January 2, 2000
The Third Millennium: So Far, So Good
By STEVE MARTIN
or me, and I assume for most
of you -- since whatever I'm thinking so too is the nation -- it was difficult to know exactly
what to celebrate on Dec. 31, 1999. Do I celebrate the end of the year, the end of the 20th century
or the end of the millennium? I chose the one remaining option, and therefore I assume so did
most of you: the end of the day. This made for significantly reduced partying intensity. However,
waking up on Saturday, knowing that Friday was now over, I felt compelled to write about the past
2,000 years and the changes that would be wrought in this new age. This was indeed a challenge
to me as I desired to write the history of humankind, past, present and future, without bothering
to do any research.
A Short History of Thought
It is of course impossible to offer anything but a cursory look at the history of thought
in the few paragraphs I'm allotted here. For more elaborate study see my book "The Long History
of Thought" or, for the enthusiast, "The Very Long and Heavy History of Thought, So Long You
Can't Believe It."
Before Jan. 1, 0000, thought did not exist. Yes, there were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle,
but their one-word names keep them from being taken seriously as philosophers. Think of them
as the early Greek equivalent of Cher, Liberace and Madonna: great entertainers, but their views
on the nature of the universe are somehow not sticking. Of course Plato can't be faulted for
naïvely thinking of the world in terms of forms and shadows; technology was not advanced
enough for him to have known that the universe is composed of tiny particles called "futons."
And think of poor Socrates, with his simple answer to the question "What is justice?" There
was just no way for him to have foreseen a jury's $3 million payout to a McDonald's customer
who spilled a cup of too-hot coffee in her lap.
Aristotelian thought dominated culture for 1,500 years and was immediately dumped when it
was discovered that the center of the universe was not earth, as Aristotle had claimed, but
was actually Donald Trump. Aristotle's metaphysics were then succeeded by the religious philosophy
of the Roman Catholic Church, which created a fervor that resulted in the creation of many great
paintings and sculptures, and inspired men to turn casual comments like "I need a little something
over the sofa" into monumental works of art. In fact, it was Pope Sixtus IV who remarked to
Michelangelo upon seeing the Sistine Chapel for the first time, "I said paint the ceiling, not
The dogma of the church was challenged in the mid-17th-century by René Descartes's
famous pronouncement "Cogito ergo sum" ("I am nervous about having to add"), and the age of
rationalism began. Rationalism then gave way to empiricism, and David Hume declared that it
was impossible to know if anything existed at all, though later he recanted when he stubbed
his toe on a doorjamb.
Thought continued unchanged until the end of the second millennium, except for a brief moment
in the early 20th century when Ludwig Wittgenstein destroyed the foundation of all philosophical
thought, and people didn't know what to believe anymore, causing them to feel lost, hopeless
and fearful. This resulted in the biggest clothes-buying spree the world has ever seen.
The third millennium, now well into its second day, appears to have taken thought to new and
unexpected extremes. The first of such extremes appears to be that the fundamental philosophical
belief of the 1990's, the personal tattoo statement, is no longer tenable, and 200,000 indelibly
inked young people will be shipped off to a special holding farm in Java. Out of concern for
them, they will be kept in the dark about the fact that the fad has passed.
Morality Through the Centuries
The history of thought not only deals with philosophy but ethics and morality as well. I offer
the advanced student of moral history the following summary:
Roman era: anything goes
Medieval era: nothing goes
Renaissance: anything goes
17th-century Spain: nothing goes
18th-century France: anything goes
19th-century England: nothing goes
1920's America: anything goes
1950's America: nothing goes
1990's America: anything goes
Even as rhythmic as these statistics are, it is impossible to predict the moral tenor of even
the next few years, because of the Elvis factor. The Elvis factor is the tendency of an era
with one consistent and rigid moral philosophy to be upset and radically altered by a simple,
uneducated hillbilly with a new idea.
Communication in the Third Millennium
Communication has changed so rapidly in the last 20 years, it's almost impossible to predict
what might occur even in the next decade. E-mail, which now sends data hurtling across vast
distances at the speed of light, has replaced primitive forms of communication such as smoke
signals, which sent data hurtling across vast distances at the speed of light. Let's suppose
that you want to say, "I am a jerk." In the 18th century, you would have to go around person
to person and utter the phrase individually to each one of them. However, here in the third
millennium, with our advances in telephone communication, it is possible to say, "I am a jerk"
to a thousand people at a time by forgetting to turn off your cell phone and having it ring
during a performance of "Death of a Salesman."
