A timeless thought experiment, handed down through centuries and cultures, invites us to keep the human experience (and our personal ambitions) in sharp perspective.
I vividly remember the first time I flew into São Paulo, Brazil — the ninth largest city in the world. São Paulo has a population of almost 12 million residents living within a 1,500 square kilometres (about twice the density of Shanghai).
Below, countless cars, buses, and trains scurry about, hauling passengers to destinations in every direction. Soon my plane will land and I, too, will become one of those little busybodies down there. Another airline passenger will peer out of their window shortly and not even notice my taxi, as it is swallowed into the arteries of the road network below. From this perspective, I am destined to leave the arrival gate as nothing more than a tiny dot myself — an indecipherable speck caught up in the rhythm of the city.
What is the most humanity you have seen one place at the same time? Over the centuries, many writers have invited us to engage in a timelessly fascinating thought experiment.
Imagine climbing to the peak of the highest mountain in the world. The tallest mountain conceivable. From this lofty perch, you look down and see all the affairs and concerns of humankind. You have an unparalleled perspective from this great distance: you perceive all the ambitions, projects, and plights of humanity in one view. The thought experiment poses a question: if you could see the whole human world from a single view, would it make you think about your purposes and objectives any differently? “What kind of sight do you imagine that will be when the whole earth is laid open to our view?” asks Cicero.
Herodotus, the fifth century BCE Greek historian, uses a high mountain to spark the imagination of his readers. The year is 480 BCE. Here we meet Xerxes, the king of Persia, preparing his military to invade Greece. Xerxes orders all of his troops to gather at a rendezvous point, and then he climbs to the top of a seaside mountain to marvel at the size of his army and navy together. Herodotus tells us that it was the largest armed force ever assembled in the world.
At first, Xerxes sparkles with delight. The view before him is spectacular and astounding: his regiments of soldiers and cavalries seem as numerous as the sands; his massive fleet of ships entirely block the sight of the shoreline. Sitting on his mountaintop throne, Xerxes laughs to himself, perhaps drunk on the power that he, a mere man, possesses over the world.
And then, suddenly, Xerxes starts to weep. His advisor asks why his laughter has turned to tears. “As I look out over my vast army, I can’t help but weep for the shortness of human life,” Xerxes replies. “Look at this unfathomable multitude! In a hundred years, not a single one of these men will still be alive. Existence is pitiful.”
Perspective is everything. Seeing the scale and magnitude of his army in a single frame forced Xerxes to think about the nature of human life in different terms. When you look at the rest of the world from an elevated, “transcendent” point of view, you cannot help but think differently about the destiny of its inhabitants.
In a letter to a friend, Cyprian (a third century CE theologian) presents another thought experiment based on a mountaintop analogy. Cyprian invites us “to be transported to one of the loftiest peaks of some inaccessible mountain,” from which we might gaze upon the rest of the world lying below. What do we see down there? The world as it really is. This peak elevates our perspective far above what we can observe while we are busily scuttling about, immersed in our daily chores below. But for Cyprian, the view is not pretty. From our high perch, we see all the wars, plots, and feuds. We can see all the toxic resentment and fear bubbling under the surface — often hidden, but never suppressed. “Crime is not only committed,” Cyprian observes, “but it is taught.”
Atop Cyprian’s peak, we can discern the desires and inclinations people’s character. Our view is omniscient. We see the ubiquity of hypocrisy: multitudes of people who “are accusers in public” but “criminals in private.” Cyprian wants to show us that our ambitions for honour, wealth, and prestige ultimately sentence us to these lives of treachery and deception. Just look at those rich people over there: what security does their wealth afford them? They must now spend their lives figuring out how to keep other people from stealing what they have acquired.
We can imagine ourselves going much higher still. Thousands of years before Xerxes and Cyprian stood on their mountaintops, the ancient Mesopotamians told the myth of Etana — a king who was desperate for an heir to his kingdom. To plead his case before the gods, Etana is flown up to heaven clinging to the belly of an eagle. On their upward journey, the eagle asks Etana what he sees. Etana replies: humankind looks like tiny insects buzzing about, the sea appears to be a no bigger than a stream, and the land is but the size of a garden plot. The higher they go, the less Etana can see. In fact, Etana is so disoriented and terrified that their first attempt to fly to the gods fails because he demands to be returned to the land.
