Reflections on the millenium

by Tom Veatch

A few hours remain before the millenial digit increments in the most standard of modern dating systems. Somehow I feel a compulsion to reflect and write.

Periodic review of the course of recent events is of course a useful practice; historical reflection is the basis of much wisdom. The annual review is the most predictable post-Christmas story each year. Consider: What did you accomplish this year? Decade reviews are increasingly common as we seek quick summaries of the personality of a decade: the world-war teens, roaring 20's, depression 30's, wartime 40's, Eisenhower 50's, hippy 60's, disco 70's, me-generation 80's, and internet 90's.

The biggest such story in modern media ought to be the twentieth-century review, but now that the History Channel is broadcasting 24 hours a day, this century uptick is a convenient, and much exploited, but truly just incidental, means of organizing programming that would have been done anyway. The archives of collected works made since the invention of film are the raw materials for TV history; coincidentally they go back almost precisely one century.

The century saw the end of imperialism, the rise and fall of fascism and of communism, the continuance of dictatorial and totalitarian government. It was the first "American" century, with the rise to world dominance of one large new country built on certain now-successful experiments with the principles of equality, freedom, and money: the rule of law, and equality before the law, equality of economic opportunity, encouragement of immigration, entrepreneurship, education, and technological advancement, limits on accumulation of power (and therewith its destructive consequences) both in government and markets; the freedoms of speech, association, religion, business; the establishment and stable maintenance of a universal, content-free measure of value, associated with few and reasonable restrictions on getting and spending it so that economic self-interest may be maximized.

These principles and their fruits have spread throughout the world, subject to cultural limits (like the racist anti-immigration culture of Japan, the maintenance of oppressive and destructive social hierarchies to varying degrees everywhere, and so on). We have seen the spread of democracy, of mostly-American technological developments, of McDonald's capitalism with its regulated but mostly free markets, and the Pax Americana rules everywhere but in a few pariah dictatorships.

Although the last century saw the greatest genocides in the history of mankind, it also saw the end of some of the systems that perpetrated them, and the birth of new systems that one may hope shall prevent or limit them in the future. There is some reason to hope for a better future, at least on the time scale of centuries.

But what is the millenium we celebrate? A life may last a century but a thousand years is 30 or 40 generations, far more than the genealogy of my family or any friend's. Would we celebrate a lakh of years (100,000)? Or a million, or a crore (10M)? The English language had not been invented: incomprehensible Germanic dialects roamed the British Isles waiting for French conquest and Shakespeare.

Time is infinite and, beyond the scale of the lifespan of the species, or of literacy itself, could we find much to reflect on? Wisdom for present-day lives in which so much wisdom is wanting, must come from looking under Sheikh Nasruddin's streetlamp: where the light shines. We cannot seek wisdom in forgotten events, despite how much wisdom may be there.

Historical review is done incrementally, whenever we read of a new archeological finding, like King Midas' funeral menu, or a new scripture is found in a desert cave, or when we encounter stories told by an ancient and eloquent historian, a Thucydides or a Gibbon. Our interest in learning anew about old things looks both to the past and to a future illuminated by the past instead of enslaved by it. Circles in history might then be avoided or chosen wisely. This is a constant interest, satisfied from time to time as our open minds discover a new resource.

What again is this millenium? We are (or I am) rather obsessed with its meaning: as a child I looked forward to a momentary simplification in counting the days, expecting uncertainly to live so long, imagining the adult I would be then, feeling that that person to come was the justification of my youthful confusions and contusions. I wondered if my life might be settled, my situation clear, my accomplishments well begun. But I thought only in the vaguest terms about it: the very distance, from 1968 or 1973 when as a child I considered the dates, made me rein in any speculations. Tom, you will be 39 in 2000, what will it mean to you?

That forward-looking child anchors my own historical reflections. In the deepening mental fog of middle age I do wonder if I am the same person I was then. Personality doesn't change, perhaps, in some genetic and true sense, and someone who knew me then might recognize me again, if not in my height then in the hidden sparkle of my eyes. On the other hand Mrs. Grice said a few years back: Tom!, You're so charming!, What happened to you?, You used to be such a little nothing!, in reference to my 1971 edition. So much for how well others really know a person. I am indeed the same person, the one I was when I came into this world, the one I shall be when I leave it. I declare it, and who is to object? Latin might change imperceptibly over time into French, leaving only traces of the original in the descendant, so also my name has changed, losing a diminutive, adding a title or two, as has my height, and now girth, but the historical stream, the thing in itself, is one multiplicitous wondrous constancy: I am.

