Columbus and Chronological Snobbery

08 Oct

Once there was a man named Christopher Columbus. He wanted to sail to the Orient. So he went to the king of Spain and asked the king for money so that he could go. The king almost said no. People in Columbus’s day believed that the world was flat. They thought he would fall off the edge. But Columbus knew that they were wrong. He convinced the king, set sail, and proved to everyone that the world was round.


Do you remember the first time you heard that story? Or, better yet, the first time you heard that the story was false? No, people in the early Renaissance did not believe that the earth was flat. Neither did educated people in the Middle Ages. Neither did educated Romans or Greeks, for that matter. There was no question of falling off the edge of the earth. But there were concerns about the size of the earth. Columbus’s detractors asserted that the Orient was too far away for Columbus to reach with the provisions his ships could carry. They were right. Luckily for Columbus, the Americas are between Europe and the Orient. But for that, most of us would never have heard his name.

I don’t consider myself a close follower of politics, but I do read the editorial page regularly. Every so often a columnist calls someone else a “flat-earther.” And I am irritated.

First of all, there are plenty of sources that refute the Columbus myth. There really is no excuse anymore for calling someone a “flat-earther.” But, secondly, the epithet suggests a nasty chronological snobbery.

G. K. Chesterton complained, “Some fall back simply on the clock: they talk as if mere passage through time brought some superiority; so that even a man of the first mental caliber carelessly uses the phrase that human morality is never up to date. How can anything be up to date? A date has no character.”

Madeleine L’Engel, in her book An Acceptable Time, takes chronological snobbery to task. The heroine, Polly O’Keefe, finds herself in a time portal between modern New England and a New England roughly three thousand years before. But, though the people are not technologically advanced, she finds that some of them possess remarkable knowledge. The tribe Polly meets, called the People of the Wind, have a great knowledge of nature and of healing beyond the capabilities of modern medicine. And they also have a druid—a man named Karralys. Karralys was expelled from Britain with his warrior friend Tav, but for an opposite reason. Karralys refused to carry out a human sacrifice intended to relieve a terrible drought. In desperation Tav carried out the sacrifice, even though it was illegal for him, as a non-druid, to make sacrifices.

Tav is torn between loving Polly and—for a brief period of time—thinking that he needs to sacrifice her in order to protect the People of the Wind from an enemy tribe. Polly assumes, even after the sacrificial time is over, that there is no bridging the worldview gap between them. She begins to love Tav in return, but she thinks that he is incapable of understanding that spiritual love is a more important thing than blood sacrifice.

She is proven wrong. Tav does come to understand, through Polly’s own actions, that love is indeed of more value than sacrifice. His spiritual understanding is far from complete at the end of the book, but he makes a new beginning. Just because Tav comes from the Stone Age does not make him stupid.

People in all ages are made in the image of God, and they act it. What do we know about so-called “cave men”? They made art, and they were religious. If that is savagery, we need to re-define the word “savage.”

Cave men are a myth. “Medieval” is not a synonym for “outdated idiot.” And people in Columbus’s day did not believe that the earth was flat. Frankly, believing in the myth of the flat earth myth with so little excuse ought to qualify the guilty parties as “flat-earthers” themselves.

Chesterton pointed out that if we define “progress” as “whatever modern people usually believe,” then we are logically saying that previous ages were just as progressive as we. If there is no eternal standard of truth, then Tav could very well be “right” in making his initial human sacrifice. What is the solution to chronological snobbery? Eternal truth. Otherwise, we have no logical right to just the past.

“For the orthodox,” wrote Chesterton, “there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration…. No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good anything but good. Man may have had concubines as long as cows have had horns: still they are not a part of him if they are sinful.”

Progress is not inevitable. And when human cultures add virtues to themselves they often do so at the expense of other virtues. Our culture believes in freedom. And so it has sacrificed loyalty. Does that make us better than our ancestors?

Not exactly.

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Posted by on October 8, 2012 in Fantasy


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