29 April 2019

The world that should have been ours

This post is about an idea which has fascinated me for much of my life and forms a major part of how I think about the world, but which I've barely ever mentioned here on the blog.  A few weeks ago I wrote this:

More distant than the farthest stars
The stillborn world that should have been
The world in which I should have lived
That never was, so never seen.

Trapped in this dreary changeling-land
I dream the world I would have known
If mankind's rise had gone unchecked
If Alexandria's seed had grown.

Where Rome and Athens never fell
Where cross and crescent never rose
Where now those farthest stars are ours
Where truth and beauty man still knows.

But my true home I cannot reach
For things that never were lie far
Across the sea of yearning dreams
From grey and dismal things that are.

The Classical (Greco-Roman-Persian) civilization was, compared with most pre-modern societies and certainly compared with the Dark Ages that followed it, remarkably tolerant, culturally pluralistic, and open to contending ideas.  Especially during the Hellenistic* period, after the conquests of Alexander spread Greek culture and thought across the Middle East and the ideas of Aristotle nudged Greek philosophy toward real scientific thinking, there was an explosion of progress in human knowledge and understanding in many fields.  This was the age of Euclid and Eratosthenes, of the Library of Alexandria, when Aristarchus worked out the heliocentric solar system 1,800 years before Copernicus, when the Babylonians developed a precursor of calculus, when Archimedes, Hero, and others turned advances in abstract knowledge toward practical technology.  These advances laid the groundwork for the massive engineering achievements of the Roman Empire, whose ruins lie scattered across Europe and North Africa to this day.
It certainly looked like the beginnings of a revolution of modernity such as the Western world has actually seen since the Renaissance.  But ultimately it was stillborn.  Last week I posted about the destruction of Classical civilization.  But what if it had continued to thrive and progress -- say, if Alexander had lived longer and consolidated his empire, or if Constantine had never existed?  What if, for example, the Greeks or Babylonians had developed positional notation, the lack of which held back their development of mathematics and thus blocked the way to many further advances in science?  Ancient Greece, Rome, and Persia accepted a plurality of contending viewpoints and ideas, almost as modern Western pluralistic societies do.  Some Greek states had democracy and trial by jury, while the early Romans had a form of representative government.  What if these early experiments had not died out but evolved and become more inclusive, as American democracy did -- but almost 2,000 years earlier?  Yes, these cultures had slavery (though never race-based), subjugated women to varying degrees, and were often warlike -- but true modernization would have mitigated these evils over time, just as it did in real history over the last 200 years or so.

How far might civilization have advanced by now?  How much better would the world be, if the intervening millennium of stagnation brought about by Christianity and Islam, with their miasma of intolerance and taboos and anti-intellectualism and sheer stupidity, had never happened -- and the upward trajectory of progress launched by the ancients had continued?
Aside from technological progress, there is the issue of the taboo on homosexuality, which did not exist in Classical-era Greek, Roman, or Persian culture.  Certain standards about what was and was not "proper" in sexual relationships did exist, but the taboo on same-sex relationships did not -- in Greece, male bisexuality was practically a social norm.  This taboo was imposed on the West entirely by the triumph of Christianity; without Christianity, it would never have been part of our culture.  This would have avoided a staggering amount of suffering -- all the horrific executions of homosexuals during the Dark Ages by regimes enforcing the taboo, all the centuries of bigotry and cruelty that ruined the lives of countless innocent people and which persist to this day in the more backward parts of the West.  All of that would simply never have been.  And as I observed here, Classical culture was much more open and less repressed about sexuality in general.

In short, we are living in a failed timeline in which the Western world's natural progress was derailed and sent into reverse in late Roman times, and only got started again about four hundred years ago.  The history that should have happened, to which we should now be heirs, would have been far different and far better.

I'm not the only one who has thought about this.

When I originally posted the poem above, I included this image:
It comes from Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos, which included a discussion on this very point in the episode "The Backbone of Night".  Sagan speculated that if the Hellenistic age of science exemplified by the Library of Alexandria had survived and continued to progress, by now we would be proficient in interstellar travel.  The image depicts a starship, with the Greek (of course) inscription on its hull superimposed over the image of the dodecahedron in tribute to the ancient pioneers of geometry who launched Greek mathematics.

Stephen Hawking once made a documentary series called Favorite Places** in which he explores various places in the universe that fascinate him.  In one episode, he depicts himself visiting an alternate-history version of Earth in the present day, finding the planet long deserted.  He discovers a beacon pointing the way to where mankind, having left Earth to revert to nature, long ago migrated into space.  Following this path, he is intercepted by several advanced spacecraft which hail him in a form of Classical Greek.  Finding his intentions to be peaceful, they escort him to mankind's new home, a vast ring-shaped artificial world bearing the name "New Alexandria".

