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ANCIENT AND MODERN THINKING

BY CHARLES JOHNSTON

I

THERE was one aspect of the eclipse of the sun, on that arctic morning in January 1925, that the astronomers seem to have overlooked, perhaps because they were so absorbed in mathematical subtleties that the human side of that marvelous experience failed to touch them. We were watching the revelation of awful beauty from above the harbor at New Haven, where the quiet water was carpeted with ice floes and the clean spars of ships were etched against the pearl-gray sky. The railroad yards along the water front, the streets, and the hills beyond the town were covered with shining snow; the bare trees on East Rock were silverwhite like an old man's hair.

As the black disk slipped over the golden shield of the sun and the light waned, the brightness faded from the snow. Then came the brief minutes of full eclipse, when the rays of the corona shot out on either side like golden sheaves and the jet-black rim was dotted with rubies; off to the right, in the darkened sky, a group of planets glittered silvery Mercury, Venus, Jupiter. All the treasures of our solar realm were revealed together.

At no time was it darker than evening twilight. We could see the intent crowd of watchers plainly, along the streets and on the flat roofs of the railroad station. There were many negroes among them, eager as children. All were absorbed, visibly overawed. Little flocks of doves flew this way and

that, not in alarm, but surprised, perhaps disconcerted, by the unwonted aspect of their world.

Then the jet disk slid backward, the golden arrows of the corona were withdrawn, the planets faded into the brightening sky, pale sunlight was blown across the snow-covered world. The great moment of marvel had passed.

Yet the human impress of the marvel lingered. One could see it in the faces of men and women a luminous surprise that held them silent, wondering, walking meditatively, the claims of their duties still held in abeyance. Their sudden vision of solar and planetary splendor had brought them illumination: for the first time in their lives they realized that they were denizens, not of New Haven only, or of New England, or even of this our earth. They were inhabitants of the universe. Realizing it, they were filled with awe, an overwhelming sense of the immensities of which they were a part. They had had their transfiguration, though they would presently descend from the

mount.

The knowledge that we inhabit, not this green earth alone, set in shining seas, but the wide universe, is a rightful part of the heritage of man. It should be continuous and universal, keeping us alert to our high destiny. Among all living things in the world, it belongs, so far as we can judge, to man alone. Beasts and birds rejoice in the sunlight. Migrant warblers and terns and golden plovers follow the sun northward and southward every spring

and autumn, catching the light upon their wings. While the morning star yet shines, robins herald the dawn with magnificent choral song. Tigers and owls, stalking in darkness, pay an inverted tribute to the light. But none of them, save man alone, looks beyond this earth to the outer immensities. Beasts and birds inhabit the world. Only man inhabits the universe.

It would seem to be the same with the immensities of time. Man looks with forward and reverted eye, but beast and bird, even when instinct impels them to lay up store for the future, live wholly in the moment. The bird's whole consciousness goes into his present song. The animal that has just escaped from imminent death is in a few minutes serene and happy again, with even pulse and quiet heart. But man broods over past and future, even though this may make him neither happier nor wiser.

If we compare to-day with even the recent past, five or six centuries back, we shall realize that our conception both of time and of space has expanded immensely, almost infinitely. The general human mind has gained the consciousness which for a few minutes brooded over the surprised watchers of the eclipse. The universe we inhabit has opened out, backward and forward, upward and downward, to a degree almost inconceivable.

Not so long ago, time began for Western thought in the year 4004 B.C. I remember my astonishment when, as a boy, I came upon an Egyptian statue, in a museum, bearing the date 4150 B.C. It seemed to stick out into the void, a century and a half before the universe came into being. And, not so long ago, space was as constricted as time. With so great a mystic as Dante, it is rash to think that we have sounded to the depths of his meaning; but, taken literally, the universe he describes

is a little one, with earth looming large in the centre of a star-flecked shell, in whose narrow spaces sun and moon and little planets whirl, all of them vassals of our central world. The whole of time, for that small earthcentred universe, was limited to scant six thousand years, before which time was not, after which time should be no more. To-day we think of the age of our earth alone as not less than a billion years, and we use proportionate measures for star-strewn space. A marvelous release of pent-up thought, a splendid expansion of the universe and of the intelligence which seeks to fathom it.

Yet this modern opening of the universe is not altogether a conquest of new territories. It was preceded by an equal shrinkage. The date 4004 B.C., for the beginning of things, seemed to Archbishop Ussher a logical and certain deduction from the chronology of the Hebrews, with their tradition of the Flood and the ages of the patriarchs. But the older peoples of the Orient thought in ampler periods, and it seems likely that the Hebrew patriarchs, even with their long life spans, are abbreviated copies of the antediluvian kings of Babylonia, and that these were not persons but periods. Solon, when he visited the Egyptian temples, was told that the history of Hellas went back, not a mere thousand years, but ten thousand; the Greeks, like children, had forgotten.

