Thursday, November 11, 2010

Truth Decay and Other Historical Phallacies

Whether because of my Americanism, my native optimism, or my raccoon genes, I just can't go along with the idea that time is inevitably proceeding in the direction of degeneration and dissolution. Yes, it is a superficially plausible idea, but the fact that it has always been plausible tends to undermine its plausibility.

In other words, I don't think there has ever been a time that people haven't noticed how messed up the world (and its unhappitants) seems to be. I mean, look at some of the lamentations in the Old Testament.

It is difficult to reject a thesis that contains so much truth; then again, it's the same reason I reject natural selection as an all-encompassing paradigm -- plenty of truth there as well, just not THE truth.

Just as natural selection represents a facile way for spiritually unevolved people to avoid straining their brains with metaphysics, the idea of historical entropy is an easy way for more spiritually attuned people to explain the state of the world. For the latter, it is impossible to ignore the gulf between the celestial and terrestrial, or Reality and appearances. But this gulf -- this middle earth -- is where human beings live, and will always live.

So people have always been concerned with the direction of history, which, at any given time, appears to be going badly.

To cite one particularly glaring example, Jesus appeared at a time when it was felt by the Jewish masses that things could hardly get worse. Everyone was anticipating the messiah, convinced that historical degeneration was so complete that the end was near. But according to Bolton's thesis -- and of the traditionalists in general -- ancient Rome would have been much closer to the "Golden Age" than our time. This has always struck me as almost pure fantasy, divorced from historical realities.

Traditionalists seem to feel it is so obvious that history is going in a "negative" direction, that the assertion requires no historical support at all. But if you examine the actual conditions of the average Job living in Ancient Egypt, or Greece, or Rome, or the Middle Ages, it was a horror. However, because the traditionalists are extremely aesthetically- and philosophically-minded, it's as if they make sweeping historical conclusions based upon the most beautiful and lofty objects and thoughts that have survived to this day.

Yes, the Egyptians left us some impressive artwork, no doubt. Then again, they had 5000 years to do it in, a figure so vast that it is inconceivable to us. Frankly, I don't think we can even grasp the fact that when Augustine -- who had the greatest influence on Western thought for 1000 years -- did his writing, it was already going on four centuries after the time Jesus lived. We don't even know all that much about Christianity during its first two-plus centuries, a period of time as long as the United States has existed.

But the further back in history we go, the more we "compress" the time, which not only obscures all of the (often gruesome) details, but ends up being no better than a psychological projection into the past.

Thus, for example, if you are on the depressive, pessimistic, or alienated end of the psychological spectrum, it's easy to conclude that the present more or less blows, since we see all the horrifyng, disgusting detail of our own age up close and personal. One glancing below through the glass-bottomed boat at the sewer of Huffington Post, and one would be forgiven for believing that mankind cannot stink any lower and that the end is at hand.

It's very similar to what psychotherapy patients do on an individual basis. People tend not to consciously remember much before the age of five, and only scattered details between five and nine.

But obviously, life was just as rich and detailed then as it is now -- in fact, more so, since every single day was an alternatively delightful or calamitous novelty, largely depending upon the quality of parenting. Life was overflowing with the fullness and the presence of being, but we just didn't have the language or the concepts to reflect upon it and store it within language. My son is the happiest and most intense person I know, but he'll never remember it, except unconsciously.

Patients who come in for therapy often have what are called "screen memories" of their childhood. They will remember this or that event with great detail, but upon investigation, it will turn out that it is a sort of "composite portrait" of a whole period, rich with symbolic meaning that needs to be "unpacked" and articulated. It's never just a literal memory, but more of a holofractal pneumagraph that can reveal layer upon layer of meaning by "turning" it ever so slightly, like a blinky toy.

Perhaps history is the same way. I know it is for me. It's like a huge black canvas upon which we project things from the present. Since the past is behind us, we imagine that we can take it into our view, but this is obviously impossible. There are huge lacunae that we just fill in with myth and fantasy, much in the same way that we fill the hole in our field of vision, where the optic nerve meets the eye. In a very real sense, it's true: there's nothing new except the history you don't know.

I tried to present just a fraction of the historical evidence of how bad things were in the past in Chapter 3 of One Cosmos, but obviously, that chapter could have been expanded into a whole book. My purpose was simply to make the point and then move on. Either you get it or you don't.

For example, no matter how violent things appear in the present, they simply cannot compare to how violent human beings were in the past. Michael Medved cites statistics indicating that "New York City is on track to have fewer than 500 homicides this year, by far the lowest number in a 12-month period since reliable Police Department statistics became available in 1963.... But within the city’s official crime statistics is a figure that may be even more striking: so far, with roughly half the killings analyzed, only 35 were found to be committed by strangers, a microscopic statistic in a city of more than 8.2 million."

