Monday, February 22, 2010

Just Like Us

Lascaux painting.jpg

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.

Respectfully Yours,



San said...

What's more, ancient people were probably more attuned to the Earth and to their own souls than are we, the technologically driven people of today. We need to attend to the ancient wisdom.

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Cricket.

Michelle H. said...

Progress makes us forget. We make our little achievements seem so grand, and snub our noses at our fellow man. Ancient people made leaps and bounds in their thinking to get us to where we are today. Their hard work focused on the greater good of society.

At our day and age, we are taking baby steps. We focus so little work on society and call it grand. The good we do too often focuses on our own selfish needs. We need to remember where we started out from...

Cricket said...

Hi San - Thanks for stopping by. You may well be right. I think we will understand neither the wisdom nor the folly of the ancients until we give them credit for having full intellectual powers; until we see them as rational beings looking to make sense of the world and their place in it.

I think this applies as well to the so-called primitives of the modern world. To believe that a hunter-gatherer thinks about nothing but nuts and berries is silly. Why could there not be Einsteins among them too? Yet we often act as if this were an impossibility.

I'm sure they too look up at the stars and wonder. Just like us.

Hilary said...

So very true and much like San said, I believe they were far more aware of the world around them. They could observe and learn from nature. We learn from Google. They were in touch with their surroundings. We're in touch with iTunes. We have a lot of digging and shedding of layers to get anywhere near to where they belonged naturally. Those of us who are lucky enough and perhaps wise enough will find a way to do so.

Char said...

Well said and thought out, Cricket....Just like us!


lime said...

as other commenters have pointed out the ancients were surely more attuned to what the world around them. they were the thinkers and inventors who gave us the wheel, simple machines, and every other lasting building block of what we consider civilization today. no wonder the pyramids still stand. simplicity is far more durable than complexity. the more complex a thing becomes the more easily it breaks down, whether it is a structure, technology, or an argument.

Suldog said...

They would be as awestruck by us as we should be of them.

Ananda girl said...

Wonderful essay. I think the thing that I admire most about humanity are our never ending questions and efforts to create solutions.

Pauline said...

"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."

You could be talking about 2010. You're right. Not much has changed...

Tammie Lee said...

yes, humility is good.
congratulations on your POTW award!

Land of shimp said...

Hi Cricket, I owe you an email, by the way (we're doing some remodeling in the house, cuts down on my clarity of thought).

In many ways I agree with this, but in some ways I do not. For one thing, we went through a period of history in which scientific advancement, technological advancement were considered evil...Admittedly, that isn't to say that very same pattern hasn't repeated over the course of time, but in terms of progress, we should have many discoveries to make.

But what I wonder that progress of any substantial, evolutionary kind? New discoveries -- well, they will continue. Medical advancements, our understanding of the possibilities of the world around us, they will all continue to grow, and progress.

We don't change much, though. We still resolve the majority of our world conflicts violently, we still struggle to simply be better, to care more, to improve.

There is much new under the sun...except for us. Our natures haven't changed all that much. I'm sure you could frighten the living heck out of someone from three hundred years ago with all of our new discoveries...but it would just be our things, our material goods, and our medical knowledge that would almost seem like sorcery to that person.

We progress, just not in the areas that we perhaps need to the most.

I'm just catching up on blogs, and haven't been to Nancy's yet, but it looks like you had a post of the week mention :-) Congratulations.

Cricket said...

Hi Shimp! Welcome back. To my knowledge, this is not a potw mention, nor do I think it deserves to be. A bit of confusion somewhere along the line, I think.

You are right, of course. My point is just that it's important to remember, in considering what ancient people did and why, that they had the same intellect that we do. They made, or attempted to make, rational decisions based on how they understood the world.

Sometimes these decisions were good, sometimes not so good.
Just like us.