Article  How the ancient philosophers imagined the end of the world (eschatology)

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INTRO: What are the main threats to the continued survival of humanity? What catastrophes lie ahead? These may seem like uniquely modern questions posed by contemporary thinkers in the growing field of existential risk.

Yet, millennia ago, ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were already formulating and debating such questions. While these thinkers had radically different ways of looking at the world and one’s place in it, they all agreed that some form of apocalyptic catastrophe awaited humans in the future.

How can we explain this interest? One of the main reasons is that ancient philosophers realised that the end of the world is ‘good to think with’. End-of-the-world narratives allow for a form of time travel. They offer a vision of the future while permitting us to safely witness the coming catastrophe.

The stories we tell about the end of the world reveal much about our current world view and how the past and present have shaped our current trajectory. Unlike the Biblical tradition, which sees the end of the world as a day of divine wrath and judgment in which the elect are saved and the rest are damned, ancient Greek and Roman philosophers saw the end of the world as a natural process that was part of the regular functioning of the cosmos. They largely posited that human development is limited, and that humanity and world catastrophe are inextricably linked. Nature has imposed fixed and inexorable limits to human growth and development. Such messages are increasingly urgent today.

In the ancient world, as today, there were many different scenarios for how the world might end, and these were often in critical dialogue with each other as well as with earlier stories about destructions by fire and water. Already in the 6th century BCE, Anaximander may have posited that all of Earth’s water will eventually dry up, leaving a parched and barren world without life. By contrast, his successor Xenophanes argued that the world will actually be destroyed by water... (MORE - details)

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