We’re all biased. All of us believe things for bad reasons. We believe things because of wrong assumptions we never question, because of people we want to impress, because of patterns of thought that are evolutionarily useful but not apt for finding the truth. There’s no getting around our bias: the best we can do is to identify it and try to account for it.
Among the things that can bias us, our historical time is under-discussed. In so far as we’re looking out for bias at all, we’re pretty quick to recognise it when it comes from something like religion or political ideology, but we don’t tend to think of ourselves as being biased because of the era in which we were born.
We’re perfectly capable of identifying this bias in other times. We talk about someone being “a product of their time” or “pretty enlightened for their age”. But the idea that we might be products of our time in a way that distorts our thinking, or that our era is just another ‘age’, doesn’t come to our minds as readily.
C.S Lewis calls this ‘chronological snobbery’, defined as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”
Of course, it might not just be snobbery. It might be a good rule of thumb, if we had reason to believe that things were always getting better. If we were confident that the world was steadily progressing in knowledge, wisdom, and goodness, we could be confident that the most recent age is likely to be the most enlightened.
But is the world always getting better? The evidence is mixed. On a lot of moral questions – racial and gender equality, taboos against torture – there has been progress over time: it would be a very grim world if such progress wasn’t possible. But history is not a story of straightforward moral advancement.
Prejudice against outgroups has always existed: but ‘scientific racism’ was a creation of the enlightenment. Eugenics was a progressive cause in the early 20th Century, counting Theodore Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes, and George Bernard Shaw among its supporters.
Centuries of gradual progress in developing just war theory were undone by theories of the legitimacy of ‘total war’ which justified direct attacks on civilians and atrocities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A rule of thumb that equated forward-looking change and moral goodness would have been badly wrong in these cases: and that should make us sceptical about using such a rule to assess our own age.
It’s not just in ethics that ‘later is better’ looks like a suspect standard. We tend to think this way because of the physical sciences, which really are for the most part additive and progressive in the way they build up knowledge. If the scientific method is functioning properly we expect to know more about the way the universe works each decade and century. But the same is not true for every discipline.
Take architecture. Is any building constructed in the last sixty or seventy years in Europe as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel or Chartres Cathedral? Or economics. The great recession was in large part a product of forgetting or deliberately ignoring economic lessons learned in the first half of the 20th century.
If the most recent age is not in every respect the most enlightened, then how might we go about overcoming the biases of our own age? We are – alas – unable to consult the future, so the past is our best bet. As Lewis writes: “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.”
Great old books are not of merely historical interest. They are invaluable tools in expanding our perspective and helping us to overcome the biases of our age.
What biases might those be? I’ll suggest one possibility without argument: we might be biased about the value of contemplation. In a recent conversation with the philosopher Jennifer Frey, she spoke to me about Aristotle’s idea (shared by many of the philosophers who followed him) that contemplation of the deepest truths of reality is the very highest good available to human beings – and that part of what makes it good is that it is a kind of rest, a receptive relaxing of the mind into truth. That’s foreign to modern ears, and alien to the way we normally think of ‘study’.
Aristotle could of course be completely wrong. But so could we: and if we’re in danger of being wrong about the nature of the highest good, it might be worth reading some old books to find out the truth of the matter.