How much smarter are we than people in past centuries? It’s a challenging question. On the one hand we do possess a much more thorough and realistic understanding of the physical world and how it works. The trouble with this is that we often get into the bandwagon of thinking that just because we are more scientifically and technologically advanced than previous ages, we also know more about all of life and therefore have a much more enlightened perspective than they did on pretty much every subject.
One way that we can see this today is the dwindling of serious historical and humanities studies in our colleges and universities. We seem to slide into a perspective where pretty much any text written before the 70’s or 80’s is too dated to be taken seriously, and that the only reason we read or look into the ancient voices is to see them from our elevated and enlightened modern perspective.
But does scientific advancement really mean that we know more about how to be happier and better people? Just look at the world today. Is it a more peaceful and better place than it was 50 or a hundred or a thousand years ago? I think this would be a pretty tough argument to make. At least if you take our current rates of depression and suicide as any indicator. At our greatest moment of advance, we have managed to become the ones who live more comfortably than any previous generation, while at the same time being among the most conflicted and miserable.
This sense of enlightened modernity is simply false, something that C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”. The older we get the more we realize how little we know and how much more seriously and respectfully we should consider the perspectives and voices that came before. More than ever, today we need to understand that our interpretation of reality is just one among many.
Rather than analyzing them through our own perspectives and feelings, we need to learn to be people who’s really know how to listen and hear. In an age of instant opinions on everything we have lost sight of the fact that true and intelligent perspective on any issue takes time and work to build. The more freely our opinions flow, the more ignorant we become. Slow down. Shut up. Listen. Think. Look back. Read. Reflect. Without an honest sense of the past we have no sane future.