Thursday, June 07, 2018

Common Assumptions

In his essay "On the Reading of Old Books" (written as the introduction to a 1943 translation of St. Athanasius's book on the Incarnation), C. S. Lewis explains why he thinks it vital for modern people to read old books:

"All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, 'But how could they have thought that?'—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth."

Therefore, says Lewis, we need the literature of past ages to awaken us to the truth that the "common assumptions" of one era aren't necessarily those of another, and ours might actually be wrong. Speaking of the "contemporary outlook" of Lewis's own period, through much of the twentieth century experts in psychology and sociology held the shared assumption that no inborn "human nature" existed, that the human mind and personality were almost infinitely malleable—the theory of the "blank slate." We meet versions of that belief in works as different as Lewis's THE ABOLITION OF MAN (where he views the prospect with alarm), Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD, Orwell's 1984, Skinner's WALDEN TWO, and Heinlein's first novel (published posthumously), FOR US, THE LIVING. Later research in psychology, neurology, etc. has decisively overturned that theoretical construct, as explored in great detail in Steven Pinker's THE BLANK SLATE.

Whatever our positions on the political spectrum, in the contemporary world we embrace certain common assumptions that may not have been shared by people of earlier periods. We now believe everybody should receive a free basic education, a fairly new concept even in our own country. In contrast to our culture's acceptance of casual racism a mere sixty years ago, now racial prejudice is unequivocally condemned. Whatever their exact views, all citizens except members of lunatic fringe groups deny being racists. Outward respect for individual rights has become practically worldwide. Dictatorships call themselves republics and claim to grant their citizens fundamental human rights. In our country, all sides claim they want to protect the environment and conserve energy; disputes revolve around exactly how to go about reaching those goals. Everybody in the civilized world supposedly respects and values human life, even if in some regions and subcultures there's little evidence of this value being practiced. One universally accepted principle in the modern, industrialized world is that children and especially babies are so precious that we should go to any lengths to protect them and extend their lives. For instance, expending huge amounts of energy and money to keep a premature baby alive is considered not only meritorious but often obligatory. The only differences on this topic among various factions of our society involve how much effort is reasonable and where the cutoff line should be drawn (e.g., how developed a preemie should be to receive this degree of medical attention, at what stage and for what reasons abortion should be allowed, etc.). Yet in many pre-industrial societies, it was obligatory to allow a very premature newborn or one with severe birth defects to die; expending resources on an infant who would almost certainly die anyway would be condemned as detrimental to the welfare of the family and tribe. The development of advanced medical technology has probably played a vital part in changing attitudes like this to the opposite belief we hold in contemporary society.

It's likely that alien cultures we encounter will have different universal assumptions from our own. In Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, Mike (the human "Martian") reports that on Mars competition between individuals occurs in childhood instead of adulthood. Infants, rather than being cherished, are cast out to survive as best they can, then re-admitted to the community after they've proven their fitness. To creatures who've evolved as units in a hive mind, the value we place on individual rights would make no sense. A member of a solitary species wouldn't understand the concept of loyalty to a group. Where might the "characteristic blindness" of our time and place in history be lurking?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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