Don’t condescend to your ancestors

There’s a lot of good sense to be had in a lot of reggae lyrics, but not in Junior Murvin’s ‘Solomon’ :

‘Solomon was the wisest man,
But he didn’t know the secrets that I know now.
I am wiser than Solomon …’

Every time I listen to it – frequently – I can’t resist quibbling: Yes, Junior, we now know there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, that Beijing is in China and that potatoes taste good with butter and salt, and poor old Solomon didn’t know any of those things. But that doesn’t mean we’re any wiser than he was.

The late, great Junior Murvin

It’s all too easy to condescend to your ancestors, even if you’re a good Rastafarian. Time and distance naturally simplify things, and there is no doubt that our lives are very different to lives lived even 100 years ago. It is hard not think of people who lived in previous centuries as somehow less complicated than us.

Genealogy is a good cure for such thinking. The more you find out about your ancestors, the more complicated and individual they become. You can’t think of them as quaint, fixed to the one spot, sepia-toned. They moved and worried and loved and lied, and they were just as uncertain about their futures as we are about ours.

The biggest contrast between their lives and ours is comfort: we have central heating and anaesthetics. That doesn’t make us more complex, or smarter, or wiser.

And the most substantial thing that they didn’t know, and that we know now, is what was going to happen to them. There is irony in this, and some sadness, but no basis for disrespect.

The only real difference between us and our ancestors is that they’re dead and we’re not. And that’s not going to last.

15 thoughts on “Don’t condescend to your ancestors”

  1. the lyrics to this song prove that Jnr isn’t wiser than Solomon, at all… Knowledge doesn’t equate to wisdom… Any fool can accumulate knowledge… wisdom is knowing how best to use that knowledge, and only comes with experience… Example… N Korea has gained the knowledge of how to put together nuclear weapons; however, sabre-rattling at Trump’s door doesn’t smack of wisdom, in my book…

  2. Right on, John. Spread the word far and wide. It needs to be universally acknowledged, going back to our earliest cave-using elders. We have more data, not more intelligence!

  3. The more we learn of our ancestors, the closer to them we become. It is putting flesh on their bones. We cannot judge them by their lives. We can only have compassion and a keen understanding for their circumstances, as we have our own. Understanding them, and if we are lucky, we may learn why we have the gifts, or traits we have. We can certainly see more clearly through their eyes.

    Great post, John

  4. How right you are, John. I never cease to be amazed and humbled at the challenges my ancestors faced and overcame.

  5. I think we’re much smarter than our ancestors because we do have central heating and anaesthetics and they didn’t.

    1. Hi Jonathan
      I don’t know about our being wiser, but I am interested in your surname. I have a Catherine Hussion in my family tree, but think her name might have been Hession. She came from Galway to Milton, New Zealand in the 1860s. Would she have been a member of your family?
      Judy Hand

  6. Thank you, John: such a deep truth, elegantly expressed. It would be strange to think that even the most distant of the ancestors in our family trees would have been any less intelligent than we are, even though we might know a lot of things they didn’t.
    And perhaps there are ways in which they knew more than we do now: how to live without central heating and anaesthetics, without television and the internet, without artificial light in the winter evenings, without transport. How many of us now would be clever enough to live like that?

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