Conceit-Of-The-Present: In Science, Construction, Mediation and Bankruptcy

From antiquity (photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L Swanson

Conceit-of-the-present is this: thinking that people of today are smarter, more sophisticated and better than people of the past.

There is, of course, some truth in that conceit for today: (i) improved hygiene and medicine, for example, enable people of today to be bigger, stronger and faster than people of olde, and (ii) our digital world is amazing to behold.

But conceit-of-the-present is often nothing more than:

  • thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think; and
  • denigrating people of the past.

I am guilty of such conceit—as much as anyone else.  In fact, this article comes from my recent efforts to write about bankruptcy law histories—and from my own sense that we and today’s bankruptcy laws are superior to the past. 

Moreover, someone else, at some future day, will look back upon us and our time as simple, with silly and boorish laws and practices and behaviors—and with a sense that they, in their future time, are much-superior to us and ours.   

What follows are examples or illustrations of our misplaced conceit-of-the-present in areas of science, construction, mediation and bankruptcy.

From Science

–Sir Isaac Newton

Our image of Sir Isaac Newton is an indolent fellow snoozing in the shade of a tree, from which an apple falls, hitting his head and jogging a realization about gravity.  The sense is that Sir Newton and other primitive folk of his day didn’t know much about science.

The reality of Sir Newton, however, is a high level of scientific, mathematical and astronomical sophistication and capability.  For example:

  • Sir Newton’s book, “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” (first published in 1687), establishes classical mechanics (i.e., mathematically describing the motion of objects like small projectiles and planets, stars and galaxies);
  • Sir Newton makes major contributions to the physics of light; and
  • Sir Newton helps develop infinitesimal calculus (i.e., the mathematical study of continuous change).[Fn. 1]

Sir Newton does, in fact, formulate his gravitational theory in 1665, after watching an apple fall and asking why the apple fell straight down, rather than sideways or even upward.  Far from being primitive, National Geographic’s Resource Library describes Sir Newton’s gravitational theory contribution like this:

  • “He showed that the force that makes the apple fall and that holds us on the ground is the same as the force that keeps the moon and planets in their orbits”; and
  • “His theory of gravity wouldn’t have got us global positioning satellites,” but “it was enough to develop space travel.”

Not bad for an indolent, unsophisticated fellow lounging under an apple tree.

–Nicolas Copernicus

Sir Newton’s contributions are built upon the work (from a century earlier) of Nicolas Copernicus.  In 1543, Copernicus publishes his book titled, On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres.  A read-through of Copernicus’s book leaves a sense of amazement that someone preceding Sir Newton by a century could demonstrate such high levels of (i) understanding about the cosmos, and (ii) usage and manipulation of mathematics, geometry, physics and astronomical details.

And both of them (Newton and Copernicus) did it all without a computer or calculator.  Smart and sophisticated they were!!

From Ancient Stone Constructions

But let’s go back even further—far back by centuries and millennia to the age of stone construction. 

We’re not talking about the stone age here (when humans lived by tools of stone).  No.  This is about using large stones to construct large monuments of human antiquity.  This is about such achievements as:

  • Pyramids in Egypt;
  • Stonehenge in England;
  • Moai statutes on Easter Island—2,200 miles off the coast of Chile, 7,300 miles from Australia, 9,000 miles from Indonesia, 4,300 miles from Los Angeles, 1,900 miles south of the equator, 4,600 miles from Antarctica, and nowhere near any other continent;
  • Ollantaytambo in Peru;
  • Tikal in Guatemala;
  • Tiwanaku in Bolivia; and
  • Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

What each construction on the foregoing list has in common with the rest is this:

  • All were built many centuries or millennia ago, using large stone blocks;
  • Those large stone blocks were measured and carved or sculpted with precision, using primitive tools and a technology that has been lost and is yet to be replicated:
  • Those large stone blocks were transported (sometimes for very long distances) and lifted (sometimes very high) using only human force, with a technology that has been lost and is yet to be replicated;
  • Those large stones were manipulated into their present location using only human force, with a technology that has been lost and is yet to be replicated; and
  • Their construction required a large number of humans, which necessitated an extensive supply chain and system of logistics to keep those humans alive, fed, housed and working.

What’s amazing about such stone structures is not only that they exist from antiquity, but also that:

  • They encircle the globe—intervening oceans and continental distances were not an impediment to the expansion of the necessary technology—which technology escapes us today, despite our computers, etc.; and
  • Their constructions span millennia of time—again . . . using a technology that is lost to us today.

From Mediation Practices

Humans are a social animal.  That means:

  • we interact and communicate with each other; and
  • we have our differences as well.

Disputes happen, ranging from arguments to fights, at all levels of humanity: from disagreements between individuals . . . all the way to wars between allied nations.

