I don't believe in progress. Not really. It's the fate of anyone who studies ancient history. This isn't to say we haven't done things since the dawn of civilization. We have. Even so, in the big picture, the human condition hasn't changed much: only the specifics. I have come more and more to agree with Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun.
It's the reason ancient literature still speaks to us. From the Epic of Gilgamesh on down, we consider the big issues: birth, life, love, death: war and peace, good and evil. Ultimately, we confront the greatest questions of all: What does it mean to be human? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life?
As a race, I think we're no closer to any real answers.
We are caught up in the illusion of progress. We like to picture ourselves standing at the apex of evolution. We often see the ancients as a bunch of credulous fools: docile and ignorant, easily led by kings and priests, living in a world of false gods and evil spirits. It makes us feel good to focus on our penicillin, automobiles, and computers. While these are real achievements, a little humility is called for. We need to remember something important that we seem to have forgotten.
Ancient people were not stupid.
It sounds obvious, but it bears repeating; ancient people were not stupid, at least no more than we are. They were fully human. They thought about everything we think about, and just as deeply. They felt everything we feel, and just as deeply. All the universal questions occurred to them long ago. They looked at themselves, they looked at the world around them, and they wondered.
I can tell you very little about the painters at Lascaux, but I can tell you one thing for certain; they were just like us. They created their paintings and saw the beauty in what they had done. They left the cave, looked up at the stars, and wondered. Just like us.
They felt joy when their children were born, sorrow when their loved ones died. They buried them with flowers. They sat by a fire, looked up at the stars, and wondered. Just like us.
We use "stone age" as an epithet, but a stone age people built the Pyramids. They are still standing. Have we built anything that will outlast them? Where will our skyscrapers be in a thousand years? What monuments will we leave?
Over two thousand years ago, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth. His answer was so accurate it was not improved upon until the days of the space program. No one but fools thought the Earth was flat. Ancient people were not stupid, at least no more so than we are. A little humility is called for.
Remember this the next time you read the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Bible. Ancient people were fully human. They lived their lives as we do, and just as deeply. They pondered all the questions we do, and just as deeply. They looked up at the stars and wondered.
Just like us.