If one were vouchsafed in a dream to listen in on two voices, and he heard the following fragments—“Who am I?” “… my self-concept,” “… identity crisis,” “… self-awareness”—uttered repeatedly, and then were asked to guess from this little scrap of data, what century he was listening in on, he would not have much trouble deciding. It will probably not have been Aeschylus and Herodotus talking, nor Aquinas and Siger of Brabant, nor even Alexander Pope and Dr. Arbuthnot. His first guess would be, “Those were voices from the twentieth century.”
How can he tell? Why would he not guess fifth century B.C. Athens, or thirteenth century Paris, or eighteenth century London? Because, he would tell us, he was assuming that the voices were typical of their era, and those remarks belong to the twentieth century.
And he will have been correct, of course. No other century or culture of which we have any records has ever been so galvanized by the particular notion that underlies those remarks. No Icelandic saga, no Hebrew psalm, no Navajo legend, no Latin georgic, no Russian novel, has anyone talking quite like that.
The point here is, those fragments are straws in an enormous wind. You can tell a great deal about what is occupying people in a given era by listening to what they say. And you do not have to read very far in the annals or poetry, say, of Greece, or the Middle Ages, or the Enlightenment, before you pick up some notions as to what big questions were at work in their imaginations. If you find people consulting oracles you will conclude (correctly) that they thought it was terribly important to find out what the gods wanted them to do. Again, if you find them confessing their sins to a priest, you will conclude (correctly) that they ...1
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