[19 August 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
Monty Python alum and full-blown history buff Terry Jones has made a career in recent years out of hosting a variety of entertaining and insightful television programs. Like his fellow ex-Python Michael Palin, who has reinvented himself as the winningest travel show host on the tube, Jones makes for an exceedingly pleasant guide, throwing himself at the subject matter with abandon, always game for a joke at his own expense. And, again like Palin, Jones’ humour, intelligence and unfettered charm speed the narratives along, and serve as continual reminders of the astonishing genius that was at work in that little comedy troupe all those years ago.
Usually centered on an aspect of classical or medieval lore that has been overlooked, underappreciated, or just plain forgotten by the mainstream, his work emphasizes the fallacy of modern assumptions of superiority. What we think is a modern invention is most likely not so, he argues, time and again – our inventions, our ideas, our technologies all have antecedents in earlier civilizations. Indeed, so do our gravest problems.
Fine, and fair enough. But, of course, our versions of such technologies – the tank, say, which Jones argues first appeared back in the classical age, and was made of, essentially, sticks and stones – are clearly superior to those old ones. That’s not the issue, Jones would retort.
That first lightning flash of a new idea behind some as-yet-undiscovered device is what matters, not the more recent variations on the theme. And so, his films take us on journeys through Ancient Inventions, The Surprising History of Sex and Love, and the “Hidden” histories of Rome and Egypt, all in an effort to elucidate the point that it’s just plain all been done.
The cleverest (and mostly unspoken) theme underlining all of this work is that we, the modern human race, are a bunch of conceited, short-sighted idiots. How’s that? We pride ourselves on our advancing technology – a great deal of which we use either to inflict catastrophic damage on others (since most modern weaponry is absurdly destructive) or on ourselves (since we treat the ecosystem like a punching bag) – and yet we seem oblivious to the fact that past cultures have lessons to teach us about the folly of such a course. We are ever so proud of our evolved culture, our clearly better and more rational world than that of the Hobbesian past, but much of what we do today is reflected in trends from the height of previous civilizations such as the Romans, the Aztecs and the Egyptians, thousands of years ago.
Jones – like Jared Diamond, or Ronald Wright – is simply reminding us that hubris is the worst of all historical errors. To presume that we are the greatest, and that whatever we need to do to sustain our position as such is justified, is to head full bore toward the precipice.
Maybe someday a former comedian will make a clever little film about us? ‘It’ll might be called: Ancient Morons Who Destroyed the Planet for Hot Tubs and Paper Towels’.