Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?

or, What it means for us to be living near the beginning of history

Nick Nielsen
Mar 25, 2018 · 12 min read
William Blake’s illustration of Job hearing the voice from the whirlwind

Copernican Lessons from the Old Testament

When Job, after having nobly borne more suffering than most of us will ever know, is interrogated by the voice out of the whirlwind, he is given a Copernican lesson in his cosmological insignificance:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

As it turns out, perhaps counter-intuitively, human beings were not that “far” away (in temporal terms) when the foundations of the Earth were laid. The universe is only some 13.7 billion years old, and its projected lifespan is many orders of magnitude more than the age of the universe to date. In so far as we can rely upon our contemporary knowledge of cosmology, we are, relatively speaking, quite close to the origins of the universe, and we could be perceived as being witnesses of the immediate aftermath of these origins by some observer situated in the far future of cosmological history, near the heat death of the universe.

Let’s back-pedal a bit from the history of the universe entire and consider our relative proximity to historical events that we typically perceive as being very distant from us, hence very alien and difficult to understand. I’ll give a concrete example of this, drawn from literature.

Chrétien de Troyes — Le Roman d’Yvain

Our Near-Contemporary Yvain

Listening to the Great Courses lectures by Arnold Weinstein, Understanding Literature and Life: Drama, Poetry and Narrative, I noticed an interesting illustration of our unexpected intimacy with the past, in lecture 42, “Chretien de Troyes’ Yvain — Growing Up in the Middle Ages.” In the set-up to this section of a course on narrative, Weinstein in lecture 41 discusses perennial issues of authorial intent and how we read old books today in the light of our knowledge of the contemporary world. So when he passes on to reading medieval literature in lecture 42 we are prepared for his observation of how distant in time the later writers of Arthurian romances were from the events they narrated, and even from the first narration of these events, so that our later reading of the texts is no more alien to the original than the writing of these texts.

The historical Arthur, if there was an historical Arthur, lived on the cusp of late antiquity and the early medieval world. The classic “source” on Arthur, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), completed around 1136 AD dates from some 600 years later. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), published by Caxton in 1485 and among the last of the Arthurian romances, is another 300 years later yet, so that almost a thousand years intervenes between the historical Arthur and Malory’s work. Malory, in fact, is closer in history to us than he was to Arthur (if there was an historical Arthur).

Arthur seems a distant figure to us — indeed, we cannot even determine with certainty his historicity — but Arthur was also a distant figure to Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory, though these are among the sources we have for Arthur. In terms of absolute temporal distance, we ought to enjoy a greater intellectual intimacy with Thomas Malory than Malory enjoyed with Arthur.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory were “closer” to Arthur than we are, and that is that all of them belonged to more or less the same era of civilization — medieval western civilization — and so they shared a certain outlook, or, at least, part of their outlook. Following this logic, it is possible that two individuals separated by a thousand years might have more in common that two individuals separated by one or two hundred years, and this does at times seem to be the case. In fact, we can even “leap over” the Middle Ages, and in reading the authors of classical antiquity and modern westerner is usually much more at home than in medieval literature, which always has a very alien feel to it. We can read Tacitus and Ovid as contemporaries, while Richard Rolle or Walter Hilton do not read like contemporaries.

Philosopher of history Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto on the Logic of Narrative Sentences

If any future science of civilization ever reaches a degree of sophistication that would allow us to quantify the differences and similarities within and between civilizations, it might be possible to express this informal idea of relative historical proximity in a formal language. And from there we might be able to extrapolate these findings to million year old (or even billion year old) civilizations, for which temporal distance will become a much more vexing problem even than it is for us today.

One way to approach this more formally would be by way of Arthur Danto’s treatment of the logic of narrative sentences. Traditional humanistic historiography has been formulated in narrative sentences, so that the logic of narrative sentences has governed the construction of history. By way of contrast with an ideal chronicler who produces a perfect chronicle of everything that happens as it happens, but who employs no narrative sentences, Danto showed that the meaning of events in the past changes as they are contextualized by further historical developments at later times. It in only in hindsight that we can construct a narrative that references two separate points of time in relation to each other. (In other words, Hegelian words, the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun.)