Also, there is now a sophisticated communication technique used between men and women that
eases marital strain and opens wide the doors of understanding between the sexes. This new technique,
developed by psychologists and sociologists, is called "listening." It will be interesting to
see if the new technique lasts or whether it will disappear and be replaced by older, more traditional
methods, such as "leaving the room."
Art in the Third Millennium
I sometimes wonder if a 19th-century artist could have imagined a Picasso. I wonder if Raphael
didn't one day scratch out a nice Cubist doodle and toss it in the fireplace, or if Goya ever
conjured up a de Kooning, dismissed it and went on with his work. I think not. It seems logically
impossible for a thought to be dreamed up before its time, even with the obvious catch that
once it is thought up, it is, by definition, its time. All this means nothing for the real world
except that the art of the third millennium is unknowable by us, just as the art of Picasso
was unknowable to Manet, though Cézanne might have, on one odd night, dreamt it.
But it is clear -- mayors aside -- that art will continue. The great moments in art history
occur when the hitherto unthinkable thought coalesces in the brain of someone capable of manifesting
it. Yes, something is waiting out there in the misty future, with "unknown" as its caption,
that we cannot, no way, imagine. Once the new art is created, however, it is up to us to ensure
its rightful place in the pantheon of art history by persecuting and denouncing it.
It is interesting to note that the current art scene, with its bent toward video works, installations
and performance, has devastated the picture hook industry. In fact, one C.E.O. of a popular
picture hook company, who used to vacation yearly in New York, Paris and Venice, is now spending
his summers at the New York, Parisian and Venetian casinos in Las Vegas.
Our Wonderful New Millennium
The third millennium, with its exciting parties and fireworks, puts to shame the incredibly
dull first millennium and already outshines the violent second millennium with a significantly
reduced statistic of accidental deaths by longbow. The parties and celebrations surrounding
the birth of this newest and best millennium also point to its importance. There was no celebration
at the start of the first millennium, as it was not known that it had begun, and the celebration
at the end of the year 999 was muted because the rotating, mirrored party ball had not yet been
We can measure the impact and value of each age by looking at a brief history of its inventions
and accomplishments. It is lamentable that there have been only three millenniums, and the poor
folk who lived before the "age of millenniums" thought they were having a good time but are
actually condemned to hell.
The Chinese finger trap
Third-millennium inventions, since Jan. 1, 2000:
Nine bug fixes on Windows 98
My Dream for the Future
My dream is simple. It is that this millennium, nay, even this decade, will be the first in
which we stop referring to centuries by the one-off method. How many schoolboys have been perplexed
forever because we refer to the 1900's as the 20th? Why are the 1800's the 19th century?
After all, when we are 39 years old and someone asks us our age, we don't say, "I'm starting
my 40th year!" Why must we pause and recalculate every time we mention a century and have to
figure out that the 17th century, even though it begins with a 16, is not really the 16th century
because the 1st century, which has no "1" in front of it, actually counts as a century and the
century that has a "1" in front of it is really the 2nd century?
So right now let's start calling the third millennium the second millennium. After
all, doesn't this millennium start with a 2? You ask, so how will we refer to the first millennium,
the one that begins with all the zeros? Easy. We will not refer to it. We will pretend
it never existed. There is no point referring to an era whose biggest accomplishment was the
windmill, and you know what? We'll get along fine without it. Problem solved.
A Sad Note
I hesitate to point out that by the end of this, the second millennium, we will all
be dead. This is especially sad to me, as my life seems to be much more valuable than other
people's, what with my special love of flowers and poetry. Worse, it is discomforting to think
that once I'm gone, all my things will be owned by someone else. There will be people living
in my house, wearing ridiculous hairdos, who will think of me and my age as hideously old-fashioned
and moronically stupid, and who will look at our newspapers and see ads for clothes-storage
shrink-wrap suction machines that will make them roar with laughter.
On the other hand, it is comforting to note that these people will also be frighteningly stupid,
sitting on their "sunflower" chairs, wearing their "wigwam" slippers and eating brain-enhancing
toad power-pellets just as embarrassing as anything we ever sat on, wore or consumed. And perhaps
you and I will be a few atoms in the raindrops that fall on them and ruin their day.
A Final Thought
When I was a boy, I calculated how old I would be in the year 2000. I was shocked to see that
when the millennium arrived, I was fully 10 years younger than I expected to be. But then, I'm
in show business. Some of us are beginning our lives, some are in the middle, and some are at
the end (I have a proof of this statement, but it will not fit in the margins). But it is wonderful
to think that if one day all of us humans, regardless of race or creed, could lay down our differences
and create a human chain by circling the globe and holding hands, we would all come down with
exactly the same cold.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company