In his book God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens describes meeting the Jewish religious fanatic Meir Kahane, which set him thinking about conflict in Classical times between fervent Orthodox Jews and those Jews who had assimilated to the dominant Greco-Roman culture of their age -- and the tragedy that the former won out in the end, leading to the rise of Christianity (and eventually Islam) and the death of Classical civilization.  Had the more cosmopolitan Jews won out, he observes, "We could have been spared the whole thing."  Of Kahane, he says:

Sniffing this insanitary barbarian, I had a real pang about the world of light and color that we had lost so long ago, in the black-and-white nightmares of his dreary and righteous ancestors.  The stench of Calvin and Torquemada and bin Laden came from the dank, hunched figure whose Kach party goons patrolled the streets..... here was a poisonous branch that should have been snapped off long ago, or allowed to die out, before it could infect any healthy growth..... yet we still dwell in its unwholesome, life-killing shadow.***

In his short story "Eutopia", science-fiction writer Poul Anderson postulated a parallel world in which the Hellenistic civilization survived and went on to colonize North America, establishing an ideal society ("Eutopia" translates as "Good Land").  By the present day, Eutopia has the technology to visit various alternate versions of Earth to see the outcomes of their different histories.  The story follows an Eutopian researcher, Iason Philippou, who is traveling in not our own version of Earth but a somewhat similar one he finds almost equally barbaric.  Anderson's version of a modernized Hellenistic culture strikes me as improbably stodgy and closed-minded, but at least he explored the idea.  You can read the whole story here.

On my original post, a couple of commenters wrote "I wish that world existed" and "I wonder about this other universe, too".  Others, including some major thinkers, have felt the same.

o o o o o

*Don't confuse "Hellenistic" with "Hellenic".  "Hellenistic" refers to the specific period after Alexander the Great and Aristotle (that is, starting at the end of the 4th century BC) when Greek culture dominated the Middle East and Greek science reached its highest level of development.  "Hellenic" just means "Greek" in general.

**This series is, as far as I know, available only on CuriosityStream -- which is a paid service, but well worth it.  The cheapest option is $2.99 per month and gives access to hundreds of documentaries at a perfectly acceptable video quality level.

***Hitchens is referring to the whole Abrahamic religious blight including Christianity and Islam, not just to Judaism.

14 Comments:

Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

Fascinating post! There have been so many thwarted possibilities in human history. I would argue that humanity took its very first wrong turn when patriarchal values arose which ultimately came to their full fruition in Abrahamic religions. Hellenic values were patriarchal values so Greece's hands are not entirely clean either.

30 April, 2019 05:13  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Real good read, and a bit of education for me. I don't even have the background knowledge of folks like Hitchens, Hawking, Sagan, or you ... but just natural curiosity made me wonder about this too, looking at our past societies. Yes, religion has contaminated sexuality big time with its taboos, rules and regulations, and damn near anything else you can think of too ... it even contaminated our politics and culture, you name it. What's really amazing to me, is that people say they believe in a higher power, you know, that is responsible for creating us, life, the solar system or whatever. Yet ... when science and evidence tell us (or give us a pretty good picture) of how evolution works and what makes the universe ... religious people will deny that any of that is true ... meaning they basically deny the creation they claim to believe in ... if that makes sense (?), I'm not good at explaining some things, but it seems so twisted ... how in Hell can one believe in a higher power and creation, yet deny it at the same time? Look at other apes, and the similarities even, morality, etc ... yet religious people deny that also, yet, that is all part of what they claim is creation. Sex for example, a natural "high" of sort, pleasurable/ enjoyable (God given by their definition and a requirement for life), promotes even peace to a degree, as well as continuing the species. Arts for example, music, or even education and and expanding our minds through such ... this is supposed to be part of this creation of us that they claim to believe in. So you can see why I find this thinking way off base. Much of religion to me just promotes a slave mentality, a textbook on basically "how to be a slave to others". But yes, I wondered time and again when looking at history of civilisation what things may be like if we haven't spent centuries entwined in religious bitch fights and all the rest. Enough from me ... cause I don't stop when I get started.

30 April, 2019 07:02  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Debra: Thanks! Unfortunately male dominance is very old indeed -- it's characteristic of most primate species, not just ours (bonobos are the only exception I'm familiar with). Still, our history shows we can overcome our genetic tendencies. It happens with modernization. In the scenario I'm talking about, it would just have happened a lot earlier.

