Where did we get the idea that Ancient Wisdom is such hot stuff?
You shrug. You don’t know, you never thought about it. I hadn’t either.
An “ancient wisdom” Google search generated the usual 89 million results in 0.65 seconds. The first couple pages were mostly life coaches trying to out-reverence each other.
Lesson learned: call what you’re peddling ancient wisdom, and you’ll sell more of it. (Remember the opening of The Secret promo movie?)
Not exactly the answer I had in mind.
Ancient wisdom is an assumption: of course it’s better than anything we might think of on our own — everybody knows that! It’s better because it’s… well, because it’s… un, because it’s really old… it’s so old it’s… ancient.
We assume ancient wisdom will give us an edge – rocket us from clueless to competitive. I mean, those ancients, they had it going. They’re the Who’s Who of Law, Art, Philosophy, Religion, History, Literature… The ancient texts. The ancient ways. The ancient teachings. The ancient books. The ancient heroes. The ancient incarnations of gods walking the Earth. Miles and piles of traditions and holidays and customs. Wars, wars, and more wars. Greed and evil, corruption and cruelty, with a sprinkle of nobility now and then. On and on and on… Ancient this, ancient that.
Ancient is most potent when it’s sacred ancient, which is as close to God as you can get. God is old – really old, older than old, older even than ancient. That means sacred ancient-ness is next to godliness.
We’re so addicted to ancient wisdom that we’re blind to our addiction, which makes it hard to talk about. It seems obvious, like asking why we breathe.
- We breathe to live.
- We revere ancient wisdom because we breathe.
Or something like that.
When’s the last time ancient wisdom made your life better? I mean really better, not just “I believe this old stuff will improve my life” better?
Here’s the problem (one of many): We think those guys (yes, guys – ancient pronouns are definitely male) were just like us, living the same kinds of lives, dealing with the same kinds of issues, so that what they thought about how life works can help us out.
This is the time travel problem: the idea that if we could zap ourselves forward or backward in time we’d still be us, the same as we are now, only with some adjusting to do — so if we time-travelled Socrates into today, the bedsheet clothes would have to go, and he’d need a shower and probably a trip to the dentist, but otherwise with the help of Google Translate he’d fit right in.
Not a chance.
Humans function in context. We feel, don’t feel, think, don’t think, act, don’t act… see, perceive, conclude, decide, and all their opposites… only in context. We happen in the moment because that’s all we’ve got. We have no experience except here and now, and everything about our experience comes from our brains’ processing what we’re experiencing. We take in all the external stimuli – through our senses, through spatial and subliminal biological connections –and our brains process it all internally. The amalgamation becomes “reality.” A little of that happens consciously; most of it doesn’t. To the extent we’re aware, we are conscious only in context.
Ancient context was different. Ancient people and their ancient reality were different. The ancient human consciousness that created ancient reality was different. We and our reality and consciousness are different from theirs. We are not like those guys. They weren’t like us. If we could ever meet – which we can never do, not even metaphorically or intellectually or otherwise – we would barely recognize them as human. They would return the favor. We’d both notice the naked ape resemblance, but common ground would be hard to find. Maybe after some who-knows-how-long acclimation process we might learn to experience a new, shared context together. Until then, things would definitely be awkward.
We give ancient religion special status in our ancient addiction. We re-energize ancient events and teachings, beliefs and practices, by the application of our fervent belief. By our belief, we invest ancient relics and rituals with living virtue — antiquity reconstituted. We think we brought the ancient back to life, but that’s delusional because our believe is also processed in context – our current context. We’re making up the experience in the here and now. We cannot do otherwise.
Which loops us around back to where we started: if we didn’t believe ancient wisdom is something special, we wouldn’t believe its relevance to us. And no, calling something “sacred” and “holy” and “eternal” and “immortal” doesn’t help — it still has to be processed through our mortal, temporal biology. We’re not creating ancient meaning and experiencing it in its original form — we’re only creating this moment’s version of it.
The best our believing can do is to treat ancient wisdom as what philosophers call a “first cause.” If you trace everything back through some impossibly tangled mega-gigantic cause and effect chain, you eventually get to the place where you can’t trace back anymore, so you need a “first cause” that gets the whole thing started.( Once you find the first cause, you sound like a parent: “Because I said so, that’s why.” )
God is the first cause of choice. You can’t go further back than God, can’t prove or disprove God, you either believe in Him (yes, God’s pronouns are also male) or you don’t. Full stop. Ancient is the same way: you either believe it’s good and true and valuable and worth fighting wars and making converts at gunpoint or sword point or on the rack or in the Inquisition or whatever… or you don’t. Belief is what makes ancient relevant, but when it does, it only gets the current version. Even if sacred holy other ancient could get a pass, there’s no sacred holy other compartment in our brains to process it.
Suppose we could break our ancient addiction habit – what would have to gain?
Ironically, the answer might be what we were after in the first place: wisdom – the ability to think useful thoughts about what’s going on around us. Consider the following passage from a Pulitzer price-willing journalist, prolific author, and general awesomely intelligent and articulate human being, taken from I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist, by Chris Hedges (2008).
“Our collective and personal histories — the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others — are used to avoid facing the incoherence and fragmentation of our lives. Chaos, chance and irrational urges, often locked in our unconscious, propel, inform and direct us. Our self is elusive. It is not fixed. It is subject to forces often beyond our control. To be human is to be captive to these forces, forces we cannot always name or understand. We mutate and change. We are not who we were. We are not who we will become. The familiarity of habit and ritual, as well as the narratives we invent to give structure and meaning to our life, helps hide this fragmentation. But human life is fluid and inconsistent. Those who place their faith in a purely rational existence begin from the premise that human beings can have fixed and determined selves governed by reason and knowledge. This is itself an act of faith.
“We can veto a response or check an impulse, reason can direct our actions, but we are just as often hostage to the pulls of the instinctual, the irrational, and the unconscious. We can rationalize our actions later, but this does not make them rational. The social and individual virtues we promote as universal values that must be attained by the rest of the human species are more often narrow, socially conditioned responses hardwired into us for our collective and personal survival and advancements. These values are rarely disinterested. They nearly always justify our right to dominance and power.
“We do not digest every sensation and piece of information we encounter. To do so would leave us paralyzed. The bandwidth of consciousness – our ability to transmit information measured in bits per second — is too narrow to register the enormous mass of external information we receive and act upon. We have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we use to function in life. Much of the information we receive and our subsequent responses do not take place on the level of consciousness. As the philosopher John Gray points out, irrational and subconscious forces, however unacknowledged, are as potent within us as in others.
“To accept the intractable and irrational forces that drive us, to admit that these forces are as entrenched in us as in all human beings, is to relinquish the fantasy that the human species can have total, rational control over human destiny. It is to accept our limitations, to live within the confines of human nature. Ethical, moral, religious, and political systems that do not concede these stark assumptions have nothing to say to us.”
We’re not such hot stuff, and neither is ancient wisdom. We’re not so in touch and in control as we’d like to think we are — in fact we bounce around and mutate all over the place – and always in context. We do our best to push back the night, still the churning seas, halt the careening clouds, tame the void to make it less awful. It’s worth the try – the effort, however vain, gives us a sense of purpose, meaning, agency. But we’re not going to banish our limitations by latching onto ancient wisdom, because the latching process ultimately takes place only in us. We are what we are in the context of the moment, just like those old guys were.
A bunch of old guys tried to figure things out. So do we.
Chances are they were about as good at it as we are.
Which isn’t saying much.