How we think about the past often tells us more about present that it does about history. For example, Greek mythology spoke of a past “golden age”:
(ll. 109-120) First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.
Hesiod Works and Days. Yet we wiser moderns know that history goes in one direction; that the past was primitive, but due to the power of progress, things have constantly become better. We are wiser, better, stronger than our ancestors. Such thinking owes more to people like Herbert Spencer. The Wikipedia summarizes Spencer as follows:
Spencer developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. He was “an enthusiastic exponent of evolution” and even “wrote about evolution before Darwin did.” As a polymath, he contributed to a wide range of subjects, including ethics, religion, anthropology, economics, political theory, philosophy, biology, sociology, and psychology. During his lifetime he achieved tremendous authority, mainly in English-speaking academia. “The only other English philosopher to have achieved anything like such widespread popularity was Bertrand Russell, and that was in the 20th century.” Spencer was “the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century”
Yet, a Stanford professor of genetics recently held that our Greek ancestors (or any of our ancestors from the time of Hesiod) would be more intellectually powerful than Spencer (who thought himself at the top of the progressive heap):
Our Fragile Intellect
Gerald R. Crabtree
David Korn Professor of Pathology and Developmental Biology
Beckman Center, B211
279 Campus Drive, Stanford University firstname.lastname@example.org
I would be willing to wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions. We would be surprised by our time-visitor’s memory, broad range of ideas and clear-sighted view of important issues. I would also guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues. I do not mean to imply something special about this time in history or the location, but would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India or the Americas of perhaps 2,000 to 6,000 years ago. I mean to say simply that we Homo sapiens may have changed as a species in the past several thousand years and will use 3000 years to emphasize the potential rapidity of change and to provide a basis for calculations, although dates between 2,000 and 6,000 years ago might suffice equally well. The argument that I will make is that new developments in genetics, anthropology and neurobiology make a clear prediction about our historical past as a species and our possible intellectual fate. The message is simple: our intellectual and emotional abilities are genetically surprising fragile.
One way in which consider ourselves to be advanced is in matters of “race”. Now “race” is a nonsense concept. There is only one “race”, the human race. Of course human beings have organized ourselves into various groups which use common language and culture; but that is a cultural club, not a “race”. Anyway, we pride ourselves in outgrowing notions of race – which make us much better people than our forbearers.
Yet, racism is far more “modern” than we might admit. An incident in 1857 at least points in the opposite direction:
A watershed point in this history occurred in 1857 when the General Assembly of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) received from some white members a request for permission to celebrate the Lord’s Supper separated from black members of the church. The request was clearly against the Reformed polity of the DRC ….(Indeed, an earlier request for separate communion had been rejected by the Dutch Reformed Church, for the Lord’s Supper was to be administered “without distinction of colour”). Moreover, the 1857 Synod found no biblical grouns for the separation of communion based upon race. However, the assembly, wanting to avoid being conservative, doctrinaire, and rigid gave pastoral accommodation that “due to the weakness of some,” communion and worship could be organized into separate celebrations based on race. (The “weaker” one referred to were the white members who made the request for separate communion.)
J. Todd Billings, Union With Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, 98-99.
Fortunately, in many places – particularly within the Christian church – such modern racism has been rejected: but, not on the basis of “progress” but rather to conform to what the church already believed and held and practiced. If nothing else, this story cautions us to be more careful of what we “know to be true.”