As with the constricted centuries, so also with the small, earth-centred world. Dante followed Ptolemy, who, in the second century of our era, made our earth the hub of the solar system. But, long before Ptolemy, Pythagoras and his disciples had taught that the earth swings free around an orbit with a distant centre, and they also taught the movement of the sun in space. Copernicus and Galileo were not

altogether pioneers of a new way. The great Samian had already said, 'Eppure si muove.'

Iamblichus tells us that Pythagoras, like his mentor, Thales, had learned much in Egypt, where he spent more than twenty years, studying astronomy and geometry in the recesses of the temples and being initiated into the divine mysteries. He adds that, when Pythagoras was taken by the army of Cambyses to Babylon, he gladly studied with the Magi, perfecting himself in their sacred knowledge, as well as in numbers and music, during twelve years. So Pythagoras, who framed the great word 'philosophy' for our Western world, was a debtor to the ancients. And quite recently it has been shown that the Babylonian astronomer Kidinnu knew of the precession of the equinox; Hipparchus, hitherto held to be its discoverer, really borrowed the teaching ready-made. Since a single precession covers nearly twenty-six thousand years, it is clear that the Magi thought in immense periods of time.

II

So the small earth-centred world lasting but six millenniums is comparatively modern. It marked an eclipse of thought, a shrinkage from an ampler past. But while it lasted the reign of this shrunken world was absolute. It bound the human mind with a band of steel, as Galileo could testify. And it endured in our general thinking until the day before yesterday; it even endures to-day.

Archbishop Ussher's chronology held sway over Western thought when our pioneers went to India to delve into Sanskrit lore, a century and a half ago. So far as the immensities of past time were concerned, Sir William Jones, Charles Wilkins, and their gifted fellow workers still wore the band of steel

about their brows. Their thought and imagination were stereotyped in terms of 4004 B.C. for the beginning of all things. Ancient India was discovered too soon, before the key to the hieroglyphics and the chronology of Egypt had been found, before the long periods recorded on cuneiform tablets had been disclosed. So it unfortunately happened that the chronology of India was explored by men who thought only in terms of 4004 B.C. for the Creation, with the year 2349 B.C. punctiliously fixed for Noah's universal deluge. All postdiluvian history had to be crushed into that Procrustean frame. And the past of India was thus compressed by our unconscious disciples of Procrustes. Max Müller, who had a wholesome respect for Archbishop Ussher, accepted their conclusions, which overshadow all books dealing with India even to-day. So it happens that in an excellent book on India, just published, we are told that the Aryans entered India 'approximately in the year 2500 B.C.' Apart from Max Müller's fancy, there is no better evidence for that date than for 2349 B.C. as the date of a universal flood.

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When our earliest Sanskritists began their invaluable work in India, they found in actual use an era, then approaching its five-thousandth year, which had its starting point in the year 3101 B.C. the era of the Kali Yuga, as it is called. It began, according to Indian tradition, at the end of the great war of the Mahabharata. Immediately, and quite inevitably, our scholars said: 'Impossible! Absurd! That is several centuries before the Flood!' So they set themselves to 'correct' this ridiculous error, and the chronology of India was telescoped from millenniums to centuries. If they had known something of the ancient history of Egypt and Babylonia, they would have been more cautious, less summary. Only the

other day graves were unearthed at Ur of the Chaldees which were confidently assigned to the year 3100 B.C., and beneath them was another layer, many centuries earlier. No one then said, 'Impossible! Absurd! That would be before the Flood!' Yet it was exactly in that antediluvian mood that the foundations of our Western dates for India were laid, a century and a half since, when Warren Hastings was the great patron of Sanskrit learning. The docile followers of Archbishop Ussher were still unconsciously conspiring to dwarf the world in time, just as Galileo's judges contracted the universe in space. Indian chronology suffered a detriment which has not yet been repaired.

The wise men of India looked back, not to a few centuries of past history, but to many millenniums. And they also steadily contemplated epochs of man's existence, and of the world's, to be reckoned, not by thousands, but by many millions of years. The universe, for them, was beginningless in time, and infinite in extent.

