Darn near everyone loves to quote history. Especially from their own point of view. Consider the current crisis in Libya, the on-going presidential battle of facts, and the recent teachers strike here in Chicago. Everyone is always using “history shows…” as the opening salvo in their arguments.
Oh really? History is an ancient lady with many beguiling faces whose many truths she hides all too well. Sure we all know how she’s been described: “Chronological order of events,” ” Stories written by the winners,” “Something if ignored must be repeated.”
All useful descriptions. But how about : “History is a Pendulum?”
We all know how a pendulum operates, forever swaying from the extremity of one arc to the opposite, only briefly ever hovering in place in the middle. If you’re looking for a handy layman’s definition, the pendulum provides a convenient image of just how the history of the world seems to operate. Using the image of a pendulum tells us history is not some specific route [eg. “Geographic or Racial Determinism”] …not some personally managed route [eg. “The Great Man Theory”]…nor an ideological route [eg. “Capitalism,” “Communism”].
The image of a pendulum suggests instead the history of humanity is often nothing more than the serendipitous lurch from one extreme to another. Populations at various times lurch toward a passion for protecting the perceived safety of the status quo [eg. the early American Colonies], but soon thereafter lurching toward a stirred up passion for liberty [eg. the American Revolution]. It’s a pendulum-swing duplicated in countless revolutions thereafter [eg. from the French Revolution in the 18th C right up to the Arab Spring in the 21st C].
So is human history nothing more than people shifting from one extreme to another…? No, it’s surely more complicated than that. However, the unplanned dynamic of a pendulum is a handy way of realizing just how erratic the lady is. No one has ever really owned her nor has anyone ever really been able to predict her. The student of history should always remember she has a mysterious will & whim of her own.
So to all you cocky politicians and prophets who claim to understand her, you can be sure she’s unimpressed. As the ancient Greeks wisely said: “Man plans and the Gods laugh!”
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