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The Adventures Of Man

History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it. - Winston Churchill

And write it he did, winning a Nobel Prize for Literature for his multi-volume history of World War II. A difficult truth lies within the British statesman's easy jest, for our vision of the world always reflects the perspective from which we view it. As of 2010, the great rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the cold war that divided the world into two superpower blocs for four decades after the end of World War II, has receded in history's rear-view mirror. The broad currents driving world events today are more random: they include a new age of international terrorism, China's rapid rise as a world economic power, the advent of the World Wide Web and a global renascence in the religion of Islam.

Admittedly, the debut of the Web doesn't match D-day or the fall of the Berlin Wall as one of history's pivot-points. In 1991 British physicist Tim Berners-Lee hit the "return" button on his computer and sent an e-mail containing the address of the world's first website to his colleagues. But this most recent in a series of ongoing communication revolutions is changing our world in ways we are only beginning to sense, altering not only our lifestyles but also our politics, laws and arts. Particularly since the Renaissance, the interplay between science and society has become a primary force driving historical change. Yet man's technological progress has not always been matched by moral and social progress.

The most surprising aspect of our journey through the centuries was the revelation of the extent to which individual lives can shape our common trajectory. History's most significant events often bring you face to face with history's most significant people. Jesus and Muhammad, Alexander the Great and Napoleon, Newton and Einstein prove that it is entirely possible for single individuals to grab hold of history's rudder and change its course""whether or not they choose to join Winston Churchill in crowing about it.

The adventures of man on Planet Earth include the great religions: Buddhism, Christianity and Islam; the great empires: from the vanished chilization of the Minoans on Crete to the glories of Classical Greece and Rome to the mysterious collapse of the Maya culture in Mexico; the visionary scientists who altered our view of nature's laws: Newton and Darwin, Copemkus and Einstein; the great conquerors: including Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan and Napoleon; the great clashes between cultures, as Christian knights besiege Muslim citadels in the Crusades, a handful of Spanish conquistadors topple the empires of the Aztecs and Incas, and Japan attacks the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.

The development of the technologies that define the modern world, from the coming of the railroad and the telegraph to the advent of photography, the cinema and television and the invention of the transistor and the boot-up of the World Wide Web. Cultures are too often overlooked, from the Golden Age of Islam to the voyages of Viking mariners to China's renascence under the Ming dynasty.

Man's greatest artistic achievements, from the cave paintings of Lascaux to marvelous midieval maps and on to the great paintings and sculpures of the Renaissance. Human culture, science, art and architecture offer an insight to mankind's triumphs and sorrows.

Few of us today would consult a sundial to determine the time. A solar sextant is a magnificent tool for finding one's position, but a G.P.S. application on a cellphone is a bit handier. And the days of commissioning a scribe to write a message to a friend on papyrus have definitely passed. Time and technology have moved on. Egypt's pharaohs are mummies; Greece's marble-clad temples, once painted in garish hues, have been scoured into white purity. The ancient world survives in the form of ruins, shells that once held life and meaning but have lost their inner flame. Yet there is a singular exception: when we turn to spiritual matters, most of us worship the same gods and follow the same rites as our distant predeces-sors. All the world's major religions were established long centuries ago, but they have never lost their central place in human life. Islam, founded at the turn of the yth century A.D., is enjoying a period of remarkable renascence that began in the mid-ioth century.

Spiritual seekers around the globe continue to adapt the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, to their particular cultures. Modern Christian evangelists are baptizing converts by the thousands in Africa, and Christian principles are a powerful force in U.S. politics. Jews have famously hewn to their ancient creed through centuries of diaspora and suffering and still rejoice in the creation of the state of Israel in their ancient homeland. Only the great polytheistic pagan religions that nourished the spirit of Sumeri-ans and Babylonians, Egyptians and Greeks have been left behind. Empires rise and fall; armies conquer and are vanquished in turn. But the great religions endure, linking the present to the past, the vital connective tissue of human history.

