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Wisdom of the Ancients

We tend to think of people of the past as being wise. Having had knowledge and techniques that have been lost, except perhaps for a few old books containing forgotten secrets. A big part of this probably has to do with actual history, for example in Europe the trick to making concrete was lost for a thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance.

If memory serves (it frequently doesn’t), it was returned to Europe, or at least Christian Europe, during the Crusades when Christians captured a cache of Greek and Roman books that had fallen into obscurity. (In Spain? Can’t recall.) It’s not clear to me whether the Muslims were still using concrete or if they were just sitting on the books without actually reading them. (Hey, it’s been a long time since history class!) That must have seemed pretty awesome to people at the time, finding those forgotten techniques from people who were, to them, mysterious and alien cultures from the distant past.

That’s still a common theme in fiction, a forgotten civilization with knowledge and technology more advanced than our own, whose secrets lie waiting to be rediscovered. It makes for grand adventure stories, where daring heroes explore mysterious ruins and unlock ancient secrets.

But in the real world, things aren’t so simple.

See the tricky thing about ancient people is that they were people, just like us. On the whole, they weren’t any smarter or stupider than we are now. Their wisdom seems above average to us now mostly because we tend to remember the things they were right about and discard their mistakes. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate act of distortion, (actually I think that’s very rare) but probably because what they were wrong about usually isn’t useful to us.

But the idea has power, as ideas do. Something marketed as “Ancient Chinese Wisdom” will sell better than the same thing without that label, because we remember that the ancient Chinese invented magnetic compasses, gunpowder, differential gears, and a thousand other mundane miracles. We forget that ancient Chinese wisdom also drives the demand for illegal rhinoceros horn, which has already caused the extinction of more than one species of rhino.

I’ve heard that in China the equivalent catch-phrase is “New American Science”. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but approve of the symmetry, at least.

This post germinated while I was reading the Medieval Bestiary site, looking specifically for fantastic creatures to use in fiction. I got a little distracted by how very wrong it was about animals that weren’t flights of wild imagination, but ordinary, mundane beasts that you can see in any zoo.  Read the rest of this entry

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