Saturday, February 7, 2009

Orienting Ourselves in Time

In my childhood a three-fold structure dominated history. It divided into ancient, medieval, and modern. Prehistory formed a shadowy fourth but wasn't really history at all, just background. It was left to anthropologists. I was nineteen or thereabouts (1955) when I discovered that some people saw a different pattern. Three scholars had emerged in the early 1930s in Europe; they offered a cyclical view of history. History was not, repeat not, a progression from the primitive to the enlightened, a latter-day fellow-traveller of Darwin's. It was rather the story of closely-knit social groups. They formed cultures and, for a time, gave meaning to the meaningless succession of social change.

The three scholars were Arnold J. Toynbee (A Study of History), Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West), and Pitirim Sorokin (Social and Cultural Dynamics and, in a shorter version, The Crisis of Our Age).

These men did not always agree. They gave variable interpretations to what they saw. Nevertheless they saw the same pattern. Spengler saw cultures as living entities, no more intelligible than living individuals: they're born, mature, and die. Toynbee saw elites meeting challenges until they failed. Sorokin saw a succession of cultural forms always in the same sequence—inward, mixed, and outward in orientation, corresponding to periods of religious faith, "renaissances," and secular-materialist eras. The last stage, according to Sorokin, always falls into chaos. From the chaos then rises another religious culture.

The pattern common to all three? A denial of linear development. The assertion of a cyclical process in which either fate itself (Spengler) or human failure (Toynbee and Sorokin) lead to the termination of a vast collective enterprise.

Does it matter who is right? The linear historians who, since my youth, have augmented the classification by introducing yet another era, the Post-Modern? Their cyclical opponents? They were never warmly embraced in their own time and are today largely forgotten. Human life is very short. Most people don't feel a strong urge to be oriented in the vast ocean of time. Having at least two ways of assessing what transpired during my life was very helpful. And, looking around, I'm inclined to side with the cyclical historians.

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