In a moment of reflection, a friend once asked: “Isn’t it disheartening to realize how little you knew a year ago, a month ago, or yesterday for that matter? And to now realize how much more there is to know?” I was reminded of this conversation upon reading “Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns” by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle and learning of Fontenelle’s fascination for the topic. This is a concept that both infuriates and soothes depending on how it is perceived—and one that is quite common in many philosophers’ writings.
In “Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns,” Fontenelle argues that the assumed superiority of the ancient philosophers over the modern philosophers is a flawed assumption. Because humans have the power to learn from past notions and ideas, modern-day philosophers must revise and re-imagine those past ideas in order to prove themselves superior. Despite the seemingly prejudiced tone in parts of his essay, Fontenelle states the ancients and moderns are perfectly equal in intellectual capacity, though it is the responsibility of the moderns to continue the progression of evolving thought. In fact, the only way the moderns could be proven inferior to the ancients is if human thought stagnated to a point of monotony and bleakness. In the words of Fontenelle, “being enlightened by the ideas of the Ancients, and by their errors, we might be expected to surpass them. If we only equaled them, we would have to be far inferior to them by nature.”
Since we are supposedly better than those societies before us, it is safe to presume that later societies will also be better and more advanced than our current society. But instead of viewing this as a discouraging thought, other philosophers have shown us that this succession of intellectual advancement is entirely natural. Just as it is expected for our society to surpass the developments made by past societies, it should be expected for later societies to surpass the developments of our society. Socrates represents this in his acclaimed quote: “I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.” It can be uncomfortable to think about being at peace with the limitations on one’s knowledge, but it should really be welcomed as a sign of an ever-evolving, ever-advancing human society.
According to Fontenelle, the moderns will most always be superior to the ancients because the ancient’s intellectual developments can be built upon and revised. This ideology can be expanded by Socrates’s well-known belief that no person can hold all the knowledge in the world, and that the person who knows the limits of his knowledge can be considered wise. Fontenelle also asserts that if people were to stop using the achievements of the past to produce modern achievements, “we would barely be men in comparison.” Human nature has a purpose to continue the progress of intellectual thought, as opposed to stagnating within a monotonous period of intellectual thought. At an individual level, it could then be considered a great accomplishment to look back upon one’s younger self and think: what ignorance.