Here is a common myth: Intelligence has evolved over the centuries of recorded history, so we’re smarter than people were a thousand years ago. Just look at the remarkable advances in the sciences and especially technology, and it’s clear that our current generation is more intelligent than those of the past, right? I hear it all the time, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, but hardly a day passes that I don’t detect it in the background of people’s presuppositions. Think of the frequency of comparisons with the past that run along these lines – “Well once upon a time people used to think that (insert any number of prevailing views from bygone eras), but now we know better.” And much of the time the thing “people used to think” isn’t even accurate. I continue to hear, for example, about how all of the Europeans thought the world was flat right up until Columbus’ voyage.
There’s no disputing that people across history held wrong beliefs about lots of specific things at various times. That’s as obvious as anything I could say about any time period, including our own. The myth is that we now are better than everyone in bygone generations because we have somehow ‘evolved’ past their ignorance and cognitive limitations. Their age was dark, ours is enlightened; their time was harsh and cruel, ours is nice and friendly; their intelligence was not quite up to the task, but now we’ve arrived and know what it’s all about. They had biases and blind spots they did not realize, but we have overcome that and replaced their shortcomings with openness, tolerance, unbiased neutrality and understanding.
This is an especially beloved part of the received wisdom among contemporary anti-religionists whose motivation for propagating the mantra is rather obvious. After all, if nearly everyone in Western history’s past generations was more spiritual and theological in orientation toward the world (including their ethics, politics, family life, etc.), and if those same people from the past were not as ‘evolved’ in their thinking as we are, then it must follow that having a more religious worldview equals being less evolved. Very simple and very tidy. To be truly intellectually advanced must mean to be distanced from the old traditional ways of thinking such that you are largely ignorant of the Scriptures, the arguments, the theological categories and even basic terminology that were so familiar and important for so long. Full secularization is the trademark of progress.
Just ask the ‘sheeple’ who sit in Bill Maher’s audiences and cheer when he describes as stupid and outdated the kinds of beliefs held by the majority of important thinkers whose ideas formed the foundation of our whole civilization. I suspect they haven’t paused to consider that so many of the great poets (like Milton, Wordsworth, etc.), philosophers (like Aquinas, Locke, etc.), scientists (like Copernicus, Newton, etc.), Renaissance humanists (like Erasmus, More, etc.), political leaders (like Washington, Adams, etc.) theologians (like Calvin, Edwards, etc.) and social reformers (like Wilberforce, MLK, Jr., etc.) were adherents and advocates of the very sorts of beliefs being scoffed at by a pretentious comedian whose clever cynicism apparently convinces his dimwitted viewers that he’s super-smart, when in fact he is hardly worthy, intellectually speaking, to clean the latrines of any of these men.
Worse yet, when I talk about the impressive legacy of those long since gone, so many people today still suppose, without any knowledge about it, of course, that all of those people – no matter their contributions in whatever fields – still must have been nevertheless hampered by the deficiency of living in a time before ours. If this seems like blind prejudice, that’s because it is. C. S. Lewis described in Surprised by Joy how his friend and Oxford colleague Owen Barfield helped to cure him of what he called “chronological snobbery,” which Lewis defined as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” I’ve also heard it called “presentism” and “provincialism in time”, but I like the use of the word “snobbery.”
The thing people despise about snobs is that they look down their noses at other people for the shallowest of reasons. A snob, for example, will think himself better than other people on the basis of the clothes he wears. A snob will assume she should get preferential treatment in life on the basis of the zip code in which she resides. Lewis believed this to be at work in himself as a young, intellectually arrogant 20th Century man. He took it for granted that the prevailing attitudes of elite academics of his day were automatically to be favored above all who had gone before since, after all, those unfortunates did not live in contemporary (and thus superior) times.
How ironic, then, that Lewis went on to spend his entire Oxford and Cambridge career focused on past centuries, his favorite philosophers being long dead and his primary academic expertise centering on literature from the Middle Ages. He became convinced of the direct opposite view than the one he’d held in his younger days, for he came to value the treasures of wisdom and the depths of insight contained in the great volumes from the past. In his inaugural address to the Cambridge student body, he admitted to them that by that time in his life he belonged more to the old world than to theirs. He advised his readers regularly to live in the pages of history enough to gain perspective and not grow myopic and parochial. “It is not the remembered but the forgotten past that enslaves us,” he told the Cambridge students. In an introduction he wrote to an ancient work of Athanasius, Lewis advised, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. … Keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through your mind.”
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