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Questioning the Millennium

A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown

Questioning the Millennium by Stephen Jay Gould
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In this new edition of Questioning the Millennium, best-selling author Stephen Jay Gould applies his wit and erudition to one of today's most pressing subjects: the significance of the millennium.

In 1950 at age eight, prompted by an issue of Life magazine marking the century's midpoint, Stephen Jay Gould started thinking about the approaching turn of the millennium. In this beautiful inquiry into time and its milestones, he shares his interest and insights with his readers. Refreshingly reasoned and absorbing, the book asks and answers the three major questions that define the approaching calendrical event. First, what exactly is this concept of a millennium and how has its meaning shifted? How did the name for a future thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ on earth get transferred to the passage of a secular period of a thousand years in current human history? When does the new millennium really begin: January 1, 2000, or January 1, 2001? (Although seemingly trivial, the debate over this issue tells an intriguing story about the cultural history of the twentieth century.) And why must our calendars be so complex, leading to our search for arbitrary regularity, including a fascination with millennia? This revised edition begins with a new and extensive preface on a key subject not treated in the original version.

As always, Gould brings into his essays a wide range of compelling historical and scientific fact, including a brief history of millennial fevers, calendrical traditions, and idiosyncrasies from around the world; the story of a sixth-century monk whose errors in chronology plague us even today; and the heroism of a young autistic man who has developed the extraordinary ability to calculate dates deep into the past and the future.

Ranging over a wide terrain of phenomena--from the arbitrary regularities of human calendars to the unpredictability of nature, from the vagaries of pop culture to the birth of Christ--Stephen Jay Gould holds up the mirror to our millennial passions to reveal our foibles, absurdities, and uniqueness--in other words, our humanity.

From the Hardcover edition.
Crown/Archetype; January 2012
ISBN 9780609606100
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Questioning the Millennium
Author: Stephen Jay Gould
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.

From the Hardcover edition.