It is easy to think of the ancient historians as traditionalists, but Herodotus, for example, had a highly intelligent, enquiring mind. Book II of The Persian Wars gives an account of the history and culture of Egypt, a land which he had evidently visited. Keen to learn as much as he could, he questioned priests, the learned men who told him much about the succession of kings, about the building of the great temples and pyramid-tombs, and about the customs of the people. But he took nothing for granted, sifting through various legends and myths as told to him, accepting some but rejecting others as implausible. Wherever possible, he visited sites, made observations, and drew his own conclusions.
In this you could say he had a modern mentality; he was a man with whom you could have interesting discussions. He was, however, writing 2,400 years ago and in other ways his intelligence was framed by beliefs which, while seeming self-evident truths to him, appear to the modern mind as a curtain of delusions drawn across the world-as-it-is.
Herodotus had no doubt there was a pantheon of gods and he easily found the Greek gods under different names in Egypt. He had no doubt, either, that the gods intervened in human affairs; or that oracles foretold the future and it would be wise to consult them before making important decisions. The efficacy of animal sacrifice to the gods was likewise taken for granted, as was the significance of dreams when properly interpreted. His world was full of interpenetrating realms where humans trod carefully.
I am sure that if Herodotus lived today, he would make himself familiar with Darwinian evolution by natural selection, with Einstein’s theories of relativity, the latest developments in microbiology, nuclear physics, and cosmology. He would close the door on oracular prediction and dream-truths, and see reality as we see it: a material universe, infinitely complex, the understanding of which is ever open to revision as advances in science force adjustments to accepted theories, or even cause them to be abandoned in the face of compelling new evidence. Herodotus would be one of us, and perhaps with his historical bent a leading historian in our day too.
If you yourself were transported back to the fifth century B.C., however, it would be a different matter—unless you happened to bump into Democritus of Abdera, who was formulating his theory of atoms, at roughly the same time as Herodotus was exploring the penetralia of Egypt’s gods.
The universe painstakingly revealed by science through experiment and observation gets us far closer to reality than the teachings of religion based on myth, legend, miracles, and divine intervention, yet there is a problem. The universe simply exists, without knowing itself. Life on Earth, too, has existed for 3.8 billion years, unknowing, unreflective, until Homo sapiens evolved some 200,000 years ago. Even then, it is only in the last 4,000 years that we have begun to examine our surroundings empirically, a process that accelerated during the last 200 years, and is ongoing as science penetrates ever deeper into the structure of matter, out into the vastness of the universe, and into its remotest past a few seconds after the Big Bang. The universe does not need our interpretation. It is humans who need it, because our unusually large brain in ratio to body weight has produced a mind which seeks to interpret reality, to understand who and what we are. (I realise that some have postulated that humanity is the acme of the universe seeking to understand itself, but this seems to me mere arrogance.)
I am convinced that the universe revealed by science is an extraordinary achievement, a colossal advance, in fact, on thousands of years of human rummaging around in explanations based on gods and spirit worlds. I therefore believe that Herodotus, highly intelligent as he was, was inherently wrong. Yet I can’t help wondering how reality will appear in another 2,400 years, assuming that advanced civilisation still exists. Reality, as described by science, is eminently clear to me, but reality defined by gods and oracles seemed so to Herodotus.
There is another factor to consider. I base my belief on what I have learned from science, but this is very much a minority view among the 8 billion current inhabitants of Earth for whom religion trumps science. Religious belief may be declining in materialist Britain but it is on the rise elsewhere, and far more people believe in the gods of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, and in animism and spiritualism, than credit the discoveries of Darwin and Einstein. Even in the USA, on the surface one of the most scientifically based societies on Earth, 68 percent of Americans believe in angels, while 33 percent deny that evolution takes place, according to a Pew Research survey.
Although the gods of Ancient Greece and Egypt have long since disappeared, Herodotus would understand the mindset that produced God, or Allah, or the Hindu pantheon. Perhaps, in that future 2,400 years hence, gods will make an all-embracing return. Science may underpin a hi-technology material base for a culture that in reality will belong to the gods.
Perhaps, too, all interpretations are chimera, emanations of the mind of an unusual species of ape which seeks to place itself in a universe that does not know itself, which is not the great I am but the great is.