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Thoughts on this essay titled 'The Great Forgetting'?

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yebrent Donating Member (500 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Feb-08-05 02:18 AM
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Thoughts on this essay titled 'The Great Forgetting'?
I read this a while ago. IMO, understanding ancient world history is more important than ever. Any thoughts?

Daniel Quinn: The Great Forgetting.
(excerpted from the book, The Story of B)

With every audience and every individual, I have to begin by making them see that the cultural self-awareness we inherit from our parents and pass on to our children is squarely and solidly built on a Great Forgetting that occurred in our culture worldwide during the formative millennia of our civilization. What happened during those formative millennia of our civilization? What happened was that Neolithic farming communes turned into villages, villages turned into towns, and towns were gathered into kingdoms. Concomitant with these events were the development of division of labor along craft lines, the establishment of regional and interregional trade systems, and the emergence of commerce as a separate profession. What was being forgotten while all this was going on was the fact that there had been a time when none of it was going on - a time when human life was sustained by hunting and gathering rather than by animal husbandry and agriculture, a time when villages, towns, and kingdoms were undreamed of, a time when no one made a living as a potter or a basket maker or a metalworker, a time when trade was an informal and occasional thing, a time when commerce was unimaginable as a means of livelihood.

We can hardly be surprised that the forgetting took place. On the contrary, it's hard to imagine how it could have been avoided. It would have been necessary to hold on to the memory of our hunting/gathering past for five thousand years before anyone would have been capable of making a written record of it.

By the time anyone was ready to write the human story, the foundation events of our culture were ancient, ancient developments - but this didn't make them unimaginable. On the contrary, they were quite easy to imagine, simply by extrapolating backward. It was obvious that the kingdoms and empires of the present were bigger and more populous than those of the past. It was obvious that the artisans of the present were more knowledgeable and skilled than artisans of the past. It was obvious that items available for sale and trade were more numerous in the present than in the past. No great feat of intellect was required to understand that, as one went further and further back in time, the population (and therefore the towns) would become smaller and smaller, crafts more and more primitive, and commerce more and more rudimentary. In fact, it was obvious that, if you went back far enough, you would come to a beginning in which there were no towns, no crafts, and no commerce.

In the absence of any other theory, it seemed reasonable (even inescapable) to suppose that the human race must have begun with a single human couple, an original man and woman. There was nothing inherently irrational or improbable about such a supposition. The existence of an original man and woman didn't argue for or against an act of divine creation. Maybe that's just the way things start. Maybe at the beginning of the world there was one man and one woman, one bull and one cow, one horse and one mare, one hen and one cock, and so on. Who at this point knew any better? Our cultural ancestors knew nothing about any agricultural "revolution." As far as they knew, humans had come into existence farming, just the way deer had come into existence browsing. As they saw it, agriculture and civilization were just as innately human as thought or speech. Our hunting-gathering past was not just forgotten, it was unimaginable.

The Great Forgetting was woven into the fabric of our intellectual life from its very beginning. This early weaving was accomplished by the nameless scribes of ancient Egypt, Sumer, Assyria, Babylon, India, and China, then, later, by Moses, Samuel, and Elijah of Israel, by Fabius Pictor and Cato the Elder of Rome, by Ssu-ma T'an and his son Ssu-ma Ch'ien in China, and, later still, by Hellanicus, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon of Greece. (Although Anaximander conjectured that everything evolved from formless material - what he called "the boundless" - and that Man arose from fishlike ancestors, he was as unaware of the Great Forgetting as any of the others.) These ancients were the teachers of Isaiah and Jeremiah, Lao-tzu and Gautama Buddha, Thales and Heraclitus - and these were the teachers of John the Baptist and Jesus, Confucius and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - and these were the teachers of Muhammad and Aquinas and Bacon and Galileo and Newton and Descartes - and every single one of them unwittingly embodied and ratified the Great Forgetting in their works, so that every text in history, philosophy, and theology from the origins of literacy to almost the present moment incorporated it as an integral and unquestioned assumption.

Now I hope - I sincerely hope - that there are many among you who are burning to know why not a single one of you has ever heard a word about the Great Forgetting (by any name whatsoever) in any class you have ever attended at any school at any level, from kindergarten to graduate school. If you have this question, be assured that it's not an academic one by any means. It's a vital question, and I don't hesitate to say that our species' future on this planet depends on it.

more here: http://www.eces.org/articles/000149.php
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Igel Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jun-21-08 01:55 PM
Response to Original message
1. 3 1/2 years late, but yes.
He's wrong.

"It was obvious that the artisans of the present were more knowledgeable and skilled than artisans of the past. It was obvious that items available for sale and trade were more numerous in the present than in the past."

Why would it have been obvious? There'd have been evidence of some cycle by 5000 AD. Some large groupings, often based on a dominant tribe which extended its reach over adjacent tribes, besieging cities and taking prisoners. Evidence of a battle to take a city around 8-9k BC was found in NE Syria, 1-2k years after agriculture. It undoubtedly wasn't the first such battle.

Progress was slow. You farmed as your father did, and he farmed as his father did. Or, if you herded, you herded as did you ancestors. New crops came along rarely, new practices came along rarely--and 3 generations after an innovation, it was as ensconced as the innovations that came along 20 generations before were. By 5-6 generations after a migration, your family had always lived there, if only because in-migrations seldom really did much to alter the genetics of a regional population and so most of your ancestors really *didn't* migrate in. Sometimes a memory of the dominant ethnicity's migration was preserved--Israelites, Aztecs, etc., but usually not.

As civilizations fell, there'd be ruins. They'd be buried or gobbled up by jungles or simply be destroyed by scavenging. You'd be able to see not only that the current artisans' work is better than that you dug up, but also see that often current artisans' work was worse than what you dug up.

True innovations were fairly rare. Bronze, iron; agriculture and irrigation; writing and arithmetic. And they usually led to warfare, to expansion and genocide not of genetic stocks but of cultures; or to local improvements that brought in outsiders, either to produce an underclass that eventually took over, if such migration was resisted, prompted outsiders to attack repeatedly until they, too, had the benefits they deserved more than any others. Then it would quickly become impossible to understand how people survived without them. Old legends could be a clue, but few studied them systematically or critically enough to notice that old legends, esp. once there was writing, often didn't mention horses or iron explicitly.

I can't access the article, but I suspect he overreaches in other areas, too.
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