Since the beginning of recorded history, a teleological element has been present in historical narratives. The precise form of this element has varied through places and times, but historians have always offered some sense of where we are going and what the future may hold. This is an understandable impulse; humans are the only extant species with the ability to conceive of the future in a meaningful way and make long-term plans beyond the horizon of gathering food for the winter. Making plans of worth requires having some idea of future conditions. In pre-modern times when social and technological progress occurred more slowly, past trends were generally a sound predictor of the future. But as knowledge has expanded and the pace of change has quickened, the fragility of the idea of a grand narrative of history has become increasingly obvious, as has the fallacy of assuming that past trends will continue uninterrupted. Let us consider each of the forms of historical teleology, then introduce and defend a non-teleological approach.

Decline and Cycle

The earliest narrative of history is that of the fall of man, of a decline from a previous golden age. In those times, there was no clear distinction between history and myth, so many such accounts are a combination of creation myths and a mytho-historical account of events between the creation and the present. Examples of this include the story of the Garden of Eden and man’s expulsion from it in the Abrahamic faiths[1], the Four Yugas in Hinduism[2], the Five Suns in the Aztec faith[3,4], and the five Ages of Man described by the Greek poet Hesiod[5]. In the Abrahamic and Greek traditions, man (or proto-man) once existed in a state of harmony, virtue, and free communion with the divine. The Hindu and Aztec traditions relate cycles of creation and destruction, ascent and decline. The Hindu cycles depict humans as becoming shorter in stature and lifespan as the Yugas progress.

It is easy to understand how belief in decline would become popular. The earliest written stories were transcriptions of oral traditions. The first civilizations to invent writing existed in the wake of a time of decline, which in turn followed a previous civilization that predated recorded history. In other cases, past forms of writing were lost to later inhabitants of a region. For example, Hesiod flourished sometime between 750–650 BC[6], just after the Greek Dark Ages (1100–800 BC)[7] which followed the Mycenaean civilization (1600–1100 BC)[8]. The present state of recovery just beginning, the recent memory of decline, legends of a better time in the past, and the loss of understanding of the Linear B script used by the Mycenaeans to record their affairs[9] make a historical narrative of fall from grace understandable.

In addition to the Hindu and Mesoamerican developments of cyclical views of mythology, the Chinese developed concepts of social cycles. The dynastic cycle in which a new ruler unites China, forms a dynasty, prosperity occurs, corruption ensues, a disaster occurs, civil war follows, the Mandate of Heaven is lost, a Warring States Period occurs, one faction wins the war to establish a new dynasty, and the Mandate of Heaven is gained by them has long been a prominent political theory in Chinese society.[10] Meanwhile, theologians of the Abrahamic faiths developed theodicies and eschatologies, some of which posited a telos of apocalypse followed by a Messianic age. Ibn Khaldun described cycles of nomads forming or conquering cities, states, and empires, then being displaced by other conquering nomads as their group cohesion (asabiyyah) faded over time.[11] Cyclical conceptions of history flourished during the Renaissance, such as Niccolo Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (1513–17). The most famous modern works in this tradition are Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (1918–22) and the Strauss-Howe generational theory.[12] Recent study in this direction uses mathematical modeling of long-term social cycles.[13]

Understanding the popularity of cyclical history is also straightforward. As record-keeping improved and people made more observations about the natural world, periodic and repetitive behaviors in all parts of life and nature were discovered. Despite our unique advances, humans are still a part of nature, so applying this pattern recognition to ourselves is a reasonable step.

The Hesiodic and cyclical views of history continue to inform conservative and reactionary political ideologies, to the extent that these seek a return to an idealized past rather than the correction of mistakes by bringing well-functioning elements of the past into the future. Religious fundamentalists also tend to view the world through such a lens, with a restoration to come in the future through divine intervention. Most modern philosophers of history, however, have come to adopt a different view.

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