Chronicism: a new problem?
Why You and I must be cleverer than Aristotle.
When you start ferreting around in the literature and the intellectual history of past times, one of your first and most uncomfortable realisations is just how different we are from our ancestors, even those of a couple of generations previously. I put it that way round, incidentally, because I think it’s an issue for us, not them. I’m tempted to call the issue Chronicism: the assumption of the universal and automatic superiority of current ideas over those of all previous ages. Think of it, if you like, as the opposite of Declinism or the intellectual pessimism of some on the Right.
It’s not an entirely new idea, of course. In western culture it began in the seventeenth century with the rise of scientific thinking and the beginnings of Liberalism. After millennia when it had been assumed that the Ancients knew more than we ever would and that we could acquire wisdom only by studying them, for the first time people started to argue that the Moderns could produce something as good, if not better. Jonathan Swift’s 1704 satire The Battle of the Books is about exactly that debate: such a work would have been unthinkable even a century before. In spite of the Classics still being venerated therefore, it began to be argued that humanity as a whole was making actual, objective, moral and intellectual progress. The present was therefore wiser and better than the past, and the past should ultimately be cast aside.
To actually follow through such an idea to its logical conclusion requires an almost superhuman degree of self-confidence, which you rarely find outside revolutionary moments. The French Revolution is probably the emblematic moment. Dismissing everything before it as superstition and tyranny (though still looking back to the ancient world with respect) it swept away all religion, all tradition, all social organisation, all government structures, all weights, measures of time, space and distance, and all laws and customs, and replaced them with new ones. There’s something slightly unsettling, for example, in reading about the designation of 1791 as the Year One: not just French history, but all human history was deemed to have started again with the foundation of the Republic.
But any normalising, universalist system, even a non-revolutionary one, still has to grapple with the fact that people thought differently in the past, and in different ways, at that. Christianity came to a slightly awkward accommodation with the Ancients, often by finding previously unsuspected prefigurations of Christian doctrine in the Classics. Islam, on the other hand, has the concept of the Jahiliyyah, the Age of Ignorance, before the revelations made to Mohammed. Certain Islamist groups, like the Taliban, went so far as to destroy religious objects from before that time.
Liberalism doesn’t blow things up, at least not directly. But like all universalising ideologies, it has trouble with the detail of history, and with the past more generally. Liberalism exists in a kind of Eternal Now, where the practices and ideologies of the day are not only true, but always have been true, and always will be true, until they are revised in favour of the next set that are even truer. This enables our modern culture to continuously sit in judgement not only on other cultures but on the past itself, and to award historical personages marks out of ten for being like us. To complicate matters, our modern felt superiority is primarily of ideas and practices, not of facts, so this is not the same thing as the ideology of Progress. So, few would argue that the massive increase in mental illness in recent decades is a sign that the world is getting better. But many would argue that because the discourse about mental illness has changed (indeed we don’t use that term any more) this represents progress in itself, even if the actual situation of the sufferers hasn’t improved, or has even deteriorated. What counts is ideas, and our ideas about mental illness today are superior to those of the past.
The problem arises most clearly when we are obliged to recognise how quickly dominant ideas change (I say “dominant," because ordinary people tend to change their ideas rather more slowly.) Thus, in my lifetime, dominant opinion has moved from considering homosexuality an offence, to considering discrimination against homosexuals an offence.
Now, in a case like that, it is a reasonable argument that society has become more enlightened, and that some sort of an objective advance in tolerance has taken place. The difficulty arises when the argument is reversed, and where dominant opinion today is much less tolerant of certain things than was the case in the past.
An easy and obvious example is slavery, which is probably the oldest continuous social and economic organising principle in history. Slavery seems to be as old as large-scale agriculture, which was the first economic activity in history for which a disciplined and controlled workforce was necessary. The historical twin foundations of western culture, the Classics and the Bible, took slavery for granted: indeed the Israelites were commanded by God to enslave the women and children of the cities they conquered, after putting the male population to death. Saint Paul famously argued, in his letter to the Ephesians, that slaves should be faithful to their masters as Christians were to God. And everybody recalls Aristotle’s defence of slavery: some people were just natural born slaves, and that was it.
So what do we make of this? Until recently, the tendency was to argue, a bit awkwardly, that, well, yes, these were the dominant ideas of the time, and you couldn’t expect Aristotle, or St Paul, to spontaneously think like us. And of course later Christian and Jewish thinkers opposed slavery. (Indeed, the abolition of slavery was one of the great religious causes of the nineteenth century, and a major reason why western states colonised parts of Africa.)
But that doesn’t really answer the question. Was Aristotle wrong? Was St Paul wrong? Was God wrong? If you were debating with God about slavery, how confident would you be of convincing Him that you were right? Put that way, the question seems absurd, but only because we no longer believe that a religion actually has to be true: religion since the eighteenth century has progressively been reduced to the status of just another flavour of humanism, continuously re-engineering itself to meet the needs of the time. This is why our current ideology (to stop over-using the word “liberalism”) simply cannot understand the behaviour of those of any religion who actually act as if that religion is true.
