The Circles of History
There is an idea that if you study history, you can help avoid the mistakes of the past. However when you look back with the benefit of hindsight, its clear that we make the same mistakes over and over again. No matter how well informed some people in society are about history. There seems to be some component of emotion involved in this which blinds large portions of the population at the time.
With examples such as the English civil war, the French revolution, the rise of communism, the rise of facism; in all cases people were angry, and a group of people took that anger and shaped it into something that sounded better, but usually turned out to be worse than the thing people were angry about in the first place. With communism you had the great ideals of Marx. Anyone who reads the Communist Manifesto can’t fail to see the logic and even beauty in the idea. Instead of the rich living in absurd luxury and the poor struggling just to stay alive, you have everyone working together for the common good, and sharing equally. The reality was of course very different. Not only did this not take into account some elements of human nature, resulting in as much poverty as before, it left a moral vacuum which caused its own problems.
With fascism you had anger about war reparations in Germany, and more general anger at the failure of capitalism leading into the great depression. There was a narrative about making the nation great again by taking back control from the demons of capitalism, of everyone working together with good traditional ideals. In reality it resulted in levels of suffering and destruction to match anything that came before.
Each time these cycles of history turn around, they are different enough that people find it difficult to see the patterns at the time. Hegel saw it as a struggle between two essential ideas of the age, each time resulting in a new and more improved idea to move to the next generation, ready for a new opposing idea to rise. I’m not so sure its always progressive like this, more like smaller cycles within larger cycles. Certainly when the clash of ideas reaches its zenith each time, there is nothing more noble or improved in the state of the world.
This time around it seems the clash of our time is ultra left progressivism of the type you see in some Guardian opinion pieces, quick to be offended and ruled by the self entitled; versus the Trumps and Putins of the world, selling the old fascist lies about aggressive nationalism. Both can spin great sounding stories to their devotees, neither has a clear and sustainable view of a better world – its always focused on addressing wrongs of the past. These wrongs are inevitable based on some genuine concerns and suffering, but they are pumped up and inflated to become all consuming.
The only real way out of these cycles is compassion and forgiveness. Those are the only traits that survive the judgement of hindsight. Yes, World War 2 would not have been as bad if Macmillan and his supporters had not tried to appease. There are countless more arguments for the fact that sometimes its necessary to use force to contain bullies. But each time an individual in a society reacts with compassion and forgiveness, the bullies become both less likely to develop into bullies, and less pervasive to contain.
Israel/Palestine is a good example of this. One side in the divide sees the issue purely in terms of the oppression and subjugation of the Palestinians; of a people robbed of their land, living under a kind of apartheid where they have less rights that their neighbors. The other sees it purely in terms of a people struggling persecution for thousands of years, an outsider wherever they go. Always the scapegoat when things go wrong. Finally with a ‘home’ again, but attacked from all sides; willing to negotiate, but no strong and honest leader to make a deal with. Both of these views are at least to some extent true, and viewed through either lens it can be powerfully emotive. This is what drives the wheels of history. However the only possible solution to this does not focus on either of these views. It involves each of these groups of peoples, as individuals, working together to make the land one where they can live together in peace. This takes two things – forgiveness and compassion. Neither of these are things a person can just decide to adopt, and then be free of their opposite. They require time and effort to cultivate, through the likes of contemplation and detachment. The more people that are actively choosing love and mindfulness, the less trapped we all are in the wheels of history.