I am passionately in love with Ancient Greek and Medieval Philosophy. I always get a kick out of introducing students to the thought of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas, etc.
But I have found a resistance to learning among my students about learning from those who lived centuries ago. It comes from what CS Lewis termed "chronological snobbery." He defines it thus:
"'[C]hronological snobbery,' the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date.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. 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." -Surprised by Joy, Chapter 13
In other words, there is a general assumption that we are smarter than people in the ancient world because we have things that they don't like running water, TIVO, The Department of Transportation, and Sham-wows. Sometimes when I quote Plato at my students they imagine some old savage with bad hygiene using human teeth for currency.
This is where the study of history is paramount.
I am often fascinated at how smart some people in the ancient world were. Eratosthenes was an ancient Greek in Egypt who discovered that the earth was round in 3rd-2nd Century BC. He found out that at noon the shadow in one city and another were at different angles. My measuring the angles he not only conclude that the earth was a sphere, but the was able to fairly accurately figure out its circumference.
Socrates and Plato proved through logic that good is always better than bad. The reason why is that no one ever wants the bad for itself. In other words, if you want something, you want it for a perceived good. But even if you want something bad, you don't want it because it is bad, they want it because of the good. No one ever cheats on their spouse because they want to ruin their lives and destroy their families. Those things might happen, but no one is motivated to act because of those things. Socrates and Plato didn't just intuit this as most of us do. They proved it.
Ambrose of Milan did something that amazed everyone else in his day because they had never seen anyone do it before: he read silently. I know that it is hard to imagine, but before Ambrose, everyone had to say the printed words out loud and hear them before they knew what they said. Think of it this way: someone puts some sheet music in front of you. You can read music, but you can't hear the music in your head until sit down at a piano or some other instrument and bang out the notes. Now some people can just look at sheet music and immediately translate the notes into a mental melody. When I meet people like that it blows me away. That is the feeling that geniuses like Augustine had when they saw Ambrose reading silently.
And now this amazing power is something that most grade school children can do.
That, I think, is part of the problem. Because of the innovation and genius of people like Ambrose, we have been able to train people in our modern age to ingrain these skills in us. We have more knowledge about the world because of people like Eratosthenes. We stand on the shoulders of giants. But are giants ourselves?
Perhaps it is unfair of me to only focus on the great people of the past. Just as there was a great wisdom, there was also some horrible ignorance. Superstition and brutality were more the rule in the old world rather than the exception. But you could say the same thing about our world.
Our modern world has some true idiocy, but also some fantastic wisdom. John Paul II's theology of the body is one of the most enlightening and uplifting things I have ever study. Steve Wozniak with the help of Steve Jobs pushed the world to think differently about our relationship to technology. Jobs was particularly a man of vision. I heard a story about how he fired a bunch of people at Apple because they were doing what most companies do: try to produce a product to meet consumer demand. Jobs instead said that Apple should create new technologies that would create demand. We live in a world where a new disease like AIDS comes into existence with a 100% fatality rate and within a few years people we have therapies that allow men and women like Magic Johnson to live on for decades after infection.
So, no, maybe we aren't necessarily stupider than the people of the ancient world. We have wise and intelligent men and women too, people of vision and insight. And we have idiots and ignoramuses among us (maybe even including us) today who only care about their happy meals and youtubes instead of ancient bread and circuses.
But even though we may not be, as a a whole, any stupider, I don't believe we are any smarter. To say that we are smarter than the ancients diminishes their wisdom and contributions. Why is it so important to keep this in mind.
Because Lewis was right about chronological snobbery. The truths about life and nature and faith and humanity that the ancients discovered are still true. Truth doesn't change. But if you can't refute truth, the only other way to avoid its power over you is to ignore it. And the best way to avoid the insights of Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Thomas, and even more modern people like Chesterton and Lewis is to marginalize them. Create an impression that we are more evolved than them. Say that they are simply a product of their ignorant times and that we who are more evolved are smarter and thus we are justified in not listening to them.
But we are wrong. They are just as wise and just as smart as we are.
We aren't any smarter.