The examples that Danto employs are typical examples from humanistic narrative history, but Danto’s point can be extended to a more comprehensive conception of history that extends human history by embedding it into the scale of time that has been made available to human knowledge by scientific historiography. This scale of time is vast in comparison to the few thousand years of recorded history, preserved only since human societies became literate. Scientific historiography picks up where humanistic historiography leaves off, at prehistory, and by means of archaeology, anthropology, biology, geology, climatology, and cosmology extends the range of historical thinking all the way to the beginning of the universe.

The idea of history has not only been extended from humanistic history in the tradition of Thucydides to scientific history; the scientific approach to history has also contributed experimental archaeology to the understanding of history, in which contemporary scientists attempt to recreate the circumstances of history. It is more or less a “natural” extension of the scientific method not only to theorize on the basis of empirical data, but also to engage in experiments. In this spirit, scientists have worked on their flint napping skills, have dressed carcasses with flint blades, and have attempted to reconstruct early structures given the same tools and resources as the peoples who originally constructed these buildings.

The marketplace in Hildesheim before it was destroyed in WWII

Historically Informed Performance and Historical Reconstruction

In The Goldberg Variations for Strings I wrote about some of the controversies surrounding historically informed performances (HIP). Many of the problems posed by HIP are also posed in the restoration and especially the reconstruction of historical buildings. How far should reconstruction efforts go? After the end of the Second World War this philosophical question became one of intensely practical import for Europe. The European continent was largely wrecked by the fighting. Whereas WWI was mostly fought in rural areas, WWII was fought in, through, and around cities. Germany especially had most of its major cities flattened by the air war when the only war that was possible for the Allies to fight was to bomb Germany night and day. I have a book called Lost Treasures of Europe that consists of black and white before and after pictures of Europe (it’s not terribly difficult or expensive to find a used copy of this). It is heartbreaking to look through.

Different European cities took different approaches to historical reconstruction after the Second World War. The old center of Warsaw was meticulously reconstructed from old photographs, plans, and memories. Similarly, the historic center of Frankfurt, the Römerberg, was meticulously reconstructed — but only this particular fragment of history remains in overwhelmingly modern Frankfurt. In Cologne, parts of the famous city hall were reconstructed, but not all the historical elements of the building. Similarly, the famous central town square, Andreasplatz, of Hildesheim — a city of great historical importance that still has (intact) the medieval bronze doors of the cathedral, which are the northern European predecessor to the bronze doors of the baptistry in Florence — was partially reconstructed, but immediately after the war some modern buildings were erected in the Andreasplatz alongside the partial reconstructions of historical structures.

Eventually it was decided to rebuild some of the more elaborate timber frame structures that surrounded the Hildesheim Andreasplatz, more than thirty years after the whole area was devastated. The modern buildings were taken down and the guildhalls of the bakers and the butchers were rebuilt on the spot they have previously stood. Although the townhall was not reconstructed with full historical accuracy, the town center is again a showpiece, albeit a reconstructed showpiece — though not the rest of the city. For example, the reconstruction of the Kaiserhaus (not located in the Andreasplatz) was very limited and partial. (I have seen all these places mentioned above with my own eyes, since I have an interest in medieval architecture and have traveled extensively in Europe seeking out some of the most renown examples.)

To some, historical reconstruction or historically informed performance of music seems forced and artificial. The argument is that the building tradition or the performance tradition has been lost, and so what we are seeing or hearing is only our imagination of what the past would have been like. My response to this is that the reproduction is not perfect, but it would be arbitrary and nihilistic to hold that the reconstruction holds no relationship at all to the original, and once we acknowledge that there is a relationship between the original and the reproduction, it is a natural human response to try to close the gap and make the reproduction as close as possible to the original.

