History, Meaning, and Choice

The end of one year and the beginning of another has been a time for celebration and reflection since around the time calendars were invented, and even though the date has been kicked around the yearly cycle pretty comprehensively by history’s boot – it hasn’t been that long, all things considered, since the civil year in the English-speaking world began in late April – there’s a point to the custom. Our individual lives have their turning points, and so does the collective life of communities and cultures; the hinge of time when one year changes to another provides a useful reminder of such things. It’s in this spirit that I want to wrap up one of the threads of discussion that’s shaped my posts on The Archdruid Report for several weeks now.

Several times now in these essays, I’ve brought up the names of some of the major theorists of cyclic history – Giambattista Vico, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee – and talked a little about how their ideas illuminate the current crisis of industrial civilization. For the last three centuries, the tradition these authors and their works embody has challenged the historicist faith discussed in last week’s post: the belief that history has an arrow with the words “this way only” painted on it somewhere; that, in other words, it has a direction, a purpose and a goal. If a meaningful sense of history is a tool worth having as we face the predicament of our time, and historicism does not provide such a sense – and to my mind, at least, both these assertions are far more true than not – the vision of cyclic history is one place where something more useful might be found.

Mind you, cyclic and historicist views of history are both out of fashion these days; there is no shortage of scholars who lump them together as “metanarratives,” and insist that they should be banned from serious history. The problem with this insistence is that human beings think in stories as inevitably as they walk with feet. Attempting to chase metanarratives out of history simply results in assaults on those metanarratives unpopular enough to be noticed, while those that are accepted unthinkingly slip past the sentries with ease. The statement “history follows no pattern,” after all, is itself a metanarrative: a narrative about historical narratives that embodies a particular approach to historical knowledge. Thus attempts to talk about the shape of history should not be dismissed out of hand; the question that needs to be asked of them is simply whether they help to make sense of the course of historical events.

Yet this question itself can be read in more than one way. Historicist and cyclic theories of history both try to make sense of history, but they try to make different kinds of sense; they get different answers because they ask fundamentally different questions. At the core of historicism is the intuition that history has a meaning, while at the core of the cyclic vision is the intuition that history has a pattern – and “meaning” and “pattern” are by no means interchangeable terms. Most historicist theories, mind you, find pattern as well as meaning in history. Most cyclic theories, by contrast, leave questions of the meaning of history entirely open, and some – Oswald Spengler was particularly outspoken in this regard – reject the idea that history as a whole has any meaning or purpose with as much vehemence as any positivist.

Spengler’s reasons for this rejection are worth examining, because his rejection of historicism went deeper than just about any other thinker I can name. He argued that history can have no overall meaning, because it’s impossible to talk of meaning at all except within the worldview of a given culture; each culture evolves its own distinct way of experiencing human life in the universe, and the only meaning humans can know is embodied in these distinctive worldviews. No culture’s worldview is more or less true than any other, nor are the worldviews of cultures that arise later on in history an improvement in any sense on the ones that came before; each culture defines reality uniquely through its own dialogue with the inscrutable patterns of nature and the human experience. Interestingly, Spengler applied this logic to his own work as well; he offered his theory not as an objective truth about historical cycles, but simply as the best account of historical cycles that could be given from within the perspective of modern Western – in his terms, Faustian – humanity.

When it got past superficialities, much of the criticism that has been directed at Spengler’s work over the last nine decades took aim squarely at his insistence that every culture’s worldview is equally valid, and that humanity therefore does not progress. What makes his resolute rejection of our culture’s superiority unacceptable to so many people, though, is precisely that it offends against the pervasive historicism of our age. Only the belief that history is headed somewhere in particular, with our civilization presumably in the lead, makes his thesis in any way problematic.

For what it’s worth, I think that Spengler was right in principle but wrong on a minor but important detail. He was certainly right to point out that trying to rank worldviews of different cultures according to some scheme of progress or other yields self-serving nonsense. Ancient Egyptians understood the universe in one way, and modern Americans understand it in another, not because Americans are right and Egyptians were wrong – or vice versa! – but because the two cultures were not talking about the same things, nor were they using the same symbolic language for the discussion. A worldview based on explorations of the metaphysics of human life in the language of myth cannot meaningfully be judged by the standards of a worldview that takes analysis of the physical world in the language of mathematics as its starting point.

To say that the industrial world’s technological progress proves the superiority of its worldview merely begs the question, since the Egyptians did not value technological progress. They valued cultural stability and they achieved it, maintaining cultural continuity for well over 3000 years – a feat our own civilization is not likely to equal. By their standards, for that matter, our society’s ephemeral fashions, ceaseless cultural turmoil, and incoherent metaphysics would have branded it as an abject failure at the most basic tasks of human social life.

