Is Anyone Truly Ahead of Their Time?

It’s a phrase we hear constantly when discussing the great people of history – “they were ahead of their time.”  Often the label is used to denote someone or something as too advanced for people to properly appreciate, while other times it simply means something better than the rest.  These are fairly contradictory sentiments so I’ll discuss which is more appropriate first and then go on to examine four people in history – Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Hieronymus Bosch, and Gregor Mendel – to see if they were truly ahead of their time.

To call someone or something ahead of their time is to essentially say that they would be more comfortable living in an age beyond their own or that a product would have been more successful if released in the future.  Assuming nobody has been time travelling, the only way someone could be ahead of their time is if their works were appreciated later.  This has led some to abuse the phrase to simply mean something ground-breaking. For instance, take this piece on movies that were ahead of their time.  It contains movies like Jaws, Tron, and Star Wars, all movies, while ground-breaking, were popular in their own time and therefore not really ahead of their time.  In other words, if something is successful enough in its own time to influence tastes in the future then it can’t possibly be ahead of its time. If those movies did not exist then movies today would undoubtedly look very different. Instead, being ahead of time means something grossly under-appreciated to the point where it’s forgotten.  Something can only be ahead of its time by coincidence – an idea disappearing and then re-emerging unrelated to the first. Continue reading “Is Anyone Truly Ahead of Their Time?”