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Are we making progress?

How do human civilizations change their technologies so quickly? The interpretation of time itself changes along with technology. Richard Wrangham: "If the Waorani someday do become fully Westernized, they will have traded a life marked by the flight of a palmwood spear for one measured by the parabola of a ballistic missile.

Often a society's infrastructure changes faster than its constituents can adjust to it. John Steinbeck: "Another flight of jets exploded through sound. We had maybe a half-million years to get used to fire and less than fifteen to build thinking about this force so extravagantly more fierce than fire. Would we ever have the chance to make a tool of this? If the laws of thinking are the laws of things, can fission be happening in the soul? Is that what is happening to me, to us?"

Alan Watts said that some cultures have a idea of linear change that creates a historical narrative, while others see events as more cyclical and they are more likely to see "balance" as an ideal.

We might call these two types of culture progressive and historical on the one hand, and traditional and nonhistorical on the other. For the philosophy of the first is that human society is on the move, that the political state is a biological organism whose destiny is to grow and expand. Examining the record of its past, the progressive society reconstructs it as history, that is, as a significant series of events which constitute a destiny, a motion toward specific temporal goals for the society as a whole. The fabricators of such histories easily forget that their selection of "significant" events from the record is subjectively determined – largely by the need to justify the immediate political steps which they have in mind. History exists as a force because it is created or invented here and now.

 On the other hand, traditional societies are nonhistorical in that they do not imagine themselves to be in linear motion toward temporal goals. Their records are not histories but simple chronicles which delineate no pattern in human events other than a kind of cycling like the rotation of the seasons. Their political philosophy is to maintain the balance of nature upon which the human community depends, and which is expressed in public rites celebrating the timeless correspondences between the social order and the order of the universe.

One of the dangers of the "progressive"/"historical"/"linear" worldview is that people sometimes see violence as an unavoidable means to whatever they see as the next end of the narrative. "History aches for such an act of greatness," said William F. Buckley, Jr., advocating pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Communist China's developing nuclear capabilities – twentieth-century war we must be relieved did not come to pass.

How do we collectively avoid the error of advocating violence? Nuclear war brings to mind great violence and the silence that follows. Stephan A. Hoeller said that we must be able to envision a positive alternative to war:

"Dennis Stillings wrote in 1988 that he attended a lecture by a New Age lecturer who said that if you visualize world peace, you can bring it about. But the lecturer failed to provide a concrete image of peace. Stillings doubted that such an image was possible – he could only imagine the silence after a nuclear holocaust. 'In my opinion, there is no clear and definite image of peace that does not also draw into consciousness imagery of its opposite: violence and war.'"

A clear image of peace would enable us to aspire to achieve it, whether we understand war and peace and our civilization itself as linear or cyclical.

'Linear' and 'cyclical' are not necessarily the only two perspectives that can be taken about time. Another question to be asked is whether all eras – regardless of whether they have an element of repetition or return – have similar meanings and worth. Heschel:

"The historian Ranke claimed that every age is equally near to God. Yet Jewish tradition claims that there is a hierarchy of moments within time, that all ages are not alike."


Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996. p. 80.

John Steinbeck. The Winter of Our Discontent. Penguin, 1983 (originally 1961). p 175.

Alan Watts, Nature, Man, and Woman, New York: Vintage Books, 1991 (Copyright 1958). p 16.

William F. Buckley, Jr. Quotations from Chairman Bill: The Best of Wm. F. Buckley, Jr. Compiled by David Franke. Pocket Book, 1971. p 4. from NR, Dec. 29, 1964, p 1143.

Dennis Stillings, quoted by Stephan A. Hoeller. Jung and the Lost Gospels: Insights into the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library. Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989. p 237.

Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1951. p. 96.


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