As the military establishment builds ever more mechanised ways to kill, and we wander around shops with empty shelves, before returning to houses made of clay bricks that many can’t afford to heat, it’s tempting to wonder if we’re making progress.
If we take the first homo sapiens as living in Morocco around 315,000 years ago, and define a generation as spanning 25 years, then our ancestors have been born, spawned and died about 12,600 times.
That’s a lot of lives to culminate in us, and a humbling and slightly vertiginous thought.
Even if we discount the oral and cultural traditions that propagated experience and belief in prehistoric times, before writing gave it more permanency, that’s still 3500 years or 140 lifetimes of transmittable learning. So after all that’s been said and done, why do things seem so sketchy? Surely it should all be a bit more sorted with us smiling serenely, dressed in flowing robes and living in pleasant harmony with each other and the planet. That’s not to question the rate of technological progress, more where we are socially, emotionally, environmentally and spiritually.
Perhaps one reason for things being slow is that knowledge is fragile and often the preserve of a few. We know little of the Druids after the Romans’ tour of Anglesey in 57 CE which effectively silenced their oral tradition. Up until then they still had potential, a story to tell, but afterwards everything they would ever be was at once realised and lost. Life seems like a process of actualising possibility and taking it into memory where time turns it into sand and rock.
We’d know more about the Druids if they had written things down. Just as spears improve hunting, libraries augment and enrich memory, and both can endure the generations. Ensuring continuity and cultural legacy is facilitated by education, art, science and, dare I say, religion. Now with the Internet designed to withstand a nuclear holocaust, and so much of our global culture and lives already caught in its Web, maybe a similar cultural obliteration is unlikely. But doesn’t that depend on one’s perspective? The universe is about 14.5 million, million years old and in roughly half a billion years the sun will have boiled away the Earth’s oceans.
Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity.William Shakespeare – Hamlet
Today, though we hold hitherto unimaginable knowledge in our hands we spend an awful lot of time sending around cat videos and using emojis instead of well formed sentences. Perhaps this information age is really a dark age where all those little ones and zeros bury what’s important, just as the Saharan sands did for the valley of the kings.
The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and Ricky Gervais respectively deny and deride God, but whilst religion involves some tricky concepts and unlikely stories, whilst it undoubtedly has much to answer for, maybe we should think twice before dismissing ancient bodies of knowledge and practice. If it’s a challenge for our monkey brain to cope with long multiplication, can we really expect to comprehend, let alone judge something that’s eternal, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent?
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.Frederich Nietszche (1844-1900) – Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I identify as agnostic because I think the question of God’s existence is too hard and about as interesting as whether or not we exist in a simulation. Of more relevance is how to be in the world: how to perceive, respond, support and be supported, our relationship with mortality. One’s perceptions and responses are probably down to a combination of hard wiring, external events, conditioning and volition, and whilst the first two are what they are, the rest can change.
There weren’t many books where I grew up and school seemed more about obedience than satisfying and stimulating curiosity. I left and moved out of home at 18. But maybe that’s too bleak a view. I was literate, numerate and loosely familiar with where science was at the turn of the last century and some English literature fifty years later. Though hardly educated, especially in art and culture, I left more knowledgeable than many in the world are likely to leave even today. It’s a shame secondary education comes at a time when there are way more pressing matters at hand and no shortage of ‘attitude’ – both of which arguably help to slow cultural progress.
Back then, religion didn’t figure at all. I have happy memories of Christmas: pressies and the annual mental hospital’s pantomime, so unsurprisingly Aladdin’s exploits are as memorable as those of Jesus. Similarly the great mystery of Easter didn’t get in the way of painting hard boiled eggs and coveting their chocolate counterparts.
I think it’s easy to be distracted from the work of later life, work that can’t be done for us and which brings unobvious rewards. After the invulnerability and fecklessness of youth has passed one realises it takes effort to keep the body moving, blood pumping, memory remembering, and character forming. I don’t know, but maybe the work gets easier when there’s time to feel the sand beneath your feet and contemplate what’s gone before and yet endures.