The Latin poet Claudian lived from about 370 to 404 A.D. He was born in Egypt but as an adult associated himself with the imperial court at Rome. One of his more famous works is the unfinished epic “The Rape of Proserpina” (De Raptu Proserpinae). The poem contains a short prologue which I have translated as follows:
The one who first created the ship and
Sliced through the boundless liquid expanse,
And churned the curling surf with makeshift oars,
Who dared commit his fragile ark to the fickle winds
And who by his enterprise revealed routes not allowed by Nature,
Entrusted himself, hesitating at the first placid waves,
Clutching the shore’s length in a trouble-free route.
Soon the voyager summons the will to test vaster bays
And let go the land, beginning to unfurl his sail to Notus’s soft wind.
Yet where bit by bit his rising boldness grew
And his heart banished paralyzing fear;
Now he broke out, roaming the sea’s open space,
Navigating with the stars in the heavens,
And conquered the Aegean and Ionian tempests.
This is not a poetic passage shrouded in ambiguity. We know precisely what Claudian is saying here, and it is an important message. He is describing man’s halting, fitful progression from timid, shore-hugging traveler to full-fledged navigator of the open seas. Man, he says, first began with the most rudimentary of ships. He was unsure of himself. The winds, the waves, and the dangerous shoals around him were terrifying realities. His boats were flimsy, his oars rude and unfinished, and his navigation skills uncertain. He dared not venture out too far from the comfortable shoreline, for unknown dangers likely awaited him. His impulse was to stay close to the shoreline, lest he be stricken by some nautical disaster. Yet slowly, steadily, he became more self-assured. He was willing to take on greater and greater projects. With the assistance of his own ingenuity (Claudian uses the word ars, or artistry), he gradually gained enough courage to seek “vaster bays.”
And this is what we may call progress. Soon he had the audacity to open up his sails to “Notus’s soft wind” (Notus is name given to the south-wind). Finally, man had gained the conviction to break out into the open sea, and conquer the tempests that would be waiting for him far from shore.
In simple but elegant language, Claudian’s short poem encapsulates the spirit of exploration. He is really describing man’s Robinson Crusoe-like transformation from frightened novice to master of his environment. One can imagine the history of exploration to be exactly like this. The anthropologists tell us that the Polynesian islands were settled in this way. It seems amazing to us today to imagine how such vast distances in the Pacific could have been traversed by men with supposedly “primitive” technology. But it is not difficult to imagine when we appreciate that human progress is incremental and agglutinative. Each generation added to what came before it. Small journeys increased the store of information that later generations used. Basic observations of the stars, winds, currents, and tides congeal into a profound understanding of the island chains scattered over the Pacific. Voyages became bigger, better equipped, and much more regular. And so were the islands of the Pacific settled.
It turns out, in fact, that the navigational systems of the ancient Polynesians were quite sophisticated. They had “charts” constructed which showed a deep understanding of celestial navigation, currents, tides, and the natural world. Certainly the Scandinavian explorers of the Dark Ages had their own methods of navigation, of which we now know little. Where there is an open space, mankind will expand to fill it. Perhaps we overestimate the need for “technology” in exploration; what really seems to matter is the desire to explore, that pestering curiosity which compels man to answer the call of the waves.
The same thing happened in the ancient Mediterranean. We begin to understand that travel and exploration are not just motivated by economic interests; instead, they spring from some elemental desire in the human consciousness to burst the boundaries the present habitat. And I think all organisms share this biological imperative: to expand to the outwards limits of every habitat. This is why it is certain—despite all economic and financial hurdles—that the human race will eventually colonize other planets. As our capacities grow, so will our biological imperatives.
But that is for the future, and it does yet affect us directly. Our responsibility now is to cultivate our urge to explore. It is our purpose to slough off our land-bound coils, and head for the open ocean. Nothing matters more than this, for herein lies the essence of both progress and survival. If our ship is not crashing forward through the surf with salty foam drenching her undulating bow, we must know we are doing something wrong. We must, as Claudian says in his last lines above, banish all paralyzing timidity and break out into the open sea; we must allow our vessel to cleave the white-capped waves, and find routes to new opportunities; and, using the stars in the heavens as guides, we will master the ocean’s squalls, and arrive triumphant at new destinations. Burst out of your confines, O seeker, and forge a way ahead!
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