–Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen.
“We must fight…against old age. We must compensate for its drawbacks by constant care and attend to its defects as if it were a disease. We can do this by following a plan of healthy living, exercising in moderation, and eating and drinking just enough to restore our bodies without overburdening them. And as much as we should care for our bodies, we should pay even more attention to our minds and spirits. For they, like lamps of oil, will grow dim with time if not replenished. And even though physical exercise may tire the body, mental activity makes the mind sharper.”
“How wonderful it is for the soul when—after so many struggles with lust, ambition, strife, quarreling, and other passions—these battles are at last ended and it can return, as they say, to live within itself. There is no greater satisfaction to be had in life than a leisurely old age devoted to knowledge and learning.”
—excerpts from Cicero’s essay, “On Old Age,” —44 B.C.
An orator, philosopher, poet, and activist politician in his day, Cicero became consul of Rome in 63 BC—Rome’s highest political office. He wrote much that is worth reviewing and the quote above seemed to resonate for me currently, as I am paying “even more attention to (my) mind and spirit, so that they won’t “…grow dim with time.” My life is not what I would describe as “leisurely” exactly, and although I do have more time to devote to “knowledge and learning,” it’s still a struggle to balance what is possible to do and what is required of me.
This month I wanted to set the stage for a review of some of the main foundational subjects about which I have been writing, particularly for those who may be only recently encountering the nearly three hundred postings here. Over the past several weeks, I have spent a fair amount of time in support of my newest granddaughter, who just arrived home from the hospital this past weekend, and I’m happy to report that she is not only well and healthy, but simply perfect in every way.
Holding my beautiful granddaughter and sharing intimate family moments is not only a privilege of great value to me, but perhaps even more importantly, it is an unambiguous affirmation of the existence of the human spirit, which may not be possible to achieve in another way. The awareness of the presence of spirit in this situation is primarily intuitive and subjective, but unmistakable.
Her arrival on Earth has been a momentous one for the family and watching my son and his wife caring for their first child, feeling all of the emotions and concerns that come along with it, I can’t help but reflect on these very same moments in my own life, when I brought my son home for the first time.
The experiences I have known as a grandfather or any number of individual phenomena clearly cannot, by themselves, fully explain or illuminate comprehensively the broader subject of the nature of our subjective experience of human consciousness, nor do they necessarily compare in intensity or magnitude to other reported mystical or spiritual awakenings over the centuries, but considered together in the broadest sense of human experience, they do provide a window into the character and quality of our humanity, and since I bring decades of serious contemplation of the subject with me to such experiences, for me, they lead to at least a solid opening for a discussion.
In order to begin to understand our subjective inner experience, we have to imagine what life must have been like for our earliest ancestors, who possessed all the requisite physical structures for a comprehensive cognitive system in their brain architecture, but were only slowly becoming self-aware in a meaningful way, and who were beginning to devise ways of demonstrating it to themselves and to their fellow Homo sapiens. These capacities did not develop suddenly, nor were our early ancestors equipped initially to make use of them once they did appear. Our ancient beginnings were humble indeed.
Although several locations in Europe boast of ancient cave paintings with remarkably detailed renderings of a variety of animals known to exist in prehistory, there have been very few discoveries of images or objects depicting human figures recovered in excavations of prehistoric archeological sites in Europe, and the earliest occurrence of such images in any significant number now appear to have been located in South Africa, in the Drakensberg Mountains.
According to the popular PBS documentary series, “Civilizations,” the San Bushmen hunter/gatherer culture produced a number of displays of prehistoric artwork, placed there tens of thousands of years ago, which feature multiple instances of human figures included in the paintings on the cave walls of those ancient sites, indicating some of the earliest links to what the narrator describes as “…clues to the birth of the creative impulse, and modern human self-consciousness.” I highly recommend you locate this series on your local PBS station or other outlet, and several of these images are from the series.
Discoveries in several locations throughout the African continent provide remnants from the ancient world, which suggest evidence of the earliest attempts to build large communities, based on practical considerations of sustenance and survival, like the early development of agriculture about ten thousand years ago.
About seven thousand years ago, in what we refer to as the “fertile crescent,” and “the cradle of civilization,” in the area between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, the first evidence of the establishment of “true cities,” can be found in areas where the remains of ancient cities like Eridu and Uruk were once located.
Perhaps as early as five thousand years ago, artwork became more deliberate and more potent as these early civilizations became more complex as unified cultures, and centers of power. Some of the earliest recorded writings in ancient scripts, according to the narration in the series, recorded ordinary events like “…the payment of taxes,” but sometimes “…told the stories of gods and heroes.”
Around four thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians began to establish trade with the Minoans, on the island of Crete, part of modern day Greece. The gradual rise and eventual disappearance of many of the ancient civilizations led to a blending of traditions, and the dissemination of a variety of languages and cultural influences, which are still evident today in our modern societies.
Even more intriguing, was the discovery of the ancient city of Petra in modern day Jordan, established by the Nabataean Empire around 400 B.C., where the thriving culture carved out some of the most spectacular stone edifices of ancient times. Although the living, breathing trade center and creative culture in what was then the capital city of the time, only lasted approximately three hundred years, they left behind an extraordinary legacy of engineering acumen, evidenced in the “…cisterns and reservoirs,” to trap the winter rains, and a flourishing artistic heritage in the stone sculptures, elaborate mosaics, and legendary gardens, enjoyed by a population at its peak of about 30,000 people.
