Books and Code · A Miscellany

Chronological Snobbery, A Rebuttal


There is a common charge leveled against moderns, especially scientists and their ilk, by the Inklings and often repeated with glee by their fans and acolytes today. I was reminded of this yet again when catching up on the Mythgard Academy lectures on The Book of Lost Tales, Part I (See Week 7). The accusation is that modern people are commonly afflicted with chronological snobbery, the flawed condition of believing that “intellectually, humanity languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century” (Barfield). I don’t dispute that this phenomenon exists nor that it should not be criticized when found. However, the concept as formulated and regurgitated is ironically chronologically snobbish itself. Allow me to explain.

First, it fails to engage its opponents in a charitable manner by willfully overlooking the distinction between “childish errors” and legitimate ignorance. Some (most?) people accused of this crime are not trying to call pre-modern people stupid. Rather, they are simply acknowledging that those people were ignorant of relevant information. Sometimes the information was out of their ability to acquire due to lack of technology, locale, etc. Obviously we can’t hold those factors against them. However, in other cases they certainly could have found the information and failed to do so because of their false premises. The latter case is a legitimate intellectual failing and we are justified in criticizing them for it.

Second, it fails to condemn inverse snobberies that the Inklings flirt with. By applying the same criteria in reverse we can also determine that thinking pre-moderns are great just because they are old is an equal sin. So too is thinking modernity is crap just because it is new. I would be just as uncharitable to accuse the Inklings of loving everything old and hating everything modern without qualification, but if you can’t see where I’m coming from on this point then I think you might need to see an opthamologist. Suffice it to say, the proverbial knife cuts both ways.

Third, it fails to recognize how pervasive this “inverse chronological snobbery” is in modern society. Nothing demonstrates this better than the popularity of so-called alternative medicine. Modern people love to believe stuff that absolutely is childish error precisely because it is traditional. (By the way, Owen Barfield was into some pretty wacky ideas in this vein.)

Allow me to offer a more controversial example: revealed religion. Appeals to antiquity as a basis for their truth claims are a mainstay from time immemorial (ha, I crack me up!). As Paine puts it in The Age of Reason:

[T]he thing so revealed […] is revelation to the person only to whom it is made. His account of it to another is not revelation; and whoever puts faith in that account, puts it in the man from whom the account comes; and that man may have been deceived, or may have dreamed it; or he may be an impostor and may lie. There is no possible criterion whereby to judge of the truth of what he tells;

Antiquity is a common criterion offered by proponents of revealed religions. Why did early Christians debate the canonicity of Revelation? Why do non-Mormon Christians reject the Book of Mormon? Antiquity is a factor.

Furthermore, pre-moderns themselves loved appeals to antiquity. The older the better, as far as they were concerned. And this bias undoubtably did cause them needlessly to “languish for countless generations”–Galenic medicine anyone?! How is this not chronological snobbery?!

If pre-modern peoples were just as intelligent as moderns (and they certainly were), then they should be held to the same standards of intellectual rigor that we expect of moderns, given the information, technology, and methodology that was available at the time. While moderns should not assume they are superior to pre-moderns unduly, we ignore the cases where modernity is demonstrably less wrong at our peril. Furthermore, moderns who have the benefit of better information, technologies, etc. and yet adhere to outmoded ideas are rightly criticized. This is especially true for ideas that are intractably irrefutable in an objective sense, but have become increasingly unlikely in a subjective sense. It is this type of modern who fails most intellectually and I humbly submit to you that the Inklings’ flanks are exposed on this front.