Story behind the Passage
There are books that you can easily read in a few hours. And then there are books which take more time to read — so much that you might never actually complete them. Every page is so dense that you have to really concentrate. Still, the pages are so attractive because you just have to know what is written on them. Sure, I am talking about Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention. I have never made it through the whole book but whenever I take a glance at it, like today, I really want to swallow the whole thing because there is so much knowledge in it that is so important — for me and my thirst for diving into different worlds.
Usually, the books that hardly ever appeal to me are history books. Not necessarily novels but non-fiction about history. Today, however, I wanted to choose a passage about history because in an interview I got fascinated by many of the things that my conversation partner said about history. He was absolutely right when he explained the patterns he identified in his historical readings. Whenever people talk so intensely about history, I am tempted to get into it too because I agree, in principle. History is the most exciting thing ever. Still, I just hardly ever make it to the details, e.g., remembering the years and specific historical events.
What I am pretty good at, however, as a storyteller, is to beam myself to long-gone worlds — even ancient ones. This, for me, is something truly ungraspable. That is actually the merit or even the magic of history. Knowing that you cannot really know anything about how people lived almost 2000 years ago because it is so far in the past. Yet, this might not be true because, even then, human beings were just human beings. So, why would it not be possible to imagine life in ancient Egypt? Why is it so hard to imagine that the pyramids were built before there was any real construction technology? How can it be that people built early versions of refrigerators and pipes that we can still identify from today’s perspective?
I think, the answer to all these questions is quite clear: Because of the numbers. Who can really imagine 2000 years? And by “imagine” I really mean understand what this actually means for a human being whose life span is a tiny fraction of this?
“The Babylonians also noticed that, as the year passed, the sun traversed the stars in what appeared to be a regular cycle.” What the author is describing here is the origin of our calendar and the fact that there are twelve months in the year. That in and of itself is so remarkable. I mean, for us, it is so self-evident that there is a calendar and we hardly ever ask ourselves how all this started. Not only does this apply to the calendar, it applies to everything in our lives. If we then hear/read that this goes back to the year 300 BC — this is beyond imagination.
To me, these immense time intervals and the scientific findings in these eras are particularly unimaginable because we seem to be so stupid in many ways nowadays. I mean, if human beings were able to come up with such outrageous progress back then, why are we hardly able to fix some stupid traffic problems in our cities these days? Would we even be able to build such remarkable breakthroughs for our societies? I really doubt it and this is exactly why I sometimes wish I were able to just spend one day living in some ancient ancient society.
The point is, I am really worried that this past will somehow be lost because we are not taking care of documenting our knowledge about it anymore. Maybe this is insane and the web will store everything but maybe it will not. And the fact that people do not even read anymore will somehow affect their knowledge. So, how can a society that does not even know about the last World War anymore know about the ancients, their achievements, their scientific contributions? History might be complex and not packaged nicely in some old books but it needs to be part of our present.
This is also what my conversation partner said today: finding patterns. Of course, everything has been there already, there is nothing really new. Still, you can only see this if you have the historical knowledge. All this starts with interest and curiosity, as any discovery in life. If that gets lost, if you never develop this skill, you will not get there. History will never become alive and you will not even get an “idea” of how people lived back then.
Maybe “the end of history” is also the end of ideas — as Fukuyama might or might not have expected?
1) Which role does history play in your life?
2) What is an invention you can think of by the current generation which will have huge impact on future generations?
3) If you had the chance of living in the ancient past for a day — which country would you choose?