ASSOCIATES (vol. 5, no. 2, November 1998) -

Questioning the Millennium

Stephen Jay Gould
Harmony Books

Reviewed by:

Dr. Bob Farnsworth
Senior Library Technical Assistant
University of North Florida Library

The author of Questioning the Millennium, Stephen Jay Gould, is the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Geology at Harvard. He is also a Visiting Professor of Biology at New York University. As such, he brings an historical and scientific slant on the current preoccupation with the end/beginning of the millennium.

As people who work in libraries, we are going to be involved more and more with the whole subject. Professor Gould has written a book which helps to calm some of the fears raised by the media--and he also helps to answer some of the questions many of us have--or are expected to be able to answer.

Gould has predicted that there will be an overabundance of books dealing with this time in humanity’s history. However, he also admits that this is about the only prediction he is planning to make. He will make no predictions about human futures, either for years, decades, millennia, or geological ages; or for individuals, family lineages, or races; or for cities, nations, hemispheres, or galaxies. Instead, he reminds us that the whole idea of a millennium is arbitrary and a quirk of humanity, for nature recognizes no divisions by thousands. In fact, to keep things in perspective, we are reminded that several cultures developed entirely functional (and beautifully complex) mathematical systems on bases other than 10 and, therefore, with no special status attached to the number 1,000 at all.

The author does believe that there are points to the millennial fascination. Such a device helps us to impose a sense of order on a complicated world (just as we do with other types of numbering and classification). Second, there is a certain mysticism to numbers. And a millennium helps to confirm the idea of our ability to predict a forthcoming end (though some would always predict the end as being an apocalypse).

Why is 1,000 the important number? As Professor Gould tells us, millennial thinking is embedded in the two major apocalyptic books of the Bible--Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New. In particular, the traditional Christian millennium is a future epoch that will last for one thousand years and end with a final battle and Last Judgment of all the dead. Whether or not we are in agreement with the ideas or statements in the Bible, we can see the influence the idea has had and still has on historical perspective.

All in all, there are many interesting features to this book. It is quite a fast read at 179 pages--and can give a calm--and humorous--focus on our upcoming shift in the calendar.

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