Seek What Is True, Not What Is New — and Don’t Be a Chronological Snob

The best way to avoid being pulled into the maelstrom of the world is to be anchored in the wisdom of the ages.

Calendar (photo: Birgit Böllinger / Pixabay/CC0)

When it comes to logical fallacies, the award for best name goes to “chronological snobbery.” As far as I can tell, it was named and identified explicitly by C.S. Lewis, but the best summary of it comes from G.K. Chesterton:

“Millions of mild black-coated men call themselves sane and sensible merely because they always catch the fashionable insanity, because they are hurried into madness after madness by the maelstrom of the world.”

In other words, chronological snobbery is the mistake of thinking that an idea is true because it is current, as if the truth of an idea depended on its acceptance by those who happen to be alive right now. 

But truth is not determined by the calendar or the intellectual (or anti-intellectual) fashions of the cultural climate. An idea is not false because it is old. An idea is not true because a majority or vocal minority of earth-walkers believe it. Our age is an age like any other age with its own fears, vices, biases, prejudices and blind spots. Current modes of thought will one day be out of date, just as previous mental fashions have also passed into the records of history, mostly to be ridiculed by us who succumb to the fallacy of chronological snobbery. Put crudely, it assumes a particularly prideful modern mindset coupled with historical ignorance: there was last week and last year, and then the long age of foolishness before.

Ironically, the popularity of this fallacy would make it true by its own standard: Chronological snobbery is popular, and what is popular is correct; therefore, chronological snobbery is correct. But, as Chesterton has also pointed out, a fallacy does not cease to be a fallacy because it becomes a fashion.

When the faulty line of reasoning involved in this fallacy is exposed, it is clear that truth does not depend on age, and yet this is one of the most common fallacies I encounter, and it is leveled at the Church, particularly her moral teachings, with unceasing regularity.

Almost all of the time, though, accusations and arguments are not laid out in clear syllogistic format, and the fallacy, like most others, arrives at the door veiled in rhetoric and emotion. When an argument is structured into explicit premises and conclusions, fallacies are easy to recognize. But if a friend says to you, “How can you believe that it is wrong to have sex outside of marriage? Don’t you know what year it is? That is so old fashioned.” A personal attack sometimes follows: “How can you be so judgmental?” These, of course, are rhetorical questions with the intention of producing a certain feeling.

Under such circumstances, it is easy to get caught up in the emotional appeal and the implicit insults of the questions. To hold to the “old-fashioned” standard is to make oneself out to be a villain, it seems. 

But the implied argument is as follows: Your perspective is old-fashioned; old fashioned ideas are false; so your perspective is false. The second premise obviously does not make sense, and that is why it is “hidden.”

When asked if we realize that a particular moral statement is out of date, a good response would be: “Yes. … and …?” Unfortunately, there is truth in the statement because ethical fashions are often hostile to traditional morality, but that does not imply that the statements expressing traditional morality are false. It may be true that Catholic moral teaching is not the current fashion, but that does not mean it is not right.

The same argument is sometimes pitted against religion and belief in God in general. I recently received a comment on one of my YouTube videos that expressed astonishment at belief in God “in this day and age.” I don’t know what the date on the calendar has to do with it, but it is certainly not a reason for atheism.

The age of the Church and her teachings, if anything, is an argument in favor of her truth. I came to believe in Catholicism, after trying to disprove it, because I saw a continuous unity over 2,000 years. That continuity, in itself, seems somewhat miraculous. After studying philosophy, it is a wonder that anyone can agree on any set of metaphysical principles and moral precepts, let alone an entire institution that has spanned two millennia and the entire globe.

To be fair, the age of the Church, by itself, is not a strict proof for the truth of Catholicism, but it should catch the attention of those who study the history of ideas. The antidote to chronological snobbery is education and the serious reading of old books. It is hard to think that modernity has the corner on truth after encountering the great minds of the past, many of the most logical and profound being Catholic. The best way to avoid being pulled into the maelstrom of the world is to be anchored in the wisdom of the ages.