“History is for human self-knowledge … the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.” (R. G. Collingwood)
I have always loved old things. The ghostly line of columns—all that remains of the Temple of Saturn—in the Roman Forum. The hand-made red and yellow fleur-de-lis tiles in Westminster Abbey’s Chapter House –tiles that Henry III walked across during The King’s Great Council of 1257 (in effect, the first English Parliament). I confess, I once laid my cheek against those tiles. I wanted to feel the heartbeat of the ages. Feel the thing that connects me to all living beings past and present.
Okay, so we’ve established I’m a little weird. But everybody’s got to be something.
This past May, Ed and I spent three weeks traveling through Greece. I was really psyched because it was a place I’ve always wanted to visit. Of course, we trudged up the long hill to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon. The place where Socrates and Plato walked. The source of the famous marbles that Lord Elgin saved or stole (depending on your viewpoint). And it was worth it, but what really blew me away were the Minoan ruins at Akrotiri, on Santorini, and the Palace of Knossos outside Heraklion, Crete.
Just to put things in perspective, habitation at Akrotiri goes back to the 5th millennium BC, and the first settlement of Knossos predates even that by 2,000 years (though the Minoan Palace wasn’t built until 1900 BC). About 400 generations of men and women have been born, flourished or flailed, and died since the first Neolithic settlement there. We are talking old.
The staircases and roads and walls and rooms of these ancient places are open to wander through and marvel at, but the fragile stuff—the urns and pitchers, the bowls and murals have all been moved to museums. So, after touring the ruins, we headed to the modest Archaeological Museum of Thera and the much bigger Heraklion Archaeological Museum. As women keep telling men, size doesn’t matter. Both museums were filled with treasures that constantly made me stop to think. Call them love letters from the dead.
NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION
The first item I saw at the museum in Heraklion was an intricately decorated plate that was made 7,000 years ago. The second item was a “bee smoker” of similar vintage. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It’s the kind of object that contains a whole story in itself and offers a huge window on humanity. It’s the moment the light bulb went on. It’s the invention necessity was the mother of.
At some point, people noticed that beehives yielded delicious honey. They started keeping hives. Obvious problem: Bees get feisty when you mess with their hive. Question: Who’s going to sacrifice himself to collect the honey? Not a popular job. So, they argue and maybe draw straws, and each day some poor guy braves the angry buzzing and the stings.
Until … the light bulb goes on. Someone notices (over a cooking fire? Smoking a cheroot?) that bees get really groggy with smoke. Fly slower. Don’t raise such a fuss. So this someone thinks, If I make something I can carry, something I can put a little fire inside, give it holes to let the smoke out … Problem solved.
It’s how water jugs got spouts. And handles. It’s how the wheel got invented—and wasn’t that a red letter day, because people were already planting crops and herding domestic animals. You can almost hear some yeoman in the background, tired of hauling twice his weight over hill and dale, complaining, Come on, hurry it up already. We need that wheel!
Take a moment to look around you and imagine all the light bulb moments that occurred to invent all the stuff that fills your home. Necessity is the mother of invention. The mother of creativity. That we can respond to it is what separates us from the amoebas.
NATURE ABHORS A STRAIGHT LINE
The sort of glossy western civilization or world history surveys most of us got in high school laid out the timeline of humanity something like this: There were a whole bunch of millenniums of Neanderthal guys before the Egyptians settled the Nile for farming, domesticated cats, and built the Pyramids. Then nothing much happened until the Romans showed up with their grid-based cities, inter-linked sewage lines, and aqueducts. After the Romans (up to their necks in economic troubles, government corruption, and an over-reliance on slave labor—sound familiar?) took a fatal series of beatings from the Goths, Vandals, etc., the “Dark Ages” settled across Europe in murky mysteriousness for nearly 800 years. Until Michelangelo, Leonardo, and the Medicis brought the Italian Renaissance into glorious light in the 14th century. After that, the printing press gets invented, Shakespeare bursts onto the scene, and then it’s pretty much a straight shot, an unwavering true line of progress from about 1700, growing ever more brilliant—and still rising.
Only it wasn’t. It isn’t. Progress in human history is NOT linear. It’s not even entirely cyclical, although that would be closer to fact. Consider that more than 10,000 years ago, people were cultivating crops in the Levant. Rice had been domesticated in China. And the people of Mesopotamia were already old hands at raising pigs and sheep. It’s not like people used to be so stupid and now they’re so smart. (I could offer you many examples to back this from contemporary society, but I feel certain you have a few of your own.)
Walking through the ruins of Akrotiri—streets and multi-room dwellings with windows and doors and frescoes—I saw a sophisticated Minoan Bronze Age city that enjoyed trade relations with other cultures in the Aegean until it came to an abrupt end with the Theran eruption around 1627 BC.
Plague, famine (blame the weather gods), earthquakes. These unforeseen, and largely unpreventable, disasters sink civilizations. Stall or retard progress. Turn it in a new direction. Send it another people’s way. More cyclical, or at least predictably always in the wings are: Power struggles, corruption, jealousy, wars—all destroyers, or at least retardants, of civilization and progress.
Which brings us to the third lesson the dead have to teach us: The greatest number and magnitude of advances in human history occur in times of peace, tolerance, and cultural inclusion.
WANT TO GET AHEAD? TRY TOLERANCE. TRY INCLUSION.
We saw two amazing exhibits at the British Museum that underscored this truth: Sunken Cities (Egypt’s Lost Worlds), and Sicily: Culture and Conquest. In both cases, a long string of rulers had to govern societies that included citizens from multiple cultures (Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans), with religious customs and beliefs that embraced Greek gods, Egyptian gods, the Hebrew god, and eventually the Christian Holy Trinity. It wasn’t always easy, and those who were successful understood the value of good propaganda—one Greek ruler of the lost Greek/Egyptian settlement at Thonis-Heracleion had his public image chiseled sporting a traditional pharoah’s headdress.
The best rulers may have kept the peace (and inclusivity) to preserve their highly profitable trade with the Mediterranean world, but it permitted people dignity and art and invention. Men like Archimedes, advancing mathematics. Playwrights like Aeschylus. In 398, visiting Syracuse, Plato said that his Utopia could best be imagined, perhaps even realized, in Sicily.
So what brings the cultural co-existence, and its resulting progress, crashing down? Someone gets hungry for empire, and instead of inventing things or making art or legislating democratic laws, it’s war again. And everyone loses. Even those who think they’ve won, because they’re the targets of tomorrow’s predators. Archimedes was killed by an invading Roman soldier.
These are the things I thought about on my summer vacation. The lessons I learned from the dead.