Once we take a larger historical view, the historically informed performance of Bach or the reconstruction of the Knochenhaueramtshaus in Hildesheim does not seem so outrageous. Compared to what we know of, for example, classical antiquity, the medieval and early modern past is relatively familiar to us. I don’t think that it would be too much to say that someone making an intensive study of these periods might be able to at least partially recover the Weltanschauung of the people and thus some of the spirit with which they invested their works that remain as a legacy to us (albeit in a fragmentary state).

At historical sites of classical antiquity (the kind of abandoned Roman cities I discussed in Why did Roman cities fail?) the reconstruction has been mostly limited to stacking up a few columns when all the drums were available on the ground to do so, and not going much beyond that. Our knowledge of Greek and Roman architecture is not nearly on a level with our knowledge of medieval German architecture, as we have intact examples of the latter to guide us.

It seems likely to me that there will come a day when our distant descendants will be grateful to us that we took the trouble to attempt to restore and reconstruct part of the past to the extent that we have, making good some of our war damage, given our relative proximity to the past (in comparison to a distant futurity) and our likely superior understanding of that past (in comparison to their understanding, i.e., the understanding our past by the distant future).

Our Near-Contemporary, the Big Bang

While we think of our civilization as something hoary with antiquity, from a future perspective of a million- or billion-year old civilization, all that human civilization has achieved to date may appear as mere prologue to “real” or “authentic” civilization that only gets underway once a civilization passes the spacefaring threshold. And in terms of the spacefaring threshold, we are only now in the phase of “symbolic firsts” that I mentioned in the stages of demographically significant change outlined in Thinking about Civilization. We might be much closer to the beginning than to the end of the civilization.

For example, imagine human civilization 10,000 years from now. Who would likely do a better job of understanding and reconstructing the medieval and early modern past — us, who are removed from it my a mere few hundred years, or our distant descendants, removed from it by thousands of years — and, at very least, further removed from this past than we are? This process of contextualizing the distant past in a more comprehensive historical scope can be iterated further. It is a matter of acquiring temporal perspective.

Imagine human civilization 100,000 years from now. We are only 2,000 years distant from classical antiquity, and therefore on relatively intimate terms with the past in comparison with the world of 100,000 AD. If you asked the typical man in the street of 100,000 AD which came first, the Roman Empire or the American empire, they might not know their names and dates and places of history well enough to say off the top of their head; they might hesitate with a mild sense of embarrassment, not remembering the answer to a question that they had learned in school. For us, the difference between Rome and America is pretty obvious and pretty easy to grasp, but that will not always be true. If you go far enough ahead into the future, there is not much difference between the typical Roman and the typical American, and they might easily be mistaken the one for the other.

If we continue with this line of reasoning, it might be reasonable to suppose that human civilization of 100,000,000 AD (or whatever constitutes the successors to human beings and human civilization 100 million years from now) might be grateful to us that we developed an interest in our origins as early as we did in the evolution of our species, such that we made an effort to collect and document the earliest human ancestors as soon as we did, before more was lost. After all, only a mere two or three million years separates us from the bones of our ancestors that we find in the Olduvai Gorge, and that puts us on relatively intimate terms with our ancestors as compared to those who will come later.

If we continue to further extrapolate this line of reasoning to cosmological scales of time, we arrive at the point where we began: our relative proximity to the origins of the universe and the origins of our planet. After all, only a few billion years separate us from the origins of the universe, and that puts us on relatively intimate terms with these events as compared to any observers who come later. This was one of the points made by Lawrence Krauss and Robert J. Sherrer in their “end of cosmology” thesis: after all other galaxies have passed over the cosmological horizon and our descendants find themselves in an isolated island universe, they will not be able to see the observational pillars of big bang cosmology, and thus will not be able to reconstruct the history of the universe in which they find themselves, as we have been able to do.

Since Krauss and Sherrer advanced their thesis, Abraham Loeb has argued that the observation of hypervelocity stars will still be able to reveal structures of the cosmos that will betray its origins. Nevertheless, the further we are removed from the origins of the universe, the more difficult it becomes to reconstruct these origins. Our relative proximity to the origins of the universe arguably makes us privileged observers, so that we can, in all honesty, say that we were not far from the scene when the foundations of the Earth were laid.

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