If imagining a mythical king’s journey to the gods isn’t a helpful thought experiment for you, consider the scenario in more concrete terms. The Blue Marble is an iconic photograph of Earth. It was taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972, at a distance of 45,000 kilometres from the planet’s surface. This famous picture captures the reflections of many astronauts who have viewed the Earth from space. It puts human life in perspective. It reminds us that geopolitical borders are human inventions. It reminds us that our planet is a delicate, ecologically interconnected system dangling in a vacuum of gravitational equilibrium.
Seeing Earth from space often leaves such a significant psychological impact on astronauts that the experience even has a name: the overview effect. Orbiting Earth every ninety minutes forces astronauts to recalibrate many Earth-bound assumptions about things like time and distance. Seeing the world from this perspective also displays the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of everything. The interdependence of life is on display as a nonnegotiable fact. We undergo dramatic attitudinal and cognitive shifts when we have the opportunity to see the whole picture.
Speaking of space, perhaps the ultimate “high mountain” image comes to us in a photograph taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe. After speeding along at about 64,000 kilometres per hour for twelve years, the craft turned around to photograph its home planet one last time before leaving the solar system. The picture is known as the Pale Blue Dot — our planet is only visible as a distant, faint, bluish pixel. Just a molecule of the cosmos. From six billion kilometres away, Earth is merely a speck suspended in an endless space. There is no other image of Earth captured from a greater distance away.
NASA’s Pale Blue Dot image calls to mind the journey of Dante as he ascends beyond the seventh sphere of heaven. Instructed by his guide to look back at the Earth he left behind behind, he recounts
I straight obey’d; and with mine eye return’d
Through all the seven spheres, and saw this globe
So pitiful of semblance, that perforce
It moved my smiles: and him in truth I hold
For wisest, who esteems it least; whose thoughts
Elsewhere are fix’d, him worthiest call and best.
Have you ever gone star gazing on a clear evening and found yourself humbled by the magnitude of the night sky? Instead of staring at billions of tiny lights in the night sky, the Pale Blue Dot reminds us that we are inhabitants of one such little pixel — and everything we strive for and cherish are infinitesimally small properties of this dot. No matter how important we judge ourselves to be, our ambitions and accomplishments are laughably imperceptible from six billion kilometres away. Our highest priorities and pressing deadlines are reduced to microscopic invisibility from here.
“Compared with heaven all this earth is but as tiny dot on a wide board,” said Boethius, the sixth-century Roman philosopher. Compared to the vastness of the universe, Geoffrey Chaucer later described Earth as the prick of a needle, and the bulk of its inhabitant’s activities amounting to vanity.
Imaging an elevated view of the planet has prompted many to reflect on the nature of political aspiration. Imagining himself surveying earth from the far reaches of the Milky Way, Cicero, the statesman of Rome, writes, “the earth itself appeared to me so small, that it grieved me to think of our empire, with which we cover but a point, as it were, of its surface.” Sancho, the faithful companion to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, gives up his ambition for a governorship on such an occasion: “What is there grand in being ruler on a grain of mustard seed, or what dignity or authority in governing half a dozen men about as big as hazel nuts?”
When our perspective is violently jarred and reconfigured, we often find the new view discomforting. Xerxes saw that human life was pitifully short in the grand scheme of things. Cyprian saw that humans are chronically prone to hypocrisy. Cicero and Cervantes saw the futility of posturing for political gain. The Pale Blue Dot might tempt us to think that all human endeavours are ultimately meaningless compared to the vastness of the universe. However, all these reactions boil down to personal value judgments. In contrast, seeing Earth from space might also remind us how awesome it is to be alive at all. Such experiences might just as easily increase our appreciation for life instead of diminishing it. Cyprian could have used his omniscient vision to scan for examples of human hope and tenacity. Xerxes could have left the mountain committed to cherishing his remaining days, appreciatively cognizant of life’s temporality. “Seeing it all,” so to speak, can be liberating.
Friedrich Nietzsche perhaps said it best: the person who climbs the highest mountains laughs at tragedies.
