Aristotle Never Tasted a Potato
This is one of the twenty-four short stories from my book, Destination Earth – A New Philosophy of Travel by a World-Traveler, available on Amazon.
“These are the best potatoes in the world! Greek potatoes!” said the waiter with a proud grin. We were having a traditional Greek meal under the Acropolis when, looking carefully at the dishes on our table. I suddenly realized that very few of the ingredients we were enjoying originated in Europe. Aristotle never tasted a potato! Neither any corn, nor tomatoes, nor chili, not pineapples, nor chocolate. All these things were to be discovered 2,000 years later in the Americas. Furthermore, the ancient Greeks had never seen a Chinese, nor knew of the existence of China. Actually, they did not know any part of Asia beyond India; neither did they know of the existence of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa (apart from Ethiopia). They had never saw the Pacific Ocean, nor knew the true size of the other oceans, such as the Atlantic or the Indian. Basically, they did not know four-fifths of the earth!
In spite of their many discoveries in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, geography, and medicine, their knowledge was so basic compared to ours that we may safely claim that a high school kid in an advanced society today knows more about the world and our place in it than all the students of Socrates ever knew. Add to that the fact that a contemporary kid can fly to any corner of the world within a few hours, may observe other galaxies with a simple telescope, see the inside of a cell with a microscope, find the answer to almost any question on the internet, and it becomes clear that the educated people of the past knew only a very small fraction of what it is today common knowledge.
This accumulated knowledge, along with the discoveries of all past travelers, is concentrated in every travel guidebook the traveller consults. Our effortless access to it makes us forget what an incredible, even miraculous achievement this is, and how privileged twenty-first century man is. Actually, every well-educated person on the planet today would seem like a god to the ancients, and were he be transported to the past, he would be adored as such.
Many doubt that human society has moved forward, that science and technology and the ubiquitous learning establishments in the world have made our modern society better than that of Ancient Greece, Persia or China. Some say that man has gained a lot when it comes to external comforts and superficial knowledge, but that he somehow lost in wisdom or even that he has lost his soul. Let us not enter this controversial and much discussed subject. Let us do something else, much simpler, that may increase our feeling of gratefulness for living now, in this era: direct our attention to the simple daily pleasures we experience. Let us, each time we enjoy a selection of fruits from around the world, a strawberry tart or a cup of coffee, be mindful of the fact that none of these existed for our ancestors, and that the discovery of even one of them by the ancients would have sufficed to make them feel that they had discovered the ambrosia of the gods.
We tend to underestimate these little carnal, pleasures of life, but let us never forget that the fifteenth century Age of Discovery was the result of the passionate seeking of a faster and cheaper route to the Spice Islands. The irony is that the most sought-after of these spices, the craving for which may be said to have single-handedly changed the world, was the small inconspicuous clove – which nowadays is just one ordinary spice of many in our kitchen cupboards. Sometimes, I have the feeling that if an ancient traveller from the East had brought a durian fruit to the Ancient Persian court of Darius or the Athenian Agora, humanity wouldn’t have waited 2,000 years for the Americas and the Pacific to be discovered!