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Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown (Revised Edition) Hardcover – August 24, 1999
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In this slender volume, Stephen Jay Gould addresses three questions about the millennium with his typical combination of erudition, warmth, and whimsy: As a calendrical event, what is the concept of a millennium and how has its meaning shifted over time? How did the projection of Christ's 1,000-year reign become a secular measure? And when exactly will the millennium begin--January 1, 2000, or January 2, 2001?
"Our urge to know is so great, but our common errors cut so deep. You just gotta love us," he states disarmingly in the preface. "And you gotta view misguided millennial passion as a primary example of our uniqueness and our absurdity--in other words, of our humanity." Gould's own curiosity about time and calendars was triggered by a 1950 issue of Life magazine, which cut the century in half with its evaluation of what had happened and its prediction of things to come, propelling his third-grade mind to the year 2000. In Questioning the Millennium, Gould promises to make no predictions (other than "an orgy of millennial books"); court no millennial epiphanies; and put forth no theories on the collective angst that typically accompanies a century's end. Instead, he answers the millennial questions which, for him, represent the intersection of undeniable reality (i.e., natural fact) and human interpretation. Gould's questions and learned answers, weaving many historical and scientific facts, are a loving inquiry into the human need for order in a vast and teeming universe. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
From Library Journal
Gould is the latest?though certainly not the last?thinker to publish his ruminations on the coming millennium. Unlike others, he spares readers the standard litany of predictions and rallying cries to embrace the future. Instead, in three essays entitled "What?," "When?," and "Why?," Gould wryly analyzes why humans are so fascinated by the year 2000. It is no great revelation that millennial passions are fueled in part by apocalyptic yearnings as well as by an innate human compulsion to measure and organize time, but, as always, Gould puts his own clever spin on these observations. Hard-core fans may be disappointed, for this book contains more religion and numerology than science. Any book by Gould will generate demand, but while this one is witty and entertaining, it is not especially illuminating. An optional purchase.
-?Gregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables, Fla.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
He fails to include Julian days as a means or reckoning the passage of time in a very orderly fashion. Always entertaining but never conclusive on the subject, since he properly makes a distinction between The Millennium of Apocalypse and the millennium of the calendar, he leaves conclusions to the reader. He points out that the media did get it right, according to one school of thought, in the 1900-1901 century transition and the nineteenth century passed to the twentieth Dec. 31, 1900/Jan. 1, 1901. The mid point, however, was signaled by LIFE magazine publishing its mid century issue in January 1950 rather than 1951.
What we are really concerned with is the consistent ordinary, everyday reckoning of time, days, and years in an orderly and rational manner. It doesn'take a PhD in calculus or differential equations to deduce that the twentieth century is 20th hundred years, that two millennia is two thousand years and until the 2,000 years have been completed at the END of year 2,000 the twenty- first century and the thirdmillennium have not arrived. As they say about opera...it isn't over till the fat lady sings.
Buy a copy if you are a fan or borrow a copy if you like science fiction mixed with lots of unusual facts. You will find the finale a bit poignant, but don't cheat, resist the urge to peek.
He wrote in the Preface to this 1997 book, "I began to think about this book during the first week of January 1950. I was eight years old, and a good part of my life revolved around the simple pleasures of weekly rituals... The weekly arrival of Life magazine... for 1950 hit me with a force that I still don't comprehend... The first issue for 1950 marked the halfway point of the twentieth century by evaluating what had happened and predicting what the second segment might bring.... For some reason, as I scanned this issue, my main thought went forward to the year 2000... I would then be fifty-eight years old, while two living grandparents testified to the high probability that I would witness this far more interesting event. I have been buoyed by this lively idea ever since---that I would enjoy the rare privilege of experiencing a transition that... would rivet the attention of nearly all nations... When I should have died of cancer in the mid-1980s, but recovered instead, I listed only two items as ... the reasons for cherishing life in our times: '... I simply had to see my children grow up, that it would be perverse to come this close to the millennium and then blow it.'"
He observes, "We seem so driven to division by two, even in clearly inappropriate circumstances, that I must agree with several schools of thought (most notably Claude Lévi-Strauss and the French structuralists) in viewing dichotomization more as an inherent mechanism of the brain's operation than as a valid perception of external reality." (Pg. 30)
He observes, "The human brain is the most complex computing device ever evolved in the history of our planet. I do not doubt that conventional Darwinian reasons of adaptive advantage underlie its unparalleled size and intricacy. Nonetheless, many of our brain's most distinctive attributes... cannot be viewed as direct products of natural selection but must arise as incidental side consequences of the original reasons for such an increase in size." (Pg. 33)
He notes, "Almost any possible numerical basis has been advocated for determining the length of a worldly cycle and the subsequent initiation of the millennium. Many adepts favored a division by two, as the birth of Jesus initiated a second age... until the ... dawn of the Second Coming... Joachim [of Fiore] divided earthly history info a cycle of three 'dispositions' representing ages of the father, son, and holy spirit. Many other thinkers preferred a fourfold cycle... Still others advocated a fivefold division... Saint Augustine preferred a Great Week of seven historical phases... Obviously, with such diversity in the bases of judgment, intervals of a thousand years could enjoy no inherently favored status. Thus, the millennium has been predicted and expected at almost any time, depending on the system in favor... the year 1000 or 2000, and intervals of 1000 in general, could claim no special preference." (Pg. 69)
He says, "the issue of whether a so-called 'panic terror' swept Christian Europe in the year 1000 has provoked a major debate among professional historians for quite some time." (Pg. 83) He adds, "Medieval historian Richard Landes... convinced me that sufficient evidence now exists to support at least a modest claim for substantial millennial stirring, especially in peasant and populist strata of society... I had not even been persuaded that a year 1000 existed in the consciousness of most people at the time... But Landes and others have shown that the famous chronologies of the Venerable Bede... had been copied extensively and widely distributed to almost canonical use among ecclesiastical timekeepers throughout Europe... Through his works, the advent of the year 1000---and its millennial implications---had probably diffused to all social classes." (Pg. 85-86)
He says of the calculations or Archbishop James Ussher, "Ussher's large folio volume represents an immense labor of calculation and scholarship (requiring knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew). You can't simply spend a rainy afternoon counting the begats in the Bible, for gaps and ambiguities abound, and the record is incomplete in any case---for the chronology of the Old Testament ends with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the fifth century B.C., and the New Testament doesn't pick up again until the time of Jesus. Thus, one has to move laterally from the biblical record into the historical documents of other societies... then forward to Roman history, and back again to the New Testament." (Pg. 94-95)
Besides being a highly creative evolutionary theorist, Gould was also a brilliant writer and an engaged "public intellectual." His presence is sorely missed on the scientific and literary scene.