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Question of the Month
Does History Progress? If So, To What?
Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the entrants not included.
A remark attributed to Arnold Toynbee is that history is ‘just one damned thing after another’. It must have been said during a moment of self-deprecation, because Toynbee’s A Study of History was an attempt to identify discernible trajectories in world history.
Before and since Toynbee, many writers have tried to find evidence that there is a pattern in historical change. They often claim that not only do historical events exhibit such a pattern, but that together this shows some kind of progress towards a goal. For Hegel, for instance, history is an intelligible process moving towards the realisation of human freedom: “History is the process whereby the Spirit discovers itself and its own concept.” For Marx, history also shows progress, but in the materialist direction of a classless society. Fukuyama argues that history progresses towards universal liberal democracy. I often wonder what Hegel, Marx or Fukuyama would have made of 1066 and All That (Sellar & Yeatman), where history is declared as the story of how Britain became ‘top nation’ – achieved c.1908 – after which there would be no more history.
I can see no reason for a progressive view of history. If history is ‘one damn thing after another’, then there is no reason to suppose that chains of causally connected events will follow any kind of patterned trajectory. It may be possible to get people to agree on which ‘damned things’ follow each other. The choice of a perspectival magnifying glass with which to view them is another matter.
Graham Hackett, Cardiff
Our locomotive, fly forward! Communism is the destination’, sang people in the Soviet Union. Yet the locomotive of Marx’s historical progress heading towards Communism never reached its destination, and in 1991, people got off the train. Fukuyama also employs a colourful metaphor of a locomotive heading to a station – this one called Capitalist Liberal Democracy – to argue that the totalitarianism of the twentieth century was just a temporary detour of some of the wagons.
But what if it is Liberal Democracy that will prove to have been the detour? In The Brothers Karamazov, through The Grand Inquisitor’s prophetic assessment of human nature, Fyodor Dostoevsky reveals another terminus for the locomotive of History. The Inquisitor advances an argument borne out by the long experience of humanity, seeing the mass of men as weak, pitiful creatures whose obedience to the strong few can be easily bought with loaves of bread. The illusion of freedom will be offered, and thus freedom of conscience will not be actualised, but rather modified or appeased instead. And this will finally satisfy ‘man as man’ as “we shall give them quiet humble happiness of feeble creatures, such as they were created… And everyone will be happy…”
In the twenty-first century we witness the greed of the business world, exploitation under the banner of globalisation, distrust in democratic institutions, the renouncing of intellectual traditions in favour of pleasure-seeking nihilism, the spiritual vacuum cultivated by a corrupted elite, and the psychological conditioning of people into being nice rather than being moral. This is amidst digital consumerism, climate apocalypticism, and the use of populism in mobilising the masses’ resentment, which leads to fear, anger, violence, xenophobia, and the need for scapegoats and enemies. The mass media reflects the vulgarity of the lowest of human instincts. So now liberal democracy is degenerating into mob democracy, which will eventually give birth to the bastard child of democracy: fascism. Unlike in Dostoevsky’s legend, this form of fascism will be disguised by its false promises of freedom and equality, and history will head towards its final destination: the humanitarian tyranny of a democratically elected Grand Inquisitor. And with free Wi-Fi and breakfast included, not many will return the ticket. Is this progress?
Nella Leontieva, Randwick, NSW
Nietzsche wrote that lack of a historical sense is the original error of all philosophers, though I’d add, it’s the problem of all people. We humans are myopic and blinkered. We think we have accomplished so much, that our time here is of some great importance. But it is only important to us, and so, not really important at all. What is history, but the autobiography of bit-players? And what then is progress, but the minor accomplishments for the moment each person is on stage? In truth, we have done disappointingly little with our miraculous evolution. From a cosmic standpoint, the longer we are here, the more we seem to regress in our efforts to produce anything benefitting our entire species as well as our home, despite the expansion of our intellect.
