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.