By Roland Watson
In the last article, I referred to the well recognized fact that history has cycles - that it repeats itself. I want to mention a couple of these cycles now.
The first was actually described almost three hundred years ago, by the Italian philosopher Giambattista Uico. It is a theory of the cycle of human history.
Uico linked the changes in the forms of government, and overall social organization, with our approach to the spiritual questions of life. He revealed that human society progresses through a four-stage pattern.
He termed the first stage divine, or theocratic. In this stage people are overwhelmed by the impossible scale and mystery of the universe, and they seek explanations for it in supernatural form.
The second stage is aristocratic. In this stage the awe is expropriated and made the province of selected individuals, of lords and priests.
The third stage is democratic and individualistic. At this point the concentration of power erodes, and shifts from the elites to the general public.
Finally, the fourth stage is chaotic. Society degrades and becomes anarchistic. Control is lost.
As an aside, from this we can also see another basic point. Form implies control as well as content.
Returning to the cycle, once control is lost the social organization becomes disrupted. The consequences of this startle people back into universal reverence, and the cycle begins anew.
The apparent existence of this cycle raises a lot of questions. We are presently in the early stages of a democratic age. Will this lead to chaos again? Do people need to be controlled? Or, has the industrial revolution and technology somehow changed the game? Is human history not only entering a new stage, but a completely new cycle?
As a proponent of democracy, I certainly hope that we are not on the brink of widespread chaos. But, we now have severe overpopulation, which we saw technology actually enabled, and which is only expected to get worse. The forecast is for 9 billion people by 2050. And, our overpopulation has already led to environmental devastation and social conflict, which itself will only get worse. With all of this already underway, it is difficult NOT to forecast chaos.
A final question, though, is if the world does fall into chaos, who is to blame? Is it the fault of ordinary people and democracy? Or, is it the fault of our remaining leaders - our remaining dictators, who in the pursuit of their selfish interests refuse to make good decisions for the public and for nature, and who also refuse to allow real democracy so that we, the people, truly can take charge?
I believe, even with the industrial revolution and technology, that we have not yet entered a modern democratic age, and that social institution aristocrats, who are still in charge, are driving us to chaos.
Another basic cycle, and which is not unrelated, is the stratification of society following any period of development or other change into a class structure, with upper, middle and lower classes.
To quote George Orwell from his book, 1984:
"Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low. They have been subdivided in many ways, they have borne countless different names, and their relative numbers, as well as their attitude toward one another, have varied from age to age; but the essential structure of society has never altered. Even after enormous upheavals and seemingly irrevocable changes, the same pattern has always reasserted itself, just as a gyroscope will always return to equilibrium, however far it is pushed one way or the other."
It is interesting to note that the character who used these words in Orwell's story was actually justifying social classes and dictatorship. The people at the top in this world believed that they absolutely had the right to subjugate everyone else. The only thing that mattered - the entire basis for their world - was their desire for power and wealth.
Our world is like that of Orwell's. But, and as he so clearly illustrated, having a world dominated by a select few is unfair. I have already mentioned how perhaps our most powerful idea is that we are equal. It is not acceptable that some people have it great, while many, many suffer.
This has been and remains the greatest challenge for us as a species. How can we establish real equality? How can we abolish the cycle of class structure and such that it never returns? How can we finally escape control - domination - from our elites - our lords and dictators, and reach a real democracy and real equality, and for that matter real freedom?
The cycle of life and death
The next thing that I want to discuss is the possibility of mystical cycles, of life and death. Also, this of course applies not only to people, but to everything that is alive. Perhaps it even applies to the universe itself.
As I mentioned, the idea that actions have consequences is a restatement of the concept of karma. Anne Cushman and Jerry Jones described it in their book, From Here to Nirvana, as "the cosmic law of cause and effect, in which each person creates his or her destiny based on his or her own actions."
For another perspective, Jorge Luis Borges, in his story, The Immortal, called karma the view that there is "neither beginning nor end, ... each life is the effect of the preceding and engenders the following, but none determines the totality."
People have a number of views on the cycle of life and death. One view, which is common in the West, is that we proceed through the cycle of life to death, after which we have a new existence in either heaven or hell, and which existence is not cyclical - it never ends. You are in either heaven or hell for eternity.
Another view, common in the East, and which Borges referred to, is that after the cycle of life and death we are reborn, as someone new, into another cycle of life and death, and that this repeats itself without end.
Both of these views are actually speculation, and require faith by the people who hold them. There is no proof.
There is, though, another view as well, which is that after this cycle of life and death, after we die, that's it - there is nothing - that's the end. Interestingly, holders of this view also require faith, as once again there is no proof. No one knows what happens when we die.
The repetition of history
I want to close this talk by returning to everyday life, and the fact that history repeats itself, which is of course widely recognized. As George Santayana famously put it: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
However, there is a lot more involved than a failure of memory. For example, one of the paradoxes that I have always been struck by is this. Every year the top universities of the world, including Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne, the University of Hong Kong, Australian National University, the University of Tokyo, and many others - every year they graduate classes of extremely bright and motivated young people.
Furthermore, young people are known for their idealism, their desire to make the world, in which they are going to have to live the balance of their lives, a better place.
The question is, why don't they succeed? Why, with so many talented young people around, don't they ever make a real difference, such that historical recurrences for once and all end?
The simple answer to this is that they end up joining society, starting through their employment, meaning the society which is in some way responsible for the repeating problems. They are co-opted, and their idealism is subverted.
In other words, and as George Orwell so aptly described, the problems are systemic. They are a necessary consequence or manifestation of our current social order.
Nonetheless, there is more to it than this. There are many specific steps and factors that are involved in the repetition of history, and which I will reveal throughout the articles. But even more, there is a deeper issue that is at stake as well. The problems that we experience are human problems. They relate not only to our social system, but to our overall system - the human system. Therefore, we can conclude that as long as we remain human, our problems will persist. To escape from them, we therefore must become more than human. We must evolve. I will examine the prospects for human evolution in some detail, in Part 4 of the website.
To summarize the discussion of cycles, one way to look at the overall purpose of the articles - of the University of Life - is like this. The articles are an exploration of how we can avoid social and environmental chaos; end the unfairness of class structure and achieve real equality; and understand - using reason - not faith, as much as we can about the system of existence that we call life, and of its end, of death.
In the next and final talk in the introductory series, I will examine the principle of equality.
© Roland Watson 2013