How can we truly know anything of the present or even begin to make predictions of the future if we do not understand history? The foundational concept at the heart of the answer to that question is generally accepted by many, we must know something of history, of course. But is knowing knowledge? So we find that something else is required, in addition, to understanding broad swaths of history. After all, having access to information would be of little use if we could not filter that information through discernment, apply some axioms to it and create knowledge from it. And, what is history anyway, broadly speaking. Is history a half-told tale of random chance events, all influenced by humans with free will and agency and shaped by the events surrounding the people that made history? Is history a stream? Many use that analogy, and many more could, describing it as a stream is not particularly helpful if we do not quantify the beginning and end of the stream. Such a quantification would, by necessity, expose the metaphysical worldview of those that say history is a stream. Do they mean, it is a stream of continuing progress, like men such as H.G. Wells, or do they mean something different? The study of History, like every other endeavor of man to create knowledge, is at the core determined by the metaphysical worldview of various practitioners.
There was a time, not so long ago in the scheme of things, where in academic fields all subsidiary knowledge was filtered through philosophy. The title Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D. is a remnant of that way of knowledge creation. And for a time at least, the philosophy by which academics filtered data into knowledge was through a philosophy that shared in common axiomatic truths held by ancient pagans and Christians alike. For a brief period, man endeavored to disavow himself from such primitive axioms, naturalism was one such result, but of course, the principles derived from the idea of naturalism spread to all disciplines. For a time, just a few hundred years, this was the way. We look now and see that history is viewed more deterministically (look at the Big History project), and astrophysics at present looks Kabbalahistic. The postmodern man has abandoned the confusion of modernity, rejecting random chance and has applied axioms that seek something true.
Why bother with the effort we wonder. If the enlightenment sought to throw off axioms held by the scholastics and the postmodern man sees the error in enlightenment thinking, why believe himself to be so wise as to create mystical sources for axioms that look a lot like those held by most humans for most of history? Why create a god to fill the void in the place your mind tells you there must be something like a god? Is a string theorist seeking to answer a question that Leibniz already provides a sound argument to, why? They wonder why anything at all exist. The Big Bang Theory made for interesting journal articles, but any thinking man always wondered, ok, but what came before the explosion and why. Evolution theory presents the same problem, just downstream a bit. Why does anything exist, and must it? Why is there something rather than nothing. When physics stopped being a source of understanding matter and motion and began to attempt to explain contingency, it became a religion – like almost all science. Religions have axioms, and when we speak of axioms related to first things, we are speaking of metaphysics.
Let us leave those thoughts for a moment and consider the Greeks. People place the Greeks and their philosophy into various categories. Looking at the depth and breadth of Greek knowledge, the questions they asked, and the knowledge they synthesized, with very few tools, we ought to ask, how did they get so much right? The second question, one for later is why did they get the things wrong that they did. If a person is inclined toward a truly open mind, one that seeks wisdom and knowledge something about the Greeks stands out. If we go back to that stream mentioned above and place the Greeks along a particular channel and then follow that path down through time we find something miraculous. Every question that the Greeks asked (and they asked better than any other people in recorded history) has been answered. Divine revelation answered the questions related to who and what the first cause was, science has provided bits of data across time since the Greeks to fill in knowledge of the physical world. If we consider that no other people, at no time and place, came as close to answering these questions and that they were the only people to fully frame the right questions we are left with a problem.
One could say, and this would be the answer the typical astrophysicist would provide is this. The Greeks were learned, but primitive in their knowledge, they made up things to fill gaps, gaps that modern science can fill. This much is true, we can know more about the properties of the ether than the Greek, we make a mistake when we assume they could know nothing of metaphysics.
But what if it is something more marvelous than the answer above? What if we apply some axioms to the question? Man is created in the image of God, Imago Dei. God is a creator and an artisan, and man is created to be like him. But man is imperfect, depraved, and degenerate in fact since the fall, capable of no righteousness apart from God. History is a stream, but it has a definitive starting point as far as man is concerned, and it was not that long ago all things considered. Sin is real, it corrupts and its corrupting nature manifests and multiplies over time. If we were to borrow a concept from Chaos Theory, over time, generation to generation the impact of sin grows in the system. If we apply these axioms, then it is reasonable that if you go upstream, the general influence of corruption is less, it still exists, but it has not compounded for generations.
Ah, but you say, this makes no sense. How could humans do great and wonderful things later down the stream, you just said corruption builds over time. I would have to ask, who and by what source are these great things being done? Yes, by image bearers of God, doing the things they were created to do but in an environment that would swallow and destroy them in an instant if they were left alone. To paraphrase Thomas Hobbs, a world without God’s protection would be brutish, nasty, and short. All good things, all, come from God. All of science, medicine, architecture, music, and art, even if the one whose hands did the physical work was a degenerate – if it is good, it is of God.
