Friday, June 20, 2008

Cycles and Patterns

We have no way of knowing, of course, what were the very first human ideas. We don't even have a clear definition of idea that distinguishes it from reflex, recognition, and other mental activities. But it seems reasonable to consider that the first idea was consciousness itself ... the idea that there's a me that is somehow separate from everything that is not me. If I get hit with a rock, it hurts. If you get hit with a rock, it's funny.

Another candidate for really early ideas is change ... the observation that things don't stay the same. And close on the heels of change is the observation that very many things change in cycles. They repeat over hours, days, months, years, etc.

It's not surprising that human-like traits were associated with these changing things ... spirits, anima, gods ... all were credited with responsibility for the behavior of things in the natural world. What is ironic, though, is that some of the most regular cyclic events were ascribed to some of the most powerful gods. The cyclic nature of things would seem to suggest a lack of free will, a kind of submission to inevitability. Yet many of the most rigidly repeating phenomena (the sun's daily traversal of the sky, the moon's phases, the rise and fall of tides, etc.) were seen as gestures of the most powerful gods, who could have exercised free will even beyond that of humans. Maybe repetition and ritual were themselves seen as godlike qualities, to which humans could only aspire, in the same way we might admire some machinery or architecture as being too perfect and inorganic to be the product of human endeavor.

In any case, there must have been something reassuring about these cyclic events ... the knowledge that things would return to their previous conditions again. As Scarlett O'Hara puts it in Gone With the Wind, "tomorrow is another day."

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