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Putting It All In Perspective

At the end of my section in the bulletin last week, I made reference to an interview with the historian and broadcaster Neil Oliver, in which he made what I thought was a very interesting point about the way that events cycle through time.  He said that in his work he reads across thousands of years of history, which has helped him reach the conclusion that there is a slowly tumbling wheel of time and the human race has been through the same sorts of problems again and again.  They have had wars and peace, seen outbreaks of pestilence and plague, and experienced tyrannies and democracies. 

He went on to say that if you do not pay attention to history, you might think that what is happening to us in the 21st century is uniquely bad.  But he feels that if you look back at other times and see how people coped with difficult situations, it is reassuring to know that nothing is new.  Our species has been dealing with the same big challenges again and again. 

Oliver is perhaps unusual as a historian in specialising across a broad range of time and place, developing expertise in anthropology as well as history.  He makes the point that the humans who were alive 100,000 years ago had exactly the same cognitive abilities as us – the same brain; the same emotions, aspirations, ambitions and anxieties; the same cares for family; the same predilections towards depression and stress; and all the rest of it.  He says that we are exactly the same animals as we were in those unimaginably different circumstances.  But today, we are expecting people who are essentially the same as those living a hunter-gatherer existence millennia ago to cope with the reality that we have now, where the advent of modern technology means that it feels like we are increasingly existing to serve the machines, rather than the machines existing to serve us. 

As part of this analysis of the human psyche and condition, Oliver went on to say that he thinks it is self-evident that people are struggling.  We have conquered so many diseases and lifted billions of people out of poverty.  In western Europe, we have lived, by comparison with others, in a very tolerant and peaceful society, certainly for the last eighty years.  And yet, even given all of those incredible gifts, so many people are finding it hard to cope with daily reality. 

His theory is that we are not giving ourselves the chance to take a breath and accept that deep down we fundamentally are still what we were 100,000 years ago.  We have asked an awful lot of ourselves – to cope with social media and mobile phones, jet planes and emails and all the rest.  But he thinks there is a panacea for that, there is almost a therapy you can put yourself through by paying attention to the past.  He appreciates being reminded that he is an infinitesimal speck in the continuum of time, which helps him to put his every day cares and concerns into context. 

Yuval Noah Harari in ‘Sapiens’ makes the point that until the late modern era, more than 90% of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows.  The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites – kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers – who fill the history books.  History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets. 

There have been those in the past who have also appreciated their lack of significance. Oliver finishes his interview with the legend that King Solomon wore a ring with the words ‘This too shall pass’ etched into it.  It was supposed to remind him that, however great a king he might be, he was here today and gone tomorrow.  He says that this is true for all of us and any problems that we are surrounded by, they too shall pass.  We have made our modern life too complicated and stressful for ourselves.  He thinks we need to pull back, pause and reflect that for hundreds of thousands of years we lived differently.  In the past, when circumstances were difficult and lives were pain-ridden, threatened by war and disease, people still found it in their hearts to make expressions of love and beauty that have haunted our imaginations for thousands of years.  The fact that they could do that in the unimaginably hard world that they inhabited should inspire us to be so much happier in our world and time. 

A similar idea was offered by Steven Pinker in his book ‘Enlightenment Now’, where he says that the techno-apocalyptic claim that ours is the first civilisation that can destroy itself is misconceived.  As Ozymandias reminds the traveller in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, most of the civilisations that have ever existed have been destroyed.  Conventional history blames the destruction on external events like plagues, conquests, earthquakes or weather, but those civilisations could have thwarted the fatal blows had they had better agricultural, medical or military technology. 

Pinker makes the point that before our ancestors learned how to make fire artificially, and many times since then too, people must have died of exposure literally on top of the means of making the fires that would have saved their lives, because they did not know how.  In a parochial sense, the weather killed them; but the deeper explanation is lack of knowledge.  Many of the hundreds of millions of victims of cholera throughout history must have died within sight of the hearths that could have boiled their drinking water and saved their lives; but, again, they did not know that.  Quite generally, the distinction between a ‘natural’ disaster and one brought about by ignorance is parochial.  Prior to every natural disaster that people once used to think of as ‘just happening’, or being ordained by gods, we now see many options that the people affected failed to take – or, rather, to create.  All of which sounds frighteningly familiar at the moment, of course. 

Finally, I wanted to highlight this gem from a book by Simon Sebag Montefiore called ‘Written in History: Letters that Changed the World’, in which he quotes a letter from Abd al-Rahman III, an Arab ruler in Spain, to his sons, AD 961: ‘I have now reigned above fifty years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies.  Riches and honours, power and pleasure have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity.  In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to FOURTEEN: - O man!  Place not thy confidence in this present world!'

Plenty to ponder over the holiday, methinks!

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