The Shape of Time

Trying to have a conversation about the issues central to this sequence of posts, to make use of an apt if familiar metaphor, is rather like trying to discuss the nature of water with fish.  The ideas that play the largest part in shaping our experience of the world and of ourselves are so deeply woven into the act of perception itself that we rarely if ever notice them until we run face first into their limits.

Even suggesting that there are ideas woven into the act of perception, for that matter, gets a blank look much more often than not. Most people, most of the time, think and act as though the things that they experience with their senses and sort with their thoughts are objective realities “out there,” and pay no attention to the generations of careful research that’s shown that what we perceive is a cooperative project in which external stimuli, the biologically defined structures of our sense organs and nervous systems, and the culturally and individually defined contents of our minds all have roles to play.

There’s good reason for that lack of awareness.  Patterns of thinking, like patterns of action, are most efficient when they don’t require conscious attention. Just as you can’t really become skilled at playing a musical instrument until you no longer have to consciously move every finger into position on the keys or strings, you can’t really use a way of thinking about the world until it slips below the surface of the mind and starts to structure how you experience other things.  Pay attention to the way your mind works when you wake in dim light in an unfamiliar room, and the vague shapes around you take time to turn into recognizable furniture, and you’ll get a sense of the way this affects your awareness of the world; learn some cognitive skill such as plant identification, and notice the shifts in perception as foliage changes from a vague green blur to a galaxy of legible patterns, and you’ll get a sense of the same process from a different angle.

The difficulty with this otherwise helpful process comes when the unnoticed ideas you’re using to frame your experience of the world no longer tell you the things you most need to know. Wilderness tracker Tom Brown Jr. tells a story in one of his books about a group of students who were learning plant identification, and were out with Brown on a herb walk. Brown stopped them at one point along the trail, pointed to a plant, and said, “What do you see?” The students all correctly named the plant. “Get closer and take another look,” Brown said. The students did so, and confirmed that it was, in fact, the plant they’d named. After several repetitions, they were almost on top of the plant, and it wasn’t until then that the rabbit that was nibbling on the plant leaves bounded away, startling the students. They had been paying so much attention to plants that they hadn’t seen the rabbit at all.

The same thing happens in far less innocuous ways when the unnoticed ideas aren’t simply the product of a weekend workshop’s focus, but provide basic frameworks for the experiences and the thinking of an entire culture. The cognitive framing that I called the shape of time in last week’s post is a case in point. Most people, most of the time, don’t notice that all their thinking about past, present and future is shaped by some set of unnoticed assumptions about time and history.  The assumptions in question usually come out of some fusion of culturally valued narratives and recent experience—not a bad idea, all things considered, unless events begin to move in ways that a fusion of culturally valued narratives and recent experience no longer explain.

It’s easiest to understand this in practice by taking an example that’s as different as possible from the common habits of thinking today; fortunately, the history of ideas has no shortage of those. The one I want to introduce here comes to us courtesy of Hesiod, one of the very first ancient Greek poets whose works still survive. He lived in the eighth century BCE in the harsh if beautiful hill country of Boeotia, halfway down the eastern side of the Greek peninsula. That we know of, he wrote two major poems, The Origin of the Gods and Works and Days, and the latter of these sketches out a vision of the shape of time that was to have a great deal of influence long after Hesiod’s day.

It’s a vision of relentless decline. For Hesiod, the zenith of human happiness lay in the distant past, in the Golden Age when the old wise god Kronos ruled and the earth produced crops without human labor. Since then, age after age, it’s been all downhill:  the Silver Age of folly and ignorance, the Bronze Age of merciless warriors, the Age of Heroes immediately before Hesiod’s time, and finally the bitter Iron Age when misery and hard labor are humanity’s lot. In his vision, it’s not going to get any better, either: eventually the last frail scraps of goodness will go whistling down the wind, infants will be born with their hair already gray.  Then Zeus will destroy the humanity of the Iron Age as he destroyed the inhabitants of the previous four ages, and the story ends. If the Golden Age was scheduled to return after that, Hesiod doesn’t mention it.

To some extent Hesiod’s model is the human life cycle, seen from the perspective of an old man looking back on life in a hard age: happiness in infancy, folly in childhood, war and passion in adolescence, hard productive labor in adulthood, and finally the miseries of old age and death. Still, there’s more to it than that, because Hesiod’s vision of the shape of time was a tolerably good reflection of the history that part of the world had experienced in the centuries just before he lived.

Two thousand years before Hesiod, prehistoric Greece had been the home of a lively assortment of village cultures making the slow transition from polished stone tools to bronze. On that foundation more complex societies rose, borrowing heavily from contemporary high cultures in the Middle East, and culminating in the monumental architecture and literate palace bureaucracies of the Mycenean age. Those of my readers who have some sense of the rhythms of history will already know what followed: too much clearcutting and intensive farming of the fragile Greek soils, made worse by the importation of farming methods better suited to flat Mesopotamian valleys than easily eroded Greek hills, triggered an ecological crisis; most of the topsoil of Mycenean Greece ended up at the bottom of the Aegean Sea, where it can still be found in core samples; warfare, migration, and population collapse followed in the usual manner, as Mycenean society stumbled down the curve of its own Long Descent.

