In the previous installment I started describing some of the things “everybody knows” today and how they differ from what “everybody knew” at the time of Galileo. The first was the assumption that long ago there was a golden age when everything was perfect, and that things have gone downhill ever since. We tend to assume the opposite, thinking that the past was primitive and that today is better than yesterday. In other words, the reigning metaphor for time used to be degeneration, now it is growth.
This applies in particular to how people think about knowledge and learning. Galileo’s contemporaries, just as countless generations before them, thought that the fullness of knowledge existed in the mythical past, and that ignorance started creeping in with time. The most classical of text epitomizing this view is Plato’s dialogue Critias which describes Atlantis: the apex of civilization, perfect in every way – except that it is lost. Not only is Atlantis lost but even the very knowledge of her is lost, too, and one of the crucial points of the dialogue is that the knowledge of Atlantis had only been available to the priests (guardians of mysteries) in Egypt (the most ancient of all surviving realms) until Solon brought it to Greece.
Notice how the process of learning is described in Critias. Learning does not mean discovering anything truly new, discovering things no one knew ever before. On the contrary. Learning is simply discovering things that were once known but have been forgotten. In this respect, learning is more like refreshing the memory of an old man. The old man here represents humanity on its slow and inexorable way towards deterioration and ruin.
In Plato’s world, learning is a paradox. On the one hand it is somewhat futile because even if somehow a select few manage to gain some knowledge, by the time they can make a difference, they die. Even worse, even though civilizations arise from time to time, they inevitably fail and fall into oblivion. On the other hand, learning is the only worthy exercise. Indeed, it is the only way to genuine happiness because if you manage to recall Truth from the recesses of time, you will recall the divine, eternal origin of your own immortal soul.
For millennia, learning meant unearthing long-lost knowledge of our mythical ancestors. In Galileo’s times, this view was as strong as ever, if not stronger. Remember that it was Renaissance which experienced the most striking example of precisely such an “unearthing”: The long-lost manuscripts of Antiquity were being discovered and avidly studied. Never before in history was there a period with more reason to adhere to the classical theory of the Golden Age of the past. Indeed, the whole point of the Renaissance was to recreate the Golden Age. Even though impossible to reach the long-lost perfection, this effort could at least bring about a Silver Age.
Only a very strong individual, like Galileo, could think himself brilliant enough to have discovered an entirely different path of learning.