Tuesday, May 03, 2005

History's stories

For centuries humanists and scholars have mourned a catastrophe--the Fall of the Roman Empire. This event (really a series of events) presupposes an grand and inspiring drama: the rise of classical civilization, its peaks of achievement (the last being apparently the “Good Emperors” of the second century CE), and then its decline and fall. Can our understanding of the symptoms be generalized? And if so, are we destined to repeat that tragic Fall?

During the 1970s a group of "declinist" historians, headed by Professor Paul Kennedy of Yale University, maintained that the United States had already entered on the downward slope. The economic revival of the Reagan years and especially the siliconized nineties put this conclusion into doubt. Now, though, in the early years of the new millennium, it does not seem so far fetched.

At all events, such patterns are doubly interesting. First, detecting them yields a sense of organizing historical knowledge, which had otherwise been disorderly, episodic, and almost chaotic. Secondly, pondering such patterns allows one to make at least a moderate stab at futurology. What is in store in the immediate future? How do we prepare for what is coming? Are there ways in which we could influence change—if not the actual change, at least its rate and severity of effects?

Speaking very broadly, historical templates are of two types. 1) linear; and 2) cyclical or alternating. Let us look at the linear patterns first. Linear templates of historical development rely on the detection of a plot line: each society has a beginning, middle, and an end. The idea that classical civilization had a life cycle, ending in the fall of the Roman Empire was one such notion.

For a long time the classical sequence was considered the sole example. However in 1859 the Russian scientist Nikolai Yakovlevich Danilevsky developed this archetype into a typology. Danilevski identified ten specimens: Egyptian; Chinese; Assyrian-Babylonian-Phoenician; Indian; Iranian; Hebraic; Greek; Roman; "neo-Semitic" (i.e. Islamic); and European. During the twentieth century this model reemerged in the better-known works of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee.

Such schemes are pessimistic, for no matter what heights each civilization may achieve at its peak, the canker infests the rose. Each great civilization is foredoomed to wither and die.

By contrast, other schemes are optimistic. The Christian Heilsgeschichte, or salvation history, consists of six ages (based on the six days of Creation), culminating in the Restoration of All Things. It is true that the concluding portion of the sixth age, the Apocalyptic one, will be violent, but in the end, when Christ establishes his eternal rule, all will be well.

Marxism is sometimes regarded as a secular version of Christianity, though this is something of an exaggeration. Still, this ideology also favors a teleological scheme with a happy end: slave-owning society yields to feudalism. Then we have capitalism, followed by socialism, leading to the Earthly Paradise of Communism itself.

Linear patterns often see civilization in terms of a biological organism. Societies are born, enjoy their youthful period of exuberance, then their peak, followed by senescence and death. On occasion, the interpreter employs the metaphor of the seasons. Thus the historian Johan Huizinga entitled the original Dutch version of his classic study of the late Middle Ages the A u t u m n of the Middle Ages.

Sometimes the idea of progress is invoked, so that there may be no inevitable decline. Kondratieff waves (after the Russian scholar Nikolai Dmitrievich Kondratieff, 1892-1938) address the major technological changes of modern times (the start of the industrial revolution with the steam engine; the era of steel and the railway; electrotechnology; the ear of petroleum and the automobile; and finally the cybernetic or information era.) Intense phases and slack intervals characterize each wave, which lasts about sixty years.

The cyclical pattern presupposes the recurrence of phenomena, possibly in an unending sequence. Historians of American religion have posited a series of Great Awakenings, periods of religious fervor, separated by periods of lethargy. According to one account there have been four such peaks of religious enthusiasm (1730-40s; 1820s-30s; 1880s-1900s; and 1960s-70s). A fifth such awakening may be under way.

Alternating schemes have enjoyed favor in the realm of cultural history. There is the idea of classic-romantic handovers. The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin formulated a similar idea in his linear-painterly contrast—two ways of seeing, which alternate in there dominance.

