How do we best understand human history?

One of the commenters to this website wrote very recently of his ‘conviction that the history of the human race has been one of eventual progress, with lots of fits and starts’, and that remark coincided with a growing desire on my part, over the last few weeks, to write about the way in which history affects the way we think about the present. My approach is not at all critical of what the commenter wrote — indeed, I agree with him, for the most part.

The urge to write about this theme came from watching the distress of the various beleaguered groups in the Middle East who are trying to escape the Islamic State militants. It seems always to have been like this — a group whose members who want to practise their religion peacefully being attacked by another group with another religion. No doubt all religions are religions of peace, but not everywhere, and not all the time. Christians, after all, were a persecuted minority in Rome for the best part of three hundred years, until Constantine’s conversion in about 312 AD. The history of Christian crusades to Palestine, and of the later religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, do not suggest that Christianity is best seen as a religion of peace. Islam may be no worse, but it is hard to see it as any better.

But what is it that drives humanity, humankind, over the generations? At the moment you could argue that religion is playing a powerful role, at least in the Middle East. As an honours student in history a long time ago I learned of various theories or interpretations of history; most of them seemed to have some sense to them. The Greeks believed that there was a repetitive element in human history, while early Christian historians saw history as the work of God, which would end, or at least come to fruition, with Christ’s second coming.

Then there were the progressives who saw man as the centre of history, and his deliverance from want and barbarism as its purpose. Hegel saw the driving force of history as ‘spirit’ as expressed in the ‘state’, Marx saw it as the unleashing of mankind’s productive forces, Spengler (The Decline of the West, 1918) saw  ‘culture’ is the dynamo, and cultures were born and later died. Toynbee (A Study of History, 1961) differed, in seeing ‘civilisation’ as the dynamo, but civilisations had too their genesis and eventually their dissolution. Francis Fukuyama in1992 proclaimed The End of History, on the ground that the sort of mixed economy and representative democracy that we are used to, is the final form of the human experiment in progress, and eventually every society will have it. My guess is that the proclamation was premature.

Out of all that I gained some kind of understanding that the history I knew, and read and studied, was about ‘progress’ — life seemed to have been pretty grim for most people most of the time in past ages. But slowly things were getting better. Political history made great moment of the reduction in power of rulers, and the growth of the franchise. Pretty obviously,  the growth in the availability of education was part of that process. So was the emancipation of women. So was representative democracy.

Herbert Butterfield, an English historian, took this account of things to task a long time ago in a little book called The Whig Interpretation of History. He argued that it was all too easy to see this story as a way of glorifying the present, with history showing how good it was that we had come to the much better now out of the awful past. From his perspective, ‘progressive’ political parties were too prone to see themselves as the custodians of the future, because they alone saw the true dynamic of history, which is in the emancipation of everyone to a condition of real equality. History became for them the conflict between progressives and conservatives, the latter always having selfish motives.

I share a bit of that, because of my own families’ histories, in which long generations of working-class Scots and English men and women were able, in the 20th century, to produce children who moved into the educated middle class, becoming teachers, magistrates and engineers, a story which will be familiar to many readers. Their children all prospered, most also becoming university educated professionals of one kind and another.

But I have become less happy with the story of progress. For while it is unarguably true that people in Australia and other similar democracies are wealthier and healthier, live longer and are more positively creative than was the case a hundred years ago, I feel that much of the explanation has to do with technological advances and the wealth that flows from them. As I’ve said in a few recent posts, that does not seem to me to have made democracy stronger in our country or any others. Now it is almost certainly true that the expansion of education has enabled a more highly skilled workforce, it has not led, at least not in my view, to a more democratic society.

It is marginally less subject to crime, and it is still characterised by a strong voluntary sector. But technological advances come to a degree by chance — and they do not come with a set of positive values only: almost anything human beings invent can be used for good and also for ill. What I see around the world has something of the Greek view that history is a matter of repetition, in which human beings fail to learn from experience. It has something of the humanist view that history leads to emancipation from misery and want, and from the Marxist view that productive forces are everything.

But I also sense that Spengler and Toynbee were not deluded in seeing civilisations and cultures as having their own life story, and that we should not simply assume that our place in the world will go on forever. I do miss the sense of excitement and purpose in the 1960s that we could really improve Australia (and we did). I don’t find much of that spirit today, and don’t see it in Britain, the US or Canada, either.

I’m trying not to be a GOM (Grumpy …), and would be glad to be pointed towards positive signs that the country is on the right track — and where that track leads!


[Update: Later on the same day I read a long but most interesting post by Lorenzo, on Skeptic Lawyer, in which some of the themes of my post are dealt with, in a fashion I found refreshing.]

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    It does seem that we have a lot of negativity around these decades. Blaming ourselves and all humanity for all manner of things. We should teach more history, accurate history, not the imaginative storytelling that is post-modernist history. Teach our children what it has cost civilisaions to reach where they are now, Why civilisations have failed in the past.

    Another deficiency in our education is basic science and technology, explaining how far we have come over even the last two hundred years. A little bit of inspiration goes a long way.

    To consider your underlying questions, Don, I ask myself this: would i wish to take a trip in Dr Who’s Tardis, back into the past? Yes, but it’s like some cities you can visit today – nice to have a look at, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Of course, I’m well aware that I speak for myself in the safety I enjoy now, while there are so many as I write, for whom a trip back in the Tardis would not be to a harsher world than they currently inhabit.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    You ask, almost in a universal sense, Don: ” what is it that drives humanity, humankind, over the generations?”

