In fact, the Talmudic sages already touched upon this question.
“Rav Papa said to Abaya, ‘How were the earlier (sages) different (i.e., better, than we, so) that miracles befell them … (while) miracles don’t befall us?
Is it because of the (quality of our respective) studies? (That can’t be it, because) during the days of Rabbi Yehudah (one of the earlier sages) they only studied Nezikin (i.e., only one of the six orders of the Talmud), while we study the entire Talmud.
And (why is it that) when Rabbi Yehudah was studying Tractate Okatzin he was able to say…, “I sense the gist of (the arguments of) Rav and Shmuel”, while we study Okatzin in thirteen academies (yet we don’t merit that)?
And (why is it that) as soon as Rabbi Yehudah would take off a shoe (to begin his preparations for a fast so to alleviate a drought) that rains came down, while we torment ourselves and cry out (for rain), and yet no one (in Heaven) notices?’
Abaya replied, ‘(It’s all because) the earlier (sages) were willing to sacrifice their lives to sanctify God’s name” (Berachot 20A).
Ashlag explains this all as follows.
While it was clear to both Rav Papa and Abaya that the earlier (sages) were greater than they in Torah-knowledge and in wisdom (it was also clear) that Rav Papa and Abaya themselves were (nonetheless) more worthy than the earlier (sages).
On the one hand, the earlier sages were less meritorious than those in Rav Papa and Abaya’s generation in fact because they studied less Torah than they, fewer people studied it in their time, and because their hearts didn’t break when they saw others suffering; yet the earlier sages were more meritorious than the latter, since they were worthy of quick insight and solutions to their problems, and they were capable of great self-sacrifice.
Hence it’s clear that even though the earlier (sages) were greater (in fact) than the latter, nonetheless as a consequence of the rule that “the more subtle is fashioned and brought into the world first”, it’s still-and-all true that more of the Torah’s wisdom is able to be revealed in the latter generation.
(c) 2013 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
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