Is Old Advice Better?

Should you pay more attention to wisdom, when it comes from an ancient source? Or should you stick to advice that heeds closer to the scientific principles and moral scruples of our current time?

Some argue that ancient wisdom is definitively better.

There are some good reasons for this.

First, there’s probably a filtering effect where bad advice gets lost over time. Newer advice, being more recent, has yet to prove itself as being useful for solving perennial human problems.

The Stoics, Buddhists and early philosophical and religious scholars created words than people still follow today, this makes their claim to usefulness much higher since so many other words in the intervening millennia have been lost.

Second, older advice may not be tainted with self-promotion. Although philosophical pioneers, centuries ago, likely had their own biases which shaped their worldview, one of them, presumably, wasn’t to sell you stuff. Modern self-help authors, business gurus and other pundits all have their own motivations, which may not be nearly so pure.

Finally, older advice might simply ignore fads. Modern writers, driven by what’s new, may miss what is important. Focusing on self-centered millennials, social media trends and shifting technology may be newsworthy, but it ignores the bulk of our human nature that is unchanging.

Why Might Older Advice Be Worse?

Despite these benefits, I can also think of a few arguments for why newer advice may be better than older wisdom.

If you believe in intellectual progress, both scientifically and ethically, then earlier times are less likely to produce something of value. Aristotle believed the body was composed of earth, wind, water and fire. The Buddha believed that acting like a dog would reincarnate you as one. And neither seemed all too worried about the slaves people possessed around them.

Even if you believe that progress is an illusion, and there’s only a shifting set of culturally specific standards for judging truth and ethics, it may still make sense to read more modern works since those are more likely to adhere to the prevailing ideas of your time.

Another reason for believing in newer advice is that newer advice can inherit the best qualities of older wisdom, while ignoring its flaws. Paradoxically, this creates a market for “new” advice, that promotes itself as being ancient. Many self-proclaimed Stoics are more familiar with Ryan Holiday than Aurelius, and many Buddhists read modern gurus rather than the Pali Canon.

This may be a good thing, since it allows older advice to be updated to fit a more modern context, making it easier to understand (since the metaphors and context can be updated to current assumptions) and also modifying it to remove elements that are seen as antiquated or harmful.

Is Older Advice Just a Status Signal?

A third view, not mutually exclusive with the two I’ve outlined above, is that older advice is popular because it is seen as higher status than newer advice.

Consider Shakespeare. Many believe he has produced some of the finest works of literature of all time. Yet, most people would prefer to read a Harry Potter novel to Othello, if given the choice. Shakespeare, good or not, might attract this reverence because reading him is hard, particularly for a modern reader.

Since reading him is hard, having read his works signals that you’re probably smarter, more educated and cultured than average. Thus, what reading him says about you ends up becoming associated with the intrinsic value of reading Shakespeare itself.

Similarly, pulling a self-help book with a glitzy title is easy. Wading through centuries old texts is much harder. Therefore, older advice may inherit a sheen of respectability, not because it is intrinsically better, but because the types of people who end up reading it are better, and thus it gains from the signal it tends to send.

Of course, this could be true, in part, without invalidating the usefulness of the advice. I tend to think Buddhism gets too much credit because it’s very old and culturally exotic, but I also think there are useful ideas within.

What Biases Ancient and Modern Advice?

Perhaps the best answer is simply to diversify! Both modern and older wisdom have their biases and flaws, and the best solution is to draw from a diverse set of sources.

I suspect a lot of modern advice suffers from inconsistent quality, overreaction to temporary trends and is often blurred with the financial motives of the author. These can create biases which make the advice less-than-perfect.

However, I think it’s also a mistake to view older advice as somehow being free of biases, even if the authors no longer gain financially from their words.

As I wrote about in my review of the Dao De Jing, it’s important to recognize the context for this work—that of advising a ruler. This was the place of the philosopher in this time period in China, so rather than self-improvement, much of Confucius and Laozi is really a kind of nascent political theory.

Similarly, the Buddha existed during a time when many different ascetics from the sramana movement were all competing with different philosophies. Much of his ideas and advice were responses to the typical practices of the time, and this background context (and a desire to convert followers) is present in much of the advice.

These biases aren’t necessarily a big problem, just that if you pretend ancient advice is necessarily pure and modern advice overly tied up in our modern context, it may simply be that you aren’t familiar enough with the context that older advice was entangled with!

What do you think? Do you think older, ancient advice is more useful for some of the reasons I’ve described (or may some I didn’t)? Or do you prefer modern ideas that are based on sounder science and contemporary values? Share your thoughts!