Historical identity being whatever it may be, what again is the millenium, if not a moment like any other to reflect on who we were, are, and will be? The time we call 0 was marked, much later, as The Beginning by Christians who established the Julian and mid-millenially shifted Gregorian calendars: the ostensible birthdate of the guru of a proselytizing Jewish cult that flourished through the superstitious peak of the Roman empire, a cult which grew to dominate and (as argued by Gibbon) ultimately destroy the Roman civilization and keep its descendent civilizations intellectually and culturally backward every place time and issue where it held sway. What in reality is significant, what should we celebrate, about his 2000th birthday?

Here's one fact, for what it's worth. Counting is the enumeration of repeated instances of a thing. Consider: Does counting begin at zero? Nothing having been counted, No. Does it begin at one? Nothing has repeated, no metric proven consistent by repeated application, so again, No. If you imagine that you are counting, you can't really be sure until you've gotten at least to two. And therefore if the units are millenia, then it follows that only now, after 2000 years, can the Christians finally say they count the span of their institution's survival in units of thousands of years. That's true. Indeed Christianity will probably survive, in some form or other, for further millenia.

The biggest real effect, barring terrorist attacks and computer glitches, is a likely bump in the death rate, when those among the elderly who have been hanging fiercely on for the turn of the millenium momentarily relax their iron-willed grip on life, as the long-anticipated moment passes. Perhaps that's why the President of Russia suddenly resigned today. Anyway I hope my uncle lives a few more years!

The year 1000 was certainly more significant in the Christian calendar; that being a rounder number from the perspective of a 10-fingered counting animal. That year was at the peak of Christian dominance, it followed the long long political and socio-cultural slide downward from the miraculous Roman Empire into the very middle of the so-called Dark Ages. It was a moment when Islam shone its brightest, China was the greatest power in the world, India had the best standard of living in the world, and the Americas roiled under a succession of battling empires (whose written histories were burnt with the support and in the name of the so-called Universal Church).

In the Christian corner of the world, out on the European peninsula, the belief was widespread that the Messiah was returning, as long foretold, a thousand years after his first visit.

In the modern statistical perspective of information theory (used in data compression for example), events should be described in terms proportional to their frequency, using complex descriptions for rare and unlikely events, and simple descriptions for probable events, so that more likely descriptions have less information in them. 'I'll meet you at noon' and 'I'll come back in a thousand years' are both simpler and more likely than 'I'll meet you at 11:48:52 a.m.' or 'Jesus revealed himself to Joseph Smith at 7 a.m. on March 15, 1820 in Palmyra, Ontario County, New York.'

The first millenarians had this iota of rationality at least. The result was that crowds of the faithful paraded wailing, in real fear, many flagellating themselves with ropes and chains, many indeed unto death. But their Messiah did not return, and the fundamentalist belief in a literal return was demonstrated lunacy, even idiocy. So the millenium we celebrate today is actually the millenium anniversary of the bankruptcy of Christian fundamentalism. Hallelujah! Indeed if only fundamentalist memory were as functional as its will to believe; but unfortunately there are infinite varieties of fundamentalism, since ignorance is spawned independently in each closed mind.

Considering that this is really the millenium anniversary of a pinnacle of superstition and ignorance in the middle of a very dark age, I feel a great pride in our present-day civilization. How pleasant and favorable to us the contrast of that dark time with tonight's crowds of peaceful celebrants wandering the brightly-lit cities, musicians and dancers and poets and players performing for all, fireworks bringing smiles to every face in a world of cleaned houses and completed homework, freshly re-examined emergency systems, and upgraded computers. We've had a good excuse to think through all our work processes to make sure things go right, and it feels like our whole world has been optimized for smooth and reliable long-term performance. Our civilization is on a roll, the dang thing is working, more or less; isn't it wonderful?

If nothing else it's a good excuse for a party, and for a party, any excuse will do. Hear hear for the 2000th year, let's have another!

Copyright © 1999-2000 Thomas C. Veatch All rights reserved.
Last Modified: January 1, 2000. Reformatted June 6, 2020.