We live in a time of revolutions, one where change is the currency. The past half-century is a testament to that. Technological, social, political and cultural revolutions are stirring across the world. The old consensus, institutions, structures and hierarchies are contested like never before. What then does the future hold for us?
The assumption underlying much of the thinking today is that progress is inevitable. Modern man is enthralled by his own capabilities, to the extent that he believes progress can only better the human condition. This is due to a linear understanding of history and time.
Our common conception of history is that the enlightenment era came after hundreds of years of religiously induced ignorance. Free thinkers were prosecuted and orthodoxy could not be challenged. Enlightenment is then romanticized as the period of deliverance from obscurantism.
Science and Reason were then brought to the forefront. Man came to be seen as a rational agent, and science as the essential tool in the pursuit of truth. There followed a period of demystification of the ancient traditions and myths in favour of a materialistic understanding of the world. The Genesis narrative was superseded by theories rooted in hard sciences; the institutions of old are deemed outdated and corrupt. God was no longer thought to be the creator of the universe.
Endowed with the power of reason, man started to believe in his own creative capabilities, going so far as thinking that he could predict human behavior and shape the world according to his whims. Science turned into scientism. How can one trust economists’ predictions about future human behaviour when you can’t even trust the meteorologists’ forecast for more than 2 days? How can science claim to understand and predict human behaviour when it itself is unpredictable?
Reason was absorbed by human bias. New is always better than old. The notion of progress itself has changed. Once a means in the pursuit of Truth, progress has become an end in and of itself. Progress is modernity’s grand delusion; the misconception that radical change will create the conditions for individuals to truly become masters of their worlds. What does this path lead to? Where does progress end?
In Plato’s Laws III, an Athenian stranger attributes the decline of his city to the corruption of the old laws and forms. Originally, he explains that music was separated into several distinct categories of songs. Artists were not allowed to break away from conventional norms.
As time went on poets introduced innovations to the domain of music, by mixing the forms and the instruments. The poets, though men of genius, had no perception “of what is just and lawful in music. […] They ignorantly affirmed that music has no truth, and whether good or bad, can only be judged of rightly the pleasure of the hearer.” He infers that this disobedience in music spread to other realms in the life of the polis. Defiance towards rulers, family and ultimately the law, became normal. Strong parallels between this narrative written a couple of millennia before our time and the situation we find ourselves in today can be drawn. Was the post-World War era not characterised by waves of popular dissent? The 1960s were marked by anti-vietnam war protests, experimental music and writing that formed a counter-culture movement that eventually flourished in mainstream society. Philosophical works such as Plato’s Laws echo across the ages, regardless of what position one takes on this narrative. Is it not reasonable to think that man sometimes repeats behavioural schemas of generations past? Is it so hard to imagine that the experiences of contemporary man mirror those of previous times?
History is simultaneously a repertoire of mistakes past and a guidebook for the future. An essential component of any community is common identity, which can only be anchored in your historical narrative. The new order is constituted by both a harmonious continuation and a zealous opposition to the old regime. History repeats itself. Opposition to the old order comes in the form of the separation of Church and State, in the dismissal of faith in favour of reason. Over time, the manifestations of this opposition were venerated. Where we used to have faith, we now resort to science. There used to be believers in God, now there are zealot atheists. Faith in God has been replaced by faith in humanity. Where the Church used to be the overarching institution, the state has taken its place. Modern humanity has merely replaced some myths by newer, likely shakier ones.
Although it’s certainly comfortable to think that humanity can only progress, that claim needs to be revisited. The essence of our character and capabilities are merely the expression of our belief in the safety of our surroundings. How sure are we that the ongoing deconstruction in the name of progress will still be regarded as progress in the centuries to follow? How will future generations remember this era? What then does the future hold for us?