June 28, 2008

Cycles in History

I'd always assumed that life for prehistoric man was Hobbesian - brutish, short & ignorant. I try not to be a chronological snob, but one has his limits, at least I did. I had no idea that the earliest cave art was as sophisticated as it was or that it used "the principles of stenciling and Pointillism" and the use of perspective - "a technique that was not rediscovered until the Athenian Golden Age". A recent The New Yorker refuted "the Darwinian assumption that the most ancient art was the most primitive":
In that respect Chauvet was a bombshell. Its earliest paintings are at least thirty-two thousand years old, yet they are just as sophisticated as much later compositions. What emerged with that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennial with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a "classical civilization." For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been "deeply satisfying" - and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.
We move on to the 21st century and see how unstable our civilization is by comparison. From a 2003 Vatican conference on the pastoral and medical aspects of depression:
In reflecting upon the history of Western thought my attention is directed towards the cycles that present themselves: they begin with the presentation of vital questions that can be summarised as belonging to three major poles – God, man, the world. Various thinkers try to provide relevant answers, these answers grow to the point of reaching brilliant solutions when it seems that mankind has attained his high point, and then one has the impression that specifically at that moment, which is not necessarily the culminating point in terms of time of that epoch because this can take place at the same time as strong moments, thought decays and becomes weakened in an almost total way.

In ancient Greece, after the great masters of thought such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, there occurred the decadence of the currents of scepticism, epicureanism and stoicism. During the Middle Ages, after the great thinkers who culminated in the Scholastics, Aberlard, St. Anselm, Duns Scotus, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and others, there came nominalism, led by Occam. Modern thought and its great thinkers – the rationalism of Descartes, the empiricism of Hobbes, Locke and Hume, the idealism of Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel – was followed by the boredom of the Enlightenment, by deism, pietism, the Aufklärung and the Encyclopaedia, which despite their lack of originality could after a certain fashion be considered essays that provided a universal answer to the fundamental questions of God, man and the world. This decline in thought deteriorated during the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century...

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