As I see it, though, Spengler undervalued the process by which certain kinds of technique invented by one culture can enrich later cultures. A very relevant example is classical logic, among the supreme achievements of the Apollonian culture, which was inherited in turn by the Indian, Syrian-Byzantine-Arabic (in Spengler’s language, Magian), and Faustian cultures. No two of these cultures did the same thing with that inheritance; a toolkit Greeks devised to pick apart spoken language was used in India to analyze the structures of consciousness, in the Levant to contemplate the glories of God, and in Europe and the European diaspora to unravel the mysteries of matter. Without Greek logic, though, some of the greatest creations of all three inheritor cultures – the rich philosophical dimensions of Hinduism and Buddhism, the great theological syntheses of Islam and Christianity, or the fusion of logic with experience that gave rise to the modern scientific method – certainly could not have been done as easily, and quite possibly might not have happened at all.

What this implies is that, while history is not directional, it can be cumulative. Nothing in the history of cultures older than Greece suggests that the emergence of logic was inevitable, just as nothing in the subsequent history of logic justifies the claim that logic is developing toward some goal or other. Still, the toolkit of logic, absent before the Greeks, enriched a series of cultures that flourished after them. There are countless examples, and they span the full range of human cultural creations; for a small but telling example, consider how the practice of counting prayers on a string of beads, which originated in India, has spread through most of the world’s religions. For another, consider the way that forty centuries of East Asian intensive agriculture inspired the emergence of organic growing methods that are probably our best bet for tomorrow’s food supply. Every person who finds spiritual solace in prayer or meditation with a rosary, or is planning a backyard organic garden to help put food on the table next year, has good reasons to be grateful for the slow accumulation of technique over time.

Thus there’s a fine irony in the insistence by so many people these days that evolution will shortly relieve us of the necessity to deal with the consequences of our own mistakes, and get history back on track to their imagined goal. They’re right that the historical changes under way now are evolutionary in nature; their mistake lies in thinking, to put the matter perhaps a bit too harshly, that evolution is some sort of cosmic tooth fairy who can be counted on to leave a shiny new future under the modern world’s pillow to replace one rotted away by three centuries of extravagant living. Instead, the historical development of cultures parallels the way that evolution actually works in nature. Cultures, like species, tend to collect those adaptations that meet their needs, and discard the ones that don’t. Thus those techniques that happen to meet the needs of more than one culture tend to survive more often than those that don’t, just as those cultures that are able to make use of a suitable range of inherited techniques are more likely to thrive than those that do not.

I trust none of my readers are drowsy enough by this point to think that I am suggesting that the accumulation of useful techniques is the meaning, purpose, or goal of history. From my point of view, for whatever that may be worth, meanings, purposes, and goals are not to be found in any objective sense in the brute facts of existence; they are always and only attributes applied creatively to existence by conscious persons, and the emergence of meanings, purposes and goals common to more than one person depends on the relation between the person proposing these things and those who choose to accept or reject them. (Atheists may read this statement in one sense, and religious people in quite another; interestingly enough, the logic works either way.)

Like biological evolution, though, the cultural evolution I am proposing here is in no way inevitable. The crises that surround the decline and fall of civilizations, in particular, very often become massive choke points at which many valuable things are lost. One reasoned response to the approach of such a choke point in our own time thus might well be a deliberate effort to help the legacy of the present reach the waiting hands of the future. The same logic that leads the ecologically literate to do what they can to keep threatened species alive through the twilight of the industrial age, so that biological evolution has as wide a palette of raw materials as possible in the age that follows, applies just as well to cultural evolution.

Thus it may not be out of place to imagine a list of endangered knowledge to go along with today’s list of endangered species, and to take broadly equivalent steps to preserve both. There are certainly other meanings, purposes and goals that can be found in, or more precisely applied to, either the inkblot patterns of history as a whole or the specific challenges we face right now, in the early stages of industrial civilization’s decline and fall. We can decide as individuals whether to build on the heritage of our culture, to explore the legacies have been handed down to us from other cultures, or to scrap the lot and try to break new ground, knowing all the while that other individuals will make their own choices and the relative success of the results, rather than any preference of ours, will determine which of them plays the largest role in shaping the future.

My own choice centers on the preservation of those parts of the modern world’s heritage that I find most valuable, and most promising, as tools for the futures that seem most likely to me. If that way of putting things seems uncomfortably subjective, personal, and even arbitrary, dear reader, you’re beginning to get the point of the last month or two of Archdruid Report posts. Our own subjective, personal, and arbitrary perceptions are the only things we have to go on, and the results tend to be much less problematic when we accept this fact, rather than trying to cast the shadows of our desires onto history’s arc and stare at them in the fond delusion that we’re staring destiny in the face.

One way or another, we all have choices to make as the new year dawns. Some of us will face the harsh decisions that come with unemployment, foreclosure, and bankruptcy; others will encounter the moral challenges that face those who have wealth while others go hungry; still others will have other choices. Not everyone will be at liberty to take the deindustrial future into account as they make their choices, but I hope some will do so, and whatever you choose in this regard – whether or not it corresponds to any of the things I’ve discussed here – it might be wise to take action on the basis of your decisions sooner rather than later. A year, after all, is not the only thing that’s ending around us just now.