Ancient echoes

"The past is the past", we're told, "focus on the now", "the moment is all we have".

The more people I hear mouth or write similar sentiments, the more embarrassed I feel for having ever toyed with such thoughts.

Sure it's good to avoid becoming oppressed by memories or obsessed with future worries and desires. It's also helpful to be "present" and aware of your surroundings and your responses to stimuli. It's great to enjoy the moment.

However, the past is not static - it interacts with us every day of our lives and to think of it as dead and gone is both ignorant and arrogant (a common pairing).

Obviously there's a difference between dwelling on one's own past and reflecting on the past per se, however, contemporary culture's mania for "now" makes me wonder if the lessons we can learn from history and the debt we owe our forebears have ever been less acknowledged? 

Professor Greg Aldrete makes this point quite elegantly at the end of his 48-lecture series, History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective.

"The influence of the ancient world is present in our modern customs, religion, laws, art, architecture, games, calendars, superstitions, education, clothing, buildings, food, jobs, holidays, entertainment, governments and beliefs," says Aldrete.

It's a fact constantly illustrated in his lectures but he sums it up with a simple example (and keep in mind, he's an American and thus uses US currency).

"At 8am, I bought a newspaper and a cup of hot chocolate and got a dollar bill in change," says Aldrete.

"Another way to describe those activities might be to say, 'According to a Mesopotamian-derived time-keeping system, I bought a Chinese-inspired product and ancient Meso-American drink employing a Greek-invented system of currency.

"'And using an Indo-Arabic counting system, I got back change consisting of a bill that was marked with three Latin slogans and bore an image of an Egyptian pyramid'.

"Of course, the very words and number which I used to convey that simple sentence are themselves a mixture of Sumerian, Phoenician, Greek, Latin and Arabic," says Aldrete.

I'm constantly staggered how much stuff people knew thousands of years ago, discovered without the benefit of any of the technology we have today, while we modern Westerners "repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes".

Consider, for example, a tiny slither of scientific history - the pre-Aristotelian Greeks. Historian Will Durant gives the following account of their achievements in his remarkable book The History of Philosophy.

Thales (640-550 B.C.) was primarily an astronomer, who astonished the natives of Miletus by informing them that the sun and stars (which they were wont to worship as gods) were merely balls of fire.

His pupil Anaximander (610-540 B.C.) was the first Greek to make astronomical and geographical charts and believed that the universe had begun as an undifferentiated mass; that life had first been formed in the sea, but had been driven upon the land by the subsidence of the water; that of these stranded animals some had developed the capacity to breathe air, and had so become the progenitors of all later land life.

Anaximenes, (450 B.C.) described the primeval condition of things as a very rarefied mass, gradually condensing into wind, cloud, water, earth, and stone; the three forms of matter - gas, liquid and solid - were progressive stages of condensation; heat and cold were merely rarefaction and condensation; earthquakes were due to the solidification of an originally fluid earth.

Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.), teacher of Pericles, seems to have given a correct explanation of solar and lunar eclipses and he discovered the processes of respiration in plants and fishes.

Empedocles (445 B.C.) developed to a further stage the idea of evolution. Organs arise not by design but by selection. Nature makes many trials and experiments with organisms, combining organs variously; where the combination meets environmental needs the organism survives and perpetuates its like; where the combination fails, the organism is weeded out; as time goes on, organisms are more and more intricately and successfully adapted to their surroundings.

Finally, in Leucippus (445 B.C.) and Democritus (460-360 B.C.), we get the last stage of pre-Aristotelian science -materialistic, deterministic atomism. "In reality," said Democritus, "there are only atoms and the void." Perception is due to the expulsion of atoms from the object upon the sense organ.

Every day we get out of bed and enjoy the fruits of other men's genius: click a switch to blaze electricity, pick up a towel of industrially woven fabric and turn on a hot shower delivering water via the wonders of plumbing.

The majority of us then clean ourselves, ready our bodies and brains to work another day completely ignorant of the legacy we've inherited - like obnoxious rich kids who've forgotten grandpa once washed in rivers before he made his fortune.

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