The secular version of the triadic sequence reflects the paradigm of the fall of the Roman Empire, adding the dark ages after, and then a new upswing, the Renaissance, ushering in modern times. One is reminded of a sonata-form sequence: allegro, largo maestoso, allegro. Recently, the gay historian Louis Crompton has adapted this in his survey of homosexuality, which sees a gay-friendly era in classical times, then a long era of repression, followed by renewed tolerance in the Enlightenment (Homosexuality and Civilization, Harvard University Press, 2003). Such schemes do not always sag in the middle in a kind of reverse bell curve. Some art historians, for example, have detected recurring sequences of the archaic, the classic, and the baroque modes. In these, the high point is arguably the middle (the classic).

Because of the influence of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, threes have had particular appeal for Christian historical thinkers. Some patristic writers liked to see human history as comprising three phases: ante legem or before the law (Old Testament history prior to the appearance of Judaic law), sub lege or under the law (later Old Testament history), and sub gratia or under grace (the Christian era.

This theory posits that we are living in the last age, perhaps in its senescence. The world will end soon. By contrast, about 1200 CE the Calabrian monk Joachim of Flora developed an open ended scheme: the era of the Father (up to the Incarnation), the era of the Son (to the present and beyond), and the era of the Holy Spirit, which is to come. Joachim’s template, which has been recurrently influential, embodies a prophetic element. In this light we must expect the coming of the Third Realm, though no one knows precisely when it will come. (Some followers of Joachim thought that it had come in 1260, but this spoils the element of expectation.)

Then there is an approach with much shorter time snippets, the detection of generations. This approach strikes me as somewhat problematic, because births spread themselves pretty much at random, though some decades are more prolific than others. Take the currently popular term "Generation X." Some say that this cohort embraces everyone born in the US between 1961 and 1981 (amounting to 78-85 million). Others restrict the bracket to 1965-76 (46 million). That is quite a difference.

Generations are sometimes marked by significant events. In Spain the Generation of 1898 was marked by the defeat in the Spanish-American war. The coming of World War I left its impression on the Generation of 1914. The "Lost Generation" emerged in the wake of that conflict.

Generations are the starting point for the currently popular theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe, developed in several books and public presentations. They began with an enumeration of generations, so the Thirteenth Generation (equivalent to Generation X) is part of a sequence starting with the American Revolution. Then they developed an overarching periodization, with units of approximately 80 to 100 years. Each of these large units is internally divided into four "turnings": high, awakening, unraveling, and crisis. In the current cycle we are about to enter the last phase, hence the catch-phrase the Fourth Turning. Such schemes owe a large part of their appeal to the idea that we are caught up in a particular historical drama. Using this knowledge we can understand ourselves better, and perhaps be more effective actors.

Some see no need to plot out the whole thing. The key point is to detect a turning point, which has either just happened, is happening, or will happen soon. According the theosophist H. P. Blavatsky (1831-1891), who was influenced by Joachimite thinking, the New Age was scheduled to start in the 21st century. The term "Age of Aquarius" seems to have been introduced by the British astrological expert Rupert Gleadow in 1940; he thought that it was yet to come. Yet in 1961 the novelist J.B. Priestly opined that the shift from the “fishy”Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius had already begun. This was prescient, as the decade closed with the popular musical "Hair," producing the anthem "It is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius."

This somewhat bewildering recitation of historical templates is a mere tip of the iceberg. For a fuller, though by no means complete account see monograph of Johan Hendrik Jocob van der Pot, Sinndeutung und Periodisierung der Geschichte (Brill, 1999). Aptly enough, this tome has a millennial dimension: it is 1001 pages long!

The genre shows a continuing vitality. Yet what does this vitality signify? Perhaps two contradictory things. On the one hand, there is the basic human desire to know, and in this case to acquire everyday insight, so that we may, up to a point at least, affect our own destiny. On the other hand, there is the sweet resignation of fatalism. We are under the control of "vast historical forces." So be it. Let us go with the flow.

It is the dawning of the age of . . . well, who knows? But the fascination of the quest abides.


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