Sunday, December 07, 2008

The March of History?

Many folks think history is going somewhere. It was required for marxists at one time, for it provided the only possible justification for doing evil things now. Many brands of Christian not only believe that Jesus will return, but that history is moving inexorably toward that in some fashion we can discern. Teleology, the idea that things are going somewhere according to some design, is not only a Christian idea. In fact, however much Darwin maintained that survival was all that was measured by evolution, his belief that we are improving, and expect greater improvement to come, suffuses his writing.

In law and society, we see a pattern of rights being progressively extended to more and more beings. In Western Europe, rights of the nobility gradually became rights of adult male landowners (if they weren't felons or from the wrong church). Rights of women and other races came in unevenly, with property rights, rights before the law, rights to education, and voting all being granted in no particular order. Taking this as a pattern, some now wish to extend rights to animals.

But what if it's not a pattern? The thinkers of the Enlightenment described a course of improvement leading from the Dark through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and then their exalted selves. That Classical Greek and Roman thought occurred before this should perhaps have been a clue that there was no general trend here, but they found ways to work that in as well.

At summer studies in 1970, one of the courses was Western Intellectual History, because it was still fashionable to believe that the Enlightenment had basically gotten it right, and we had gotten even better since then! The idea that Western thought did not merely describe a set of ideas, but represented some slow but inevitable development was quite common. It was as if we could not help but have come to where we are - progress could be slowed or diverted, or even set back for a time, but would resume its march (notice the image from that word).

Well, no. We didn't have to end up here. We didn't even have to basically end up here, or mostly end up here except for the details. Retrospectively, so many things look inevitable, as we can see them "grow" out of past events. But association is not always cause, and certainly not determinative cause.


Anonymous said...

I wrote about that a long time ago:

"The struggles by which our civilization has been built — from ancient Israel through mediaeval Europe unto the modern Anglosphere — the very length of the struggles by which The Rule of Law and The Dignity of the Human Person have been established so widely, but not invariably, in our civilization — these struggles tell us that no law of nature makes us live that way. How is it, then? Preaching of prophets; reflections of theologians; thinking of philosophers; vision of statesmen; life and limb of warriors; heartache of widows and orphans; conscientious living of ordinary individuals; precarious balance of ideology, power, rights, and duties: all these, and more, have built our civilization across the ages. All these — and nothing less.

"The actions of a moment’s malice, in the comparison, could bring it near to hurtling down."

(On the Edge of Forever: Star Trek and the War on Terrorism)

OBloodyHell said...

> Taking this as a pattern, some now wish to extend rights to animals.

Oh, no. That's nowhere near far enough...

It's always been my position that there is no concept, idea, notion, meme or other form imaginable by the mind of man which some idiot can't take and run straight off the end of the Earth with it.

Not love, honor, decency, kindness, caring, loyalty, duty -- you name it, some jackass will find some imbecilic way to take it waaaaay too far. "Rights", too, easily fall into this category... or is that just "Rights too easily..."?