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ON ANCIENT WISDOM

21 June 2008

Recently I came to think about the weird duality with which we perceive the past. Specifically, the people and their level of wisdom and competence. See, on the one hand we look down on them. We think back to medieval times and see them groping in the dirt. Going back further, we laugh at their superstitions and ideas. What simpletons they were in respect to our current understanding of things! Even if you read some of the philosophical masterpieces of their age, you might appreciate how keenly insightful they are for their times, but won't deny feeling that you'd be able too write all this down as well with some time and effort.

But at the same time, we bestow upon people in the past a reverence that seems wholly contradictory to this. Just think about how for instance medicinal products and techniques 'based on ancient Chinese wisdom' are immediately taken in with irresponsible amounts of trust and respect. The very foundation of religion rests on this aspect: the fact that some book was written by people living thousands of years ago who didn't even have the slightest sliver of understanding of the world that we have today works astoundingly enough to make it more credible in the minds of many, rather than the reverse. And it goes deeper. We'd be highly skeptical of a miracle happening to someone around us -in fact, we don't even expect such a thing to happen. Yet when we hear it happened to some ancient figure, the matter becomes less unconvincing. And it's also generally believed that people back then were able to commune with gods and demons and had some kind of mythical bond with the earth that we lack.

There's something about ancient people that makes us project extraordinary capabilities on them. Perhaps this springs from our own insecurities, a longing back to an age where wonders did appear to happen. Perhaps it's encoded in our behaviour, to listen to and obey our elders, even if they've been dead for centuries. But it's completely irrational. People back then weren't better than us in any way. In fact, the vast majority was greatly inferior in terms of knowledge, rationality, communication, skill, diversity, etc, etc (note that all of these things spring from cultural and educational differences and progress, not from genetic, biological ones. Which is to say, we aren't necessarily better than them, but our times are considerably so). Neither were people more wholesome or morally better than us in the past: in the rare cases of restraint, their behaviour was socially enforced. Why then cling to this duality in our views? Why surrender ourselves unquestioningly to ancient practices, be they religious, medicinal, sociological or philosophical?

Think of it this way. In a thousand years from now, how would the people look back on us? Do you think they'll regard us as wise? Or might we expect them to consider us Neanderthals, using paper to wipe our asses and fire to cook our meals?

Roderick.