A follow-up on my previous post:
The modern linear view of history as progress towards perfection breeds dissatisfaction with the present and disdain for the past. It is inherently revolutionary. Thomas Paine was like the eighteenth-century Che Guevara; he went to other people’s countries to provoke revolution. He wrote in Common Sense, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” He was disdainful of tradition, religion, and the past. Should anything stand in the way of progress, we have the right to destroy that thing. It could be a monarch or religion that stands in our way. This philosophy of progress justifies the destruction of the existing social order in order to produce a new one based on the principles of reason, equality, and progress itself. But surely we will remain dissatisfied after that revolution and demand yet another.
A traditional view of time and history also breeds dissatisfaction, but at the same time rejects progress. All of the Indo-European peoples viewed time in a very different way from out modern linear view. They viewed history as a cycle of four ages. The first age was an ideal of cosmic order and universal awareness of the gods. With each successive stage, things got worse, until we reached the current Kali Yuga or Iron Age.
This view breeds dissatisfaction with the present, but even greater disdain for the future. Instead of looking backwards, we will tend to look backwards. We will do so with the recognition that we cannot return to the past. It is gone. We can merely look to the past with an eye to the principles that sustained that past. We will be inherently conservative. In fact, we will be counter-revolutionaries because any revolution will mean the acceleration of the worst tendencies of the present. On the other hand, once we reach the bottom, the cosmic order will collapse entirely. Out of the chaos will be born a new order in a new first age. Then, once again, we will enter the slow decline towards the Iron Age.
This traditional view of history doesn’t require us to view ourselves as really living in one of four ages. That’s not the point. It’s about a fundamental orientation towards the past and, more importantly, towards eternal principles.
Richard Weaver created an image for viewing history that I find useful. He, a conservative philosopher, rejected progress. He also explicitly rejected the idea of returning to the past, which he saw as impossible. In fact, he rejected linearity altogether. He viewed historical change as a point shifting about within a circle. There was no going forward or back, only an increasing or decreasing distance from the center, the eternal principles (sanatana dharma in Sanskrit). It didn’t much matter in what direction the point shifted away from or moved closer to the center. It was the distance that mattered. Our goal should not be to move backwards, but to move closer towards the center, regardless of path that movement takes. (Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 52.)
In Weaver’s case, the dissatisfaction is a response to any growing distance between us and the center. Although Weaver did view history as a tendency towards decline, there’s nothing inherently so about the image of history he provides us. We need not assume that the past was better. Or we might look at particular aspects of the past as more consistent with the eternal principles, but other parts as less so. Not only need we not return to the past, we need not romanticize it.
His view of history also provides a basis for decision making about change. We can ask ourselves if changes we’re experiencing lead us closer to or further away from the center. On this basis, we can then accept or reject change. This strikes me as more hopeful, less fatalistic, and less linear than the Indo-European view. I don’t want to wait around for social collapse.