The Allure of Ancient Wisdom

October 21, 2006 | By | Reply More

In Eastern cultures (Chinese, Navajo, Sri-Lanka, etc) they respect and even worship their direct and distant ancestors as a part of everyday life. The religions all embrace this basic respect for your elders.

However, in the West, what’s done is done, and the past buries its own dead. Except when it comes to religion. Somehow, there is a feeling in faith and literature that the ancient word trumps modern discovery.

I suspect this has to do with our individual upbringing. When we are small, all wisdom comes from our elders and the books they read. We developed a respect for this, even in adolescence when most of us felt (or feigned to feel) that our parents were incredibly stupid. As we mature, we realized that our parents had been mostly right.

We are all imprinted with this idea that the basic roots of wisdom come from the past. And we absorbed that our parents got it from their parents, and so on down the line.

Lost ancient wisdom is a compelling theme in literature, both traditional and modern. From “Beowulf” through Shakespeare and “The Lord of the Rings” to Harry Potter you can see this thread of feeling that all deep knowledge of the universe was once known, and needs only be discovered or recovered. There are even some significant current religions that believe that all one needs to do is unlearn everything earthly to attain the perfect wisdom, the oneness with the universe, that one possessed at birth by osmosis from ones earliest ancestors.

I think that this is the root of the dangerous fallacy that any particular ancient book is inherently more valid — truer — than any recent discovery. There will always be cases where the first blush of a new discovery that conflicts with accepted wisdom then turns out to be false. Especially when the discovery is made by a young and eager individual (or small group) working in isolation. But in a community of learned folk, where new and conflicting idea keep getting challenged and tested and reinforced, and it continues to prevail, one might consider that the elders who wrote the original text may have either been exercising poetic license. Or maybe they were just plain ignorant about the subject. Whoever it may be that they claim as their original source, they may well be mistaken.
To the root of it: Science is not about the authority of who came up with a theory, or how revered the source of the information was. Relativity is not right because Einstein was a brilliant man who came up with it. It’s right because thousands of others tried (and continue to test) every way they could think of to show that it was wrong, and had to agree with the original idea as the best explanation for all the facts gathered. Likewise, gravity doesn’t work because of Newton, or evolution because of Darwin.

We should respect what went before, and understand the culture that produced their conclusions. We must also recognize the perfectly human fallibility of our forebears, however strongly they believed in what they wrote.


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Category: Culture, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

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