That’s the past that defined Hesiod’s vision of the present and the future. Those of my readers who are up for a challenge might consider trying, for a few moments, to fit their minds around that vision—to try to sense what it would have been like to see history as a long and bitter descent, and to imagine that view of things not as an interesting speculation or a theory, but simply as the way things are, the way they have always been and will always be.  Think about the way the world would look to you if humanity’s best years were in the distant past, the future held nothing but a long trajectory of decline ending in extinction, and your chances of relative happiness depended on being smart, tough, and intensely aware of the downside risks in every choice you made.

Hope is not a virtue in such a world. Whether or not Hesiod invented the story of Pandora’s box, he’s the source from which every later version derives, but there’s a detail you’ll find in modern versions of the tale that is not in his account. The usual version these days is that when all the plagues and curses in the box flew out to afflict humanity, Hope remained behind as a kind of consolation prize. In Hesiod, it’s not a consolation prize, it’s the nastiest of the curses that Zeus put in the box, the enticing delusion that things will get better when they won’t. Early Greek poets liked to use fixed adjective-noun pairs—the rosy-fingered dawn, the wine-dark sea, and so on; when the word “hope” appears in ancient Greek poetry, the adjective normally assigned to it was “blind.”

That’s the world in which Hesiod lived. The point that too many of his modern interpreters don’t grasp is that his attitude, and the practical implications of that attitude which filled the verses of Works and Days—distrust the new, rely on traditional wisdom, aim for modest goals, keep a year’s supply of grain on hand so you don’t starve—were better suited to his world than, for example, our faith in the limitless potential of the future would have been. In an impoverished tribal society scrabbling for survival amid the ruins of a far more complex culture and the long-term impacts of ecological collapse, accepting the reality of decline and the likelihood of further trouble to come was a better strategy than any of the alternatives; in the language of evolutionary ecology, it was adaptive. It’s unlikely to be an accident that visions of time like Hesiod’s are very common in the hard times that follow the collapse of major civilizations.

Now of course Hesiod’s bleak vision is far from the only alternative to the vision of progress that defines the shape of time to most people in today’s industrial world. For a third alternative, consider the distinctive way of thinking about time that’s common to a great many tribal societies around the world. In this vision of the shape of time, everything important took place in illo tempore—in the Dreamtime, as the Australian aboriginal term has it, the time when animals lived and spoke like people and the powers who defined the cosmos traced out the patterns that humanity would follow ever after.  In this way of thinking about time, all of the history that mattered happened long ago, and is chronicled in the mythic narratives that the elders recite to children so that they will know the right way to live. Each event since then, whether it’s part of the cycle of the year, the cycle of a human life, or what have you, simply reiterates and reflects some feature of that original time.

I have no idea if this is still the case, but when I was growing up, there were any number of children’s novels set in “primitive societies”—that is, cultures that experienced time in the way I’ve just outlined—which focused obsessively on some imaginary individualist who turned his (or, very rarely, her) back on tribal custom via one triumphant innovation after another. Those stories were very flattering to the sensibilities of readers in modern industrial cultures, to be sure, but they missed nearly everything relevant to the tribal cultures in question. By the time a society following a hunter-gatherer or village horticulture ecology has inhabited a given bioregion for a few thousand years, it’s a safe bet that the people in that culture will have tried all the available options, figured out which ones work and which ones don’t, and enshrined that hard-won knowledge in stories, customs, and taboos, the normal technologies for passing knowledge down through the generations in societies that don’t have writing.

In such a context, innovation is rarely a good idea.  The resource base that would be necessary to deal with subsistence failure or ecological instability simply isn’t available—the ability to store food over the long term doesn’t come in until the invention of grain agriculture, so nothing as substantial as Hesiod’s year of stockpiled grain stands between a hunter-gatherer or village horticultural society and starvation. The innovator who introduces the bow and arrow to a people used to hunting with spears thus might be dooming them to starve to death when the new technology proves too successful at killing game, and wipes out the herds.  In that ecological setting, an understanding of time that wards off such potentially lethal possibilities is adaptive.

Let’s look at another example, drawn from among the cyclical cosmologies that emerge like clockwork in literate urban civilizations, once they’re past their adolescence and start paying attention to the traces of earlier civilizations around them. There are dozens of such cosmologies, some of which have been discussed at length in these essays; the example I have in mind this time around, though, is the traditional Chinese version, which guided historical thought in China from archaic times straight through to the 20th century.

The basic theory of the Chinese science of time is that events are guided by many different cycles, some faster and some slower, some influencing one dimension of human life and some shaping another.  The cycle of the seasons was one of these; the cycle of human life was another; the cycle of the rise and fall of dynasties was a third; there were many more, each with its own period and typical sequence of events. Just as no two years had exactly the same weather on exactly the same days, no two repetitions of any other cycle were identical, but common patterns allowed the events of one repetition to be more or less predicted by a sufficiently broad knowledge of earlier examples.  On a much broader scale, all cycles of every kind could be understood as expressions of a single abstract pattern of cyclic change, which was explored in the classic Chinese textbook of time theory, the I Ching—in English, the Book of Change.

