When I was younger, I loved spending hours pursuing counterfactuals through historical implications.
What if literacy had never taken off?
What if nobody had ever thought of skinning a goat or a sheep for making parchment?
What if the critical mass of ancient thought had just faded out beyond all knowledge like so many pre-classical civilizations?
What if the Athenians hadn’t been bothered by anything else other than sea domination?
What if Plato had followed the example of his master and never written anything down?
What if the Roman Empire hadn’t broken down into a myriad of polities and evolved like China or India?
What if Arabic numerals hadn’t reached the West?
What if medieval monks had just prayed and never thought of losing their eyesight in copying every book they found lying around?
What if Gutenberg had continued to be obsessed solely by goldsmithing?
What if Luther had recanted and gone back home in peace?
What if the Florentines had just carried on making war on one another unbothered by the hauntings of beauty?
What if Descartes had just been satisfied with self-delusion?
What if Galileo and Kepler had just kept on reading Aristotle and Ptolemy?
The human journey through history has cut across oceans of possibilities. On the one hand, all the above questions are foolish. On the other, they foreground the precariousness of the human project — and that everything we value and are grateful for today could easily not have happened, for reasons that even our wildest imagination cannot fathom.