It is hard to relate to the past.
When someone is twenty years old, anything before they were born is often considered ancient history. That’s twenty years. At forty, the same experience. In fact, many people view events from the past through the lens of their current age. It’s human nature. But there are exceptions. Music, art and written words often transcend time because they connect with something very personal inside of us. They resonate despite the centuries. For example, every year millions of people are inspired by the paintings of Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), who is one of the world’s most influential artists and lived in the city of Leiden during the Golden Age when a group of English exiles called Pilgrims also lived there because it offered them sanctuary. The Dutch ruled the seas, not the English, and they were the ones who built the island-city of New Amsterdam on the Hudson River in 1626 and made it a center of transatlantic commerce. Decades later in 1664 the British renamed it New York as a prize of war. We have long forgotten about those ancient events, but still remember the Dutch painter Rembrandt because he left an indelible impression on the world.
The rock group Queen honored the Italian genius Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) as a recurring lyric in their song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was an international music sensation as well as the winner of three 2018 Academy Awards including Best Actor. The philosopher is often considered the father of modern science and the scientific method of investigation that involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed and knowing that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. Hypotheses are formulated via inductive and deductive reasoning, and then subjected to experimentation using measurement-based testing to validate or invalidate the hypotheses. It is the bas science at the core of the world’s search for a coronavirus vaccine and cure. After four centuries, the genius of Galileo is still instructing scientists.
Every Sunday millions of people worldwide read a book translated into English by order of King James of England (1567 – 1625): the King James Bible. Despite being more than 400 years old, people still relate to the words and think about their meaning. Unlike James, who believed in the Devine Rights of Kings, most people today have a very different point of view and believe in the separation of church and state. Back then, however, people who dared to disagree with the monarch were considered treasonous, as he made clear in a speech to Parliament on March 21, 1609 “On the Devine Rights of Kings”:
The state of monarchy is the supremist thing upon earth … Kings are justly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth. … so is it sedition in subjects, to dispute what a king may do…”
It is an irony of history that the idea of decoupling those institutions began to take shape when a group of his own subjects fled to Leiden before sailing to the New World. The king who translated the Bible in order to claim divine rights for himself was the same monarch who inspired a group of English dissidents to declare that they wanted to be ruled by just and equal laws for the general good.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was writing plays for Elizabethan England that made ancient history come alive, described romance and treachery, and sparked the imagination. His words are still inspiring and thrilling readers today. They teach us to consider that the fault is not in our stars / But in ourselves, as the Julius Caesar tells his friend Brutus, who eventually orchestrates his death. The bard used figurative language to represent ideas in a way that appeals to our physical senses and was a master of metaphors that make comparisons between two unalike things using “like” and “as.” The timeless passions of rage, jealousy and love that Shakespeare described are still driving conversations today, and they were written centuries ago.
And a group of lost Pilgrims seeking a better life in the New World (1620) decided that the only way to assure their common survival was to write an agreement that bound them together. They did not want to be governed by a distant king who thought he was anointed by God. They did not want to be another Jamestown that sought to profit from slavery. They committed themselves to making their own decisions as a group for the general good, and memorialized those ideas in the Mayflower Compact.
The intersection of artistic expression and written words circa 1620 makes that year stand out as one that changed the world. For many, the Mayflower Compact has had the greatest impact because it described core democratic values that influenced the founders of a new nation and a new form of government 156 years later, the United States of America.