Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
The way we understand the past is the way we understand the future. The future is lit indirectly, by imagination, as if by moonlight.
Perception cannot escape the relativity of POV. Every story can be traced back to its author and their personal story. Every background has a background. Every measurement suppresses or ignores other measures in order to capture its sample of reality. Every given limits what can be given as it dutifully fulfills its own prophecy.
Every telling of past history begins with settled conclusions about humanity and the future. These shape the narrative like a Play-Dough Fun Factory. We may be sinners bound for heaven or hell: Full stop. We might be the glorious high-water mark of evolution and forward progress. These stories point up, down, or round and round: Always confirming the assumptions of the teller. Rolled up in the skin of History is the community sense of what people are, and what they are worth. Every HISTORY includes a philosophy with an implicit view of where the human story began, where it stands currently and where it must go.
Knowing history provides stability and emotional proprioception. A person without a history of their family, culture, or world has a uniquely painful human amnesia. They aren’t lacking information as much as a part of themselves that we use as a rudder. Metaphorically surrounded by artifacts and traces of ancient life she is powerless to interpret them. Such a person looking on the ruins of a massive heroic sculpture exposed by digging isn’t an archeologist, but a dreamer. Without history, the unknown past is co-opted as a personal projection built to satisfy emotional needs and balance cultural accounts. A wounded ego may cling to tales of past greatness. Ethnic myths and cultural arrogance grow in this pot. No person exists without a history for long because it is a profound need; an essential framework of self-hood. It will be learned or built from the materials at hand.
The solution to our amnesiac’s problem is uncertain even if she goes to a historian for help because she may be manipulated by their point of view. It’s a bit as if she’d consulted a private eye to learn her missing story but he tells her what kind of person she probably is, or ought to be. Even a very modest, scholarly and even-handed HISTORY is a well ground ax. The devil is in the details of spin and what makes the cut or doesn’t. A student of history needs a critical temperament and strong curiosity or she’s likely to accept the first story she hears or the first one that pleases her by fitting smoothly into the story she already believes. Nothing is easier to swallow than confirmation of expectation.
Beliefs about history are the spinal column of self-image. Identity is a cannonball fired out of the past and plowing into the present. A person’s self-image, optimism or pessimism controls their style and destiny. They cannot act outside of their own definition…because they can’t see outside of it. A million people’s collective, blending, sense of self becomes the self-image of their entire community or culture…their myth…their Weltanschauung.
Your first German word of the day is:
noun Welt·an·schau·ung | \ ˈvelt-ˌän-ˌshau̇-əŋ \
Definition: a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint : WORLDVIEW
1. The Collapsed Golden Age:
Or: The Broken Promise and the Fall.
In The Annals, Tacitus pauses in his history of Rome to offer up one of the commonest myths of human history:
“Mankind in the earliest age lived without a single vicious impulse, without shame or guilt, and, consequently, without punishments and restraints. Rewards were not needed when everything right was pursued on its own merits; and as men desired nothing against morality, they were debarred from nothing by fear. When however they began to throw off equality, and ambition and violence usurped the place of self-control and modesty, despotisms grew up and became perpetual among many nations.”
Here we have the Golden Age and the great decline to modern man (the modern man of two millennia ago). It seems we have a latent image of ourselves as debauched weaklings in the shadow of the ancients. Never mind that the ancients stood a foot shorter and lived half as long. This Great Decline model seems like a somewhat mystical longing for the simplicity of the hunter/gatherer /free wandering life. The discontent of our current lives suggests a failure to honor some fundamental principles of our ancestor’s lives.
The reality, of course, is that hunter-gatherer life WAS simple, pure and egalitarian compared to the complex and jarring existence we all adopted when we grouped together in huge numbers in the proto-cities of the neolithic revolution.
Village and city life demanded more of us. Cooperation will play a bigger part, or at least a more demanding one. We must all dim the lights and music of our true nature in the name of getting along with strangers. We are reigning ourselves in, literally domesticating ourselves. The daily tedium of this disciplined self-sacrifice enters and never leaves.
This basic story model of the fall from greatness or loss of purity can be pressed into the service of many different ends; Rousseau’s noble savage and Hitler’s Ice Giants for two examples. Demagogues always use this story of disappointment and broken promises to sway the crowd because those feelings live somewhere in all of us and are easy to play upon. Demagogues promise they know the way back to the golden age.
2. Heaven or Hell
Or: You people are a terrible disappointment to me and God!
St. Augustine‘s, The City of God will shape notions of cultural progress as a kind of self-improvement at gunpoint:
“The education of the human race…has advanced like that of an individual, through certain epochs or as it were, ages so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things and from the visible to the invisible…It was best, therefore, that the soul of man, which was still weakly desiring earthly things, should be accustomed to seek from God alone even these petty temporal boons…in order that the desire of even these things might not draw it aside from the worship of Him, to whom we come by despising and forsaking such things.”
