Twenty-five centuries ago in Greece, it would have been a difficult time to live. Slavery was common and accepted, wars were ever-present, and multiple pandemics could sweep through a city-state, killing up to a quarter of the population.

Despite this chaos, the ancient Greeks developed ideas in Mathematics and Philosophy, Science and Medicine, and Politics and Astronomy. The originality of their work is breathtaking. In fact, these ideas form the very basis of modern thought, some of it unchanged for 2 ½ millennia.

Ancient Rome was a squalid place for the underclass. It was a time of constant war and autonomous leaders well known for their failings and depravity. However, the Romans made advances in engineering and administration that impress us to this day.

Colonial America was a place with few comforts and rights were reserved only for  male landowners. However, they made advances in the field of representative government and political philosophy that direct our country-and many others- to this day.

What about our modern world? What are the breakthroughs in thoughts and ideas that will stand the test of time? Are there any lasting revolutions that will be talked about in a thousand years (or even a hundred years)? Where are the original ideas that made great empires of the past so memorable? If we truly live in an exceptional country at an historic time, what will we have to leave to later generations to prove that greatness?

Certainly our time is remarkable because of the tremendous advances in computers and micro processing. But the Internet revolution is more an invention than a true thought revolution. It is to us what the telephone, flight or antibiotics were to previous generations: an amazing leap forward in human achievement. A leap that certainly changes the way we live day-to-day, but not necessarily the way we think.

Socrates forever gave us a system of inquiry that is the basis of teaching for 2,500 years. If I want to pose a rational argument, I use a process that Descartes instituted 400 years ago. Giants like these came up not with facts but with a way of seeing facts which survives through the ages. Legendary thinkers-like DaVinci or Einstein or Freud- are certainly uncommon. Many generations may pass without their peer. But where are those who can influence profoundly even a narrow discipline? Where is our modern Emerson, or even Thoreau, who gave voice and spirit to a new way of thinking.

We live in such a data-driven world that we disseminate data without any structural framework or theories with which to analyze it. It is so easy to gather millions of bits of facts and information that it is often relayed without a backdrop of theoretical support to either prove or disprove its meaning.

We can learn that American students are x percentage points behind y country. Or that x number of American live below the poverty level compared to y twenty years ago. What all the data fails to tell us is why. What are the new theories of human behavior in the modern world or the dynamics of ever changing demographics on the poor? We need creative minds coming up with daring and sweeping ideas that seek to provide an outline to the data picture. Perhaps these theories are there now and time has not revealed them.

Nearly four hundred years ago, Galileo was called to the Vatican in order to renounce his teachings on a sun-centered solar system.  Here a great thinker’s work was not merely ignored, it was actively suppressed. I hope we can be open to the new ideas in our midst, to be actively searching for the framework to help explain the present and future.

Advertisements