January 2, 2000

The Third Millennium: So Far, So Good

For 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 go nuts."

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 invented.

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.

Pre-first-millennium inventions:

First-millennium inventions:
The windmill

Second-millennium inventions:
Eggplant parmigiana
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