Augustine finds the physical world loathsome yet cites examples of its beauty (in the form of flowers and plants) as evidence of God’s magnificence made manifest on earth. Oddly enough he sees none of this divinity in the beauty of women or the taste of good food (actually he did, but he wasn’t about to include that sort of thing in his official theology). Augustine was a self-indulgent man but a strict and unimaginative theologian.
Augustine’s criteria defining a citizen fit for the city of god will impose a sense of shame and guilt on all Christendom. The stamp of his thought-form left a still visible mark on “The West”. Not through people desiring things of this world less, but by respecting them less. Not until we are freed from our tainted, unworthy nature with its needs for comfort and pleasure are we fit to join his one dimensional “City of God”.
Even detesting this oppressive theology as I do, I think that the impossible expectations placed on the Christian conscience may have led some western minds to strain against their philosophical limits to the point of a breakthrough. This may be a seed of inspiration for humanistic cultural values: More rights, greater freedom, and a live-and-let-live tolerance. It is only when we value people highly as a soul, that it occurs to us how much their rights matter. Christianity may have played a part in this counter-intuitive payoff for humankind. It doesn’t hurt that this would have pissed off Augustine something awful.
3. By My Own Bootstraps (or at least Grandpa’s Bootstraps)
Or: Succeeding through superior fitness!
Charles Darwin chimes in from The Descent of Man
“To believe that man was aboriginally civilized and then suffered utter degradation in so many regions is to take a pitiably low view of human nature. It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.”
How Victorian to stress the cheerfulness of one’s view of evolution! Every explanation of the past and its tacit story about the present and future includes some cultural self-justification.
Darwin wasn’t a bad guy, he was highly intelligent with a gentle disposition. Nor was he an especially good guy. As restless as his intellect was, he was a creature of his class and his time. He was rich and privileged and utterly convinced of the rightness of this arrangement. In his world, it was a given that the aristocracy earned its good fortune with innate superiority. The poor were a sorry lot who were to be pitied (within reason) for their inadequacy. They lived in squalor and lack due to their flawed nature. Starvation was part of God’s plan for them.
You know about Darwin’s theory of evolution because his version of evolutionary theory supported the pre-existing beliefs of the English aristocracy and because he was one of them. Far from shocking them, he essentially told them they had been right all along. His competitive model of evolution featured a less fit loser properly trounced by a more fit winner who then reaps the rewards of superiority. Handy to be able to tell social reformers that science proved them wrong.
4. Welcome to the Desert of the Real
Or: Lonely universe, now stop crying
Augustine diminished humanity by hating and denying all that was animal in us. Early evolutionary science diminished us by denying all that was not.
In a cautious defense against the relentless forces of Christianity, and its demands for conclusive answers regarding evolution and religion, the followers of Darwin advanced a sensible restriction: “We must not speculate beyond the data,” they said. There is not the slightest evidence for or against divinity, using modern methods of detection. Solid scientific answers require a replicable experiment which always includes a means of relevant measuring.
If we had a device that could measure spirit, let’s call it a phenomenometer we might have some justification scientifically for even discussing religion but we do not. Due to the vanity of some major scientists explicitly speculating beyond the data we now have a “white elephant” belief system of nothingness on our hands. The guys responsible for a revolution in agriculture, health care, and consumer goods stand before the “dull normal” populace and inform them that they are living in an absurd, meaningless cosmos. Yay?
And yet, besides YouTube and Twitter, we have no devices to measure absurdity and meaninglessness. Metaphorically, they are saying the patient has no soul because it didn’t show up in the x-rays or even the blood test. Science is beautifully humble in its truest expression. It observes so very carefully, checking itself for bias and easy answers, scrupulously limiting the focus to the specialized topic at hand. Nowhere else does it pick up a megaphone and shout about how everything is forever. That is the equivalent of science turning its back on its own values.
What materialist science doesn’t appreciate here is that our primitive origin stories and our spiritual beliefs are like the little external animal souls attached to every person in the remarkable “His Dark Materials” series by Phillip Pullman. Cutting off the presence of spirit only weakens most humans. I don’t mean scientists should like and support religion: I mean they should see that myth is the breathable atmosphere of humanity, and we need it to live. We literally cannot help weaving stories about where this strange ship and crew are headed. Ultimately, the more we learn, the more beautiful and true these stories will become.
Your second German word of the day is:
Definition: An organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.
All of these worldview models are alive and well in the modern world. They combine to form the dominant vision of our society. Our commonplace, our assumptions: Our Gestalt.
- MAGA people are living number one (and dragging the rest of us down that hole with them).
- Religious people live in number two.
- The 1% and all who are desperate to join the 1% live in number three.
- Technocrats, rationalists, & atheists live in number four.