Ranch: As Hitchens subtitled his book -- "religion poisons everything". And of course most religious views of the world are logically incoherent. They're just clinging to ideas they find comforting, without really thinking about them.

30 April, 2019 12:32  
Blogger dellgirl said...

As usual, you really put a lot of thought and work into this post, it’s really interesting. Thank you for sharing this and for keeping us in the know about what you’re working on. I always learn so much from your articles. I love the poem.

Wishing you all the best!

30 April, 2019 20:40  
Blogger RO said...

It's fascinating to read your posts which are quite thought provoking, and well written. Happy Wednesday and Hugs...RO

01 May, 2019 04:26  
Blogger jenny_o said...

I appreciate your historical posts, and the directions to further reading. It's painful to consider what humanity could have been, and isn't. I wonder if we will ever find a way to get there. I'm thinking *not*, now that we've nearly irreversibly ruined the planet - we're nearly out of time. But I wish.

01 May, 2019 10:57  
Blogger Nan said...

I sometimes think the current world/earth could have become a much different place if humans weren't so selfish.

Still totally impressed with your poem!

01 May, 2019 13:55  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Dellgirl and RO, thanks for the kind words and the encouragement. It helps make blogging feel worthwhile.

Jenny_o: I don't think we can ever really get to the kind of culture we would have had in a "modernizing Hellenistic" historical scenario. Some of the cultural damage may be irreversible. But I hope we can get close.

With the rather major exception of global warming, the environment in general has actually been improving for decades. Global warming does need to be resolved, though, pragmatically and without ideological interference. It's too bad the US is mostly AWOL from that fight, at least until Trump is gone.

Nan: Thanks about the poem! I think we're getting less selfish as we get more advanced, but frankly I'd even more like to see the end of the gratuitous cruelty that religion seems to foster.

01 May, 2019 15:09  
Blogger Mary said...

Don’t know how I missed this post before. The poem is wonderful, yet sad.

That is my true feeling..sadness at what could have been...
I can only hope maybe there are parallel universes and in one, no religion ever took hold...at least no Abrahamic ones and the Classical world continued on into time.
A great post!

15 September, 2019 05:32  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary: Thanks! I appreciate it.

There are many reasons for wishing other versions of this world with different histories could exist. Maybe someday we'll find some evidence for it.

15 September, 2019 13:33  
Blogger Mary said...

Re read this post today, as I have saved a few from here and there over time that I thought were exceptional.

More than ever it still makes me sad, but also gives me a feeling of fatalism and regret and one can sometimes apply this to their own life, as well...decisions we may have made, a streak of bad luck, circumstances beyond our control...

If the dead could speak, I wonder what advice they would give....

Haven’t seen you posting in awhile. Hope you have not stopped. You have a gift for words and thoughts.

23 December, 2019 09:57  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary: Much thanks for the kind words. Yes, it's regrettable that mistakes once made can't be unmade, both in history and in life. One can only hope for those parallel universes.

I actually resumed posting last week -- see the main page.

23 December, 2019 17:20  
Anonymous Rancid said...

Interesting, but I have a question.

You say the lack of an alphabet will hold back China, and I thought that the lack of a zero would have held back Roman technology.

You did ask, "What if, for example, the Greeks or Babylonians had developed positional notation?" However, the Babylonians did develop positional notation, and eventually produced a mark to indicate "zero" as a placeholder. (See this Live Science article for an explanation.)

However, the Greeks, Romans, and Babylonians all failed to use "zero" as a number by itself, as in the result of 1 minus 1. Without that zero, we don't get negative numbers.

Since the Romans didn't adopt the placeholder zero, I don't see how they would have created the number zero. Even without Christianity, that would have held the Romans back.

Also, Happy New Year.

02 January, 2020 11:03  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Rancid: Interesting. I was not aware of the Babylonian case, but I'm not all that up to speed on Babylonian mathematics.

The Romans could have adopted positional notation and the zero from the Babylonians, or developed those things independently; it didn't happen, but it could have. If it had, Roman mathematics, and therefore their technology and navigation, might well have progressed much further than it actually did. It's an example of something that could fairly easily have happened otherwise which would have had major consequences.

For a modern country, I think the problem posed by the Chinese writing system is more fundamental. Only a small number of specialists use mathematics beyond a fairly simple level, but in a modern society, most of the population needs to be literate.

02 January, 2020 16:50  

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