We say it so easily and we mean it as high praise. He was ahead of his time, what a genius! We choose not to think about how painful and frustrating it was to be in that condition. No one who’s been through it will tell you it was a good thing. Wake them all up from the dead. They’ll tell you it was a raw deal. Ahead of your time? You might as well be told you have cancer or you’re bleeding to death. And nobody would go through it again, if they had a choice.
Well, it’s all so ironic because, in fact, no one is actually ahead of their time, as Gertrude Stein reminded us. Whatever you come up with, you got it from the materials available to you exactly in your time. It did not come from a lightning bolt out of the blue. It came precisely from its time and place. It’s just that, as Gertrude Stein pointed out, everybody else was busy creating for the same time; they were busy with their own vision, and no one had a need for yours. Your vision will come into its own only when a future generation needs it and responds to it. You needed something before everyone else did. It was that need that came early, not your ideas.
Think about that when we look back at people or ideas that were “ahead of their time”. It’s about needs, and who needs what and when. The possibilities were always there, available to all. It could have happened much earlier. It didn’t take a genius to see the goodness of a certain idea. It only took a feeling that we need it and want it. The shame of it is that so many decided we don’t want it, and then later, they cover up by saying that other guy was ahead of his time, so it’s not our fault we didn’t see it. Oh, but it is our fault. We saw it, we weren’t blind. We rejected it because we had other needs.
We will say something was ahead of its time because it startles us to see it so early in history. When Josephus, the ancient Jewish-Roman historian, writes that Jewish law requires that no one can be put to death without first getting a trial by the Sanhedrin, we think how advanced that is. We don’t expect to see such a clear statement of due process. But it is not all that surprising. The legal system of any culture will have procedures and it is not unreasonable to foresee that people will demand adherence to those procedures. That’s due process.
More surprising is that some Pharisees argued that everyone, including kings and nobility, are subject to the Constitution (Torah) and rules of law. The first few times they tried imposing this, they lost. In fact, I’m not sure they were ever completely successful at establishing this principle. It was only one Pharisee, maybe a couple, who insisted on it. The majority were nervous about defying a king or other aristocrat. We don’t need this, we don’t want it, it’s too much trouble. In that sense, this idea was ahead of its time. It was conceivable, but it was unwanted.
British humanitarians of the 19th century were sometimes ahead of their time and on other points were not. Many humanitarians saw the need to make the justice system in the colonies more equitable. They believed that natives should be allowed to give testimony in court. A lot of people were suggesting this and gradually it got done. As an idea, it was not too advanced for its time.
But when someone like Saxe Bannister, Attorney General in New South Wales in the mid-1820s and later one of the founders of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, suggested that when natives can still not get judgments executed, then governors should indemnify them, that was going much further than anyone else of that time wanted to go. He also recognized that the Colonial Office could not possibly serve both the white colonists and the Aboriginal population, as the interests of these groups were often diametrically opposed to each other. Therefore, an independent body should be appointed to look out for the interests of the natives and that body should include people of color. It does not take a genius to realize that Bannister’s proposals would go nowhere. Not because his ideas were incomprehensible, but because they did not serve the needs of the white colonists.
Bannister was truly ahead of his time. Another humanitarian was actually capable of saying that Bannister was mentally deranged (probably in response to some points he made about overhauling the colonial system in South Africa). The outlook of the majority was that what we need is lip service to the idea of justice for indigenous peoples, but not actual justice. To put it another way, what even many good humanitarians recognized was that one could push the majority of whites only so far. They knew when to quit in the fight for justice. Bannister was a purist. He thought about what pure justice required and then said it. What he spoke up for was not that hard to see. It was just that everyone else was telling him that we don’t need this. It doesn’t serve our interests.
Which brings me to Charles Darwin, who was definitely not ahead of his time. Few people in history have been more in tune with what the zeitgeist will and will not allow. He knew exactly what he could deliver without having the door slammed in his face. He gave his generation what it, and he, wanted to hear: The dominant species are the most important thing ever. What no one wanted to hear was that the whole was more important than any one piece. All the previous evolutionists—Erasmus Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Constantine Rafinesque, Robert Chambers—were ahead of their time in this respect. Actually, they stood for two ideas, one of which was just right for that time and place, and the other was apparently too soon.
The first idea was transmutation of species. The early evolutionists were right for their time in their belief that creation was on-going and species continued to develop. That idea appealed to people long before Charles Darwin came along. The upper classes did not like it, but the majority of people lower down felt the need for it. We like the idea that life (and by implication, human society) is not fixed but fluid. So the idea of species change gained ground. But the other idea evolutionists advocated for was that nature as a whole is evolving and every piece of nature, small or large, strong or weak, has a role to play.
Lamarck pointed out that any part of nature that could reason might try to assert itself as most important because it would perceive its own interests to be contrary to that of the whole. The powerful might not like the idea that they too are only temporary and might have to give way to the next change because it would serve the whole. I believe it was this kind of reasoning about the whole that caused so many of the scientists who came from the upper classes to reject the theory of evolution or development. It was not until Charles Darwin offered natural selection to establish that the dominant species will become ever more dominant that scientists began to find evolutionary theory appealing. Ironically, while natural selection was hotly debated, it was appealing enough even to those who rejected it.
In theory, Darwin saw that everything was potentially temporary. Natural selection, he said, acts only tentatively. But he never made that the mainspring of his system. He put his emphasis on the success of the strongest or most dominant species. It was a theory that was well-suited to his colonial age. It was perfect for its time. But the holistic thinkers were out of touch with the needs of their time. Not stupidly out of touch. I think they knew where they stood. They just could not help speaking the truth about seeing things from the point of view of the whole. It is still ahead of what we perceive to be our needs.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer