Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown

Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown

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by Stephen Jay Gould
     
 

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Gould addresses three questions about the millennium with his typical erudition, warmth, and whimsy: What is the concept of a millennium and how has its meaning shifted over time? How did the projection of Christ’s 1,000-year reign become a secular measure? And when exactly does the millennium begin—January 1, 2000, or January 2, 2001?

Overview

Gould addresses three questions about the millennium with his typical erudition, warmth, and whimsy: What is the concept of a millennium and how has its meaning shifted over time? How did the projection of Christ’s 1,000-year reign become a secular measure? And when exactly does the millennium begin—January 1, 2000, or January 2, 2001?

Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly

With a humorous Everyman approach, Gould juggles a mind-boggling array of various calendrical concepts as he explains why creating a reliable calendar was one of man's greatest struggles. Whether nailing down the precise date of the birth of Christ or airing his suspicion that God is a New York Yankees fan, Gould teaches rather than preaches.
— Daneet Steffens

Entertainment Weekly - Daneet Steffens
With a humorous Everyman approach, Gould juggles a mind-boggling array of various calendrical concepts as he explains why creating a reliable calendar was one of man's greatest struggles. Whether nailing down the precise date of the birth of Christ or airing his suspicion that God is a New York Yankees fan, Gould teaches rather than preaches.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With no apologies to the artist formerly known as Prince, Gould (Full House, etc.) probably won't "party like it's 1999" in 1999. And why should he? In this fascinating, often lighthearted treatise, the Harvard paleontologist explains that the date is, at best, arbitrary. Gould explores the evolution and anomalies of our present-day calendar and offers an intriguing survey of millennial, apocalyptic crazes throughout history. This may sound dull, but it's not. Although lacking the inherent high drama of an apocalypse, Gould's calendrical work is a lively inquiry into the most basic of human traitsthe desire to impose order through a clearly defined, if somewhat flawed, system, and then to imbue that system with cosmic significance. Gould also includes background on the current debate over whether the 21st century actually begins in 2000 or 2001. The confusion, he reports, arises from the sixth-century monk who prepared the chronology and began with "year one," not "year zero," as the concept of zero was not yet developed. High culture, Gould says, won a decisive victory when January 1, 1901, was generally marked as the beginning of the 20th century, though according to the author such logic probably won't prevail at the dawn of the 21st century, due, at least in part, to popular culture and the mass merchandising of the millennium. "The old guard of Greenwich may pout to their heart's content," writes Gould, "but the world will rock and party on January 1, 2000."
Library Journal
Gould is the latestthough certainly not the lastthinker to publish his ruminations on the coming millennium. Unlike others, he spares readers the standard litany of predictions and rallying cries to embrace the future. Instead, in three essays entitled "What?," "When?," and "Why?," Gould wryly analyzes why humans are so fascinated by the year 2000. It is no great revelation that millennial passions are fueled in part by apocalyptic yearnings as well as by an innate human compulsion to measure and organize time, but, as always, Gould puts his own clever spin on these observations. Hard-core fans may be disappointed, for this book contains more religion and numerology than science. Any book by Gould will generate demand, but while this one is witty and entertaining, it is not especially illuminating. An optional purchase.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674061644
Publisher:
Harvard
Publication date:
10/01/2011
Edition description:
Revised Edition
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

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 millennialpassion 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 eBook edition.

Meet the Author

Stephen Jay Gould was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University and Vincent Astor Visiting Professor of Biology at New York University. A MacArthur Prize Fellow, he received innumerable honors and awards and wrote many books, including Ontogeny and Phylogeny and Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (both from Harvard).

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
September 10, 1941
Date of Death:
May 20, 2002
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
Place of Death:
Boston, Massachusetts
Education:
B.S., Antioch College, 1963; Ph.D., Columbia University, 1967

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Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
not Goulds best