Arts Before The Flood

Arts before the Flood

It seems very clear to us that the antediluvians, commencing with the knowledge imparted to Adam before his fall and acquired by him subsequently, did make high improvements in the arts, and attained to a state of considerable civilization. If this be true, there is consequently no foundation for the notion of man’s gradual progress from the savage to the civilized condition. Indeed, how any one who believes in the sacred origin of the book of Genesis can take that view, is inconceivable. According to that account, the various nations of the world are descended from the men who survived the deluge, and who were certainly not an uncivilized family. They built a large and capacious vessel, and their doing this implies the possession of tools suited to so great a work; they were also skilled in agriculture; and Noah betook himself to the culture of the ground as soon as he quitted the ark; the successful management of so many diverse animals that were committed to his care in the ark, implies much knowledge of cattle. All this we know; and knowing this, it is not too much to suppose that the various members of this family possessed all the arts which existed before the deluge, and of which we have already taken some notice. Indeed there  is evidence of this in the great undertakings of their descendants, previous to their dispersion into nations and languages.

But it will be asked, if this were the original condition of mankind, how came so many forms of savage life to exist? How is it that some of the commonest social arts are unknown to many nations—that there are those to whom (as already shown) the use of fire is unknown, and that many are in their entire condition but a few degrees above the beasts that perish? Is it possible that these are descended from civilized ancestors, have lost much that their primeval fathers knew, and have retrograded rather than advanced in the scale of civilization? Painful as it may be to those who uphold the doctrine of human progress, the affirmative is, we apprehend, not only probable but certain; and might be illustrated by a cloud of examples in which nations have gone back in civilization, and have lost arts which were in former times known.

A very sensible and thoughtful writer Note: Robert Forsyth, in Observations on the Book of Genesis.] has expressed this fact perfectly in accordance with the view we have long entertained. “The first men were not wandering and ignorant savages, although those who wandered from the parent stock and ceased to have any connection with it, generally fell into a state of barbarism and ignorance, as in Africa, America, and the Asiatic and other isles. Science, arts, and civilization were confined to those who maintained their connection with the central stock of the first men, or departed in numbers sufficient to enable them to exercise and carry along with them the subdivisions of art and labor necessary to civilized life.” Besides, many of the separated parties in the course of their migrations arrived at regions in which, from the difference of products, of climate, and of the physical circumstances of the country, some of the arts cultivated by the original families were no longer needed, and would therefore cease to be cultivated, and be in a few generations forgotten.

The arts of useful life, which were lost in the process of dispersion, are known to have been recovered in the course of time, either by reinvention, under the same conditions as  those in which they were first discovered, or by renewed communication with those branches of the human family which still retained possession of them. The latter process is indicated by the numerous traditions of various ancient nations, who traced the origin of their arts and civilization to some stranger who came to them from the sea, and imparted instruction to them. And as to the former process, it is clear that families which lost the arts belonging to their original condition, when that condition became changed, often recovered them when, by the lapse of time, the population had so increased, and other circumstances had so arisen, as to restore the need for them. Hence we find the invention of various arts claimed by different nations, which could not, since the original dispersion, have had communication with each other.

Upon the whole, it seems to us that the civilization and knowledge in art of the antediluvians, and of the postdiluvians up to the dispersion, have been greatly underrated, by our views having been too much directed to the progressive civilization of particular branches of the human race, which had greatly degenerated from ancient knowledge. Indeed, when we consider the advantages which length of days afforded to the earliest generations of mankind, giving to one man in his own person the accumulated knowledge and experience of a thousand years, it seems difficult to over-estimate the advancements that may have been made, and the knowledge in art that may have been acquired. We think much of the advantages we possess in books, which give to us the knowledge of the past. But their advantages were greater. There are few books of more than two or three centuries old, from which we derive any knowledge, in at least the material arts, of any avail to us; but then fathers could impart, by the living voice and by the living practice, the knowledge of a thousand years, to sons who might build up the experience of another thousand years upon that large foundation. If man had gone on advancing to this time, at the same rate, upon the knowledge possessed by the antediluvians, it is inconceivable to what he might not have attained; or if,  indeed, we had only progressively advanced upon the knowledge possessed by the ancient Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians, or even upon that of Greece and Rome. But God has put limits to human progress, lest man should be exalted above measure. The shortening of human life, the confusion of tongues, and the consequent dispersion, did, in primeval times, the work which has since been accomplished by less direct agencies, and which have successively said to man in the highest state of his advancement, “Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther; and here shall thy proud mind be stayed.”

Thus it has come to pass, that one nation after another has become highly civilized; has fallen; the arts it possessed were lost or discontinued; dark ages followed; then arose other nations, gradually recovering these old arts, and perhaps inventing some new ones; but not more perhaps than serve to counterbalance the old ones that have not been recovered. We too much overrate the present, because we know it better than the past. But ancient histories, and monuments older than history, disclose to us that there were, two, three, and four thousand years ago, nations scarcely less advanced in material civilization, and in the arts of social life, than ourselves; and who certainly possessed arts that we do not, and were able to execute works which we cannot surpass, and some that we cannot equal, sufficient to counterbalance our possession of arts which they had not acquired, and our execution of works they had not imagined. It has been proved that many, and it may prove that more, of our inventions and improvements, are but revivals of old things. This was felt twenty-seven centuries ago, by one who knew the primeval history as well as we do, if not better; and there is deep truth in the words of the Preacher—“The thing that hath been is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun.”

From such catastrophes, which have from time to time thrown back the tide of human advancement, and prevented  man from fully gathering the fruit of the tree of knowledge, for which his soul has hungered ever since the fall, we think ourselves exempt by means of the printing press, which has embalmed our inventions and discoveries beyond the possibility of loss. It may be so: but let us grant that whatever advantage in this respect we possess, was enjoyed more abundantly by the primeval fathers, by reason of the length of their lives; so that it is morally impossible but that their material condition should have been one of high and progressive advancement, during the period which is now under our survey.

In further corroboration of the argument, that the recent invention of many arts, and the savage condition of many nations, is not adverse to the conclusion, that the fathers of mankind were not a barbarous but a cultivated people, let us listen to the hypothesis built by Plato upon natural and thoughtful reasoning from known facts. He admits that men, in these ancient times, possessed cities, laws, and arts; but desolations coming in the shape of inundations, epidemics, malaria, and the like, those that escaped betook themselves to the mountains, and kept sheep. Most of the arts and sciences which were formerly common, were then more and more disused and forgotten among them. But mankind afterwards multiplying, they descended into the valleys; and, by degrees, mutual conversation, the necessities of their condition, and the due consideration of things, gradually revived among them the arts, which had been lost by long intermission.

Sir Matthew Hale, who, in his profound work on the Primitive Origination of Mankind, incidentally touches on this subject, says—“We are not to conclude every new appearance of an art or science, is the first production of it; but, as they say of the river Tigris and some others, they sink into the ground, and keep a subterranean course, it may be for forty or fifty miles, and then break out above ground again, which is not so much a new river as the continuation and reappearance of the old: so many times it falls out with  arts and sciences, though they have their non-appearance for some ages, and then seem first to discover themselves, where before they were not known, it is not so much the first production of the art as a transition, or at least a restitution, of what was either before in another, or in the same, country or people: and thus also some tell us that guns and printing, though but lately discovered in Europe, were of far ancienter use in China.”