    Novelist Patrick White wrote once that he wished to ‘explore the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mysteries and poetry that made bearable the lives of such people’ – ordinary archetypes, Stan and Amy Parker, in ‘The Tree of Man’. People eke out an existence and in a basic sense need first to address Maslow’s needs, food, shelter etc. but in many there is also a yearning for deeper meaning, whether it be religion, art, personal philosophy etc; and don’t knock hedonism, epicurean thinking, general pleasure-seeking or Leunig-type whimsy.

    In looking at the role of religion in human history, there is much to celebrate but there is also much to lament. Sectarianism – whether it be Protestants/Catholics, or Suni/Shiites etc – has had destructive impacts, very much so even today. I was struck by an observation that very few religions can really claim to be peaceful – Quakers, Jainism and some others perhaps; and that some of the IS recruiters, going to Syria, Iraq etc do a quick read of ‘Islam for Dummies’. In WW1 many young Australians had a sense of adventure and wanted to be off with their mates to Europe, perhaps to escape a dreary existence on the land, in offices etc. so their motivations tapped into other needs and drivers, rather than the ‘righteousness’ of their cause.

    It is the incestuous union of violence and religion that leads to such loss of life and such sad events as the kidnapping of African girls by extremists. Curiously, when one goes the tenets/sacred texts of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism etc there is invariably a vision which focuses on ideal relationships with other person(s) and concepts of love, respect, ethical behaviour, peace, justice etc all are venerated.

    What seems to be the driving forces in some of the worlds hotspots at the moment – Syria, Iraq, Nigeria etc are radical interpretations of religion that many moderates would reject, especially the elevation of violence, beheadings, cutting off of limbs, brutal treatment of women, ritual abuse of captives etc. It is also of note however that the US and its allies have had soldiers in these countries for many years; that there has been a horrible legacy of war, invasion, colonialism, a flourishing arms trade of death, thats profit base goes back to many US, European firms etc etc.

    A central concept in many religions is an interior disposition, an inner change and conversion of heart that motivates ethical behaviour. The logic of many wars and invasions is that evil is thriving, minorities are being persecuted, so bring in the fighting forces. Neville Wran used to have a logo on his desk which read ‘If you’ve got them by the balls, their minds and hearts will follow’.

    Curiously though, it is through such activities as improving education, building schools for girls, improving government processes etc, that leads to genuine progress.

    Why is it, after so many years of western military involvement in Irag and Afghanistan for instance, that so little ‘progress’ has seemingly occurred? If one accepts the view that winning the hearts and minds of people is the first step, that religious concepts such as ‘interior conversion’ or ‘metanoia’ are the real drivers, then bombing is not the answer.

    The real battleground is the hearts and minds of people: you can’t extract forcibly what is not freely given, even from those who may be ill-educated, living in a medieval mindset, in poverty and in daily fear of life.

    So while it is not the whole answer to the starting question, what occurs in the human psyche, what motivates people in the deepest sense and what people draw from various religions have been fundamental drivers over centuries.

  • John Morland says:

    Dr Jacob Bronowski book “The Ascent of Man” (published in 1973) had another view of history, as a record of our rise as a species and moulders of our own environment and future. It is both a science and social history with the underlying theme things get better (although there are many downs along the way) through humans’ ability to understand nature, to control it and not to be controlled by it.

    I have a copy of the book, and you are welcome to borrow it.

    The BBC made a 13-part series, it was excellent.

  • margaret says:

    I read in your about section Don that you have two brothers
    who followed a science path and that you have wondered whether you also should
    have taken that path rather than the humanities. I can’t think why but I read quite a few C.P. Snow novels
    myself when I was young.

    Don’t the
    humanities have the potential to help us to see beyond received science
    and so begin to understand not just human history but ourselves as part
    of it all, sometimes as pawns for the powerful to move in their game?

    ‘Know thyself’ and realise that ultimately one is just a speck in a random universe who can only do their best and also … do no harm. If those with power and influence had followed those principles then recent history at least would be different.

    People would probably say that ‘know thyself’ and ‘do no harm’ would impede ‘progress’ though. Whatever that is.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      When my first novel was published (about the filling of a chair at a university) the review in the Australian was ‘The CP Snow of Macquarie’. I too read CPSnow, and have re-read several of the novels in the Strangers and Brothers sequence. I don’t regret at all doing what I did — it’s just that from time to time I get fascinated with this or that bit of science, and realise that I never will understand it properly.

      Your two mottoes are good ones, and they would not impede progress — indeed, in my terms they would advance it.

      • margaret says:

        I think so too – there is a case for adding philosophy and critical thinking to the Primary school curriculum and just one way of doing this would be through studying award winning children’s literature analytically from Year 3.

        So much enthusiasm for learning at that age can be a lost opportunity in developing the evident capacity of young minds. I’m sure the best schools have stimulating programs in place already, but I’m for inclusive access irrespective of your postcode/ability to pay for education in those years.
        Secondary school is too late – a friend recently described the reason her daughter changed her granddaughter’s school well into year 8. The granddaughter was attending a public high school in a Sydney suburb with north shore affluence. Unfortunately the culture of the school had been hijacked by the students who were basically ‘too cool’ for school – don’t work hard for grades, don’t play sport etc. – so the girl has changed to a co-ed private school which has an opposite culture of engagement and inquiry that is owned and modeled from the top.

  • […] publishes some of his essays on the SkepticLawyer website I have referred to before (for example, here). And he has recently had a most useful go at the shifting terms that surround the topic of […]

Leave a Reply