“Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have gone before us.” So declares conservative political theorist, Russell Kirk.
To reinforce that sentiment, conservative thinker Edmund Burke said, “the individual is foolish but the species is wise.”
These two famous philosophers suggest there is a prescription for what is correct politically and morally. It’s the accumulated wisdom that has come down from past. Rather than rely on our own private opinions, they claim we should look to the past for guidance.
Kirk sums this up very succinctly, “In politics, morals, and taste, we do best to abide precedent, precept (commandment), and even prejudices.”
You will excuse me if I disagree, but if I accept that as the prescription of enduring truth, I should cut my wrists and go to bed.
I’m not so sure we are much different than people in the past. We’re pretty much the same, and we have an everyday battle to overcome our present shortcomings. More often than not, the past doesn’t help us do that. It’s the other way around: we have to fight to throw off the past.
A few weeks back I was in one of the Arab states talking to one of my good Muslim friends. He told me that the world will end when Jesus returns. He said that America and the Arabs will combine in Israel and throw off the Jews, and the Jews will repent of their sins and believe in Jesus.
Is that what Muslims believe? I asked.
Yes, that’s what I was taught in school? he replied.
He continued, “You know, Jews are the richest people in the world. They control business, the media, and banking. They want to control the world.”
“Did you know they started Wal Mart, and CNN?” he asked.
“No they didn’t,” I replied rather abruptly.
“Yes they did,” he responded just as directly.
After an exchange where neither of us gave in, I suggested we “Google” Wal Mart and CNN to find out.
We agreed that Wikipedia would be a reliable source.
After reading the Wikipedia entries, my friend graciously vacated his position.
We Can Be Smart Right Now
I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve been in during my life where opinions hardened because we did not have immediate access to information that clarified a point of difference.
Thank goodness for Google. In the past year I’ll bet you I’ve reached a point in a discussion at least a dozen times where I’ve said, “Wait a minute, let’s Google it and find out.” We’ve really never had such immediate access to information to clarify facts as we do now. Because of this kind of digital information, I think we have the potential to be more correct on fact than we ever have been in history.
Because I make my living sharing facts and taking positions on issues (I’m a management consultant who gets paid for giving advice and making recommendations), I am probably more sensitive than most to the reality that we rely on past wisdom that only sometimes pans out to be clearly correct.
Before I was a management consultant, I was an educator. I taught religion at the high school, college, and university levels. For many, religion is a source of lasting truth. The Bible is considered a guide of indisputable truth in part because it has stood the test of time, and because it was written by ancient prophets who had direct access to God’s divine will.
Yet, the Bible, especially the Old Testament, has deeply troubling accounts. In places it condones rape (Deuteronomy 28:22), and the murder of small children for making fun of a prophet (2 Kings 2), because he was bald!
Surely, we have improved on these practices in the present. Surely, we cannot be accused of being dwarfs for rejecting this ancient wisdom and outlawing rape in every instance, and holding individuals strictly accountable who would kill little children because they make fun of an adult, no matter how insulting those remarks may be.
I Am Suspicious Of Past Wisdom
the wisdom of the past, especially “the prejudices” of the past. I don’t know that we stand on the shoulders of the giants of the past.
But, I stray just a bit from the point I’m trying to make.
I think we have to work for a perfect present. I think it is unwise to look at much of the past as a guidepost for how we should live. I think it is a mistake to vaunt the past and let it be an appropriate anchor. Is there really any hidden wisdom in why women were not allowed to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920? Is there any reason why I should trust any history that has made Jews scapegoats for close to two thousand years?
A More Perfect Present
What I do have is the present, and access to immediate information that demands that I make the very best existential decisions of which I am capable. The chances of making the best possible decision are improved, not by being collared by the prejudices of the past, but by having the most plentiful, current, and hard hitting information in the clear air of the immediate present.
There really is no excuse for ignorance among the masses. We have access to every bit of information that any sophisticated elite has. With this we can expect a lot from the present.
This is made possible because we have digital information.
How Much Digital Information Is There?
How many books do you think there are in the world? According to Google (2010) there are approximately 130 million books in print. How many of these have been put in digital form for immediate access? About 12 million. And when will all books be put in digital format? In about “a decade”, says a Google representative.
That will amount to 4 billion virtual pages, and two trillion virtual words. Google’s ambition is to not only make it possible to Google words, but to Google concepts. These concepts will be immediately analyzed creating new ideas. If ideas are what create value, both economically and culturally, it is the present which improves, not the wisdom of the past.
Hence we should be improving the present with what is produced in the present. The past becomes a data point, not an end point.
No conversation should be counted on as the final answer, until someone says, “Let’s check that out.” Ignorance should no longer be an excuse for perpetuating myths that have grown up with one’s culture.