And because of that, mediation efforts have been going on everywhere, at all levels . . . and across the eons of time . . . to help resolve disputes.

In today’s world, mediation has taken a formal structure, with philosophies and rules designed to address the needs of our day.  But there is nothing new or unique about the essence of our mediation efforts today.  It has all happened before—in different historical, economic and legal contexts—but it’s still the same nonetheless.

From Bankruptcy Laws


Trade has existed among humans throughout the eons of time.

And nothing says trade quite like, (i) equipping and supplying an army and its hangers-on over an extended campaign (e.g., Alexander the Great’s exploits across a vast territory), or (ii) equipping and supplying a human workforce as it builds a huge stone structure (e.g., the pyramids).

And wherever there is trade, there is debt.  And wherever there is debt, there is a need for bankruptcy-type relief.  And so it is that the many laws of antiquity contain bankruptcy-type provisions.

And its easy for us today [yours truly included] to look back with a sense of superiority upon:

  • the harshness of bankruptcy provisions in the Draconian Code; or
  • the criminal nature of bankruptcy provisions in our colonial and early-USA times; or
  • the question of whether voluntary bankruptcy petitions are even constitutional in the 1800s of these United States.

But the reality is this:

  • The bankruptcy laws of each era and each locale are addressed to the needs of that time and place; and
  • The harshest remedies are likely limited to the extremes and outliers of the time.

–Silk Roads Example

Consider, for example, the needs of the silk roads trade in the 200s—nearly two millennia ago.  Back in that day, the rich and noble elites of Rome love their silk robes . . . which come to them as an import from China, across the silk roads (see this linked source).

Imagine this:

  • The silk is created and processed somewhere near what we call Beiging—near the Pacific Ocean;
  • The silk is then lashed to beasts of burden, which must then traverse something like 5,000 miles;
  • The silk roads extend mostly through semi-arid steppes or oasis-punctuated deserts;
  • The people who transport the silk must deal with such physical impediments as the Himalaya mountains and such human impediments as bandits and disease; and
  • The silk roads finally lead to the Caspian and Black Seas and then move on to the Mediterranean Sea and, finally, arrive in Rome using a combination of land and sea transports.

Amidst all that travel, value must change hands, at various times and locations, for the purchase and transport of the silk over that vast distance—to be enjoyed by the privileged few in Rome.

Bankruptcy-type laws—whether formal or otherwise—undoubtedly held sway all along that route . . . from the beginning to the end.  The details of such laws have mostly escaped us through the passage of time, but such laws undoubtedly existed and were enforced as the needs and opportunities of the time required.

For us to look back on any formal or informal bankruptcy laws of any time in history with a sense of superiority is inadequate.  What we need, instead, is a full understanding of the conditions and needs of that time and how the bankruptcy laws fit in. 


The conceit-of-the-present is a common human malady that prevents a full and fair and adequate understanding of the smart, sophisticated and highly-capable people of the past.

** If you find this article of value, please feel free to share. If you’d like to discuss, let me know.

2 thoughts on “Conceit-Of-The-Present: In Science, Construction, Mediation and Bankruptcy

Add yours

  1. Don:

                 I especially enjoyed this morning’s MEDIABANKRY post.  I am a member of a lunch group that meets in Philadelphia every other Friday named the Right Angle Club.  We meet every other Friday, but used to meet every Friday.  Our format is that we meet, enjoy a beverage of our choice, then go upstairs for our lunch, after which we have a speaker.  Last Friday it was a presentation on the Steam Loop of Philadelphia, which was fascinating.  High speed trains was one of the recent presentations.  During the summer months, when many members are on vacation, attendance tends to wane, and our own members sometimes make presentations.  A few years ago, I provided a presentation on the History of Insolvency and Bankruptcy, which was well received.  Ever since I have thought about updating the presentation (Powerpoint) and incorporating some recent topics of existing law, specifically some of the exceptions, and making this into a presentation for attorneys to attend to receive credit.  The format I am thinking about is fifteen minutes on the history of insolvency and Bankruptcy followed by unique exceptions to the automatic stay followed by fifteen more minutes on the history and then another topic, such as exceptions to discharge.  Well, reading your email this morning has given me some incentive to revisit my thought and I thank you for your continuous work on MEDIABANKRY, which I read most mornings.  In the past you have provided me some guidance on questions I have sent and I sincerely appreciate your efforts on bankruptcy and insolvency insights.  Thank you!

    Robert J. Lohr II
    Lohr & Associates, Ltd.
    1246 West Chester Pike
    Suite 312
    West Chester, PA 19382
    (610) 701-0222 – telephone
    (610) 431-2792 – facsimile

    Liked by 1 person

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