On the Rhythms of History
Today, I’ll take a step back from detail, and try to look at the big picture. I’ll seek to trace in outline the rhythms of human history. Rise and fall, fall and rise. Progress and regress, revolution and reaction.
The rise and fall of empires
See first, in your mind’s eye, the Roman empire. See it change from monarchy, to republic, and back to near monarchy. See its western half, in time, become decadent, and collapse in chaos. See its eastern half, sometimes weakening, sometimes strengthening itself; but eventually unable to hold together against its enemies.
See, in your mind, the British empire over several centuries grow and prosper, until the sun never set on it. Then watch it decay, and become first a rump, then a laughing-stock. See the Soviet Union rise, and become a super-power. Then see it lose confidence in its ideology, and eventually shatter. See the European Union, which supposedly began as an economic project, grow, morph into a political project of “ever closer union,” and become hated by many as élitist, bureaucratic and untrustworthy. See the current American hegemony, which has risen, peaked and – so some say – might self-destruct at any moment.
Here is a rhythm of history. Human political institutions rise when they meet the demands of their times. They grow and prosper, as long as the times are right for them. When times change, they may adapt by mutating into different forms, as the Roman empire did. But eventually, they overstay their welcome. They decay and die. And the bigger they are, and the more centralized, the harder they fall.
The rhythm of revolution
Think, next, about the Renaissance. Think of its re-discovery of the legacy of Greece and Rome. Think of the spurt of dynamism and innovation it brought. Think of the art, architecture and literature it produced. Think of the new spirit of free enquiry, of recognition of the dignity of Man, of our mastery over our surroundings.
At the Renaissance, something changed inside many people’s minds. They became more individual, more dynamic, more innovative, more civilized. The change was gradual from the point of view of individual lives, but it was quick compared with the centuries preceding it.
Think of the development of the scientific method; devise an experiment to ask Nature a question, and let Nature answer. So building up, piece by piece, a picture of the scientific truth.
Think of the Enlightenment, and the new values it brought. That right and wrong are determined by human nature, not by the decrees of rulers. That government must be for the benefit of the governed. That human beings have rights, which must not be trampled on. Again, something changed in many people’s minds. The results were seen in the American revolution.
Now think of the Industrial Revolution, and the entrepreneurial spirit and improvement in living standards which it brought. Think of the energy revolution, which has enabled us to keep warm in winter, and comfortably cool in summer. Think of the transport revolution, which has enabled us to travel, at reasonable cost, where and when we want or need to, whether over short, medium or long distances. Think of the technology and computer revolution, and – for example – of how much easier it is to write an essay like this today than, say, sixty years ago. Think of the communications revolution and the Internet, and of how they have enriched and improved both the finding and taking in of information and ideas (research) and their giving out (publication).
Here is a second rhythm of our history. Periodically, new ideas give rise to an increase in human capabilities, and an improvement in the human condition. Every so often, a revolution takes place in our thinking, and we bound forwards.
The rhythm of reaction
But there is an antithesis to our revolutionary rhythm. In every case, there is a current of reaction; of opposition and resistance to change for the better.
I think it no coincidence, for example, that the printing press was developed, and Renaissance thought spread, in the same time period as the Borgia pope and the founding of the Spanish Inquisition. Nor that the scientific method was discovered, and the Enlightenment ushered in, in a 17th century characterized by religious wars and political strife. Nor that today’s governments misuse our advances in technology and communications to subject us to constant surveillance; and increasingly seek to prevent the expression of views not sanctioned by the establishment.
Moreover, there is today a concerted effort, by the political class and their hangers-on, to discredit the advances we have made over the last several centuries. No, they try to tell us, we are not masters of our surroundings; we are no more than (and, to some of them, we are less than) animals. No, they try to tell us, there is no such thing as truth. And you should not try to use science to seek truth; this is a “post-normal” era, in which you must simply believe whatever the “experts” tell you. No, they try to tell us, there are no objective standards of right and wrong; you must simply obey whatever “laws” the panjandrums currently in power dictate.
No, they try to tell us, industry is not good; it causes pollution, damage to the environment, and risks to health. Not to mention global warming and endangering species. And, so they say, it should be curtailed or eliminated. No, they try to tell us, capitalism – that is, private ownership of business and industry, with investments determined by private decision – is not a good thing; we should simply rely on the state to do everything and to take care of us.
No, they try to tell us, we should not heat (or, even worse, cool) our homes so as to be comfortable. No, they try to tell us, we must not drive cars, but should walk, cycle or use public transport; or not travel at all. No, they try to tell us, we must not travel by air – even though they themselves do it regularly. And on top of all this, they shower us with nasty epithets like “selfish,” “ignorant” or “wanton” – not to mention “denier.”
There is a fourth rhythm of human history, too. It is on a larger scale than the first three. Periodically, the way we do things changes. An old way of doing things – an old paradigm, if you like – comes to its breaking point, and is replaced by a new.