Strangely, however, our histories would tell it differently. From its conception, humans have been driven by one thing: lack. Lack has caused our species to make tremendous strides, although these are sadly outweighed by its horrific blunders. Humans lacked food, thus we cultivated land. We harnessed electricity, yielding tremendous advancements that improved human life a thousandfold. The strides we have made in the face of deprivation are unquestionable. Yet, everything we have produced is overshadowed by the corrosive nature of our ‘not enough’ mindset. The need for more has driven us to war, separation, hatred, cruelty, judgment, torture, slavery, powerlust, and worse, because in our minds there is never enough. Thus, we maim, fight, consume, and blame, on every level, from individual to global – overproducing, undeserving, hoarding, polluting, oppressing, looting… an endless cycle of feeding the need. This flaw in humanity has never evolved, and because of this mistake in perspective, history can never progress. The drive for more, from the mindset of lack, will undo us at the same rate at which it propels us. Thus, while our lives are filled with stuff, we have produced little to advance our species and planet as a whole. But the truth is, there has always been plenty. What would history have been if we understood this long ago?
Kristina Banks, Fayetteville, GA
The narrative of ‘historical progress’ only makes sense if reality actually has an anthropocentric bias. Otherwise, our current human slice of reality is just the present surface of an accumulation of random events whose dynamics are more cold statistics than cuddly narratives. That’s certainly what thermodynamics and evolution amount to. Ramp the timescale up, and we see the universe heading for heat death quadrillions of years from now; scale it down, and cosmologically trivial disruptions, such as asteroid strikes, climate change, or a radioactive afterglow, come into focus. Somewhere in between, you get the history of civilisations – brief flowerings of humanity’s potential for better or worse, crammed into the interludes between catastrophes.
Let’s tune in and look at Christianity becoming the official faith of the Roman Empire in the fourth century CE. Was this ‘progress’? If so, it included books, and inconvenient heretics, being burnt. The Western hegemony of Catholicism lasted at least from Constantine to Galileo, in the name of a text regarded as absolute truth. No one in the Classical world, from Thales and Aristotle to Seneca and Cicero, would have called that ‘progress’.
So where does our sense of progress and betterment come from? Does not child mortality fall, living standards rise and freedom blossom? Yes, but only because we are currently between Armageddons. Just don’t ask how long it will last. One of the constants of history, which makes a mockery of any notion of historical progress, is that a substantial proportion of humans are thugs and fools, always there, waiting in the wings for society and science to falter and thwart expectations so that their innate savagery can slip its leash.
Treasure our age of Enlightenment, it will not last.
History certainly progresses. If it stood still, there would actually be no history at all. The question is whether its progress is linear and leads to some distant target, or cyclical, where historical events happen in one endless circle, moving round and round.
If you don’t believe in God’s promises, linear progress puts the responsibility for meeting the unknown target on our shoulders. This is threatening. If there is a beginning which our remote ancestors once saw and an end to which we should lead ourselves (or drag ourselves, for that matter), then there is the fear of missing it. That opens space to sects, prophets, or politicians (the last two categories often merge) who claim to know how to meet the target and who therefore call for masses to follow them. But the second fear is even worse: if everything is going to finish as randomly as it once began, then existence has no meaning, and we have to accept the painful fact that our lives, together with the millions of deaths and the immense suffering of our forefathers, were useless.
Cyclical progress – or as Mircea Eliade called it, the eternal return – seemingly offers more freedom and less fear. In this case, history is periodically annulled, repeatedly starts from scratch, and eternally recurs.
Such progress has factual support. A tourist facing prehistoric cave paintings in the dim light of a torch can hardly overlook the fact that the strongest worries and wishes of humans haven’t changed too much. As in a Babylonian myth, people constantly make noise, eat, procreate, and produce waste, but hardly advance, since few children trust the experience of their parents enough to avoid repeating their failures.
So it can be said that history progresses, but the question of whether this progress is linear or cyclical mirrors the question of whether our lives end in a paradise or hell, or eternally rotate in a circle of new reincarnations.
