Friday, January 27, 2017

Is the Arc of History Nonsense?

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is a rhetorical conceit, or what historians call a “meta-narrative”, that dates from the mid-nineteenth century.  What is a meta-narrative you ask?  It is a made up proposition adopted by a group of people by which they make sense of events.  Meta-narratives are to history what cosmologies (theories on the nature of the universe) are to religion.  In order to accept this meta-narrative you must: (1) accept that there is a moral universe as opposed to an impersonal universe, (2) accept that there is one universal standard by which to determine “justice”, and (3) accept that history progresses toward some purpose.   If you do not accept these underlying propositions, the meta-narrative is meaningless.

Other historical meta-narratives have included, The Mandate of Heaven (i.e. kings have a divine right to govern), The March of Progress (i.e. all technology is good), The Triumph of Civilization (i.e. Western civilization), Manifest Destiny (i.e. American expansion across the North American continent), and Marxist “class struggle” which must ultimately end in the establishment of worldwide communism because of the “forces of history.”

The British historian Alan Munslow sums the issue up as, “The past is not discovered or found. It is created and represented by the historian.”

The history represented by historians is a reflection of power relationships within a society, and different historical perspectives represent the vying for power of different groups within that society.

General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

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