For example, as I explained in an earlier essay, before about twelve and a half thousand years ago, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Then something changed. Perhaps the population reached a critical mass in some areas. Or perhaps there were many bad hunting seasons in a row. Whatever the reason, our ancestors began to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. So, agriculture was born. I can only imagine the tensions between the new cultivators and herdsmen, and those that continued in the old ways. But the fact is, the agriculturalists won out. And no-one today – except a very few crazy environmentalists – would willingly give up the benefits which come from farming, and return to a subsistence based on hunting and gathering.
Until five or six thousand years ago, later in some places, societies were mostly peaceful. Power and prestige were acquired by the mere fact of survival into relative old age. Then, something changed. Perhaps, again, the population reached a critical mass in particular areas. Perhaps there were many years of bad farming conditions, leading to famines. Whatever the reason, something changed inside the minds of some of the stronger and more intelligent men. They began to desire power – power over others. They didn’t want to wait to become elders; they wanted power now! They began to develop their skills in combat, and in leading and controlling people. They started to raid their neighbours. They began to cultivate violence and deceit; for in war, violence and deceit are considered virtues. Thus arose the state – institutionalized violence and dishonesty.
Others, meanwhile, were learning to control people more subtly. They knew that people sensed, through their minds, a great power at the edge of experience. This power went by many names – the gods, God, the “logos,” the Muses – and many people liked to do homage to it. So, the unscrupulous began to control people by setting themselves up as representatives of this power. They claimed moral authority by placing themselves between people and their gods. Thus arose the church – institutionalized mental control and mumbo-jumbo.
From that time, right up to the present, we’ve been suffering the Age of State and Church. And control and conflict have been the dominant themes of human history.
Progress and Regress
But then came the Renaissance. And it was followed by after-shocks: the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the 19th-century entrepreneurial spirit, the 20th-century technology and communications revolutions. These times of progress have, however, always been resisted by the “old guard,” the establishment and their cronies. They don’t want to give up any of their power or their unearned privileges. So, they fight hard; and they use lies, ruses, harassment and, at need, organized violence as their weapons in that fight.
It is in our nature, human nature, to be civilized. And that means building civilizations. We have built up from the Neolithic villages, through the ancient and mediaeval city-states, to the current (but failed) system of nation-states. And now we are approaching the ability to build a world-wide Civilization, in which every individual can flourish to the limit of his or her abilities. Ever since the Enlightenment, though, our progress towards this Civilization has been fitful. Like the contractions which precede the birth of a baby, there have been motions of forward and backward, of progress and regress.
In an earlier essay, “On Political Ideologies,” I recounted how the tone and flavour of political societies have evolved over the last four centuries or so. And the story isn’t good. The current political model, laid down in the 16th century by Frenchman Jean Bodin, has allowed wave after wave of evil political ideologies to take hold in various parts of the world. Socialism, Marxism and communism, fascism, racism, dictatorship, theocracy. And recently in the West, the unholy trinity of welfarism, warfarism and environmentalism, supplemented by political correctness. That’s without even mentioning the super-state projects: the EU and the UN.
Except for Enlightenment liberalism, all these ideologies have been anti-human. Corruption and decay are built into the entire political system. And the fig-leaf called Democracy, despite initial promise, has proved a failure. For democracy has allowed the worst actual and potential psychopaths into positions of power. It has polluted our mental atmosphere with lies, deceit, ruses, propaganda and empty promises. And it gives apparent legitimacy to bad governments.
The deep rhythm
From my reading of history, I think I see a deep, underlying rhythm, a repeated pattern in human events. When new ways of doing things are tried, at first, they can work well and be a benefit. But after a certain point, they often become corrupted, polluted and perverted. Then they cease to be positives, and become drains on people. But those, that benefit from the continuation of the system, seek to preserve it, and even to expand and intensify it.
Gradually, things get worse, until a tipping point is reached. Before the tipping point, there is often a time of chaos. These are not easy times to live in. The old way of doing things is collapsing; but the new way has not yet arrived.
In the lead up to a major tipping point, the chaos is not just political; there are uncertainties and contradictions inside people’s minds, too. People lose confidence in “authorities” and “experts.” Many lose confidence in religion, too. And their trust in those at the top of the political system reduces, and eventually approaches zero.
But when the tipping point happens, the game changes completely. There is a paradigm shift; a, relatively sudden, change in the way in which many people think. This happened, for example, at the Renaissance and at the Enlightenment. And this shift leads to further new ideas being tried. Often, radical ones. Eventually, one or more of these new ideas works well. And life starts to get better again – often, very substantially and very quickly.
This rhythm, I think, helps to explain our slow and fitful progress towards Civilization over the last several centuries. And today, we’re in the lead-up to a tipping point. Not just any old tipping point, either. I think we’re headed for the biggest change in several thousand years. That is, the impending collapse of the state, and the political system as we know it; and their replacement by a new and better way.