Value of ancient wisdom

One of the common refrains of the modern day is that one should go out and test and learn everything on one’s own. However, this does not seem like a very practical thing to do for most people.

Our lifetime is very limited. By the time one is able to condense all of life’s wisdom through one’s very limited experience, it is possible that time would have caught up and it may be too late for any of the self-learned wisdom to have any value.

At the same time, there is a very true saying:

“Time is the great equalizer.”

So it seems that the ancient wisdom of all the past generations of human beings which has stood the test of time is more valuable than whatever wisdom one can self-learn in one’s small lifetime.

An interesting, related phenomenon is the Lindy effect, which states that if something, – like an idea or technology – has lasted for a long time, the odds are that it is going to last even longer.

Of course one needs to be sceptical of all ideas and needs to make sure everything passes the smell test. Ultimately the test of any wisdom lies with one’s own life experience with it. It is a common teaching in Buddhism that one has to employ one’s own common sense in combination with the practical wisdom of the ancients.

Classic works

The novels of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Dumas, Hugo and others never seem to go out of popularity.

The Greek classics such as Homer’s writings even today enjoy lot of attention.

Similarly, the Indian epics of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas, not to mention the scriptures such as the Vedas seem to have plenty of recognition.

Perhaps these works will keep enjoying such fame for posterity.

All these are great examples of the Lindy effect which  states that if a thing has been around for a long time, it is likely that it will be around for longer. This applies to things such as books, ideas and technologies.

Ancient principles

The idea that anything new is exciting and fascinating seems to have taken root in a few places. However, it must be noted that most “new” things tend to break and the novelty wears out in a matter of weeks or, sometimes, a few years.

For example, the concept of car-ownership has been sold to the citizens of the US as quintessentially “American” for nearly a century. However, with upcoming technologies such as self-driving cars and improved mass-transportation, it seems that owning cars might not remain attractive for long. So, without owning cars, people may start walking more or using bicycles to get to nearby places. Note that both walking and bicycling are much older modes of transport than cars.

Another example could be the fact that paper books – a technology which is a couple thousand years old – remain as popular as ever in spite of the emergence of ebook readers.

With the emergence of artificial intelligence, one of the results of automating most of the tasks is that the masses will have more time for leisure. In centuries preceding the industrial revolution, people tended to have more time for leisure and “play”. Regular people who subsisted on farming tended to only work to produce enough for their family’s sustenance. The remaining time was spent doing nothing mostly. Of course, the nobility too had plenty of leisure time.

However, with the arrival of the factory system, people were forced to work longer and longer hours. Thanks to the effort of some people, the eight hour work day and having weekends off became the norm.

But now, thanks to AI (and, possibly, some form of basic income which replaces the welfare state), the concept of leisure and not “working for the sake of work” envisioned in Bertrand Russell’s essay may come true.

The idea that as some things get older, they tend to have a longer life is called the Lindy effect. This effect applies to technologies and ideas.

As Nassim Taleb argues in Anti-Fragile, time is a great fragilizer. Things which are fragile break down eventually with time. However ideas and technologies which are antifragile become stronger and more prevalent as time passes.

So it is apparent that the ideas of leisure time, paper books and walking, among others, have grown stronger over time and will continue to do so.