So, two things are at play. First, as history progresses along the stream sin compounds into the system. Things corrupt, governments rise and fall, wars happen, degeneracy spreads, misery abounds and knowledge fades. This is not to suggest that children are responsible for the sins of fathers, we are not speaking of blood libel. However, it is easy to reason how sins in one generation adversely affect the next, we can see clearly how sin compounds in this way. The same happens on a broader scale, immoral wars, and bad laws, all of this compound the cost and effect of sin over time. If that was the sum and total of history man would have never recovered from the Dark Ages, the Mongols would have spread to dominate Europe and the Middle East, and Africa would have remained a dark and primitive continent – and then it would have all gotten much worse. But, second, God provides grace, both common grace, and special grace, to man. It is common grace that prevents us from eating or being eaten by our neighbor. Without common grace, our world at this point would consist of an endless series of the most dystopian hellscape imaginable. We have a hard time accepting that, after all, we are image bearers of God and there are “good people” we say, but it is the absolute truth.
So if we are to truly use history as a tool to generate knowledge, we have to understand what history is, and what it is not. It is in reality just as described above, image bearers of god, doing what they were created to do, which can at times be wonderful, but messing it all up in big and small ways. Our greatest achievements carry the flaw of our sin. The only thing that sustains us and prevents us from descending into a hellish existence is grace. If we slip one bit of man-centered hope or explanation into it all, we fail to understand. With that proper understanding can we begin to apply lessons from history to an understanding of our present and perhaps a glimpse at the future.
But why, and how, and for what purpose the Greeks?
Thomas Sowell would tell us to begin by looking at where the Greeks became Greeks, and the land they occupied. With an ample coastline, fair weather, and a natural barrier to the north the Greeks were favored in their home. We might say blessed. The circumstances of their geography allowed them to develop a strong navy and trade fleet while focusing less on a large standing army, quality over quantity. The haven of their home allowed for luxuries of conversation and reflection. But even the blessing of geography cannot explain it all. The Greeks developed a culture that valued knowledge and the contribution of generations past. Social continuity is a positive good and the Greeks enjoyed this culture of continuity. We might say, that while the Greeks were pagans, they accomplished great things and they harbored degeneracy but the Greeks were blessed with good things, and goodness only comes from God for his purposes. Not all peoples in all places in history were as blessed as the Greeks, and nothing happens by chance, there is a purpose to all things. So why the Greeks?
Before we address that, perhaps we should wonder why the Greeks were able to reason out the nature of God as best an unrighteous man might be able to. There is little to wonder, Romans 1 provides the answer.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1 18-20 ESV)
The Greeks were not making discoveries that were not present for all men to see, they were merely blessed with a culture that provided them the tools to think deeply about the matter. But why do the Greeks matter to us in this discussion?
When Paul was at the Areopagus, a place where men gathered to debate philosophy he said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious….” and thus began to preach to them and show them the error of their ways, as we said as a kid, “so close but yet so far” this is what Paul preached to them.
Without Paul and the Greek gentiles, it is likely that Christianity would have remained just another cult among the Jews, so many cults took hold within Judaism after Christ. But of course, that did not happen, God had a plan for Paul, a Roman citizen familiar with Greek philosophy, and it seems a plan for the Greeks and those gentiles in the Mediterranean so influenced by them.
We might say, with humble fear of trying to claim to know the mind of God, that there was also a plan for the Roman Empire, the British, and America. I would venture to posit there was a plan and purpose for the Roman Catholic Church, for a time and a season – and by extension the Orthodox as well.
If we might presume to say those things are true, we might take caution in what that tells us. The Jews had a role and a favored place, that role was opened to all believers in the New Covenant, and in rebellion, the Jews suffered from 70AD onwards. Rome fell, the British, and perhaps too, after a brief season so too will America. It seems, blessings come with a duty, and decadent men and people can be used for a time, but not forever. That is the lesson of history, the big lesson, that I have learned.
Some claim America is a special place, and because of her, the Gospel is preached around the world. This is not untrue. We must remember it was also true that the Gospel spread on Roman roads and on British ships. If history tells us anything it is that the people blessed with good things are often only used for a season, when their unrighteousness overwhelms them, it would seem the blessing of abundant common grace is removed and given to someone else to carry on the work. There is nothing special about us other than we had the blessing of geography, government, and culture to sustain us and enable us to do the work, but ultimately there is nothing to indicate we will not suffer the same fate as every people blessed before us.