Ours is a unique place in history. Technology and industrialization have driven major social changes and the average person in the developed world has access to resources, information, and luxuries that would make the greatest king a century ago look like little more than an ignorant pauper.
Are we better for it?
Perhaps we’ve just exchanged one set of problems for another. We traded the difficulties of dealing with physical reality for those of the social and psychological worlds. It’s true, the average person is no longer starving because of a failed harvest or because he’s a bad hunter, but we’re left with more complicated problems to solve that are well outside of the grasp of individuals to reasonably cope with. The poorest in our society are overweight and prone to illnesses like diabetes which effectively did not exist before the discovery of sugarcane, for example.
Here’s a thought-provoking line of inquiry- can you reasonably say that the world we live in is one that the average person wants to live in? We like to imagine we’re a democratic society (or at least that we’re aspiring to become more democratic,) but as far as the structure of society is concerned, I personally don’t remember being asked.
Who decided that cities should be designed around cars? In the past, it was considered to be the fault of drivers for striking pedestrians and that the pedestrians had right-of-way because cities were walkable first. Before it was called jaywalkers, we had jay-drivers (jay meaning a “rube” or “simpleton”) in 1905 and we still thought of cities as a thing designed for people, not machines. Of course, that changed when the automobile industry started to shift the blame onto pedestrians for their demise at the hands of machines, and we instead worry about jaywalkers today.
Who decided what should be taught in schools? It’s certainly not something the average person has any meaningful input in. In America between 1852-1918, the states enacted compulsory education laws giving the government the power to fine parents who did not send their children and even kidnap those children from their parents if they were deemed unfit. Today, you can petition the school board to make a change if you feel so inclined, but you’re not asked to vote on the curriculum or consulted in a meaningful way.
We like to think that we’re more free than we were in the past, but we’ve simply changed our definitions of what freedom means. In some ways, we’re extremely free- you’re free to buy whatever car you’d like that’s available on the market (unless you live in California, of course.) In others, you’re not as free- in most places, you’re not free to live in walkable cities designed around people rather than cars, since the automotive industry has more of a voice than you. You’re free to homeschool with varying degrees of difficulty, but you’re generally not free from state-mandated standards of education.
Whether it was an intentional decision made by some powerful group or simply the direction that modernization has pushed us in, the modern world we find ourselves in is not really one that is open for debate. It’s very difficult to imagine a person deciding they no longer want to participate in the modern world and leaving it to engage in subsistence hunting or farming in traditional ways. The world we live in is largely not welcoming to those who disagree with it. Eddie Vedder’s song Society from the Into the Wild soundtrack comes to mind:
“Society, have mercy on me, I hope you're not angry if I disagree.”
Modernity is a fickle thing. We like to think we’re free, and that’s largely true within the scope of modernity. However, it’s nearly impossible to be free of modernity itself.
Francis Fukuyama called this concept “The End of History,” in his 1989 article “The End of History?” and later in his book, “The End of History and the Last Man.” His theory was that liberal democracy had been so thoroughly accepted no great changes in governance would ever occur again. The end of history here is not a claim that nothing would ever happen again, but that the core structure of society would never deviate from liberal democracy. He argues that liberal democracy is the supreme ideal of human life and is thus the correct political system, and as such, no further development is necessary.
This idea has roots further back than Fukuyama, going back through Marx to Hegel, who is responsible for our modern concept of history as a linear, progressive process of increasing human freedom and liberty over time. He’s the father of what we now call the Hegelian dialectic: the notion that history is a process by which we move from the thesis of one age (the central concept of a culture or system) to its antithesis (due to internal contradictions.) This creates a conflict in which both are resolved in a non-paradoxical synthesis of the two. The process inevitably repeats itself, moving towards progress.
Before modernity and the Enlightenment, history was looked at in a more cyclical fashion as opposed to our linear, progressive perspective. This is echoed in sentiments like those in Ecclesiastes,
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
There is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"?
