Ancient Wisdom is Actually Early Draft

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius book photo

For the past few days I’ve been reading (among other things, of course…) Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, a roman emperor who lived from 121 to 180. He is known as one of the most important stoic philosophers.

One thing that has been on my mind while reading this is the fact that many people are very impressed by anything labelled “ancient wisdom” and have a bias towards giving it more weight than more recent thought. Part of that inclination is rational: If something has endured that long, there’s a good chance that it is because of its quality. But another part of it is not rational. It is based on the false parallel between the fact that older humans are generally considered wiser and the fact that the text is old.

From our point of view, the text is old. But from the point of view of human knowledge, old texts are ‘younger’ than modern texts.

So while I appreciate many of Marcus Aurelius’ stoic principles (look for truth, mind your own business, don’t waste your time on frivolous things, clearly define what matters to you so you can better stick to it, be open to have your mind changed by evidence, eliminate the unnecessary, etc), I simply chuckle when I read about his conception of the universe, the gods, reality, destiny, dualism (soul separate from body), death, etc. This is the best information that was available at the time, but compared to what we know now, it’s clearly archaic and if the roman emperor had been born today, he probably wouldn’t believe what he believed then (not to mention his positions on slaves, women, homosexuals, etc).

Yet some people will automatically give more weight to these ideas than to ideas that come from more contemporary sources because they come from “ancient wisdom”. If you suffer from that bias, you should recognize it, look back on how it might have influenced you in the past, and keep it in mind for the future. Judge ideas on their own merit, not on their capacity to endure the passage of time. With some things, it doesn’t matter too much (f.ex. morality). With others, it changes everything (scientific fields such as cosmology, biology, physics, etc).

If more people realized this, fewer Bronze Age myths would be taken seriously.

2 Responses to “Ancient Wisdom is Actually Early Draft”

  1. jalingo Says:

    I enjoyed reading your article about Ancient Wisdom. It’s unfortunate that most people are stuck in the mindset or paradigm of thinking that is based on facts and world views from a few hundred years ago or more. My favorite is the view of the universe as mechanistic or a “machine” of interlocking parts that work together. Holding this view implies solidity and does not take into account invisible forces and unknown principles – eg. Dark Matter, faster-than-light travel, spooky action at a distance and all that wacky thinking in physics. The world is really a much stranger and infinitely amazing place than the common person realizes. People also don’t realize how much their minds filter and sort information and bias their view – what you think your thinking is not really what was taken in sometimes. If your mind is tricked my optical illusions (sensory data) then it is probably also fooled my thought patterns also. BTW, there are also audio illusions – google that. Summary: You really have to learn how thought works to view “reality”. You must constantly police yourself.

  2. Ancient Wisdom « The Zen Stoic Says:

    […] May 8, 2008 — Evan Jensen I just read a fascinating article, about how ancient knowledge is, strictly speaking, younger than modern thought.  Somewhere in the […]

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