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.
Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci is perhaps the most difficult person to pose this question of because he was proclaimed a genius in his own age and went on to influence many after him while at the same time having many of his engineering ideas discarded as being impossible. As a personality, painter, and scientist it is hard to say that he was ahead of his time, he was simply a great Renaissance man. However, as an engineer there is a serious case to be made, not for the good engineering ideas that worked, but for the ones that never worked or were never given a chance. As an example, take his design for a bridge over the Bosporus. During his time the construction was called impossible yet in the 1990’s Norway took his design and built a bridge with it.
Does this make his design ahead of its time? Err, maybe. Da Vinci’s fame undoubtedly influenced the desire to build the bridge rather than some engineer proposing something similar by coincidence. Just because he wasn’t able to realize his inventions in his lifetime does not mean he was ahead, there are plenty of people designing space stations today but they’re simply looking towards the future rather than living in it.
Newton is often considered ahead of his time for being one of the founders of modern science and introducing new ways of thinking about the natural world. Science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is often viewed as being ahead of its time in general as people often see it as an inevitable cultural development (see my last post) and that the scientific method is self-evident. Therefore scientists before the late modern era are considered ahead of their time by breaking with traditional thought. The problem is that history has imposed a more modern vision upon Newton to erase his own time from his work. The truth is that Newton was very much within his own time and relied on magic and alchemy to develop his scientific theories. Most of Newton’s writings dealt with esoteric subjects like the occult and even his theory of gravity relies on occult concepts like “action at a distance.” Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry similarly pursued what we would now consider less-than-scientific activities. Even while espousing openness, communication, and the repeatability of experiments, Boyle kept his alchemical work secret and hidden. Both Newton and Boyle serve as classic examples of why geniuses in history are not ahead of their time.
Bosch needs to be mentioned here because he brings up an interesting case of context and whether someone can be ahead of their time through re-interpretation. Bosch was a sixteenth century Dutch painter known for his busy and imaginative paintings.
He was well-admired and quite prolific for his time, being considered one of the Flemish masters along with Pieter Breugel and Rembrandt. His works had a heavy religious connotation and helped to portray heaven and hell as much more vivid and real places. In this sense he was not ahead of his time, yet when the counter-culture movement began people started realizing how much his work represented psychadelic experiences. Lots of art gets re-interpreted over time which hardly amounts to some profound genius of the artist so it would be unfair to say he was ahead of his time on this ground alone. However, what if his original intention was to create a psychadelic experience rather than just vivid and imaginative Dutch Renaissance artwork? Some have proposed that this is exactly what he was doing, relying on the ergot in bread to provide hallucinations. In this case he might have been ahead of his time despite getting his drugs the old fashioned way. His original intention was forgotten and only re-discovered by coincidence through history.
Mendel is often considered the poster boy for rediscovery. He was a friar who performed experiments on pea genetics before genetics were even a thing, only having his work discovered posthumously and tied into an emerging Darwinian synthesis decades later. His work also provides a case of re-interpretation as his original focus was hybridization rather than inheritance. He sought an explanation and application in botany rather than biology and only after the theory of evolution took hold did his ideas begin to make sense. Therefore it would be inappropriate to think of him as completely ahead of his time. If his goal was inheritance all along then he would have been as he would be doing genetics without evolution. However, it is not clear that this was the case; his work was under-appreciated and forgotten for sure and even re-discovered by coincidence, yet history has re-written what his work was really about.
These examples should show that it is very difficult for anyone to truly be ahead of their time as everyone exists within their own time-dependent cultural context. The meaning and implications attributed to a work in one period of time does not easily translate to another. Only the most simple, basic, or vague ideas can be said to transcend time yet these are often the most influential, allowing people to mold and re-articulate them to suit their own cultural needs. In conclusion, nobody is really ahead of their time, except for Hieronymus Bosch, because he kicks ass.