Most people in the western world who are familiar with the I Ching at all think of it as a fortunetelling book, full of obscure oracles accessed by flipping Chinese coins or, for the cognoscenti, sorting bundles of yarrow stalks. Back in the day, that was the kindergarten level of I Ching practice. The masters of the Book of Change recognized that each of the 64 hexagrams was an abstract representation of a  particular stage in the unfolding of a cyclic pattern; each hexagram could turn into any other hexagram under the right conditions; and the goal of study was to be able to contemplate any given sequence of events, identify what pattern was in process just then, figure out where it was going next, and get there first. This wasn’t a purely philosophical pursuit by any means—many Chinese martial arts rely on the I Ching as a basis for strategy, and “getting there first” in this case involves bringing a fist or a foot up hard against the opponent’s vulnerable spots.

Like the other shapes of time we’ve discussed so far, cyclical cosmologies are highly adaptive in their own historical context. They emerge, as I’ve already suggested, in mature literate civilizations that have access to the records and ruins of older societies.  Whether it’s Chinese scholars pondering the rise and fall of dynasties, Chaldean priests mulling over the fates of the kingdoms of the Mesopotamian plain, Roman Stoics sketching out the rhythms in which Greek city-states flourished and fell, or early 20th century European historians recognizing familiar patterns in the historical events of their own time,  students of the cycles of history recognize that the past has lessons to offer the present, and use a sense of cyclic change to guide their efforts to understand those lessons and put them to work.

Does that make cyclical cosmologies more accurate than the others we’ve just considered?  Is the circle the true shape of time?  It’s hard to see any way in which those questions could mean anything. What I’ve called the shape of time is an abstraction, a convenient model that sums up the way that events seem to unfold from the standpoint of particular people in a particular historical situation.  Abstractions of this kind are tools, not truths—you might as well ask if a hammer is factually accurate. It’s nonetheless true that different tools are better suited, more adaptive, to different situations. If you live in a society struggling to endure in the wake of cultural and ecological collapse, Hesiod’s vision may be your best bet; if you live in a society that has a stable relationship with its bioregion but very few resources on which to fall back in time of trouble, the Dreamtime cosmology will likely be a better choice; if you live in a society that has a literate historical tradition, and want to use that resource to help you duck some of the troubles that overwhelmed earlier societies, the cyclical approach is the tool you need. Other situations have other tools better suited to them—the handful of shapes of time I’ve outlined here are only a few of the many options that have been tried, with more or less success, over the span of recorded history.

One of the others is of particular importance to our broader theme.  If you happen to live in a society that has stumbled across an energy source of unparalleled abundance and concentration, a source so rich that the major economic challenge faced over the course of three centuries is that of finding enough ways to use it to replace human muscle power and the other, far more limited energy sources of less lavishly supplied eras, then a vision of time as endless progress is going to be your most adaptive choice.  That’s arguably the main reason why belief in progress has become so deeply entrenched in the collective imagination of the industrial world:  for more than three hundred years, much more often than not, it worked.  During that era, those people, companies, and nations that gambled on progress by and large did much better than those that bet their money and other resources on stasis or decline.

As the fine print says, though, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and a shape of time that was highly adaptive to some particular set of historical conditions can become maladaptive when the conditions suddenly change. Ancient Greece went through such a shift, beginning a century or so after Hesiod’s time, as the reopening of trade routes closed since Mycenae’s fall made it profitable for Greek farmers to turn hillside acreage over to olive orchards and vineyards for the export trade. By the beginning of the sixth century, as Greek wine and oil flooded markets across the eastern Mediterranean and brought a corresponding flood of hard currency and imported goods back home, Hesiod’s harsh but functional views stopped being relevant, though it was many years more before that lack of relevance was really processed by the Greeks. Another millennium passed before the old pattern repeated itself, and the civilization of classical Greece stumbled down the curve of decline and fall toward a dark age that Hesiod would have recognized at once.

The central theme of this blog, in turn, is that the same sort of transformation is happening in our own time, but in the other direction.  The shape of time that governs nearly all contemporary thinking in the industrial world, the vision of perpetual progress, was adaptive back when ever more abundant energy supplies were being extracted out of mines and wells and poured into the project of limitless industrial expansion. The end of the age of cheap abundant energy, though, makes that shape of time hopelessly maladaptive, and a galaxy of assumptions and ideas founded on faith in progress are thus well past their pull date.

Since most people in the modern industrial world aren’t even aware of the role that faith in progress plays in their thinking, their chances of adapting to the end of progress are not good—and certain habits of thought the civil religion of progress has inherited from older theist religions make the necessary adaptations even harder than they have to be. We’ll discuss those next week.