By Sharon St Joan
It’s not that there’s no such thing as progress. Indeed there is.
If I want to travel around the world, I’ll take a plane. I won’t set out walking, or take a sailing ship, or sit by the roadside waiting for a magic carpet to appear out of the clouds.
If I fall down the stairs and break a leg, I will go to the hospital because waiting for it to get better by itself is not going to work well.
If I want to go into town I will use a car, not a horse and buggy.
All this being said, there is a very large aspect of the way we think about progress in the modern world that is illusory. It is not true.
Really, there are two ways of viewing history — the cyclical view and the linear view.
In the cyclical view, there are several ages, following each other, until eventually, the whole complete world cycle ends and begins anew.
If we’ve grown up in the west or if we’ve been heavily influenced by western culture, then we are going to lean towards the linear view of world history. It’s imprinted inside our heads, and, without our being conscious of it, it colors most of our perceptions and expectations.
According to the western worldview, history is linear. First there is prehistory and then there is an ascending line on an upwards trajectory, which is called “progress.” It is a basic part of our thinking. If we look far enough back into the past, we see hunter/gatherers, the introduction of farming, the invention of the wheel, the beginnings of civilization. Pretty soon along come the Greeks and the Romans. Then there are the middle ages, the renaissance, the industrial revolution, then along come lots of inventions, like central heating, TV, computers, and sending a man to the moon. (As you can see, this is all very Eurocentric.) It all goes upward and ever upward, as we humans progress to higher levels of technology and “better” lives.
But this is not the only way to view the past and the present. For many cultures throughout the world, there has traditionally been another model of history. In India, and also among many other peoples, including Native Americans in both North and South America, history has been seen as cyclical. Even the Greeks and the Romans believed in a succession of ages, and there is a reference to this view also in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel.
One of the key differences between these two views is that, from the cyclical worldview, “progress” isn’t necessarily progress, and our “inevitable” evolution upwards to grander and grander heights is very much in doubt.
In other word, things may not inevitably be getting better and better, and our common sense tends to agree with this observation. It may be that, all this time, the human race has been de-volving instead of e-volving.
Let’s look at it this way for a moment. There is a good chance, since you are reading this, that you live a fairly comfortable existence. This is not necessarily true, and there can be exceptions, but most likely, you are not living in a hut made of old tires and rusty hubcaps, on the banks of what used to be a river, but is now a creek filled with garbage. Instead, you have a nice home. In your home there is most likely central heating, air conditioning, a TV, computers – it is a place with modern conveniences.
We enjoy our central heating because it keeps us warm, and we wouldn’t have been happy in the European middle ages, where even aristocrats lived in cold castles – and peasants lived in squalid huts. We may say to ourselves that whatever view of history may be true (and whatever personal problems we might currently have), things are far better now in the modern world than they used to be hundreds of years ago. If we say this, then what we are expressing is a western/modern perspective; and whatever country we may live in, this is a middle or upper class view.
Suppose for a moment that instead of being you or me, living in our comfortable surroundings, we are a poor child in a developing country who lives on a giant mound of garbage which she picks through from morning to night to make a few cents a day. Suppose we are one of the billions of people who have no clean water to drink. Or one of the billions who live in horrible slums. Suppose we live in a war-torn region of central Africa, where there is hardly even a memory of any security or safety?
You and I are exceptions, and though we all do have our own problems and difficulties, (which may from time to time seem insurmountable), generally speaking, we are blessed to live in fairly decent or even very comfortable circumstances.
This means that, unless we stop to think and look around us, we may not notice that most people in the world live in conditions far worse than they would have lived in hundreds or thousands of years ago. Is it really true that the average person in the world is better off now? No, it really isn’t.
If we had lived around the year 2300 BCE in the city of Mohenjo Daro, part of the ancient Indian Indus Valley civilization, now in modern Pakistan, we might well have lived in a two story house, with a plumbing system, a furnace, and an inner courtyard lined with trees. We would have lived in clean, comfortable surroundings in a well-designed, beautiful city.
If we had lived around 1500 BCE in the Minoan city Knossos on the island of Crete, we would have lived in a city that delivered clean water through pipes into the homes of around 100,000 people and had an advanced plumbing and sewage system. We would have been surrounded by a vibrant culture that produced beautiful art, which can still be seen in murals on the walls of Knossos.
I can hear a voice saying, but wait – these two examples are not typical! Okay, that may be true; if these two advanced societies might be considered exceptions on the world stage, then what about life in a tribal society?
To be continued in part two…
Top photo: Author (artist): Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1848–1926) / Wikimedia Commons /”This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. Such reproductions are in the public domain in the United States.”
Second photo: “This work has been released into the public domain by its author, JW1805 at the wikipedia project. This applies worldwide.” / Wikimedia Commons / A bust of Homer in the British Museum, London.
Third photo: Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 1.0 License.” / Original uploader was M.Imran at en.wikipedia / The great bath at Mohenjo Daro.
Fourth photo: “This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Throne_Hall_Knossos.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.”
© Sharon St Joan, 2013
To find Sharon’s ebook, Glimpses of Kanchi, on Amazon, click here.