All of these mountaintop examples highlight a common phenomenon: shifting our perspective can significantly shift our mindset. Just looking at things from a new angle — or from very far away — forces us to think about what we see differently. “Perspective is everything” is more than just a nice idiom.
Let’s come back to earth for another thought experiment. Imagine the largest city you have ever visited. Imagine that there is a giant mountain just on the outskirts of the suburbs. Imagine that you climb up to the peak and, like Xerxes and Cyprian, sit down to peer at the world below. However, from this summit you see the city vista not only as it is today, but as it has transformed over time. Like a high-speed time-lapse video, the landscape beneath you morphs. You watch generations of indigenous inhabitants adapt to the region; you see all the invasions, conquests, and colonizers; you see all the despots and revolutions; you watch the never-ending evolution of building styles, fashion designs, and social conventions; you see you spikes and drops in the rate of new construction as the value of the region’s commodities fluctuates. You see the never ending evolution of symbols, tokens, and trinkets that humans use to signal their fame and self-importance to one another.
In a matter of only a few hours, centuries pass before your eyes.
Suddenly the frenetic slideshow stops and the playback returns to “real-time” — the city “arrives” in the present. As they have done for hundreds of years, the citizens below continue bustling about buying and selling; loving and fighting; praying and doubting. Is there anything new under the sun? You see believers and skeptics, conservatives and liberals, and traditionalists and progressives, all angrily shouting at each other — all insisting on the hollowness of each other’s ideas. But from here, they all kind of look similar, don’t they? They sound like little, microscopic ants throwing temper tantrums. Their insistence and certainty about “the way things are” seems redundant and predictable. What do we make of humanity? What do we make of ourselves?
Moments of heightened perspective are priceless. These vistas temporarily jerk us awake from our hypnotized preoccupation with the granular details of life. Like pinching a digital photograph, zooming out from the present increases the resolution and clarity of the moment. Just as seeing the Earth from orbit prompts astronauts to recalibrate their assumptions about life, seeing this present moment from the perspective of history invites us to reconsider our priorities, aspirations, and goals. Just as looking at a great city from an airplane window reframes the terms of our imagined self-importance, looking at today from the perspective of centuries invites to reimagine our definitions of value. Watching the great time-lapse of human history gives us invaluable perspective.
 Cicero. Tusculan Disputations Book I.XX (Trans. C. D. Yonge. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1877)
 Herodotus, Histories 7.44-46. I have paraphrased quotations. My source is trans. Selincourt, Aubrey De (2003). Penguin Classics.
 Cyprian, Epistola ad Donatum 1.6-14 in Roberts, Alexander (ed). Donaldson, James (ed). (1886). The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 323. Volume V. Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company. p. 277.
 Dalley, Stephanie. (2008). Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 190-200
 Photograph available from NASA at https://www.nasa.gov/content/blue-marble-image-of-the-earth-from-apollo-17
 White, Frank. (1988). The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. Second Edition. Reston, VA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc.
 Dante. Paradise. XXII.129-134. (Trans. 1890. Cary, Henry Francis. Purgatory and Paradise. New York: P.F. Collier Publisher https://archive.org/details/purgatoryparadis00dantuoft/page/332
 Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy II.XVIII, (Trans. Walter John Sedgefield, 1900). Oxford: Clarendon Press. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Consolation_of_Philosophy_(Sedgefield)#II
 Geoffrey Chaucer, Haus of Fame II.904-907
 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde V.1814-1817 https://ia802605.us.archive.org/7/items/troilusandcrisey00257gut/troic10.txt
 Cicero. De re publica VI (Somnium Scipionis §8) in Pearman, W.D. (trans). (1883). The Dream of Africanus Minor. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co. p. 7 https://archive.org/details/somniumscipionis00ciceuoft/page/6
 Miguel de Cervantes. (1615). Don Quixote. Chapter XLII. (Trans. John Ormsby, 1885). Chapter in context: http://www.online-literature.com/cervantes/don_quixote/100/
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1883). *Thus Spoke Zarathustra* 1.7.
 There are countless other examples in literature of great elevations symbolically or literally paralleling the highest perspective on human activity. For example: the Temptation of Christ (Matthew 4:8, Luke 4:5); Ibn Tufayl’s’s highest sphere of transcendence (Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān 127-129)