In contrast, according to Lawrence Keely's War Before Civilization, the homicide rate of some prehistoric villages "would have been 1,400 times that of modern Britain or about 70 times that of the United States in 1980." Likewse, the Middle Ages were almost inconceivably violent. We just have no idea how "tame" and domesticated mankind has become in the past several centuries.

Indeed, we have only to look at the contemporary Mohammedans to get a glimpse of the psychotic violence that prevailed in the past. I remember reading about the Crusades recently, during which battles took place where the combatants were knee-deep in blood.

Yesterday I was reading about the sacking of Rome in 410, when the Gothic warriors mercilessly "raped, pillaged and murdered for nearly three straight days." As Dawson writes, the Goths did not regard themselves as barbaric. Rather, "as they understood it, Alaric and his men were loyal Romans and only desired formal recognition as legitimate armed forces." Yeah, like the Palestinians. They just want to be recognized.

I remember reading about Ancient Egypt in a book entitled Slaughter of the Innocents: Child Abuse Through the Ages and Today, and it was a pretty strange place, to put it mildly. Their politics were very different from ours. Especially their erections.

For example, Breiner writes that "The phallus was honored and vitally important in the religious and cultural life of Egypt. The gods are shown with an erect phallus, and a pharaoh was expected to demonstrate in public that he had one, too. At certain ceremonies, the pharaoh would stand before the people and show his erect phallus. Indirectly, this would be shown many times when his erection would lift his loincloth."

By this low-hanging standard, even Bill Clinton was a great defender of the principle of separation of crotch and state, despite what we've heard about the spate of his unions undressed.

18 Comments:

Blogger Van said...

"Yes, it is a superficially plausible idea, but the fact that it has always been plausible tends to undermine its plausibility."

Funny how skin deep remains only skin deep, all the way to the surface.

;-)

11/11/2010 09:01:00 AM  
Blogger Grant Maher said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, which is a treatise on the psychological aspects of history, both collective and personal.

This is some of the brightest psychology writing I've seen; it departs from the hackneyed genetics-is-everything view that began with Desmond Morris in his 1970's book "The Naked Ape" and which then was aped by psychologists everywhere.

Again, a theory that contains truth but is not THE truth.

Your research into the barbarity of the past is not common fodder, apparently. Could we have a brief synopsis of where you get the information so we may read further?

Since we inhabit only the rolling barrage of the present moment, we make constructions of past and future, and these constructions do not always accurately reflect or predict what really happened or is likely to happen.

That is the source of all stress in the human condition. We don't know what will happen.

11/11/2010 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger Tigtog said...

To Gagdad: are you suggesting "hope and change" ain't true? WTF?

11/11/2010 09:46:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"they had 5000 years to do it in, a figure so vast that it is inconceivable to us. Frankly, I don't think we can even grasp the fact that when Augustine -- who had the greatest influence on Western thought for 1000 years -- did his writing, it was already going on four centuries after the time Jesus lived. We don't even know all that much about Christianity during its first two-plus centuries, a period of time as long as the United States has existed."

I remember thinking that I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the expanse of time between now, and say... ancient Athens, I'd done a lot of reading, followed how things developed, etc, etc, etc. But when I read Charles Murray's walking back of time, I think it was in "Human Accomplishment" (?), I remember being struck with that grain of sand on a beach and looking up at the stars sensation, the... not fearful... I guess the 'Sublime' might be the best word ... hauntingly sublime realization of the expanse of time which we so casually toss off when saying something like "Oh, Shakespeare, yeah, he lived around four or five hundred years ago, right?" And then to extend that into a thousand years even, let alone two or five thousand.

Incredible.

There's almost as much time between us and the writing of our constitution, as between then and when John Smith first landed in Virginia... when I dare giving it much thought, there's almost something careless about saying "400 years ago".

When I hear someone like Woodrow Wilson saying something like "those old ideas don't apply anymore in these modern industrial times", I just want to reach out and smack him... and I would... if he wasn't being so proregressively modern... over one hundred years ago.

Progressivism - what a bunch of stupid old, outmoded ideas.

(ahem)

Sorry... I'll try and find my way back on topic.

11/11/2010 10:06:00 AM  
Blogger Jason T. said...

