I have always and dearly loved calendrical questions because they display all our foibles in revealing miniature. Where else can we note, so vividly revealed, such an intimate combination of all the tricks that recalcitrant nature plays upon us, linked with all the fallacies of reason, and all the impediments of habit and emotion, that make the fulfillment of our urge to understand even more difficult - in other words, of both the external pitfalls to knowledge. Yet we press on regardless - and we do manage to get somewhere.
I think that I love humanity all the more - the scholar's hang-up, I suppose - when our urge to know transcends mere practical advantage. Societies that both fish and farm need to reconcile the incommensurate cycles of years and lunations. Since nature permits no clean and crisp correlation, people had to devise the cumbersome, baroque Metonic Cycle. And this achievement by several independent societies can only be called heroic.
I recognize this functional need to know, and I surely honor it as a driving force in human history. But when Paleolithic Og looked out of his cave and up at the heavens - and asked why the moon had phases, not because he could use the information to boost his success in gathering shellfish at the nearby shore, but because he just wanted to resolve a mystery, and because he sensed, however dimly, that something we might call recurrent order, and regard as beautiful for this reason alone, must lie behind the overt pattern - well, then calendrical questions became sublime, and so did humanity as well.
If we regard millennial passion in particular, and calendrical fascination in general, as driven by the pleasure of ordering and the joy of understanding, then this strange little subject - so often regarded as the province of drones or eccentrics, but surely not of grand or expansive thinkers - becomes a wonderful microcosm for everything that makes human beings so distinctive, so potentially noble, and often so actually funny. Socrates and Charlie Chaplin reached equal heights of sublimity.
Excerpted from Questioning the Millennium by Stephen Jay Gould. . Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.