Sunday, July 20, 2014

Précis # 1 – The Ancients and the Moderns

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.

17 comments:

Kerri Chen said...

This piece is very engaging! I especially liked how you tied in the introduction and last bit by relating it to a modern setting. I think it makes sense to build upon the knowledge of the 'Ancients'; however, it may be helpful to elaborate on possible rebuttals to this piece's proposition (and possibly disprove them) in order to strengthen your standing. I received the impression that you agree with Fontenelle on everything you mentioned, is that right?

Shayda Azamian said...

Thank you! Yes I do agree with Fontenelle, especially on the point that it's almost an inherent responsibility of the moderns to learn from the ancients. Thank you for your suggestion; including a counterargument is something I overlooked and I'll most definitely incorporate one into my next precis!

Joshua Park said...

I love your style of writing. It's very easy to read and yet it makes its points extremely clear and comprehensible. Also, I'm glad you included his quote about how "if we only equaled them, we would have to be far inferior to them by nature" because to me, I think it synthesizes basically what Fontenelle argues for into such a powerful line of words.

I'm just curious as to the discussion about counterargument portion that was suggested to be added to the precis. What counterarguments, or instances of counterarguments, were you thinking of to strengthen your stance?

AC said...

Your writing is very engaging and you've done an excellent job of conveying the basis of Fontenelle's argument!

I agree with Kerri - your precis could be stronger by discussing and then refuting a counterargument. Alternatively (or in addition to addressing the counterargument), you can add depth to your precis by doing a close reading of the rhetoric techniques that Fontenelle uses to present his argument.

- D.Z. - said...

This was a nice piece of writing to choose from for further analysis, the classic argument of whether our current humanity's intellect and understanding equals those who came before us our not. So many factors to consider, and the expanse of time between ancient and modern times throws many other considerations into the fray. The arguments from both sides are always interesting to dwell upon, but ultimately I have to agree that modern people will always have the upper hand of taking what ideas and inventions others began and expanding on those. What if we were the ones who lived in ancient times and we weren't able to give civilization the enhancements and improvements it needed to accomplish what we see today? Maybe modern times would have been different from what we do see around us.

Shayda Azamian said...

For a counterpoint, I could possibly address the accomplishements of some of the main ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, and then compare their contributions to those of later philosophers from whichever time period (while emphasizing the contributions of the moderns to refute the counterargument). It would also be great to bring up the rhetorical devices used in this pice, such as with the tree metaphor. Thank you for all the suggestions :)

Eric Gentry said...

I believe Fontenelle was trying to compensate for the fact that the ancients had done superior things, and the moderns were still trying to decipher all that was laid down. Fontenelle states that the moderns could have done all the ancients did if they were in the position to do so. Also making vague claims like all futures are better than the now. Some future are better than past, yet a lot of the past is far superior to the present. There are futures, the then now, that destroy all that the past preserved, and mastered. We are living while also destroying all that is. The moderns need to look to the past to protect the future. You will surpass the past not by trying to understand what has already been said and done, but by changing what has not been tried.

Shayda Azamian said...

I quite agree with you, Eric! I suppose we could look at his argument in two components: that the moderns must both learn from the past and innovate on their own to surpass the ancients. However, one could also view learing from the past as the first step to being able to innovate on one's own.

Neil Griffey said...

It seems I've arrived a little late here in being original but I've always found some comfort in consensus. I'm impressed by how engaging and readable while also in depth and well thought this is. As also pointed out by others, I appreciate your relating it not only to moderns in Fontenelle's terms but to our own modernity. Seeing a text through someone else's eye is a gift I suppose especially when you found a way to contextualize the text to terms relatable to you, I as a peer can also relate to.

Sydney said...

Hi Shayda--
I really enjoyed your post! I want to push back, however, against the idea that knowledge/society progresses through time. In response to the line, “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,” I would argue that it might be limiting for us to think about the passage of time as inherently progressive. I wonder if the idea that one “knows now what one did not before” may place the present in a privileged position that makes it difficult to account for the specificities of time and place as well as for the variety of forms of knowledge production and circulation occurring at any given time. What does it mean to “progress” in knowledge when the conditions of knowledge production are always changing? How does viewing the present (and future) as inherently progressive make it difficult to critique forms of injustice that have their lineages in the past (for example, cries like this: “how can you be upset about racism/misogyny/homophobia? we’ve come so far!?)? What norms circumscribe what we understand to count as knowledge and how do they limit what is understood to be possible and thus what will constitute “progress”? (Not saying you have to answer these questions at all! Just something I was thinking about.)

Erick Berrios said...

That last sentence you left really resonated with me.

"At an individual level, it could then be considered a great accomplishment to look back upon one’s younger self and think: what ignorance."

That was a great way to end a very engaging precis.

Kerri Chen said...

Going off on what Sydney said, I'm thinking that's a pretty interesting concept! When we acquire more information, is it always beneficial? What if we learn to disrespect something? Such as learned prejudice or stereotype? Hmm.

Shayda Azamian said...

Wow, I appreciate all the intriguing comments! In response to what Sydney and Kerri mentioned, I think there is a certain way in which the past can be interpreted. The achievements of the past should be evaluated in terms of their context and what impact those achievements had on ancient society, just as modern achievements should be viewed--in their context. Because modern achievers have the plethora of knowledge from the past at their disposal, then we can see retrospectively how moderns have a greater potential for progress just because the moderns exist later in time. In addition, I think one's perception of progress is subjective, but it is fair to say human society's understanding of knowledge and truth is ever-evolving (as opposed to ever-progressing). We would hope that human society continues to "progress" based on our current values, but the accepted values of the future are likely to be drastically different than ours currently, and may not be considered "progress" to some.

Anonymous said...

Great read! I was very engaged from the moment you used a personal example. That made your point very clear to follow. I specifically appreciated your link to Socrates’s conviction that “no person can hold all the knowledge in the world,” but more interestingly, when you linked it to the wisdom of knowing intellectual limitations. I too wonder if understanding our limitations is an indication of our progressive intelligence.
-Allyn Benintendi

Anonymous said...



Loved reading this particular précis! Your personal examples kept it engaging and the summary was well worded. The Socrates reference on recognizing your ignorance really resonated with me. I think that the more one learns, the more one realizes that they don’t know. I think recognizing it is an indication of our progressive intelligence. I have witnessed many times where people will hold opinions on every subject even though they are not qualified or well equipped to hold any type of opinion. I think recognizing that you know very little is a distinctive characteristic of people who are truly knowledgeable.

-Samiha Baseer

Shayda Azamian said...

That idea--that a person who recognizes how little they know is actually wise--is one of the ideologies I am truly passionate about! However, to offer a counterpoint to the original argument in my precis, what would be the motivation for continuing your education and developing your own philosophies if it seems like you're just going to know less and less in comparison? I suppose this question is more geared towards Socrates than Fontenelle, but perhaps the Ancients could be considered better off than the Moderns since they would not know just how much they don't know (Although, it would not be considered very wise).

Samiha Baseer said...

Loved reading this particular précis! Your personal examples kept it engaging and the summary was well worded. The Socrates reference on recognizing your ignorance really resonated with me. I think that the more one learns, the more one realizes that they don’t know. I think recognizing it is an indication of our progressive intelligence. I have witnessed many times where people will hold opinions on every subject even though they are not qualified or well equipped to hold any type of opinion. I think recognizing that you know very little is a distinctive characteristic of people who are truly knowledgeable.