Sometimes history conforms to our fondness for connecting life's dots: the astronomical insights of Nicolaus Copernicus influenced Johannes Kepler, whose writings in turn influenced Isaac Newton. But what makes history a living, slippery sort of subject is the law of unexpected consequences. Consider the many ramifications of a late medieval event utterly beyond man's control. In 1347 a ship escaping from a siege of a Genoan trading post in the Crimea by Mongols and Hungarian Kipchaks landed in Sicily. Many of its refugee passengers were suffering from a hitherto unknown and fatal illness: the bubonic plague, borne by fleas, which rats carried by the millions. By the start of the 15th century, the plague had killed up to 40 million people-at least one-third of Europe's population. The Black Death profoundly influenced the course of history.

It inspired a further exodus to the West of scholars from Byzantium, which was especially hard hit by the disease. The plague helped lay the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation by creating an underlying mood of skepticism about the Roman Catholic Church, whose prayers and rituals had appeared ineffective in warding off the disease. Finally, the plague left a mass of discarded and un-wearable clothes. But these garments could be shredded to make rag paper, a vital element in the print revolution that was just getting underway, thanks to Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. Among the first printed texts: the Classic Greek and Roman works brought by the fleeing Byzantine scholars; their ideas of free expression and democracy challenged the absolutist monarchies of Europe and the church's theocentric view of the universe. The Renaissance may have seen the rebirth of humanism, but this revolution was driven in part by rats.

History is the record of a changing world. And as we enter the Age of Enlightenment, history seems to accelerate, as the rate of change itself increases. In the Renaissance scientists first began to demystify the world, identifying the natural laws that made the universe tick. Now that era of pure research gave way to an era of application, as the steam-powered Industrial Revolution reshaped life, begetting factories, railroads and cities. Old ways of agriculture, regulated by the sun, gave way to urban ways regulated by the clock. As British historian Hugh Thomas put it, "The essential characteristic of our times (that is, the years since 1750] is the manufacture of goods for sale outside the neighborhood concerned, in a factory, and by a machine." The social order was demystified as well, as the old regime of noble precedence gave way to a radical new philosophy: all men are created equal.

Moreover, as Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence argued, each person possesses certain "unalienable rights," including the right to overthrow governments that deny them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In this new age, philosophers envisioned the universe as a great machine, with God as its controlling engineer. And man himself, they argued, was also a kind of machine, whose work could be scientifically regulated. One beneficial side effect of this vision was a more rigorous and effective approach to medicine. But mechanistic views also led to the dark, satanic mills that William Blake and Karl Marx railed against. The Age of Enlightenment was powered by science, reason and humanism, but too often it released humans from old chains only to replace them with new ones.

Cultures wax and wane; so do the visions that sustain them. Christians of the hierarchical Middle Ages accepted St. Augustine's dream of a spiritual City of God that was a glorious contrast to the drab, earthbound City of Man. For iyth and early i8th century Europeans, the dominant metaphor was the Great Chain of Being, an orderly progression from the lowliest of organisms to God the creator on high. The i9th century was an era of unparalleled growth and prosperity-albeit unevenly distributed-for Western Europe and many of its former colonies. That mechanistic age's prevailing belief was the idea of inevitable progress, which translated into continuing material success for society's fittest. This seductive dream was no more sustainable than previous models of civilization, and Sigmund Freud's exploration of the unconscious mind and Albert Einstein's unsettling new theories of relativity shattered the vision of a clockwork universe.

The Great War of 1914-18, an exercise in pointless slaughter, firmly shut the door on the past. Along with millions of soldiers, faith in the beneficence of progress died in that war's muddy trenches. An even greater war followed. The rise and fall of Adolf Hitler, the horrors of the Holocaust and the advent of the atom bomb underlined the message: technological change was far outpacing ethical change. The late zoth century saw the end of failed socialist ideologies in both the Soviet Union and China, but even as the cold war receded an era of global terrorism was taking shape. In the early 2ist century, an electronic revolution began stitching people together in startling new ways, but the World Wide Web will never mend the enduring fissures in the human heart.

Kelly Knauer; Editors of TIME. TIME History's Greatest Events: 100 Turning Points That Changed the World: An Illustrated Journey . Time Home Entertainment Inc. 2010.


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