“…What is man that you regard him?” – The Book of Psalms
The other day I finished reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. It was a difficult book to get through, and I wouldn’t recommend that you go leaping off of your couch to go and get a copy. Yet, for much of the dullness, tedium, and questionable philosophy- there were a few gems. One of my favorites is as follows:
Consider the… stagnant self-complacency of mankind. This generation reclines a little to congratulate itself on being the last of an illustrious line; and in Boston and London and Paris and Rome, thinking of its long descent, it speaks of its progress in art and science and literature with satisfaction… The learned societies and great men of Assyria, – where are they? …We are acquainted with a mere pellicle of the globe on which we live. Most have not delved six feet beneath the surface, nor leaped as many above it. We know not where we are.
Forgive me for speculating, but I would wager that the natural tendency of man is to read the above paragraph and then say something along the lines of, “Well, it’s different today. We live in a global society/economy/culture/take-your-pick.” Is that the case? Let’s break it down.
1773-“The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire”
Here’s one that most people have heard. During the height of colonialism, this expression was actually true. The UK controlled so much land that part of it was always in the sun of a rotating globe. Let’s try another.
1200’s-1300’s-“The Mongol Empire existed during the 13th and 14th centuries AD, and was the largest contiguous land empire in human history.”
Even today, no one has this record beat. The Mongols looked across the world to conquer it all, and they succeeded in conquering all of Asia, part of Europe, the Middle East, and they were moving into Africa when their commander abandoned the advancing troops to seek the throne in the East.
c. 175 B.C.-“Carthage Must Be Destroyed”
Rome. They conquered just about everything they could find. They knew about other places where their rule did not extend, of course, but they were looking across the globe and they would suffer no competition.
c. 3000B.C.??-”Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves”
Man has long had this sort of ambition.
Ah, but we’re different, aren’t we? WE are the ones who live in a global empire. WE are the ones who have it figured out. WE are the ones who won’t be forgotten. At least, that’s what a lot of people think. There’s nothing new under the sun, and this generation will pass into dust just as the thousands before it.
We tend to think of ourselves as superior to ancient man, and each successive generation makes this mistake. Let’s be humble. Our fancy toys will break, our science will be proved incorrect or obsolete, and our popular philosophy will be exposed as foolishness. It’s already happened innumerable times. The fact that we have smart phones somehow changes this?
We come to a place, now, where worldview factors in, but here’s my perspective. Individual people are valuable beyond price. The human race, as a whole, isn’t so great. We like to speak about the sum total of human knowledge and the aggregate of human suffering and on and on and on about this great glob of experiences that we’ve amassed. But I tend to agree with Thoreau. “We are acquainted with a mere pellicle of the globe on which we live.”
In a manner of speaking, the sum total of human ANYTHING doesn’t exist. At least not to us. Who experiences it? There may be a wealth of collected knowledge on the internet, but you can never know even a tiny fraction of it. Much less if you consider all of the knowledge that there is to be had everywhere.
My point in all of this is that I think we regard ourselves much too highly. We think of ourselves as so much better than those that came before, but I don’t think that we are. I would love to hear your thoughts.