I read a while ago that physicists were arguing over the wisdom of analysing the complete dataset from the latest probe which is measuring the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Why? Because from it we will soon have all the data it is possible for us to have on the origins of the universe. And if we analyse it all, we will have closed the book of history on our ultimate origins – there will be nothing more for future generations of physicists to know.

I was reminded of this by a lively conversation on the history of Western Art the other day. I’ve recently bought myself a primer which takes you from cave paintings to cubism and contemporary modern art.

In the early pages, just how small the sliver is, of what survives from antiquity, becomes obvious. There are no paintings, often no original statues and incredibly few fragments from entire cities, kingdoms and civilisations. The ‘cosmic background radiation’ of western culture is largely mapped. What we have is probably all there is.

But although only a fragment, it has been a treasure trove down the centuries. In the writings of Montaigne, his many references to Plutarch, Seneca, Horace et al were the ‘classical education’ which in his time (or in fact slightly before it as he lamented) were the gold standard. A Renaissance man who knew his ‘Greats’, knew everything that was worth knowing.

Paraphrasing Wikipedia, perhaps there is still something to be said for ‘Philo’s Rule’ of ‘classical education’: preserving those words and ideas which impart intellectual and aesthetic appreciation of “the best, which has been thought and said in the world”.

For the polymath, history is the easiest framework on which to hang intellectual curiosity. The past is finite. But, unlike the cosmic background radiation, the arrow of time for the living is forwards – at least for a few decades.

So, I think there’s a balance to strike between a good investment in “the best” that has been thought, said and painted, and keeping abreast of the ephemera of today. History has winnowed and filtered, but it has also carelessly and randomly mulched, ignored and forgotten.

Time marches on. And who knows which of today’s ‘cave paintings’ will be remembered 10,000 years from now. Daubing is as important as appreciating the daubing of others.

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