Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Why is it, do you suppose that we assume that ancient people and societies have better knowledge than we do? We see it periodically. I noticed it when people were predicting the end of the world because the ancient Aztec calendar ended in 2000. Clearly, it must mean that they know something that we do not, right? I mean, it couldn’t possibly be that some ancient Aztec didn’t simply so, “you know, I think that’s probably enough. We can always make a new one.”
Part of the reason may be religion. No, it is not my intention to criticize or cast aspersions here. I myself often find wisdom and comfort in religious texts such as the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Ghita, the Tao te Ching, the Iching and so on (yes, I enjoy reading various philosophies), but there are those who would have us believe some of these texts, from thousands of years ago, as absolute truth as opposed to stories of apocryphal moral value despite the nature of the bards of the days when these texts were written. The passage 1 Kings 7:23 reads, “Now he made the sea of cast metal ten cubits from brim to brim, circular in form, and its height was five cubits, and thirty cubits in circumference.” If this were taken as absolute truth and accuracy, the value of pi would be exactly 3.0000000000000. We know this isn’t the case. There are other passages that make me doubt the absolute truth of the Bible, but that doesn’t mean I discount the spiritual truth. Considering when it was written, it’s actually a heck of an approximation!
That’s not to say that all ancient knowledge is worthless. Native Americans discovered the plants that had aspirin to help with headaches long before European settlers ever got lost in the Caribbean. The circumference of the earth was very closely approximated by Eratosthenes about two and a half centuries before Christ was born. Heck, South American cultures have been eating rice and beans for eons, and while one cannot live on either rice or beans alone, together they contain all of the essential amino acids for human survival.
But I still find it humorous when I find people who put more faith in “ancient knowledge” over modern science. In the seventeenth century, alchemy arose. As much a spiritual philosophy as scientific, the two goals of alchemy were to transmute base metals (lead and mercury) into precious metals (silver and gold), and to find the elixir of life (providing illness free eternal life and youth). Ironically, these alchemists were born with relative wealth, but died paupers and sickly having spent their wealth on equipment and toxic materials in their pursuits. The philosophy lasted for several hundred years before being replaced by modern chemistry beginning around the nineteenth century. Today, there are “modern alchemists” trying to revive the failed philosophy, believing in the magic of ancient ways.
Not to say that all ancient knowledge should be discarded. Native Americans figured out that burying fish heads with crops fertilized them giving greater yield (they viewed it as “giving back to mother Earth” which is a beautiful philosophy). A former student found a great “Chymist’s book”, written back when pharmacists called themselves “chymists” and mixed up their own tinctures and medicines. I sent it to a great friend of mine who has her license in “mixology” in Scotland, meaning she is licensed to make her own herbal medicines. She has always been very interested in the actual science behind tinctures, and often seeks the natural chemicals and products of plants in her concoctions. She has been having great fun reading these mixtures, figuring out which ones have foundations in science, and which ones, frankly, would kill you.
There is wisdom in the ancient ways. They had a much closer connection with the Earth than we have today, and the rhythms of nature. They respected the world and the offerings she had. This wisdom has, sadly, been largely left, but even they believed in ancient knowledge of their ancestors. We cannot simply discard modern science and discoveries, although, maybe it’s time that we temper our use of science.
Someone once called the burning of fossil fuels the greatest uncontrolled experiment in the history of the world (Google attributes the quote to an author in 2014, but I first heard it when I was in graduate school around 1990). We are spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates and hollowing out caverns that were once filled with oil creating both sinkholes and global warming. The technology involved is modern science and we use it for central power plants when our foreparents used to generate their own power. We’ve lost respect for the world and may end up destroying ourselves in the process, but we also have the technology to begin to reverse the damage we’ve caused. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric power have tremendous potential if we choose to abandon the ways of ancient wisdom of power from coal and oil. It’s time to move forward.