A Word for Uncovering Knowledge

Apocalypse • noun • (uh-paw-cah-lips)

Definition: a prophetic revelation, especially concerning a cataclysm in which the forces of good permanently triumph over the forces of evil.

Origin: Ancient Greek

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The persistent threat of COVID-19 and the devastating impact of climate change has inclined many people to begin speaking of the apocalypse.

Over the last month the world has seen an increase in deaths from the Delta variant, massive floods in Europe of biblical proportions, and wildfires in America of such a previously unimaginable proportion that they are creating their own weather.

People have begun wondering if we are witnessing the universal or widespread destruction of existence as we know it, and this concern inevitably inclines us to speak of an apocalypse. As we use this word, however, it is imperative that we reacquaint ourselves with its original meeting. 

The true meaning of apocalypse could actually help us prevent universal destruction:

Apocalypse comes from the Greek noun apokálypsis meaning “uncovering” and it is a derivative of the Greek verb apokalýptein meaning “to take the cover off.” 

In an apocalypse, something is being uncovered or revealed. An apocalypse is akin to a revelation, so it should be no surprise that the Bible speaks of an apocalypse in the book of Revelations, the final book of the New Testament.

The main question regarding an apocalypse is often not the existence of a revelation, but if the revelation reveals something that could be considered “good” or “bad” within your society. Yet information regardless of whether it is “good” or “bad” is still more beneficial than an ignorant lack of awareness and knowledge.

The fact that the modern day understanding of apocalypse has a negative connotation speaks to a cultural norm that shuns revelations, and conversations or dialectics that can uncover the truth. This dynamic can create a society that embraces ignorance.

Apocalypse, the Bible, and Knowledge

One of the first questions we must ask regarding the apocalypse is how the meaning of this word has changed so dramatically from the Greek to the English. Clearly the Bible has played a role in the denotational shift, but we cannot overlook the inevitable difficulty of sustaining a word’s meaning as it moves across a continent and is translated into multiple languages over hundreds of years.

In Greek the preposition apó means “away, away from” and apó is the linguistic predecessor of the English word off.

Also, the Greek verb kalýptein means “to cover, hide,” and linguists speculate that this word may have derived from the Proto-Indo-European root words kel-, and kol-. In Germanic, kol- became hal- and created the word haljō meaning “hidden place.”

The Germanic root word hal- then becomes the source for the English word hell, and now “hidden place” and “bad place” have become almost inextricably interwoven. 

In English, the revelation of something hidden has now become the uncovering of something bad. Revelations have now become something bad that should be avoided at all costs because they could create a hell on earth. 

The first recorded meaning of apocalypse in Old English was its usage in the book of Revelation in the Bible’s New Testament. The Book of Revelation was also called the Apocalypse of John, or the Revelation of John. Despite having the same meaning their connotations have differed and people are prone to defining the chaos that precedes the return—uncovering or revelation—of Jesus Christ as the apocalypse.

The “bad” events that precede Jesus Christ’s return have become identified as the apocalypse, and this definition appears to derive from the difficulties of adequately translating Greek into English.

And while I am not a Christian scholar, it is also pretty obvious how much of the world’s present understanding of apocalypse is also influenced by the first book of the Bible.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge and in doing so, bring sin into the world. The knowledge of their nakedness brings guilt and shame, and according to the Bible all people have now been stamped by this original sin. Knowledge and self-awareness have now become negative attributes, and due to this biblical origin story people have been educated to ignorantly hide themselves from both themselves and others

Uncovering knowledge and the truth have now been defined as negative actions that have damned humanity nearly since its inception, so it should not be surprising that this interpretation of existence has inclined people to define apocalypse as something negative.

The uncovering of knowledge or truth that could radically change the status quo and lift people out of ignorance has been interpreted as a negative action for far too long.

Apocalypse and Transcendence

A secular, philosophical understanding of apocalypse may reside in the German verb aufheben, which ironically is another German word that has been poorly translated into English. Aufhebung is the noun.

I have written an earlier newsletter specifically on aufheben that you can read here, but to summarize the word it means “to abolish,” “to preserve,” and “to transcend.”

These definitions appear to be in conflict with each other, and due to this confusion, aufheben is often defined merely as “to abolish.” This poor translation radically alters the meaning of the word à la apocalypse.

Aufheben is the act of synthesizing two opposing ideas. The act of coming together to make something new that transcends the previous status quo means that parts of each idea will be both abolished and preserved. The hope is that we abolish the bad parts and preserve the good parts.

Aufheben commences by uncovering knowledge that challenges the status quo. Once this knowledge is made public, it will critique and challenge the status quo, and this dialectic will create tension. If a society defines the emergence of knowledge and the ensuing tension as a negative act, then they would probably define the potential of aufheben as an apocalypse that threatens their way of life.

In the United States, countless Republican politicians and conservative Americans have decided to perceive critical race theory as an apocalypse that must be suppressed because educating people about the impact of America’s systemic racism would shatter the ignorance that has defined their existence for generations.

Knowledge and the potential to transcend our present limitations in order to improve our society are tragically defined as threats, and it should be obvious to all of us how an attachment to ignorance actually brings us closer to a deadly cataclysm.

Climate change is due to the ignorant actions of mankind, and we still struggle to emancipate ourselves from goods and services that do not toxify and pollute the earth.

The United States is witnessing a new surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths from the Delta variant, and this turmoil is due to the millions of Americans who decided to not get vaccinated. Americans who could get vaccinated, but have chosen not to have contributed to the spread of the Delta variant and endangered the lives of millions of people, especially children and people with compromised immune systems.

Billions of people’s lives are at risk because far too many people refuse to eat from the tree of knowledge and tragically remain too unaware of themselves and the world around them.

Sooner than later, we must embrace the true definition of apocalypse and embrace the tension, conflict, and requisite humility to understand that apocalypse, revelation, and aufheben are opportunities to uncover knowledge, confront our flaws, and commit ourselves to improving our world.

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