Back to On the Road with John Tarleton

January Book Review

Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown
by Stephen Jay Gould, 1997, Harmony Books.
Reviewed by John Tarleton

The hype around the millennium will only pick up speed in this coming year. The 21st Century has not even begun and it already embodies powerful ideas in the collective imagination: advanced computers, space travel, the many marvels of high technology. And because so many 0's are about to turn over on the chronological odometer, we all just know something big is going to happen.

If you are one of those who scratches your head and wonders how all the hoopla began and what if anything it means, Stephen Jay Gould's "Questioning the Millennium" is a quick delightful romp through the history of millenarian thinking.

A Man at Home in the Past

Reading the odd but illuminating tangents and meandering asides that proliferate throughout Gould's writing, one can envision him as he appears when he is lecturing: an ebullient teddy bear of a man stepping back from the podium to take off his reading glasses and brush back his wavy silver hair as he starts off on another line of thought; excitable and filled with childlike wonder at the astonishing variety of things there are in this world to learn, understand and try to explain.

Gould, who is a professor of geology and zoology at Harvard University, is accustomed to roaming around in the past, speculating in his numerous books about everything from the origin of species to the disappearance of the .400 hitter in baseball. In "Questioning the Millennium" he returns to a long-held thesis of his: that all notions of progress (or even evolution) are arbitrary constructs, an attempt to make sense of a confusing, chaotic world. This time he delves into the fairly recent past as he explores the development of millenarian thinking over the last 2,000 years.

A Refuge for the Poor and the Dispossessed

Millenarian thinking has often been the refuge of the poor, the dispossessed or the simply discontented who are looking for a swift and sudden reversal of their fortunes. Present-day religious groups such as the Hutterites, the 7th Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses were originally millenarian movements that eagerly anticipated the End of the World. The Ghost Dance Movement of the Plains Indians that culminated in the Massacre at Wounded Knee fused bits of Christianity with Native beliefs. More recently, the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult in California was fueled by an odd amalgamation of apocolyptic Christian thinking with pop science fiction.

Millenarian beliefs, however, are pliable enough to be of use to the Powers-That-Be. Conservatives, for instance, sometimes suggest that preserving the environment is of little importance (not to mention burdensome and costly!) when the End Days are so near at hand.

Going against the grain of our day, Gould offers no predictions about what the coming millennium holds in store for us. Nor, does he mention the Y 2K Crisis, which could become a case of our apocolyptic numerology inadvertently fulfilling itself. But one thing seems certain as he reveals the millennium's quircky, eccentric past: when the present-day hype inevitably fades, other far-fetched ideas will gain followings.

The Irony of the Millennium

Ironically, as Gould points out, the millennium as an idea was first used to describe the 1,000 year period of bliss following Jesus's Second Coming. Later, as the much-delayed Second Coming receded further and further into the future, the millennium was transformed into the 1,000 year increments of time that would precede Jesus's return. The key Biblical passage can be found in St. Peter's Second Epistle: "But beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." (2 Peter 3:8).

Thus, it was assumed by the literal-minded that if God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, then the history of the Earth must therefore span exactly seven thousand years: six thousand of toil and suffering and one thousand of post-apocolyptic bliss to be followed by the Ressurection of the Dead and a trumpet call to appear at the Last Judgment.

How different is the present-day millennium fever! Excitement runs at least as strong as dread. Is this present-day optimism a tribute to our belief in progress or simply the by-product of hi-tech huckstering?

In "Questioning the Millennium" Gould shows us both how little and how much our thinking has changed.

John Tarleton

Back to On the Road with John Tarleton