Why the ancients seem wiser

Everybody talks about the good old times with a touch of romanticism. Several people have the impression that we have degenerated from a time in a past where we were wiser, lived happier and had more fulfilling lives.

While our ancestors might well have been wiser, it is not for the romantic reasons that are apparent to us. One of the main reasons we feel this way is because what survives from the past is only timeless wisdom. We still cherish the wisdom of the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita and Stoicism. Even those three works are several hundred years apart although our mind lumps them all into one bucket – the ancient past. Further, they are the handful of works that have survived from their era.

The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot coined the Lindy effect, whereby the future life expectancy of knowledge is proportional to the past. If a book has been around for two hundred years, it is likely to be around for two hundred years more, whereas that popular Buzzfeed article from two days ago won’t last for more than two days. An ancient work of wisdom that still survives today is testimony to its timelessness. But those works are outliers – survivors of their era, from which we have moved on. This survivorship bias distorts our perception about times in past. Think of a time two thousand years from now, where some works that are created today would still survive and make us seem like a clairvoyant people (if we don’t wipe ourselves out!). Those works are among us. It is just that we have no way of knowing which ones they are.

The scholar is forward looking, and mines the timeless works from our past for their wisdom. The fundamentalist misses the point by claiming that we go back to these times and live like those people did.

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