Jan Koumar, Jihlava, Czech Republic
History per se started with written records. Before history there was prehistory and natural history. Localized complexity was increasing with time, first as the animate developed from the inanimate. Then environmental pressure caused lifeforms to become more complex, culminating in consciousness. Awareness increased as languages developed, and linguistic complexity gave rise to abstract thinking. Using abstract thinking and symbolism, writing developed, which paved the way for the birth of history. The increase in complexity is further reflected in the advance of technology, which has been happening at an exponential rate since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Ever since Herodotus and Thucydides, the reporting of history has been dominated by political and military history. It is a moot point whether military strategy and tactics have advanced since Hannibal, except that the weapons are more horrific due to advances in technology. There has been little progress in politics since Aristotle claimed that there were six types of government, of which democracy was the least bad. In the last century Winston Churchill expressed a similar view, when he stated that democracy was the worst from of government except for all the others.
Social history is underpinned by the relationship between technology, which does progress, and human nature, which has probably barely changed in the last sixty thousand years. This is displayed when considering whether the human condition has progressed. Over the last fifty years, the human condition on a global scale has improved, mainly due to technological advances in farming, which have all but eliminated famine; and to medical advances in controlling disease and managing pain. Whether this improvement is sustainable depends on technological advancement outpacing the effects of human nature, including the natural desires for material gain and procreation. The natural desire to seek a strong leader in times of danger could in the modern world easily culminate in disaster and the collapse of modern civilization. Thus the ancient belief in the cyclical nature of civilization – rise and fall ad infinitum – could be a more realistic perspective.
Russell Berg, Manchester
The notion of historical progress was dealt a mortal blow in the nineteenth century by the discovery that the Sun must eventually burn itself out, destroying life on Earth in the process. H.G. Wells dramatized this end at the climax of 1895’s The Time Machine, when the weakening Sun renders the Earth too cold to support life.
Although the ramifications of Darwinism were generally undignified, it did at least suggest a sort of progress, from ape to man. The science of thermodynamics was altogether bleaker, and the idea of the dying Sun in particular exercised the late Victorian imagination greatly. Not only was individual death inevitable, but species death, too.
In the twenty-first century, we feel this notion less keenly than those who were first exposed to it, but it remains the ultimate stumbling block. While it is conceivable that humanity will last until the Sun makes life on Earth unsupportable, it’s unlikely to be in good enough shape to organise a sustainable civilization in another suitable corner of the universe. That is the end of our history, and it is for this that our progress must prepare us. Our intellectual progress is preparing us for this end. With the death of humanism, the tragedic nature of the death-of-the-Sun scenario evaporates.
Yuval Noah Harari tells us in Homo Deus (2015) that current scientific consensus is that individuals are, in fact, ‘dividuals’, that is, an assemblage of many different algorithms. The decisions of this assemblage are random, but not free. Who could weep for such an assemblage? But, in short, considering ourselves as assemblages of algorithms is intellectual progress, if it removes the existential horror that surrounds the fate of humanity.
Dr Mark Wallace, Co. Galway
History progresses via the evolution of universes to an ultimate consciously-shaped universe.
As far as we know, history ends no later than the death of the universe. However, what if this universe is just the latest in an evolving sequence, with the ultimate realisation of its processes establishing the basis for the next universe in the series? And are those final conditions determined by conscious as well as unconscious events? If consciousness has a part to play, then the way for history must be to a universe where consciousness plays a formative role in its configuration.
Theism argues that this condition is already met in a God-designed universe, while Whitehead’s process philosophy maintains that God creates the potential for consciously changing, creative progress. Contra Nietzsche’s ‘history doomed to repeat itself’, any future universe would unfold anew from the conditions immediately prior to its individual Big Bang. Lee Smolin’s theory of ‘fecund universes’ postulates generations of universes inheriting diverse properties from its progenitors, with ‘cosmological natural selection’ determining success or failure. Davies’ ‘Goldilocks Enigma’ observes the laws of physics as astonishingly perfected for life in our universe. Nature always employs trial and error to achieve fitness, so this is more likely to have evolved from earlier universes with less salubrious conditions. Our own universe has inherited twelve fundamental matter particles, whereas, as some argue, only four are necessary for its construction. These cosmologists hypothesise that the surplus functioned just after the Big Bang. But they could be the residue from an earlier existence.
