I’ve mentioned before that the ancient peoples saw the world in a very different manner than we do today. There are, of course, many reasons for this, but perhaps one of the more prominent reasons is that the ancients had an exposure to nature that we simply do not have today.
Such different understanding of the world, and particularly of the cosmos, though their understanding of it was incorrect, still fascinates me. As I have pointed out before, Galileo’s theory of a heliocentric cosmos was rejected by the Catholic church because the church’s astronomers at the time were very good at predicting the positions of the stars and planets according to the geocentric model.
How could it be that the ancient peoples, despite their incorrect understanding of the cosmos, were able to be so good at predicting the motions of celestial objects? I suspect the reason may be that the ancients could easily view the majesty and wonder of the night sky; they did not have to go far to get a full view of the stars.
Additionally, the ancient peoples did not have so many distractions that would draw their attention away from the stars during the night hours as we do today. To be sure, they had their methods of bringing light to their world during the hours of the night, but their methods were surely not as effective as ours are today.
As a result, perhaps one of the few things to do when night came was to look up at the sky or go to bed. I suspect that looking up at the night sky was something that, at least occasionally, drew the wonder and interest of most people during the time periods long past, and certainly drew the wonder and interest of many astronomers.
In our day, things are quite different. Our modern technologies have allowed us to do more during the night hours: we can work, travel, and enjoy ourselves with any number of diversions during the night hours.
These all are, of course, good things in their own right, but they also come with consequences. Light pollution is obviously one of the things that should immediately come to mind. The beautiful vistas of the night sky that must have been easily available to the ancients are no longer so easily available to us. Even in our smaller cities it is difficult to capture a glimpse of the glory and wonder of the night sky simply because we have filled our world with terrestrial sources of light.
What’s more, we now have the ability to do so many things during the nighttime that looking up at a lackluster sky gives us little reason to try to do so.
Fortunately, there are those who recognize the importance of seeing the night sky in all its wonder, and therefore seek to remove themselves from the populated, urbanized areas in order to get a proper glimpse of the night sky. They recognize that looking at the night sky is an important, if not essential, part of the human experience.
To give a more particular example, The medieval people’s understanding of the world was heavily rooted in their understanding of the cosmos, and they were able to attach many of their religious doctrines into their understanding of the cosmos. This fact should suggest that their cosmological understanding deeply influenced their understanding of themselves as human beings and their place in this world.
Looking up at the night sky, therefore, helps us to feel just how vastly large the universe is, and also to feel just how small we are with respect to it. The sense of grandeur one feels as she looks up at the night sky often sparks within her the feeling that there really is more to life than a mere material existence.
But beyond looking up at the night sky to gain an understanding of humankind’s metaphysical existence, the contrast of the ancients’ fascination with the night sky from our apathy towards it provides a decent analogy for our culture today and how we seek knowledge.
We live in a world that is full of information, and that information is being produced at an increasing rate every day. All around us there is a constant flux of information: advertisements, news stories, articles, opinion pieces, tweets, Snapchat messages, sports events, market updates, etc. Even academic environments are filled with an overload of research rooted in narrowly focused studies.
What’s more, our world is becoming increasingly obsessed with the “objective sciences” and “factual analyses.” As a result, we no longer analyze ourselves within the scope of some greater perspective; rather, we observe ourselves merely as biological creatures.
Thus, things like religion and philosophy have been losing their appeal in a society that highly values material things. We no longer look to religious or philosophical thought in order to understand ourselves as intrinsically valuable beings. Our world has become so full of terrestrial light (information), that we lose our ability to focus on the celestial light (religious and philosophical understanding) to which we would otherwise be exposed.
I find it fascinating how quickly the focus of contemporary minds can shift. Such changes occur instantaneously now that we live in an age when such vast amounts of information are so readily available to us wherever we go. It’s as if we live in a time that is thoroughly anti-contemplative. Our age of hyperconnected virtual interaction is leaving us disconnected from the great questions that our forebears have discussed throughout the ages.
I should not hope to imply that our hyperconnected activity is an intrinsically bad thing. There are many benefits to having ready access to information, especially in a world that is built to function on the rapid exchange of information. But the danger in hyperconnected activity is that too many people rely on it as a substitute for philosophical and/or religious understanding.
As it is with those who actively go out of their way to stargaze, so should we actively seek to occasionally withdraw ourselves from the constant flux of information in order to focus on and contemplate the great questions. There comes a time when it’s necessary to turn off the computer and the phone so that we can head up into the mountains and take in the vastness of nature.
But it also helps to simply sit down and contemplate, without distraction, the deepest questions of the soul. And it is also worth time to sit down and read from the great thinkers and writers of the past. It does one’s soul well to peer into the souls of those who have long since passed on, and we can do so by reading the things they wrote.
What we need, in essence, is to take time occasionally to separate ourselves from the less meaningful “terrestrial light” of transient information so that we can navigate life by looking to the majestic “celestial light” that would otherwise be readily visible to us.
It is strange to think that to live a good life and navigate this life in the way one ought to would require is to travel by starlight; by looking to the stars.