Looking back over the millennia through recorded human history, it appears that while our cognitive and creative capacities during these early epochs, began to gradually produce ever-more elaborate demonstrations of “modern human self-consciousness,” it would take tens of thousands of years to develop a more nuanced and sophisticated capacity for our modern day form of human consciousness.
…more to come…
4 thoughts on “Ancient Beginnings”
Fascinating and touching post. Thank you for sharing!
Congratulations on the beautiful addition to your family 🙂
Thanks for visiting and for your good wishes, Ciera. It really is a powerful combination to have spent so much time working through the ideas I write about and then to experience something as extraordinary as a brand new life that arrived which is a part of me. I finally found a little photo of my newborn son and just added it to the post. It is wondrous and wonderful all at the same time!
Warm regards….John H.
Wonderful quotes from Cicero! Consciousness may have evolved in the intervening period, and yet, it seems to me that these ancients were quite the equivalent of our modern selves when contemplating life’s deepest mysteries, which as you yourself emphasize; we have scarcely begun to do. Science may have advanced, technology and medicine may be light years ahead, and yet, I wonder if we are one inch ahead of Cicero or Marcus Aurelius in knowing how we should lead our lives and what (if anything!) our true purposes is.
May I ask what your career was? You say you are no scholar and no scientist, and yet, it seems to me that advances in knowledge of the nature of consciousness may not necessarily come from the scientists, who, frankly, seem to be far, far removed from discovering the answer to Chalmer’s “hard problem.”
You are well qualified to speculate whatever your background, and your use of language is superb. My own background was as a history graduate from Oxford, a City of London lawyer, and then an investment banker, followed by almost 30 years of self-employment and consulting my navel for inspiration.
What is your story John?
I love your idea of the “divine.” I can sometimes sense it myself, particularly when singing classical choral music or reading psalms in a 1,000 year old church.
And then, at other times, my cynicism chimes in and tells me I’m a fool.
Based on our conversations so far, even though you are willing to acknowledge entertaining a degree of cynicism in your thought process, it would be inappropriate in my view to describe yourself as foolish, particularly as it relates to having a sense of connection to the ineffable nature of the experiences you mentioned. If we are observant and attentive during such moments, they become opportunities for expanding our understanding of their nature, and the fact that you do have a sense of their validity shows that being open to the full realm of possibility is a superior approach to determining the answers to our questions.
There are a host of valuable resources in the literature of the ancient world, from the earliest epochs of human thought, all the way through the development of the many spiritual traditions, the giants of philosophy and science, and into our current offerings in scholarship and the natural sciences, which can elevate and inspire those of us who seek the answers to the big questions.
As much as I admire the many diverse voices and traditions established throughout the centuries of human history, much of the literature created in ancient times, often reflects a perspective informed by the sensibilities of those times, and the character of the people who inhabited them. Cicero and Marcus Aurelius are exceptional in that many of their ideas are still relevant today, mostly because they often emphasized a broad view of human nature.
The emphasis in scholarship these days is much more specific, and our understanding of our humanity is informed by an extraordinary scope of technological and scientific advancement that the ancients couldn’t have even imagined. We must allow for this in our evaluations of their ideas, and recognize that human nature itself has remained consistent over millennia, but I agree—we haven’t progressed nearly enough, and my efforts here are in the service of promoting a more progressive agenda toward advancing our understanding.
Your specific expression of interest in my background is a first among the many visitors here, and while there has been some speculation over the years about what subject I may have taught in school, most assumptions about my occupation have been off the mark. I’ve spent a total of four years in a university setting, two years at Temple University in Philadelphia in the School of Communications and Theater, and two years at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey majoring in English literature. Due to extenuating personal circumstances, I was forced to leave school in 1973, and enlisted in the U.S. military, where I spent an additional two years in training as a military intelligence specialist, attending the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California to become a German linguist, and became a cryptologic traffic analyst at the Army Security Agency Training Center at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. I served two years overseas in what was then “West Germany,” maintaining surveillance on East German and Soviet military activity during the Cold War.
Since that time, I have devoted myself to an independent study regimen which is still ongoing. I did spend time periodically as a teaching assistant while attending to my university programs, but became discouraged when I realized how poorly teachers were being paid. I ended up getting married and raising six children to adulthood, which required me to pursue employment in a number of technical fields, which offered better remuneration.
Among those opportunities were several years as a professional photographer and computer specialist, and fifteen years as an inventory control manager. More recently, I was tasked with writing technical manuals for an aluminum extrusion facility, and recently retired from an international commercial sterilization company, which provided sterilization solutions across medical device, pharmaceutical, commercial, and food industries. Throughout each of these assignments, I became an instructor in computer systems, as well as facility and safety training.
If you review some of the postings here, beginning in January of 2014, I elaborate on my travels through that tumultuous period of my life which led me to “take up arms against a sea of troubles,” which began in 1973, and launched me into the journey of a lifetime.