Time, immemorial

Questioning the Millennium
March 6, 1998

Stephen Jay Gould dedicates his book to his "most passionate rationalist friend Carl Sagan". Both scientists are seduced by two equations: "Gullibility plus wonder equals Religion" and "Doubt plus wonder equals Science". Gould discusses the Judeo-Christian interest in the millennium as merely a psychological need for a cataclysm that will catapult us out of the rut of history. There is, he says, no basis in nature for counting in thousands. Gould wonders about the rational - the word is for him an antonym of religious - roots of our fascination with millennial predictions about the end of the world. He offers "a brief history of millennial fevers". Unlike a prophet, Gould declines to predict the future; and unlike a prophet, he is optimistic.

While religions become increasingly aged and diffident, modern science is youthful and brash. The advocates of science moan that wonder is forever being corrupted by religious gullibility. Admittedly, millennial anxiety is misplaced but its victims are not only the religious folk. Scientists too write about the millennium. Isaac Newton, the first English scientist to be knighted, wrote commentaries on the apocalyptic books of the Bible, though Gould does not mention it.

Gould argues that nature is morally, metaphysically and mathematically neutral: we impose on it our schemes and conventions. He quotes as allies the Persian poet-astronomer Omar Khayyam and the Hebrew author of Ecclesiastes. Nietzsche, however, nearer our time, is a more refined prophet of this religion. Gould concedes that some dichotomies occur in external nature and are a basis for classification. Beyond that none of our complex temporal divisions corresponds neatly to any fault lines in nature. Millennia are not fundamental divisions of sequential time, merely culturally contingent conventions.

Gould rejects the mathematical mysticism of Plato, Descartes and Newton who thought the universe ran according to elegant mathematical principles. Nature is not, explains Gould, mathematically regular: it leaves awkward remainders. There are three natural cycles: the days of the earth's rotation, the lunations of the moon's revolution, and the years of the earth's revolution. Weeks, years, decades and millennia do not map any astronomical events. Nature leaves fractionality to innumerable decimal places: a solar year is 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes and 45.96768 seconds.

The word "arbitrary" keeps on coming up in Gould's prose. It has a confusingly wide range of meanings, occurring variously as a synonym for random, ridiculous, absurd, contingent. Our conventions and categories are arbitrary because "nature permits a plethora of equally reasonable alternatives, while providing no factual basis for a preferred choice". So, is "factual" the opposite of "arbitrary"? Yet facts too can seem arbitrary unless some theory explains them. And is every convention arbitrary?

Discussing the claim that the preference for decimal (as opposed to vigesimal) mathematics may be linked to our possession of ten fingers, Gould adds that our ten fingers are an "evolutionary contingency". Functionally, then, we need not have had ten fingers though having them is useful for doing decimal mathematics. So is "functional" the opposite of "arbitrary"? Again, decimal mathematics in Europe is, we are told, an accident; and Europe became Christian for "contingent reasons". A Christian might protest that Europe's conversion was divinely pre-ordained. Besides, mathematics and logic apart, are not all reasons contingent rather than necessary? Virtually every cataclysmic turn of history seems like an accident - though not all accidents are of the cosmetic type implied in Pascal's quip about history's reliance on the length of Cleopatra's nose.

Gould affirms that we are overwhelmed by the infinite variety of our world and yearn to reduce its chaos and discern some meaning. There is joy too. Gould cites Robert Louis Stevenson musing about this sheer abundance that should make us all "as happy as kings". But kings are rarely happy in their abundance, as Ecclesiastes knew; and Stevenson elsewhere laments: "An aim in life is the only fortune worth finding". But science supplies no aims for the whole of life. There are, preaches every secular prophet, purposes within life but there is no purpose to life.

Gould explores the concept of the millennium as apocalypse with reference to the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible and Revelation in the New Testament. While there is something vaguely terminal about the Book of Daniel, it is not a millennial text for the Jews and should not be read as prophecy. Gould misunderstands it. Unlike the Torah, the rise and fall of empires is not there attributed to God's "mighty hand and outstretched arm". The agent of "millennial" action is not Yahweh but a silent senile being called "The Ancient of Days". Gould assumes correctly that the visions of Daniel are dated, within the book itself, to just before and after the fall of Babylon to the Persian warlords. But, owing to their placement in the Jewish canon, they are read not as millennial prophecy but as bygone history. Persia, according to the preceding Book of Esther, is long established and a party of zealous Jews has already folded up its tent in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. The text of Daniel is coded but decipherable - yet it was not read by the Jews as prediction. Although the chronic failure of prophecy gave rise to apocalyptic writing in the Hebrew canon, the Jewish audience had come to distrust both by the time the Book of Daniel was composed.