So, what role for consciousness? As matter and energy evolve over (space)time, so do the capabilities of consciousness. After three billion years of evolution to get to hominids, Homo sapiens has taken less than 300,000 years to develop from stone tools to selectively domesticating plants and animals, engineering an increasingly artificial environment, and even proposing terraforming. With the exponential development of AI and robotics, and the time-dilation of relativity, the scene is set for human consciousness to follow the Voyager spacecraft to the stars, where human ingenuity can be applied to transform new stellar system environments, and ultimately the shape of universes. And should humanity fail, the universe will provide other opportunities for consciousness to change its fundamental nature, and to create the conditions for future universes.
Brian Johns, Wheathampstead
If history does progress, this can be reflected in the subject itself. We’d probably want to add that it should include all of humanity, its genders and orientations, and be applicable to non-human animals, our environment and planet. Historians can identify omitted areas for research, pursuing history’s rigorous methods in their search for equitable, unbiased accounts that are verifiable.
History is more than ‘just one f***ing thing after another’ – Rudge’s view in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Its raison d’être has varied over time, as historiography shows, including devising narratives to describe and explain events and causes, imagined and actual. Drawing on Auguste Comte, these can broadly be put into his categories theistic, metaphysical or positivist. The positivist approach, a conception of history from the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries, emphases empirical approaches rather than the ‘hereafter’, or other celestial realms, as the theistic does. It favours ‘scientific’ history, and is simultaneous with the rise of history as an academic profession. Among its branches is art history, requiring reference to numerous sources from social and cultural history. Digital media, including archives can increase accessibility and understanding, characteristic of maturing progressive democracies (toward which history aspires).
Some recent examples include the BBC television documentary series Civilisations (2018), which was a sequel to Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation. In Civilisations, Mary Beard, David Adetayo Olusoga and Simon Schama presented global histories – contrasting tellingly with Clark’s earlier, ‘personal view’ of Western civilisation. Olusoga has also directly addressed Britain’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. And Samira Ahmed’s BBC4 series (2020), The Art of Persia (birthplace of Herodotus, the ‘father’ of history) provides an insightful, progressive narrative by considering this land before Islam and Khomeini’s radical revolution in Iran in 1979.
Colin Brookes, Loughborough, Leicestershire
Referring to the actual discipline of ‘history’, rather than the events themselves (‘History’), the idea of history progressing is itself demonstrative of History progressing.
Let me explain. The idea of History being a progression towards enlightenment and liberty is a ‘Whiggish’ narrative. And seeing History as progress through science, technology, and politics, is frequently a Western-orientated viewpoint. Specifically, it is an imperialist narrative. The spread of European empires was seen through the lens of (European) Enlightenment thought as the inevitable spread of technology and intellectual advancements to ‘undeveloped’ parts of the world. This is just one idea of history.
The Enlightenment had another effect on historic thought, too. In the age of reason and science, it attempted to treat history as a science. Through this, the narrative of progress and the bringing of technology by Western empires to the rest of the world became dogma, completely disregarding the much less favourable views of empire of colonial subjects. The development of a postcolonial critique of empires and their histories came out of the postmodern movement after the Second World War. This was at a time when the global hegemony of the Western imperial powers had been reduced, replaced instead by the global dominance of the Soviet Union and the United States, and an ultimately successful drive by colonised peoples for independence. Historical theory began to overturn the idea of an objective historical lens. In doing so, the imperialist narrative relinquished its dominance, having been recognised as excluding the stories of marginalised groups. New points of view were accessed, and new histories written; racial, gendered and diasporic ones, just to name a few.
So history as a discipline does progress. It progresses to a more all-encompassing record of human experience. One which makes it a far richer and more relevant subject.
Edward Hepburn, Chelmsford, Essex
Next Question of the Month
The next question is: What Is Freedom? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 8th February 2021. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address.