History's Arrow

One of the advantages of being a Druid is that you get to open your holiday presents four days early. Last Sunday’s winter solstice was pleasant, with a scattering of snow on the ground outside and candles burning indoors as we celebrated the rebirth of the sun. As one hinge of the year’s cycle, the solstice is a good time to ponder the shape of time: on the small scale, with hopes for the year to come and memories of the one now passing; the middle scale, as I think back on past holidays and the uncertain number that still lie ahead; and the large scale, with which this blog is mostly concerned. In keeping with that seasonal theme, I want to talk a bit about history on the large scale, and the ideas our culture uses to frame the idea of history.

One of the things that has interested me most about the reactions to the ideas about the shape of the future I’ve presented here on The Archdruid Report is the extent to which so many of them presuppose one particular way of thinking about history. Like the character in one of Moliére’s plays who was astonished to find that he had been speaking prose all his life, a great many people these days have embraced a distinctive philosophy of history, but seem never quite to have noticed that fact.

This is hardly a new thing. One of the ironies of the history of ideas is the way that so many cultural themes, surfacing first in avant-garde intellectual circles, are dismissed out of hand by the grandparents of those who will one day treat them as obvious facts. Modern nationalism, to cite one example out of many, began with the romantic visions of a few European poets, spilled out into the world largely through music and the arts, and turned into a massive political force that shredded the political maps of four continents. To some extent, this is the intellectuals’ revenge on an unreflective society: the men of affairs who treat the arts as amenities and dismiss philosophy as worthless abstraction spend their workdays unknowingly mouthing the words of dead philosophers and acting out the poems they never read on the stage of current events.

The way of thinking about history I have in mind today has followed the same trajectory. Karl Popper, who devoted much of his career to critiquing it, called it historicism. This is the belief that history as a whole moves inevitably in a single direction that can be known in advance by human beings. Exactly what that single direction is supposed to be varies from one historicist to another; choose any point along the spectrum of cultural politics, and you can find a version of historicism that treats the popular ideals and moral concerns common to that viewpoint as the linchpin of the historical process. The details differ; the basic assumption remains the same.

That same assumption has also spread to infect nearly every contemporary discussion of change over time. After my post “Taking Evolution Seriously” appeared a few weeks back, for example, one of my longtime readers forwarded me comments from a discussion on an email list, whose members took me to task in no uncertain terms for my discussion on the evolutionary process. When I said that no organism is “more evolved” than any other and that evolution has no particular direction or goal, they insisted, I was simply wrong; evolution progresses in the direction of increased complexity over time, one person claimed, and another suggested that I would be better informed if I read more of the writings of the late Stephen Jay Gould.

Now I have no objection to reading more of Gould’s work, as I’ve already enjoyed many of his books. For that matter, I’ve read a fair amount of evolutionary theory, beginning with Darwin and continuing through some of the most recent theorists, and also took college courses in evolutionary ecology and several related branches of environmental science. One thing this taught me is that attempts are always being made to stuff evolution into a historicist straitjacket. Another thing I learned is that these attempts are rejected by the great majority of evolutionary biologists, because the evidence simply doesn’t fit.

Some evolutionary lineages have moved from more simple to more complex forms over time, but others have gone in the other direction, and the vast majority of living things on Earth today belong to phyla that have not added any noticeable complexity since the Paleozoic. Nor has the Earth’s biosphere as a whole become more complex; the entire Cenozoic era – the 65 million years between the last dinosaurs and us – has been less biologically rich than the Mesozoic era that preceded it, and the global cooling of the last fifteen million years or so has seen a decrease in the world’s biological complexity, as ecosystems have adapted to the more rigorous conditions that have spread over much of the world.

The facts on the ground, then, simply don’t support any claim that evolution moves toward greater complexity. No other version of historicism fares any better when applied to evolution, either. Yet ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when you hear people outside of a university biology department talking about evolution, what they have in mind is a linear process leading in a particular direction. They are, in other words, talking historicism.

Trace these ideas back along their own evolutionary lineage and a fascinating history emerges. The founder of the current of thought that gave rise to today’s historicism was an Italian monk named Joachim of Flores, who lived from 1145 to 1202 and spent most of the latter half of his life writing abstruse books on theology. Most Christian theologians before his time accepted Augustine of Hippo’s famous distinction between the City of God and the City of Man, and assigned all secular history to the latter category, one more transitory irrelevance to be set aside by the soul in search of salvation. Joachim’s innovation was the claim that the plan of salvation works through secular history. He argued that all human history, secular as well as sacred, was divided into three ages, the age of Law under the Old Testament, the age of Love under the New, and the age of Liberty that was about to begin.