Anyone with half a cortex can see that we as a species have gotten better about not randomly attacking each other, enjoying the spoils of a neighbors work through blade and rape and pillage. The question remains, however, that if the psycho-pathology which spawns such indiscriminate slaughter-sacrifice-destruction is present within the structure of the human mind, will in necessarily manifest itself on a grand scale? There is no hiding from the truth of what is laying dormant within.

For instance, a person who comes from a mind-parasite ridden family of a lower socioeconomic order wins the lottery. They experience an influx of life energy and personal freedom like they have never known before, and all seems well for a little while. But the emotional sickness born in childhood is still there, receiving the same influx of power that the conscious self is, and one day it comes back to destroy them, be it in the form of an addiction, the loss of all their wealth, or even a fatal or debilitating car accident that happens because they were texting and driving.

There is no escaping the past, the wounds that are already within. I assume this is also true on a macro scale. Which is the exact reason that spiritual practice, self awareness, and psychological and emotional therapy are so freaking important. If the same person wins the lottery and starts noticing that they frequently and irrationally experience bouts of sadness and rage, then devote them-self to finding out what it is about rather than continuously vacationing or spending or eating or whatever, the odds of stabilizing into a harmonious relationship to reality is much more likely.

Regardless, no death is without purpose. No death in an end. We, my friends, are the residue of a supernova, the death of a star, its heavy atoms that traveled light-years to take shape as this experience. Nothing is wasted, only transmuted and transformed.

11/11/2010 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

battles took place where the combatants were knee-deep in blood.

Wow. In a weird way, it just goes to show that for modern man, even in our most culturally perverse imaginings (for instance, the Saw movies, most anything by Tarantino), we really don't have the faintest clue about violence and the depths to which men may sink in the absence of a deeply ingrained set of cultural boundaries - for instance, the idea that even in war one's enemies should be granted a certain type of human dignity, no matter how subhumanly they may behave in return. I almost hesitate to say it's a lived Judeo-Christian ethic, since the battles referenced were part of the Crusades, yet on the other hand is this American culture (or something like it) not where that Judeo-Christian ethic should have been leading? Yet clearly, even now, we don't live it as best we could; that is to say, this is not, or should not be, an apotheosis.

The simple idea of the sanctity of human life is so revolutionary, and so counter to the base, fallen nature of man, that we are still, two millenia since, trying to understand and implement it. And we still have a very long way to go.

I just can't go along with the idea that time is inevitably proceeding in the direction of degeneration and dissolution. Yes, it is a superficially plausible idea, but the fact that it has always been plausible tends to undermine its plausibility.

There is an ebb and a flow. From the standpoint of the individual faced with his own mortality, odds are it will almost always feel as though the world is at an ebb, regardless of the truth. But it seems to me, only from the standpoint of the Absolute can the progress of man be properly understood.

11/11/2010 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"My son is the happiest and most intense person I know, but he'll never remember it, except unconsciously."

One of the more omniscient... and sad... things about being a parent, is realizing that all the memories you have of their waking up with a full body smile, waking you by putting their face right up to yours and lifting your eyelid (what a shock that was the first time!), their climbing up on you to give you a hug and curl up & fall asleep... the times you reassured them when they were scared... all of that vanishes from their conscious memory.

This may be going too far, but there's almost a sense of what it must feel like to care of someone through Alzheimer’s.

What is it that the passage of those moments and memories leaves behind?

Aside from everything they are, that is....

11/11/2010 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Jason,

For instance, a person who comes from a mind-parasite ridden family of a lower socioeconomic order wins the lottery. They experience an influx of life energy and personal freedom like they have never known before, and all seems well for a little while.

I don't know if I'd call it life energy, even though it may feel that way. But yeah, depending on their personal issues it often becomes just enough financial rope with which to well and truly beggar themselves.

However, I think a lot of the problems caused by winning the lottery come just as much from ordinary people having never learned how to cope with having so much money. It's a set of skills that need to be learned, and is distinct from having a small or normal-sized household budget. Kind of like the difference between driving a car and flying a plane. The one doesn't translate to the other, even though they are both machines with some similar looking controls, and are both used for getting from one location to another.

All that said, though, your main point is true enough. People who do not strive to understand (and when necessary, overcome) the past are doomed to be enslaved to it.

11/11/2010 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Van,

This may be going too far, but there's almost a sense of what it must feel like to care of someone through Alzheimer’s.

I don't think that's going too far, really. As I watch L learning how to use his hands, it reminds me frequently of how my stepdad (who had chronic progressive multiple sclerosis) lost control of his. The same shaky, jerky motions, the same tendency to use both in an attempt to stabilise as they grasp an object... only in this case, it's a sign of growth, not decline.

