Take a history of civilization course. There are approximately six thousand years of recorded history. During a college course, the students meet in class three hours a week for thirty two weeks. That means they will receive ninety-six hours of in-class instruction, not counting their time outside of class reading the textbook and studying.
While that may seem like a lot of time, consider how much “time” needs to be condensed to cram all that has ever happened to everyone into but ninety-six hours. Each year, after all, consists of 8760 hours; perhaps one hundred billion human beings have lived on Earth since human beings first appeared. Some of those human beings we classify as significant because of the art, literature, inventions, politics and fighting that they were involved in: that is, the important people are considered important due to the consequences and influence of their lives. Alexander the Great stands out, since he conquered the known world and spread Greek culture, while a baker in a corner shop in Athens who lived during the same period does not.
But Aristotle, who was Alexander the Great’s teacher is memorable, and not just because of his relationship with Alexander, but because of his impact as a philosopher, an impact that extended from his era even to the present: Aristotle affects how modern human beings think about the world, even those who have never heard his name.
Alexander and Aristotle are but two individuals from one moment in time, from one spot in Europe, from about three hundred thirty years before Jesus was born. Consider that a biography of either of those individuals could run to several hundred pages, and barely contain but a swift overview of the events of their lives. And yet, in a history of civilization course, they might each receive but a single page in the textbook.
What the author of the Gospel of John concluded of Jesus is true of any human being: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25). So now multiply that times the number of significant human beings, and the events in which they’ve been involved over the last six thousand years.
One of the big problems for creating an history of the world is picking out the people and events to tell about: those that help to explain, in the words of one historian describing the value of history, “the world is a weird place. I wondered how it got to be that way.” At each moment in the telling of the tale, one has to ask: is this individual, is this tribe, is this nation, are these events vital to the telling of the big story? It is similar to the problem a director of a motion picture is faced with. Many more hours of film are created than will appear in the movie that fans will watch on a Saturday night. The director sifts through the images, cutting and pasting, deciding that a given scene, a given incident, doesn’t really move the story along. We are sometimes allowed to see what is left out in the outtakes that are part of the extras on a DVD or Blu-ray; and most of the time, we can see why the director decided those extra minutes or more were not needed.
So in summarizing the history of the world, many people, many interesting people and nations and tribes and literatures and events will wind up on the cutting room floor. They may have been important and popular in their time; they may have been meaningful to the people and the nations that they came from: but in the broader sweep of history, they have to be left out. I’m reminded of a Canadian I knew, who thought there was a conspiracy being perpetrated by American news organizations: they didn’t talk about all the wonderful contributions that Canada had made.
The robotic arms on the International Space Station and the Shuttle are certainly useful and important, and for Canadians, really big news. But for people in the United States, the astronauts, the rocket boosters, the shuttles themselves tend to overshadow robotic arms. It isn’t a personal slight, it isn’t a conspiracy; it’s just the nature of reality. In a small pond, the big fish gets noticed. Plop pond and fish into the ocean, it disappears. It’s just how history is. In considering the importance of any individual, work of art, piece of music, political movement, or literature, think about what the world remembers of events and people from two hundred years ago. Little of the popular music, popular literature, actors, and the like endure. How many presidents from the nineteenth century do most people know? Abraham Lincoln. How many popes of the last two thousand years do people remember? Only those who lived during their own lifetimes. Fame is fleeting. Only the important endure. And therefore, history books barely scratch the surface of all that happened. There is more you’ll never know, or even know you’re missing, than you could learn in a dozen lifetimes.