancestors. Those who apparently wrote into The Athenian had questions about love affairs and petty arguments. They wanted to know how to communicate their feelings, and when it was okay to lie. So while there's something more than a little romantic about reading the existential questions that our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents might have had, there is another kind of delight in the centuries-old mundane. More than 300 years ago, people wondered about the difference between clouds and fog, and why their babies always seemed to cry after dinnertime.