The Long View

on September 3, 2012

In the previous entry, I presented an overview of the last 150 years as a series of discrete eras — each one shaped by a distinctive worldview — that are set off from one another by periods of political and intellectual turmoil. That same pattern holds true at earlier times, as well, except that as you go back in history, the length of each era stretches out from decades to centuries and even millennia.

Over and over, we see an extended period of cultural stability that eventually dissolves into fragmentation and upheaval. And just as regularly, we see each period of upheaval ending with the construction of a new worldview and the dawning of a new cultural era.

There are strong indications that this pattern was already present in prehistory. The final part of the Paleolithic, for example, seems to have been a period of prolonged cultural stability, which came to an end at the conclusion of the Ice Age, when abrupt climate change and widespread flooding initiated a period of rapid cultural and technological innovation.

That period of turmoil concluded with the development of fully agricultural societies around 7000 BC, inaugurating a new era of stability. Neolithic culture then lasted until about 3200 BC, when a brief but acute deterioration in the climate threw the most advanced societies into crisis and triggered the transition to what we know as civilization.

The next thousand years were characterized by radical uncertainty mingled with great accomplishments. New political and religious systems developed with lightning speed, and dazzling cultural moments, like the Pyramid Age of Egypt, arose seemingly out of nowhere and just as quickly fell back into decadence and confusion.

These successive changes, however, were not merely a matter of simple ups and downs. All through them, new visions of reality were emerging, interacting, and driving events.

Neolithic culture, for example, was based on a partnership between two very ancient visions. One interpreted all of existence as mirroring the elaborate kinship structures which formed the basis of human society. The other grew out of the shamanistic belief in spirit beings and spiritual power. The worldview that combined the two appears to have been centered around the concept of an all-pervading life-force that was transmitted from ancestors to descendents, thereby ensuring social continuity, and also underlay the fertility of plants and animals.

The outsider vision at this time was the cosmic order vision, which had started off with the momentous realization that the sun and stars moved in predictable paths and had gone from there to a belief that those movements also controlled events on earth. The emergence of this vision can be glimpsed in the megalithic monuments of the late Neolithic, but it became dominant only after Neolithic society had crumbled.

By 2500 BC the kinship vision was fading out, as the bonds of village society were superseded by loyalty to centralized kingdoms. These presented themselves as earthly reflections of the perfect regularity of the heavens and proclaimed that fact in such monuments as the Egyptian pyramids, the ziggurats of Sumeria, and Stonehenge.

The transition was complete by around 2000 BC, when the spirit and cosmic order visions entered into a new partnership, based on reconceiving the ancient nature spirits and ancestral spirits as celestial deities. These gods and goddesses of the sun and stars, together with the divine kings who were their children and earthly representatives, stood at the core of Late Bronze Age society.

Meanwhile, a new outsider vision was coming along — the aristocracy vision, which had grown out of the mystique surrounding the warrior class. The priest-kings attempted at times to coopt this vision by depicting themselves as warriors triumphing in battle, but they were probably just as often in conflict with unruly nobles or barbarian invaders. And when the great empires crumbled around 1200 BC, the warriors took over.

The period of turmoil that followed witnessed the gradual decline of the spirit vision and the flowering of aristocratic ideals. In the great epics of about 800 BC — the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Mahabharata — the focus is on the heroic deeds of their protagonists, while the doings of the gods are relegated to the background.

By the time the next worldview came together in the 6th century BC, it was growing difficult to believe in the gods at all. In the classical world of Greece and Rome, the cosmic order vision persisted, but the celestial deities themselves were either superseded by formal astrological systems, reinterpreted as abstract universal principles, or reduced to the objects of official state cults.

The jettisoning of the spirit vision, and with it the dead weight of all-powerful gods and god-kings, was initially felt as a great liberation. By the time of the Roman Empire, however, the partnership between imperial power and a deterministic cosmology had hardened into an equally oppressive system that seemed to offer no way out.

The only path of escape was into a new outsider vision, the direct successor to the failed spirit vision, which was based on the premise that prophets and seers were not engaging in literal spirit-journeys but were receiving inspiration from some otherworldly power. This revelation vision was the basis of the mystery cults, mystical philosophies, and salvationist religions that flourished in the latter days of Rome, with Christianity in particular finally emerging as the great antagonist of state power.

The conflict was fierce for a time — but after 400 AD, once-invincible empires began crumbling everywhere, not just in the West but all across the old world, much as they had at the end of the Bronze Age. During the period of turmoil that followed, economic and in some cases even political power increasingly fell into the hands of religious institutions, whether Christian, Islamic, or Buddhist.

Things settled down again in the early 600’s with the reestablishment of stable power centers — the Catholic Church, the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic caliphate, and the Tang Dynasty. But the old pagan belief systems derived from cosmic order were nowhere to be seen, and aristocratic power was justified instead by being linked to the new world-religions.

And so the pattern has continued ever since — rise and fall, stability and change — but with a few highly significant variations.

For one thing, the periods of social turmoil that mark the collapse of each stable worldview have become far less dramatic. Instead of civilizations falling, barbarians storming the gates, and entire social orders vanishing without a trace, the upheavals have become relatively modest in scale.

For another, the leading creative figures during those periods of turmoil are no longer shamans, priests, or prophets as they were in ancient times, but artists, poets, musicians, and spinners of tales.

This was the case in Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, which was the time of the troubadours, of Arthurian romance, and of new forms of secular music. It was true again in the Italian Renaissance, when artists and princes set the style. It was true in the early 18th century, when music, theater, and the novel furnished the leading edge of culture. And the tendency was brought to a higher level of self-awareness in the 1840’s, with the invention of the ideal of bohemianism that has provided the template for the countercultures which have marked every recent period of turmoil.

I am not completely sure of how to interpret this change — but my best guess is that we humans are internalizing the cycle of visions. Apocalyptic catastrophes are no longer needed to overturn one dominant worldview and make way for the next, because we are learning the moves of the dance, and many of us are actively eager to celebrate the end of an era rather than holding onto its fading promises of stability.

One aspect of this shift is the invention of new symbolic forms which enable us to act out the contention among visions on a more abstract level. A few thousand years ago, for example, “fashion” did not exist, and clothing styles in ancient Egypt or even the Roman Empire barely changed from century to century. But in the course of the Middle Ages, the adoption of faddish new attire became a way for young people to send messages to their elders about their rejection of the old ways and attachment to the new.

This internalization and abstraction may also be connected with the extreme shortening of the cycle in recent centuries, since the speed with which each worldview rises and falls appears to be controlled by how quickly new ideas can be disseminated. That depends in part on mechanical factors — like population density and advances in communication technologies — but it is also enhanced by our growing ability to express our attitudes and ideals in ways that can be readily understood and embraced.

It also seems likely that once the cycle had shortened to a certain degree, a feedback effect would have taken over to shorten it still more. The people who built the pyramids and Stonehenge, after all, had only vague myths concerning the invention of the Neolithic. For Homer and his contemporaries, the ancient megalithic monuments were the work of long-vanished giants. But the shorter the cycle becomes — and the more comprehensive our methods for recording past events — the more we remember of the people and events of the previous turn, and the more able we are to learn from their example.

This is a very strange adventure we humans have been on, and I am still struggling to understand where the cycle of visions comes from and where it may be going. But it seems entirely reasonable to assume that this game, like any other, is one we will only get better at as we master the rules.

Read the Previous Entry: The Signs of an Era
Read the Next Entry: How It All Got Started

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