- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 1999

What a millennium this has been. From the perspective of the last day of the second thousand years of the Christian era, it would seem that history has decided to step on the accelerator and is driving humanity towards the future with breakneck speed. If we keep going at a pace like this, heaven knows where Y3K will find human beings. Perhaps we will sit on Mars, genetically modified to suit the environment, and as a consequence of being a little bored with the predictability of our own solar system, plotting how to take the leap to interstellar or intergalactic travel.

The average human lifespan being as yet some 70-plus years, perspectives on matters millennial are by necessity somewhat limited. The past 1,000 years have given spectacular rise to Western civilization, which may have the aspect of being inevitable, but of course never was. German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, whose works on the historical dialectic inspired Karl Marx, believed that history had in fact reached its pinnacle with the political theory of the enlightenment monarchy of Prussian king Frederick the Great. So much for Hegel's perspective. As it turned out, there were pretty eventful times to come in the 19th and 20th centuries. And political systems had a long way to develop, through evolution and conflict, before we reached the ascendancy of liberal democracy today. As one of Hegel's critics remarked, to see the end of history you have to look at it from the outside. No human being has that power, Francis Fukayama, notwithstanding.

It is also the case that civilizations have come and gone before, and that the foundations of some of the oldest non-Western civilizations still endure. In the name of perspective a few dates: By 3,500 B.C. the Chinese were building towns and the Egyptians were creating elegant hieroglyphs. Around 2,500 B.C. the Egyptians had started work on the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx, which are still among the wonders of the world. By comparison, it took the Brits, or their forebears, another 500 years before they got around to Stonehenge, which may have its charms, but hardly counts as one of the marvels of world architecture. Around 1,500 B.C. the Chinese invented silk and the Sun Pyramid in Mexico was completed. In the millennium that predated the birth of Christ, Indians recorded the first use of the zero, the Babylonians invented the calendar and the zodiac signs, Alexander the Great conquered Persia, and Hannibal dragged his elephants across the Alps. And before all that even, went two million years of unrecorded human history. Did Homo Sapiens back then have celebrations around the cave fires, you wonder? If they did, it was without new years to celebrate and without the fireworks.

The two great driving forces that shaped the second millennium A.D. and produced the dominance of Western civilization were religious and political. For centuries, before the rise of the nation state, the church was really the only source of social organization, learning and law throughout Europe. A visit to any of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe serves as a reminder that human beings were just as capable 800 years ago of astonishing feats of imagination and engineering back then as they are today, with their faith as the motivating factor. Some of their artistic skills seem to have been lost as industry and technology commanded human energies. One thing is for certain, 20th century art is not where these talents have manifested themselves. And many of the social problems we struggle with today have their roots in the loss of religion as the rock foundation of our endeavors.

Politically, though, those of us lucky enough to live in a liberal democracy like the United States owe a debt of gratitude to the British, the first people to give the world the concept of property rights and the rule of law. The essential document in this regard is Magna Carta, a copy of which can be found on display at the National Archives here in Washington. Being imposed by the barons in their own interest on the hapless King John in 1215, it was not exactly the embodiment of democratic ideals. But Magna Carta did check the power of the crown and made the king a subject of the law himself, a principle that was also confirmed in the two English revolutions in the 17th century. It is to the Anglo-Saxon political tradition, as opposed to the French or the German, that the American revolutionaries owed their debt. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers the U.S. Constitution they saw themselves as upholding constitutional principles that had been violated by George III.

It was the potent combination of individual rights, property ownership, democratic governance all of which were extended to the entire citizenry in this country only in the 20th century and still are far from universal that produced the dynamic self-sustaining and wealth-creating Western culture we know today. On balance, we have much to be grateful for. And if the speed of technological advance sometimes appears to outpace our capacity to comprehend, it is always worth recalling that when the fireworks go off tonight we are not just celebrating the future but also the past. We are undeniably marking a religious event 2,000 years ago. No matter what your faith that spiritual content is as important today, on the threshold of the third millennium, as ever it was. A little humilitywill not hurt either as we contemplate the many generations that have gone before and ponder what we can do to improve ourselves and the lives of our neighbors.

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