Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Are we smarter than our forbears? Emerson on Chronological Snobbery (before C. S. Lewis called it that)

Bob Prokop writes:

I found a good quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson who anticipates Lewis' condemnation of "chronological snobbery". This is from his essay "Self Reliance" (1841):

No greater men are now than ever were. A singular equality may be observed between the great men of the first and of the last ages; nor can all the science, art, religion, and philosophy of the nineteenth century avail to educate greater men than Plutarch's heroes, three or four and twenty centuries ago. Not in time is the race progressive.


Joshua Blanchard said...

It would be best to distinguish between types of chronology-relative authority. For example, inquiry that builds heavily on past accomplishments (plausibly, natural science) will yield at least a certain superiority in accurately describing the object of study. But in other cases, e.g. knowledge of historical events, past figures may be in the superior position.

I'm not sure how I feel about virtues and philosophical insight. I suspect we are equal in some ways, worse in others, and better in still others. It would be interesting to parse this out.

Ken Pulliam said...

We are not smarter in terms of IQ but we are smarter in terms of accumulated knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:

What C.S. Lewis and Emerson are referring to is the tendency to discount the opinions of someone from the past on the sole grounds of their being in the past. Thus, we say as an insult that something is "so medieval", without any regard as to whether that is necessarily a bad thing.

I am old enough to remember the controversy surrounding the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Although I am very glad he was not appointed, I was forced to come to his defense when his detractors criticized him by saying he was "the finest 19th Century mind we have".

So? Thoreau, Lincoln, Whitman, Melville are all 19th Century minds, and easily finer than most 20th (or 21st) Century minds. The criticism was pure chronological snobbery, and added nothing to the debate.

Anonymous said...

It is a fallacy of sorts, but then there are two sides to the fallacy. Old wisdom and lore has a kind of prestige, cachet, mystique or patina, whatever you want to call it, that many people seem to find attractive in established religions.

But when it comes down to life and death, who would you trust more to treat serious injuries or illness -- an ancient renowned physician, or your local walk-in clinic doctor just out of med school?

You have to face the fact that, unwise as we often are, we moderns are still the more experienced and wiser culture than the cultures of humanity's fledgling civilizations.