William Faulkner famously wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is usually taken to mean that the events of history continue to affect the present. But another way that the past remains alive has to do with how we think about history, the story we tell ourselves about how history unfolds. It’s a story that is constantly changing.
The ancient Greeks viewed history as cyclical, an endlessly repeating loop. Civilizations rose and fell but nothing essential changed. Individuals could not shape the future — it was controlled by the Fates, three mythological figures who held each person’s destiny in their hands. If you saw the Disney movie “Hercules,” you may remember the scene when the god Hades visits the Fates. “Ladies, I’m sorry that I’m late,” he tells them. “We knew you would be,” they reply. There was no meaning or purpose to history; it was, like the passing of the seasons, a sequence of events repeated again and again.
The story we tell ourselves about how history unfolds also shapes what we expect from the future.
The Jewish and Christian traditions saw history differently from the Greeks. For the writers of the Bible, history was not a series of unconnected events but the vehicle by which God realized his purposes for humanity. The creation of the world, the ministries of prophets, and the Last Judgment gave history not only a beginning and an end but a direction. The evangelist Billy Graham, for example, often preached that the the death and resurrection of Jesus “changed the history of the entire world.” Time was no longer a meaningless loop; it had become an arrow.
During the Enlightenment, thinkers like Voltaire and Kant began giving a starring role to human reason. The arrow still had a direction — just one guided by human hands, not divine ones.
More recently, the loop has made a comeback. Large economic forces are seen as the only significant driver of historical change, leaving us at the mercy of cyclical booms and busts. Bold policy ideas — for instance, on climate change — are rejected in advance, in deference to mystical economic logic.
Solutions to our deepest problems may require not just new legislation or technologies, but new ways of thinking about history. Neither a repeating loop nor an inevitable arrow, but perhaps a chain — a chain that links all of us in a shared past and a common destiny.Zachary Davis is the host of the podcast “Ministry of Ideas,” which debuts this week. Listen at ministryofideas.org, iTunes, or GooglePlay.