And they had for their large calculations an admirable instrument which the West has only recently borrowed from them. We speak of the Arabic figures which displaced the clumsy reckoning of the Romans. They are not really Arabic, but Indian, and it seems likely that they were adapted from the initial letters of the Sanskrit numerals. To show the immense intellectual reach of these ancient Aryans, it is well worth while to cite their conception of the larger numbers, as they are set forth, for example, in the Buddhist scripture called Abhidhamma. The first large number is called a laksha, a hundred thousand; the modern form is lakh, or lac, and the Treasury of British India still reckons in lacs of rupees. Then followed a koti, ten millions, modernized as a crore. But this

is only the beginning. From the koti upward, each succeeding numeral is ten million times the preceding; they are, in fact, the square, the cube, and the higher powers of the crore. For these ascending numbers there are definite names up to the twentieth power of ten millions, or one followed by one hundred and forty ciphers. There is nothing constricted about that. It would be entirely easy to express either in Sanskrit or in Pali the vast distances of our modern astronomers; to translate the hundred million light years with which we measure the width of space, and to express the result in miles, or even in inches. We should still have a sheaf of numerals left unused.

Nor were these huge numbers mere playthings of the Aryan mathematicians. They were measuring sticks for their conceptions both of time and of space. To begin with, they assigned to the antiquity of man a period so immense that even Western science, a few short decades back, would have dismissed it as ridiculous and absurd, exactly as our early Sanskritists dismissed the very modest date, 3101 B.C., for the close of the Mahabharata war.

But our anthropologists are gaining courage. A dozen years ago Sir Arthur Keith ended his fine work on man's antiquity by saying that he knew of no facts which made impossible the existence of man in the Miocene period. This would take us back not less than four or five million years. Only a few months back Henry Fairfield Osborn said that the prologue of human life must be sought even earlier, in the Oligocene, which preceded the Miocene, and he fixed that time as sixteen million years ago.

This in itself is sufficiently striking, and it involves a remarkable coincidence, for, some forty or fifty years back, certain of the Brahman computations

were published in India which gave to our present mankind an antiquity of over eighteen million years. Forty or fifty years ago even our most liberal-minded anthropologists would have called this absurd and ridiculous. Only in 1927 have we ventured to approach the traditional Aryan figures for the immense antiquity of man.

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We have our series of geological ages, Archæozoic, Palæozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic often subdivided into groups of four. Thus in the Mesozoic there are the Triassic, Jurassic, Comanchean, and Cretaceous; in the Cenozoic there are Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, and Pliocene, leading us up to Pleistocene and modern times. It is interesting to note that ancient India had a somewhat similar system, consisting of Kalpas and Yugas, and also divided fourfold. Thus the Yugas are arranged in a series of four, in the proportion of one, two, three, four. This group makes a total of 4,320,000 years, called a great Yuga. But this is only the beginning. For two thousand of these great Yugas are needed to make up a Kalpa, which is thus a period of 8,640,000,000 years. This immense period of nearly nine billion years is but one day and night of the formative Power, whose lifetime, one cosmic period, consists of a hundred years of such days and nights. So the ancient Aryans had plenty of scope for their big numerals.

It is difficult to say whether these Aryan periods are based on geological or on astronomical thinking, but there is at least a suggestion that they are the former. The ancient Aryans spoke of a succession of Avataras, or 'Descents of Life.' So we have the fish-descent, the tortoise-descent, the man-lion-descent, and then the human incarnations. And this succession immediately suggests the age of fish, the age of reptiles, the age of mammals, and the age of man.

But we need not lay too much stress on details. It is enough for us to realize that only in the last few decades has Western thought approached the vast reach of ancient Aryan thought. For our early Orientalists, in the days of Warren Hastings, these long periods were simply unthinkable and meaningless. So they blandly discarded them and made up, for India, a chronology more in harmony with the civilized views of Archbishop Ussher.

III

The larger age in the West began with the discoveries of Becquerel and the Curies, thirty years ago. Once the facts of radioactivity were established, geologists began to see that there was in them a possible basis for a new computation of the age of the world. Thus our radioactive geologists hold that certain Eocene deposits are thirty million years old, while Archæan rocks may go back one billion or even sixteen hundred million years - periods with the fine amplitude of the old Aryan Yugas and Kalpas. But this is not all. One of the masters of radioactivity, Frederick Soddy, following out the speculations of Joly, has dared to suggest that the pent-up radioactive forces in the earth will one day fuse the whole mass and turn it into incandescent gas. According to Joly, there is no evidence that this has not already occurred more than once, nor any assurance that it will not recur. The accumulation of thermal energy within a world containing elements undergoing atomic disintegration during the 'geological age' must alternate with a state of things which might be termed the 'incandescent age.' This periodic cycle of changes must continue until the elements in question have disintegrated that is, over a period which radioactive measurements indicate is of the order

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