If you feel like you’re going crazy, you’re not alone. Many of us feel our ship of state is floundering and that its rudder’s fallen off. It’s not just the antics of our dishonest and quarrelsome President that’s troubling, but that America appears to have lost its way in a complicated world changing so quickly that none of us have time to catch up.
Every culture in human history has undergone periods of success and periods of failure, a developmental arc in time marked by social stability followed by social instability and collapse. Some thinkers credit such oscillations as the essential energetic force that propels human culture forward, and that from each collapse we emerge wiser and more resilient as a species.
Technological change forms the backdrop for our human drama; first fire, then metallurgy, then machine industry, and now digitized information have successively altered our relationship to nature. As people, our individual and collective beliefs and capabilities reflect the technology dominant during any particular age; despite this changing backdrop, human history appears largely cyclical, as does the arc of social evolution.
Historian Jacques Barzan described the past 500 years of western history as an age of increasing emancipation — of race, gender, art and ideas. Yet this progressive emancipation fuels resentment by those who prefer things not change, and we witness the effects of that resentment in the rise of authoritarian and fundamentalist movements — political, social and religious — an ongoing oscillation of reaction and counter-reaction.
Understanding human history was the favored subject of the social philosopher Giambattisa Vico (1668-1754), who proposed that each society repeatedly cycles through three primary phases. The Theological phase is tribal and embodies “poetic wisdom,” imaginative and mythical beliefs about humankind, nature and the divine. The Rational phase, embodying written language, sophisticated thought and heightened social organization, is marked by authoritarian power structures and hierarchy. This is followed by the Democratic phase during which emancipation movements as noted by Barzan occur, accompanied by increased social disorder and the chaos such movements engender. Ultimately, disorder leads to collapse from which a new Theological phase emerges and the cycle begins again. In the words of Vico, “Men first felt necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.”
Thus human civilizations and societies rise and fall and rise again. China, for example, provides a 6,000-year example of the cyclical pattern described by Vico, and in our modern, sped-up times, the 240-year-old United States is moving through its own Viconian cycles rapidly. Technology distorts time itself; third-world societies like India are quickly moving through the Theological phase to the Democratic phase. If Vico is correct, the craziness we are witnessing is simply the latest chapter in a history book of cyclical change that has been written over the past 10,000 years.
When it comes to craziness, should they ever be used, nuclear weapons will break the chain of human history and perhaps all life on Planet Earth.Yet, like Vico, Hindu theology also describes phases of society, and they call our present phase the Kali Yuga, the last of four phases. Yuga means age, and Kali is the Hindu Goddess of destruction; Kali Yuga is marked by strife, disorder, conflict and chaos.
Rest assured, it’s not you that’s crazy.