Now, fair enough, you can dispose of part of the problem by taking a sternly atheist posture, and by saying that all religions are wrong, and therefore no doctrine or even opinion based on the teachings of one of them should be taken seriously. But the problem is that great thinkers in the Christian tradition, for example, said some things that we now agree with, just as they said others that we now find unacceptable. So St Paul also wrote to the Galatians, and made the epoch-making suggestion that in Christianity all were equal, men and women, gentile and Jew, slave and free: essentially the first concept of equality in the western world. So was he right about that and wrong about slavery? On what basis do we judge? Even if we could, the two hundred years ago, the answer would have been very different from the answer we give today.
Or you can say that Paul was not a great intellectual, so it’s natural that some of his ideas have been overtaken. But what about St Augustine? What about Thomas Aquinas? What about Luther? Calvin? Come to that, what about modern theologians like Barth or Bonhoeffer? What about the Liberation Theology of Latin America? Is a random educated western person, who has never studied theology, cleverer that St Augustine? For these people, independent of their religious faith, were considerable thinkers, and left behind an impressive body of work not just on theology, but in many cases on philosophy, politics and ethics. And of course as religious belief faded, philosophers came to prominence who had a qualified relationship with religion or, in the case of Nietzsche, actively hated it.Yet these thinkers are still of their time, and their thoughts are different from ours. Are we cleverer than them, or were they cleverer than us?
The simple answer, and the one that most people would instinctively settle on, is that even the greatest thinkers of the past lived in a different context from us, and we would not expect their ideas to necessarily resemble ours anyway. Here and there, it’s true, we come across ideas from long ago which, with a bit of twisting, can be made to look rather like ideas of today. But that’s not really the point: the Past, as LP Hartley famously put it, is Another Country. However, this apparently simple answer contains two dangerous traps. First, it obviously opens the door to relativism. Great thinkers of the past have reacted in different ways to different questions, which implies that absolute truth about any important issue is actually not possible. (How would you empirically judge between the ethics of Spinoza and the ethics of Nietzsche, even in principle? Who is “right”?) This worries many people, and tends to imply that Foucault and Derrida were actually correct, which of course they were. (Incidentally, I’ve always found it curious that people who argue most strongly against the concept of objective truth nonetheless take it for granted that their own ideas are objectively true.) Secondly, and even more worryingly, it implies that the process of relativisation has not stopped: or at least there is no reason to suppose it has. Perhaps in a hundred years, many of the ideas that currently dominate intellectual life in liberal societies will seem silly and completely misguided to our descendants. What are the implications of that?
Liberalism is particularly vulnerable to this line of attack, because it consists of set of a priori assumptions, based on the idea of radical personal economic and political freedom, which are allegedly deduced from Reason, and just have to be taken as given. No religion, no revelation, no conceptual framework, no tradition, no custom rationalises the Liberal approach: indeed Liberalism explicitly rejects such any such support. To the question, why should I believe this? the answer is, Because it’s Right. Any coherent and all-embracing doctrine of Liberalism is therefore impossible, since it is ultimately an ideology of natural competition between individuals. It is probably the awareness of this fragility that accounts for the intolerance and aggressive defensiveness that tends to accompany liberal discourse these days. To Liberalism, the past is dangerous just because it exists. In existing it suggests that ideas change over time, that highly intelligent people of the past were not necessarily like us, and that in due course liberal ideas themselves may disappear from popular discourse.
So the answer is to abolish history. Now, to some extent, history can be converted into ideology and taught in programmatic form. Thus, the current obsession with digging up the most negative and anachronistic interpretations of the darkest moments of liberal societies, and spaying manure over previously respected historical figures. The whole of history, in this way, can be presented as an Age of Ignorance before Liberalism triumphed as a doctrine. But this may not be enough, not least because opponents of Liberalism, inevitably, use the same ad hominem arguments against it: some early Liberals supported Empires, therefore Liberalism is wrong, which is a fundamentally silly argument. The easiest and most effective solution, used of course by the Party in 1984, is the physical destruction of the past itself. Like the Taliban, Liberals have so far contented themselves with destroying statues evoking different ideas from the past. But in the long term it’s hard not to see this being taken further. It’s striking that after Notre Dame Cathedral was almost destroyed by fire a few years ago, most educated western elites reacted with indifference. So what? Another bit of the grimy, equivocal past disappeared? Who cares? Ultimately, the past in tangible form itself must be abolished, since otherwise the idea that the past was different will survive. And if the past was different, who is to say the future won’t be different as well, and that thinkers of the future won’t look back on the ideas of our era with the same mixture of disgust and disbelief that it’s now fashionable to apply to our own past? That would never do.