The millennial situation in the Greek New Testament is different and I accept Gould's apocalyptic reading. Now the clock of sacred history is constantly set at one minute to midnight. The world could end at any time and the Advent is imminent. But then Gould deduces an old conclusion about radical Christian ethics: "We might not want to turn the other cheek if bullies and tyrants could look forward to a thousand years of easy domination." Are Christian commands conditional on millennial calculations? Addressing his disciples in Aramaic in the Gospels, Jesus issues absolute moral orders.

More seriously, Gould nowhere explains the Hebrew and Aramaic conception of time. The Hebrews, like virtually all rural societies even today, measured chronological time in terms of generations, not centuries or millennia. Since there was no belief in an afterlife, in classical Judaism divine justice was inter-generational. Yahweh would visit on the children the sins of the fathers. The exiled Jews were bitter: "the fathers have eaten the sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge." Generations, unlike millennia, can overlap. Fathers often see their children suffering. Jesus, preaching in Aramaic, always refers to generations as a biologically natural measure of time. The millennium is part of the Greek style of thought.

Gould applauds the shift in application of the word "millennium" from its religious use as apocalypse to a secular use in calendrics. But he does not locate it in the broader context of a dramatic decline in the authenticity of the religious use of language in the West. The meaning shift for a single word is merely a by-product of the general secularisation of language. Language is a living organism. Words age and die. This has no relation to the truth or falsity of the sentences in which words occur. We can still make claims about the millennium understood in a religious way.

Admittedly, it would take a poet-saint to renew the religious powers of language. The whole language of Christianity is decrepit and abused as we enter the third millennium. One needs to salvage not only "millennium" but also "sin" and "piety" for their original and intended senses. Even the word "Christianity" has an unction about it, as do "righteous", "Jesus", "salvation", and so on. Philosophically, it is invalid to infer that these unfashionable words lack valid referents. The religious use of "millennium" is only irrelevant and useless: it need not imply that the concept is false.

At roughly the end of the first doomful millennium of Christianity in Europe, there must have been immense anxiety and anticipation. Gould does not even mention the Crusades, that gigantic political project that was really a civilisational rite of passage for a Christian Europe threatened by the military power of Islam. The Crusades were the precursors of the European conquest of the world. As we approach the end of the second Christian millennium, the spectral and demonic character of Islamic radicalism is enhanced by the fact that its rise coincides with another Christian millennium. Are these the two eternal enemies? And Islam, its 15th century having reached a fifth of its span, has its own messianic expectations - only it measures its forecasts of doom on a lunar calendar.

Gould speaks glibly of the "millennial madness" but never stops to wonder whether the millennial cause is worse served by a religious orthodoxy of the right rather than a secular political orthodoxy of the left. In itself, millennialism could be used to justify both political inactivity as well as revolutionary violence. It is only an accident of calendrics that Marxists have no revolutions planned for the year 2000.

The word "climax" occurs twice in Gould's essay, but never as a conceptual category for explaining every ideology's central commitment. We have this psychological need, often expressed mythically, for reaching a summit and transcending it. This is not culture-bound or narrowly religious; it might even be connected with our self-awareness as sex-inspired beings. But this summit can be approached from several directions: the temporal form of that fascination is culturally conditioned and the millennial form is restricted to Christian culture. However, the need to reach climax, in some distant time or place, is a defining feature of every ideal, religious or secular.

In the monotheisms of Hebrew origin, the inspiration for millennial visions is the nostalgia for an unhistorical lost age of perfection and purity, an age that may yet be regained. Gould concentrates on the catastrophic and terrifying visions of burning lakes and Satan found in the Book of Revelation. But the Hebrew scriptures have more soothing predictions of global reconciliation and world peace, of the lion lying down beside the lamb, the Gentile nations rushing to Zion to study the Torah. Tragically, these hopes of idyllic prosperity in a land flowing with milk and honey are baseless. But these visions did indelibly influence the art of European settlers in America and other lands, an art obsessed with the imagery of this more gracious eschatology.

Gould concludes with a lucid discussion of a practical question. Is the year 2000 the completing year of the second millennium or the inception of the third millennium? He takes no sides but knows that popular culture will go for a party on January 1 2000. He cites the author Arthur C. Clarke as a representative of high culture: the scientific elite will open the champagne at the technically correct hour in 2001. The problem is of course arbitrary: either solution is correct. The difficulty arises only because the medieval Europeans had an unsteady grasp of the concept of zero.

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown

Author - Stephen Jay Gould
ISBN - 0 244 043897
Publisher - Cape
Price - £12.99
Pages - 190

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