It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.”
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die.”
We have the Greek Kyklos, meaning “circle” or “cycle,” which is the progression from one form of government to another in a degradatory or contra-progressive succession. Polybius’ concept of Anakyklosis as the move from monarchy through aristocracy to democracy, chaos, and eventually the restarting of the cycle. It begins with a wise leader establishing society with a simple monarchy, then the transition to his children ruling in kingship, which begets tyranny. Next, the powerful in the tyrant society depose the despot and establish aristocracy, their children become corrupt and instantiate an oligarchy. Finally, the people take power back with democracy, and the democracy devolves into mob rule (ochlocracy or demagarchy) until a demagogue or wise leader emerges to consolidate power and return the system to either tyranny or a just monarchy.
In the east, we have the Hindu concept of the Yugas, or ages. The word Yuga is similar to the Greek Aion (where we get aeon and eon from) in that it denotes a bounded age or era. In Hinduism, the world is represented by the Bull of Dharma (a symbol for morality and right-conduct.) In the first Yuga, the Satya Yuga (or Age of Truth,) the Bull of Dharma has four legs and is stable- a golden age of prosperity and morality. Time takes us through the Treta Yuga (Age of Three [legs]) and Dvapara Yuga (Age of Two [legs]) and society degrades into lower states of morality and understanding. Finally, we reach chaos in the Kali Yuga (the Age of Strife) and the world is ruled by the demon Kali, until he is slain by Kalki, an avatar of Vishnu. Then, a new Satya Yuga begins, and the cycle is restarted.
The pre-Enlightenment world had a deep understanding of the cyclical nature of time. They believed that every stage of the society contained within itself the seeds of its own end, and as such each action begets a reaction, much like Hegel’s dialectic. However, unlike in Hegel’s model, they believed the world was constantly falling apart, dying only to be reborn in the strife brought with the end of a cycle.
One of the basic facts of our existence is that time moves in a single direction. Because of the laws of thermodynamics, if you light a match, you can’t use the energy of it burning to put the match back together. It was once a match, it is briefly a light, it will thus and always be ashes. Time moves ever onwards in a march towards death and darkness.
However, the Greeks had three concepts of time that I’ve written about here several times. Linear time is Chronos, the right time to act or the divine moment is Kairos, and the cyclical, mythic, sacred time is Aion. Chronos is the path of an arrow from archer’s bow to target, Kairos is the perfect moment to strike your target, and Aion is the eternal dance of hunter and prey that recurs, over and over, again and again.
The Greek Kyklos and the Hindu Yugas are describing the interaction between a conceptual Aion (the cycle of government and society that recurs) and the tangible arc of Chronos (a particular kingdom that falls to aristocracy which falls to democracy and then to ruin.) Chronos intersects with Aion in Kairos- the linear time we inhabit touches the sacred and cyclical time in certain significant moments that are heavy with the weight of historical importance.
In modernity, however, we have no room for Aion, no place for cycles, and thus no connection to the sacred or meaningful. Aion is fundamentally where timeless experiences of religious or spiritual significance occur. It’s our connection to values and meaning that transcend the individual nature of consciousness, and it’s no surprise that our modern world feels very meaningless as a result of our disconnect from Aion. We live in Cronos and are moving towards a sort of endless Kairos, an eternal present free from the cyclical changes of Aion.
We are trying to escape time.
To take a page from Hegel, let’s imagine that the ancient cyclical model of time and the modern linear conception are actually part of the same thing. If the cyclical model is our thesis, and the linear model is our antithesis, what does a synthesis look like?
“History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes” – Mark Twain
I want to propose the spiral theory of history.
Let’s imagine a two dimensional model of history as a line. It starts at point A and ends at point B, and time moves in the direction from A to B. Pretty straightforward. The difference between the modern and ancient conceptions of time are that in modern time, A and B are far away from each other, and in ancient time, A and B are the same point and the line moves in a circle.