Some of his theories were formally condemned by church councils, but his core theory proved unstoppable. Every generation of church reformers from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth seized on his ideas and claimed that their own arrival marked the coming of the age of Liberty; every generation of church conservatives stood Joachim on his head, insisted that the three ages marked the progressive loss of divine guidance, and portrayed the arrival of the latest crop of reformers as Satan’s final offensive. As secular thought elbowed theology aside, in turn, Joachim’s notion of history as the working out of a divine plan got reworked into secular theories of humanity’s grand destiny.

Notable among these was the theory argued by the Marquis de Condorcet in Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit in 1794. A rich historical irony surrounds this work; Condorcet had been a strong supporter of the French Revolution, and hoped that the end of the monarchy would usher in a republic of reason; instead, he was condemned to death by the new government and wrote his Sketch while he was on the run from the guillotine. He nonetheless described human history as an inevitable rise from barbarism to a future of reason and progress in which all of human life would undergo endless improvement.

Condorcet’s faith in perpetual progress found many listeners, but a more influential voice was already waiting in the wings: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who managed the rare feat of becoming both the most influential and the most unreadable philosopher of modern times. In his Philosophy of History, which was published shortly after his death in 1831, he argued that history was the process by which human freedom (which, for him, was not quite the freedom of the individual; he idolized Napoleon and the government of Prussia) was maximized in time. In Hegel’s mind, Joachim’s threefold rhythm of history was reworked into the three phases of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, by which every opposition was resolved into a higher unity.

Hegel’s view of history became enormously influential, less through his own work – I challenge any of my readers to plow through the Philosophy of History and come out the other side with anything but a headache – than through the writings of those influenced by him. Political radicals at both ends of the spectrum jumped on Hegel’s ideas; on the left, Karl Marx used Hegelian ideas as the foundation for his philosophy of class warfare and Communist revolution; on the right, Giovanni Gentile, the pet philosopher of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, was a rigorous Hegelian. For that matter, Francis Fukuyama, who played a role much like Gentile’s for the neoconservative movement, drew his theory of an end to history from Hegel.

Still, the spread of Hegel’s ideas isn’t limited to the radical fringes, or even to those who know who Hegel was. I think most people who have been following the issue of peak oil for more than a few months have noticed, when the subject comes up for discussion in public, one of the most common responses is “Oh, they’ll think of something.” Ask the person who says this to explain, and odds are you’ll be told that every time the world runs out of some resource, “they” find something new, and the result is more progress. This is Hegel reframed in terms of economics; shortage is the thesis, ingenuity the antithesis, and progress the synthesis; the insistence that the process is inevitable puts the icing on the Hegelian cake. More generally, the logic of historicism governs the entire narrative: history’s arrow points in the direction of progress, and so whatever happens, the result will be more progress.

Examples could be added by the page, but I hope the point has been made. Still, it’s crucial to realize just how deeply historicism has become entrenched in all modern thinking. If, dear reader, you think yourself untouched by it, I encourage you to try a thought experiment. The average species, paleontologists tell us, lasts around ten million years. Imagine that by some means – a visit from a time machine, say, that leaves you holding a history of humanity written by an intelligent species descended from chipmunks – you find out that this is how long we have. We won’t achieve godhood, or reach the stars, or destroy the planet, or enter Utopia; instead, the nine million years we’ve got left will be like recorded history so far. Civilizations will rise and fall; our species will create great art and literature, interpret the universe in various ways, explore many modes of living on the Earth; finally, millions of years from now, it will slowly lose the struggle for survival, dwindle to small populations in isolated areas, and go extinct.

If that turns out to be humanity’s future, would you be satisfied with it? Or would you feel that some goal has been missed, some destiny betrayed? If the latter, what makes you think that?

Now of course it may be a waste of breath to contend with ideas as pervasive and deeply rooted as historicism, but the effort has to be made, if only because historicism has a dismally bad track record as a basis for prophecy. Name a historicist belief system that’s been around more than a few years, right back to Joachim of Flores himself, and you’ll find a trail of failed predictions of the imminent arrival of the goal of history. (Joachim himself apparently believed that the age of Liberty would arrive in 1260; no such luck.) If we are to have any useful sense of the future ahead of us, historicist belief systems are among the worst sources of guidance available to us.

Fortunately there are other choices. In next week’s post, I plan on talking about some of those. In the meantime, best holiday wishes to all my readers – whatever holidays you celebrate at this time of year.