The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

17-10-2022

22:52

What shape is history?

We all have different ideas about the story of humanity, from our earliest days as hunter-gatherers through to the 21st century. Are we progressing or repeating? Do things just keep getting better, or are they only getting worse? Here are six different theories:

Version 1: Inevitable Progress This is probably the most common theory, something like the default assumption. Why? Mainly because, in a material sense, it's true.

The average person today has higher living standards (in many ways) than that of any king in the past. With the wonders of modern medicine, of the flushing toilets, and of all our technology. Consider life expectancy, which is only growing every year, all across the world.

The statistics are mindblowing. Child mortality, hunger, illiteracy, poverty, crime, and other problems: all are declining. So, despite everything else, the story of history is the story of human progress, innovation, and improvement.

Version 2: Ineluctable Decline Here's the opposite view; that even if the material story of humanity is one of progress, that of our spiritual state is in reverse. Perhaps "living standards" don't fully address human nature, perhaps there's something more...

Perhaps there was a purity we once had, of spirit and soul, totally in harmony with the natural world, which only diminishes as technology and material conditions improve. So that the more we have materially, the less happy we actually are.

John Milton famously wrote that "innocence, once lost, can never be regained." Perhaps the Industrial Revolution, electricity, and the internet have just taken us further away from the simpler, more harmonious, happier place where humanity started.

Version 3: History is Cyclical This one is less about the specifics of technology or material progress and more about the patterns of human civilisation. War & peace, prosperity & poverty, rise & fall, surfeit & scarcity, victory & defeat: it's all a big cycle.

Some people compare the age of "bread and circuses" from the closing centuries of the Roman Empire, when decadence preceded certain decline, to certain modern nations. Or, earlier in Rome's history, when economic instability (then civil war) led from republic to empire.

It is possible that we will one day be a "lost civilisation" much like the people of Çatalhöyük. Or, no less likely, there might be a future Renaissance in which the 20th and 21st centuries are resurrected, our technologies and ideas rediscovered and reused, centuries from now.

Version 4: Nothing Changes This theory looks at human nature above all, and observes that we really aren't any different from our ancestors, even if so much else has changed. We feel the same things and face the same problems.

The most surprising thing about history is how much we have in common with our ancestors, despite the gulf in time and technology that separates us. Whether something like our universal search for meaning and coherence in the world...

...to something rather more ordinary, though equally important, like the jokes we tell. The Ancient Sumerians, for example, were very fond of toilet humour and bar jokes. While in graffitti unearthed in Pompeii we find both crudity and touching romance:

Why does Shakespeare still hold such influence and popularity? He lived over four hundred years ago in a vastly different world, and yet, with something like Hamlet, he seemed to capture a fundamental human truth which remains true, and perhaps always will.

We can look at this from an evolutionary perspective. In the space of a few thousand years, despite rapid technological and economic development, humans simply haven't evolved to "catch up" with these changes. We're still the same creatures we were 100,000 years ago or more.

Version 5: History Rhymes But Never Repeats This is something like a "mixed theory" which combines all of the above.

Even if the human condition remains unchanging, different political situations and technologies bring out or subdue different parts of that nature. And so the human story lurches back and forth, up and around and down: it could go anywhere.

Version 6: Unknown The final theory here is that... we simply can't know.

Imagine the whole story of humanity, from the first cave paintings 65,000 years ago all the way to the 21st century, as a book. Where are we in that book?

One might believe we are well into the story now, past the beginning and entering the middle. Our heroes and villains, our philosophies and our art, will continue to be remembered and define or inspire or shock for the rest of human history.

Maybe we're not even past the first letter, never mind the first word, and our age will become so distant and ancient that it will be totally forgotten. The Space Age will come, humans will spread across the stars, and our modern world will be nothing more than a trifle.

Or are we actually at the closing chapter? Is this, simply, it? The point is that you can't understand a story without reading it from start to finish, and we simply don't know - *can't* know - how far we are into the story of humanity. So it is beyond understanding.

What do you think is the shape of history? One of these six, a combination, or something else entirely?



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