Ignore The Past At Your Own Peril
Advancement and innovation are often a driving force to success, but they should be a means to an end and not the end itself.
What use is an “improvement” that fails to improve? There is none, yet we are conditioned to assume that “new” is the same as “better.”
We believe that life can be codified into numerical values that can be arbitrarily compared, and we are quick to judge others who fall behind. None, however, receive as harsh of an assessment as the generations that precede us, and we are quick to condemn our ancestors. C. S. Lewis, in his biography Surprised by Joy, describes this social condition as “chronological snobbery.”
Lewis admits to being an ardent supporter of the “New Look,” an approach to life that pushed him to use “the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse.” Earlier time periods were filled with superstitious nonsense dreamt up by the ignorant masses. However, his fellows at Oxford were turning to more traditional philosophical and theological approaches.
Unsure how to respond, Lewis entered into a state of confusion. He first derided them, thinking that they were like occultists seeking secret power. Then it burned at him, causing him to dispute with one of his friends in a manner that “I could only describe as the Great War between him and me. It was never, thank God, a quarrel, though it could have become one in a moment if he had used to me anything like the violence I allowed myself to him. But it was an almost incessant disputation... which lasted for years.”
Slowly, Lewis admits that he realized the problem was his “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”
Instead of just rejecting the past outright, Lewis explains that “You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.”
Whether economic or social construct, merely originating in the past is neither proof of an idea's success nor failure. Principals are principals, and those that are founded in truth will always be true regardless of the relativistic mindset of a time period.
Yet we are often confronted with those who argue against tradition as “antiquated.” We are told certain beliefs are old-fashioned, and history is derided, or, when it is acceptable, it is appropriate as part of a “retro” approach that is anachronistic. Fashion apparel is based mostly on whims, and it is very susceptible to this problem.
However, “chronological snobbery” is most dangerous when it comes to law. Often, laws are condemned due to their age, and debates rarely discuss the actual purpose of the laws in and of themselves. Many champions of “green” policies often attack tried and true technologies as “out dated” merely because they have a history of success. It is an empty rallying cry, but one that is used to shame others who disagree.
Lewis continues, “From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also 'a period,' and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”
The assumption that the past must be wrong and the present must be true is to see everything in black and white. It reveals an unfounded confidence that all of the current society must be better simply because it is newer, leaving no room for true improvement. We become blind to our own faults, finding no way to correct the flaws that would be clear to another generation.
In Lewis's time, and in our own, the dominant view was that of the “realists,” those who “maintained that abstract thought (if obedient to logical rules) gave indisputable truth, that our moral judgment was 'valid,' and our aesthetic experience not merely pleasing but 'valuable'... If one kept (as rock-bottom reality) the universe of the senses, aided by instruments and co-ordinated so as to form 'science,' then one would have to go much further.”
Realism, and materialism, is a system of certainty built on relativism, the idea that we can objectively determine that everything is subjective. But such a system is contradictory in its nature, and Lewis was unsatisfied. What drove his conflict with the approaches that rejected the past was reading great works of literature. It was the richness of language and ideas that filled his mind and inspired him further.
Of the writers, George Herbert influenced Lewis the most: “Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment... On the other hand most of the authors who might be claimed as precursors of modern enlightenment seemed to me very small beer and bored me cruelly.”
He struggled against those authors he enjoyed most, believing that they appealed only “to unphilosophic minds” but “The implication–that something which I and most other undergraduates could master without extraordinary pains would have been too hard for Plato, Dante, Hooker, and Pascal–did not yet strike me as absurd.”
Yet it is easy to become a “chronological snob” when you are never exposed with the actual thoughts of the great works. If Plato or Dante are mere summaries, then they can be turned into caricatures that can be discredited. Similarly, if you've never participated in a particular social custom, then you can easily justify dismissing it. It is easier to condemn what you do not know.
Such snobbery is only possible through isolation. It is a denial of history based on the arrogance that everything you do must be right. It does not prioritize what is good or what is right, even if it might pretend otherwise.
Joining fads and following trends is not the way to achieve long-term success, but it is a way to become hollow and meaningless. It is not enough to talk about “progress”; one must prove that it is so.
Jeffrey Peters is an Annapolis, Md.-based writer and political consultant.