History, or rather the presentation, understanding, and meaning of history is perhaps the most perverted of all academic disciplines. We think of the presentation of history as a continual conflict between empiricism and idealism. We know, both intuitively and through observation that victors do indeed write the most about the history of their time, shaping views for generations to come and sometimes obscuring counter facts. Viewing it all naively we might wish for a simple fact-based telling of things; just the facts. But there are so many facts, more than is possible to digest even if one attempted to merely look at a small window of time. What facts, which to use, which are important, and which are essentially extras in the movie of time? We cannot escape the necessity that some facts must be deemed interesting but noncritical to the story. But who chooses and what presuppositions and biases play into those choices?
Anyone of a certain age in America would certainly know, looking back now at early ‘social studies’ lessons that it is quite possible to take minor and obscure facts, bit actors in the big story of history, and make those into major characters, not out of whole cloth as it were, but certainly with much embroidery added. Howard Zinn and historians of his ilk had much to do with that.
How to know? Is history made by great men, is it a progressive elaboration of increasingly sophisticated understanding, is it cyclical, deterministic, idealistic, or just empirical – facts and nothing more?
What if the truth is that understanding history is all of those broad labels and none of them all at the same time? It is difficult to argue that any historiographical school to arise before 1960 was completely wrong, and it is likewise difficult to honestly argue that any were completely pure and accurate.
For instance, Whiggish history and its American variant Progressive history captured something true about the nature of man’s resourcefulness. Marxist history identified cycles. Great Man history the impact of prominent characters in particular places and times. The first two examples fail because of their underlying presuppositions, the third because it denies key elements that the other schools got right. All fail to fully account for the nature of man.
The astute reader knows of both the flaws inherent within historical analysis and has invariably noticed the broad nature of the various approaches and schools. The expert class, professional historians, might submit as objections the nuances, variations, derivatives, and variations that a broad generalization misses, but for our purposes, those are mere secondary facts. The broad descriptions stand.
Progress is a centerpiece concept in Whiggish, consensus, idealist, and Marxist historical analysis – this includes the derivatives of those schools. Here is the problem with the word “progress”. Baked right into its definition are value judgments. Explorers that encountered unknown tribes in remote parts of the world always assumed that people that were less advanced technologically, were less happy – because of course ‘they had not progressed enough.’ Thomas Hobbes described, unironically, that the Dark Ages were “nasty, brutish and short” and within that, he implies their lack of enlightenment surely meant they experienced a less well-lived life. Is this value judgment true, objectively or subjectively so? Someone may claim it would be 'progress' to make the road in front of my home a four-lane highway, but I would not share their value judgment. You get the idea, progress is not a universal term, it is a concept based upon preferences and norms.
So, while we surely could not disagree with the argument that mankind has progressed from cave-dwelling to our post-industrial information age, the evidence of technological advance is undeniable, we all do not, however, have to agree that mankind has advanced and progressed in every realm. We cannot know that a person living in the fifth century Europe, with a life expectancy of forty did not have a more meaningful, happy, and purposeful life than someone in our own day that lives to be 100, dying in a nursing home.
Once we pull the rug from under the concept of progress and realize it is possible that our neat timelines of advance were not all zero-sum gain transactions, that perhaps with every new gadget and widget we lose something else, something less tangible, our trust and faith in entire schools of historical analysis becomes diminished. We realize that some of the presuppositions cannot be known as truths.
Like most areas of human endeavor, we find there are some truth and value to commonly accepted methodologies, and that there are flaws. How then ought we view history, why does it matter at all, and how does it affect us now?
I submit that history is cyclical at the operational level, the span of time over perhaps a couple of hundred years, and within those cycles great men do rise to play roles, and as the cycles go these roles can almost be given predictable labels. Viewed more broadly, at the strategic level, there is a discernable hint of “progress” in both ideas and technology. What we cannot know, seemingly, is the following:
If there are cycles, why?
If there are great men that play a role, is this phenomenon deterministic or random?
Is progress a zero-sum gain endeavor?
Historians cannot answer those questions because it requires interdisciplinary knowledge that is simply outside of the scope of the profession.
I think I know the answer to those questions but my knowledge comes from things I hold as presuppositions. The answers I would give begin from a metaphysical understanding of man, man’s nature, and what and where we are.
Others have arrived at almost the same answer as I would provide, despite beginning with different presuppositions. Phyliss Tickle, a high priestess of heresy, observed transformational events in the Christian Church occurring about every 500 years. She perhaps did not know but what she was writing about was merely the awakening periods that followed great crisis. Neil Howe and William Strauss wrote about those cyclical crisis periods, giving us terms and concepts. But Howe and Strauss could not and did not attempt to answer the three questions above. They also omitted from their work a macro view of cycles, never commenting on how latter cycles seemingly built upon concepts of the previous.
Since 2020, many have become familiar with, and over used the term “Overton Window”, I suggest in many ways the cycles that Strauss and Howe codified into terminology and the effects of those cycles that people like Tickle observed are events that shifted the meta-Overton window (to use the meaning of the term as it is commonly misused).
To explain it better, I will use Tickle’s observation. Five hundred years after Christ the church solidified around man-created institutions. In 1054, humans being true to their nature fought over power and control and split the church east and west. In 1500 Martin Luther had 95 reasons to be angry with Catholicism and nailed it to a church door. By 2000 Protestant Christianity had merged with corporatism to become the megachurch. Tickle thought this was all great and was going to lead to a great-great awakening.
None of the events in the 500-year cycle occurred in a vacuum. In some cases, technology advanced to allow the dissemination of information more widely. The changes were proceeded by crisis, old institutions began to fail and show the flaws of human design, and new ideas about numerous subjects flourished.
Running parallel to changes in religion, the cycles had important impacts on economics and politics. But here is the thing, you cannot have the events of later cycles without the previous. Without the Magna Carta what does the Enlightenment look like, how does that affect the Revolutionary generation in America? These concepts are built, from cycle to cycle, adding to what came before. It is a meta cycle of cycles.
But what of the “great” men? What of them? Hitler, Mussolini, and Genghis Khan all fit the definition, great does not mean good. Strauss and Howe synthesized the Great Man theory of history into their theory and called them Grey Champions. Just because the model predicts that a/some “champion(s)” arise(s) does not mean it is the one(s) you might want.
Why does this matter, other than the theoretical? If there are cycles, and these are impacted both by human nature and a metaphysical reality that few acknowledge AND, if these cycles have seemed to build one upon another toward something else AND if we are in the midst of such a cycle right now (as Strauss and Howe predicted and our eyes confirm more as true daily) then we have things to consider.
As for me, I believe Phyliss Tickle was a dangerously wrong person on most matters, but I think she knew what she knew in terms of what the next awakening will look like. I also think most of us can see that the experiment with liberal democracy has run its course and that it is morphing into what Plato and Marx predicted. We know, somewhere down inside, that the ‘progress’ of Whiggish history is ultimately just as repulsive as that super-highway some urban planner might suggest for the street in front of my home – ultimately it is all much more Orwellian than Utopian.