Chronological Snobbery: We Can’t Afford It

“Chronological snobbery” is the term C. S. Lewis used, in his book Surprised by Joy, to describe “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

My over-simplified description is that it’s the un-examined belief that since we have come along at a later date than our ancestors, we are therefore wiser. “Years ago (and pick any time past) they used to think A, but now (pat ourselves on the backs here for the virtue of having been born more recently) we think B, and have thus arrived at a higher plane of knowledge, wisdom, and even morality.”

Really? I see very little evidence of that. But, if you begin to look for chronological snobbery underlying a vast amount of our era’s thinking, you’ll soon see how pervasive it is.

Of course, one of our largest temptations is to mistake factual knowledge and information for wisdom. I’ve heard varying estimates of how fast our world’s store of information is increasing. No doubt, the advent of computer technology has, by any of the many estimates you’ll find, exponentially increased the speed with which such knowledge accumulates. Warp speed. At a mind-boggling rate.

A nerd at heart, I am fascinated by technology and thankful for a very large part of it. And I love having vast amounts of information as close as my computer.

But, for the life of me, I can’t find any evidence that we are wiser than our ancestors. I see plenty of evidence that we are snobbish about “knowing” more, but no evidence that we are wiser in the use of what we think we know.

Can we “do” more? Yes, in many areas. But do we know more about what is worth doing, what is truly valuable in life, what constitutes a life well-lived, and what really is ultimately the meaning of life? Are we any better at all in understanding and dealing with human nature? If anything (and I may fall prey here to chronological snobbery in reverse of the popular direction), it seems to me that we may know far less than many of our predecessors about what is truly important, and are thus condemned by our own arrogance to the same failures (and maybe worse) than those of our forebears.

I find myself agreeing with writer Lance Morrow who laments that we are living in “the Golden Age of Stupidity.” Among others of abundantly available examples, he mentions the botched Afghanistan withdrawal, the Jan. 6 atrocity, and the “need” for two sexes to divide into 100 genders.

Lewis points to the heart of the problem when he talks about our “uncritical acceptance” of the fact (?) that ours is the age that has finally “arrived” [my term], and so our own era’s assumptions must be valid simply because they are recent, and I’d add: modern, popular, and passionately held.

We tend to easily discard the wisdom of the ages for the findings of the latest opinion poll. An opinion poll may tell us a lot about the respondents and their cultural climate, but it tells us nothing about how well a particular opinion will stand up to serious rational thought.

“Was it [this or that assumption] ever refuted,” Lewis asks, “(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.”

And then he goes on to say that, as we think about this, we begin to find that every age is filled with its own “characteristic illusions” that are so widely accepted that no one “dares to attack” them or “feels it necessary to defend them.” Ours is no exception.

Look for it, and you’ll find chronological snobbery lurking everywhere.

We point to this or that failure (real or just out of fashion) discovered in the life of a heretofore respected historical figure and adjudge he/she as completely discredited, even as we dance to the whims of our time and disregard the wisdom of the ages.

We gorge ourselves on the latest Internet conspiracy theories and subject ourselves to a drought of wisdom by never reading an actual time-tested and revered (for good reason) book. Even the dead—and maybe particularly the dead—have so much to teach us if we’d just let them. We’ll not invariably find their vision clear, but it will always be nothing short of a miracle to be able to see through their eyes. Casting that miracle aside as we find reading, and thus thinking, far too difficult, we flick our index fingers, and, with the attention span of gnats, scroll on. No wonder we blunder. We’ve poked our own eyes out.

Maybe if we could at least realize how prone we are to chronological snobbery, we might open the door to some humility. To some truth. To some testing of our own biases and assumptions. And who knows? Maybe even to some wisdom.

Here’s a very old proverb that has stood the test of time: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2).

You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2022 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Leave a comment