As the years go by, I know he'll never smile at me again the way he does now at the simple joy of eye contact, and he won't remember how good it makes him feel. But perhaps, by grace, some day he will experience an echo of that joy when he sees his own child light up the same way.

11/11/2010 11:09:00 AM  
Blogger Jason T. said...

Julie said..."However, I think a lot of the problems caused by winning the lottery come just as much from ordinary people having never learned how to cope with having so much money. It's a set of skills that need to be learned, and is distinct from having a small or normal-sized household budget. "

I would respectfully have to disagree. That sort of thing is much too practical and concrete for the type person that I have in mind. The greater the degree of unacknowledged internal suffering, the greater the degree of limitation on learning new skills period. Most people who grow up in such environments have internal conflict so great that anything new (or some type of proposed behavioural change) brings a feeling of imbalance to their entire being.

Using spiral dynamics as a guide (although I agree with Bob's assessment yesterday about its flaws) I would place the sort of person I have in mind at the red level of development, the power god orientation to reality. Of course with the center of gravity of our culture being orange (rational/self reflective/formal operational), it just seems to make sense to the rest of us that one plus one equals two. However, personal logic is not even accessible to someone suffering from a heavy dose of internal conflict, especially if they have never been exposed to it at early stages of development.

11/11/2010 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger Magnus Itland said...

There is nothing wrong with Spiral Dynamics until you use it as some kind of measure of spiritual development, as some friends of Ken Wilber seem to do. It is simply a way of measuring the level of complexity people can handle.

For instance, when I was little, it never occurred to my parents that dumping all kinds of waste in the river could be ethically dubious. They were extremely good people, but whether it was plastic or insect poison, once you emptied it in the river it was GONE. Out of sight and out of mind. I may not be as good as them yet, but I know without having to ponder it that this is not a good way for mankind to solve its garbage problems. That kind of seeing more and more connections on an ever wider scale is what Spiral Dynamics is measuring.

Also, I think Spiral Dynamics is rather more objective when it comes to the lower levels, which we can see with the objectivity of distance. When it comes to what is called "the second tier", the worldviews that have arisen but recently, it is hard to be objective about them when only you and your friends share them. (That's the generic you, btw.)

11/11/2010 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Jason,

I would respectfully have to disagree. That sort of thing is much too practical and concrete for the type person that I have in mind.

Point taken - you gave a specific example, as illustration, I countered with a broad generality which missed your point.

I've never studied Wilber, and can't speak to the Spiral Dynamics aspect, so will happily proceed to shut up and stop revealing myself as a fool :)

11/11/2010 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Magnus Itland said...

I can't say I remember all that much about my life after 9 year either. There are scattered memories, but they are like flying over the countryside at night, scattered points of light in the darkness.

I think the thing that changes when we grow up is that we become able to construct a "life story", or "life novel" if you want, a narrative that connects a decent number of the dots. By doing this, we don't need to remember everything - or very much at all, really.

I notice that neurotypical humans spend a lot of time and energy rewriting the past. I noticed this with blinding clarity after a friend of mine died while in high school. His family, also friends of mine, set about rearranging their memories with a vengeance. After only a few months, the boy they remembered was barely recognizable. It was rather an improvement though. They thought a lot better about this new version than they had about the live one.

Since then I have had my eyes open for this kind of "retrofit". It does not surprise me at all that we do it with history as well. Anything else would have been mysterious.

11/11/2010 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger black hole said...

Yes, what Magnus said. The spiral. We go around, and we come around, but upward progress is the general trend.

Regarding phallic attitudes: My middle name, Alice, rhymes with phallus.

Strapped on, me and my Alice are capable of giving a good seeing-to. Maybe not as good as Pharoah did.

11/11/2010 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Gaghdad Bob, isn't the point of the traditionalist argument (Evola for instance) not to return to the pristine time (he acknowledge spiritual opportunity for excellence in the Dark Age) but rather to evoke the only evidence we have for something higher, in order that that order might be re-embodied, if only to a small degree?
Nicholas Gomez Davila has even more insightful things to say on this.

11/11/2010 09:39:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Bolton even makes the provocative suggestion that the true way is only fully realized when everything is more or less opposed to it."

This is precisely what Evola would say.

11/11/2010 09:48:00 PM  
Blogger ge said...

-As a big fan of Evola, I am happy to know of other kindred writers, apparently like
Dávila

wv=bards

11/12/2010 03:00:00 AM  
Blogger ge said...

headline:
Lula: World headed for 'bankruptcy'...

-Is that why we got IN GOD WE TRUST on our $$?
:)

11/12/2010 03:31:00 AM  

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