Through the glass darkly

Chronological Snobbery

It is not just Richard Dawkins, though he is a typical, contemporary, example. And it does seem as if science, dazzled, in many cases justifiably, by its own success in extending the boundaries of what we know about the physical world is uniquely liable to this particularly modern form of arrogance.

CS Lewis called it “chronological snobbery”, and in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he expressed his gratitude to his friend Owen Barfield for helping him escape the limitations of this form of intellectual ‘claustrophobia’. Chronological snobbery, he explains, is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited ... Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, 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 realisation that our own age is also a ‘period’, and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions.”

Barfield, in a fascinating little book called History in English Words, puts it like this – “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.”

The roots of chronological snobbery – put crudely, that what is latest is best, that what is new is obviously better than what is old – are undoubtedly to be found in that major shift in thinking about the world that took place more than 300 years ago we call the scientific revolution. The story of that revolution, that ‘enlightenment’, has by now become a powerful modern myth, accepted, in either its sophisticated or its popular version, by most people today.

For uncounted centuries, so it goes, humanity was in thrall to superstition and childish beliefs about virtually everything, but then, with the appearance of men like Copernicus and Galileo and Newton and others, a method of investigating the physical world was developed, leading to a host of discoveries in medicine, astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology (enter Charles Darwin ), that have transformed our world and the way we think about it and ourselves. The astonishing technological advances in recent times, from the Internet to the detection of genetic flaws in the unborn, have happened so rapidly we have hardly had time to think through their wider implications.

What makes the myth of chronological snobbery - that what is latest is best, that what is new is obviously better than what is old - so compelling is that science delivers results. Its successes are evident and everywhere, from keyhole surgery and the Hubble telescope, to medicines to cure and even banish diseases that once carried off whole populations.

Another way of putting this is to say that science is progressive. That it is progressive in one particular field of knowledge, and one in which its achievements are so overwhelming, technology and its myriad applications, means in effect that ‘science’ and ‘progress’ are defined in terms of each other. And as progress is seen as an unquestionable good, the pre-scientific past – when it is thought about at all – is consigned to the dustbin of history, and terms like "medieval" instead of referring to "the millennium between about 500 and 1500 AD" now means also "primitive, superstitious, and unenlightened."

Neither Lewis nor Barfield, in their use of the term chronological snobbery, were attacking science, the scientific method, or the considerable achievements of science. What they were criticising was the assumption that science, in this comprehensive meaning, is the only and necessarily the best way of understanding ourselves and the universe in which we find ourselves.

And what they imply is that the kind of instrumental knowledge typical of science is not the only kind of knowledge, and that the insights of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, writers like Homer and Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare – in fact, that whole tradition of thought, feeling, and experience going back to Greece, Jerusalem, and Rome, which has fed the minds and imaginations of men and women for more than two millennia, is a precious and increasingly imperilled legacy.

GK Chesterton once observed that “any man who is cut off from the past ... is a man most unjustly disinherited.” Someone with no sense of the richness and diversity of the past and what it continues to offer is a stranger both to his or her own roots and to the human condition itself. We are inheritors of the history that has made us what we are. Science is one of the great modes of understanding, but there are many others.

Barnaby ffrench


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