We know that time is one-directional, so we can’t imagine it as a pure cycle. However, if we imagine the cycle occurring in two dimensions, and the line occurring in a third, we realize that both models can coexist as the spiral of history.
We move forward through Chronos, and we orbit through or around the cycles of Aion at the same time. Time, like DNA, spirals in a helix, and we progress forward even as we decay. We can move in two directions at the same time, which is why in our modern world we can feel like things are getting better and worse at the same time- because they are.
Technology seems to be bound innately to Chronos. We can create, innovate, and build new things, but they don’t seem to touch Aion other than consequentially. An iPhone itself isn’t meaningful, but being able to FaceTime your relatives who live far away is technology that enables you to connect with meaning that was already there (or perhaps meaning you were unable to access before.) Technology itself does not create meaning, but what we do with it can be meaningful- we connect to Aion as individuals and as groups, not as consumers.
The three kinds of time also correspond to the three Values I’ve been developing in my writing: Love, Will, and Truth. Kairos is Love: it’s eternally present and in the moment. It’s subjective, personal, and experiential. Chronos is Will, it’s decisive, action and consequence, and it’s progressive or degradatory. Aion is Truth: it’s timeless, it encompasses the finite human life and the infinity of time, it’s meaning at the intersection of the present and the timeless.
Because we live in Chronos in the modern world, we live in a world driven by the hypermasculine forces of the Will. We’re worried about factual matters, rationality, science, money, data, technology, and other Chronos-bound concepts. We’re always running out of time, and we never get more of it, so everything is tinged with a desperation and competitiveness that you don’t see in the moment of Kairos or in the timelessness of Aion. When you’re present in Kairos, you’re not concerned with tomorrow, it’s pure being, and in Aion, you’re touching the eternal, so you realize that life goes on beyond the individual. Our modern world has little place for these sorts of experiences and the values that go along with them.
However, if the Spiral Theory of History is true, then inevitably the End of History that we’re allegedly living in will come to an end, too. Rather than seeing the system we’re living in as the ideal, we can look at it as yet another phase. This too, shall pass.
Frankly, the notion that our modern world is some pinnacle of virtue strikes me as absolute hubris spoken by those who have no connection to the lives of the average person in our society. The vision they espouse looks like meaningless corporate work, endless consumerism, and the death of everything that mattered to humanity before the advent of industrialization and technology. If that’s supposed to be the ideal system, then I don’t want to live in an ideal at all.
Humanity has lost all connection to eternity. The world imagined by the End of History is an eternal present where nothing changes except the next new product marketed to you as a surrogate for genuine meaning.
History, however, tells us a different story. There are few constants across time except the human striving towards immortality, to live and exist in a way that frees us from the shackles of time and the slow march towards death. We build monuments to our excellence, like Ozymandias, and just as Ozymandias himself, those too crumble to dust in time. We cannot escape time, because the very nature of our existence is bound to it. One can no better imagine life without time than a mind without a body- what would you think about with no senses?
For better or worse, time is a fact, and history is real. It does not matter how perfect a single person, system, or mode of governance may have been in the grand scheme of things, because with each successive generation, all things must be learned anew. Even Marcus Aurelius, great emperor that he was, was father to Commodus, who was a wretched tyrant. The system itself cannot correct for good or bad rulers, or even for an educated or ignorant populace. All the technology in the world will fail before a generation that does not care to learn how to use it correctly.
Where does this leave us?
If the Kyklos is true, we can expect that our current era, which is something between corrupt oligarchy and the mob rule of democracy, will begin to push for a demagogue. The desire is clearly there, and I can tell you which political party you’re a part of by who you fear the demagogue may be. We’ll likely descend into conflict, perhaps at a global scale (because modernity and the liberal democracy that comes with it are a global phenomenon,) and we either move towards a tyrant or a wise ruler, depending on how the cards fall.
We can talk about ideal systems all we want, but those who fail to learn from history are doomed to see it rhyme in their time.