Citizens of Western societies almost universally share a few common assumptions. Time “passes,” history “evolves,” and politics are “progressive.” Allow me to begin with the latter and return to the former.
Some of you may recall Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist who currently resides at Stanford University. In 1989, Fukuyama published an essay in National Interest titled “The End of History?” A fascinating read, in which he argued the demise of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union heralded the ultimate victory of Western liberal democracy. The culmination of human kind’s political evolution.[i] He was wrong.
What of history evolving? Here we run into an interesting intellectual conjoining of biology and a modern fascination with archiving. (I use the term modern quite loosely here in a purposeful manner. Mankind has been jotting notes for thousands of years—cave walls in France or crypts from ancient Egypt serve to illustrate my point. But “modern” for humans is a mere few thousand years, this planet has been circling the sun a just bit longer than we have been boasting of our accomplishments by coloring on caves, clay, or paper.) This historical evolution is an argument leached from Darwin.[ii] If semi-sentient species evolve than surely we must do the same.
Taking this one step further, some intellectuals—Hegel and Marx immediately come to mind—contend history is a forward march. From chaos to civilization—be that liberal democracy or communism. Thus we are to read the catalogues of failed civilizations and states as a progression to that something better awaiting just over the next horizon. They were also wrong.
Which brings us back to time. Time only passes for humans because we are born, age and die. Time itself is significantly less bounded. I personally favor a definition of time offered in the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Time, the wise people from this tome argue, is a “Non-spatial continuum in which events occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future.”
A committee of lawyers could not have done better.
Consider just the terms “non-spatial,” “continuum,” and “apparently irreversible.” So we can’t touch, feel or smell time. It has no ends. And we are not certain if it really passes in succession—there is only a common perception this occurs.[iii]
So we are not certain politics are indeed progressive, human history evolves, nor that time actually passes.
Welcome to the world of Osiris, where the past is present, history is irrelevant and politics are scattered to the wind. Muhammad’s caliphate is very real, Jefferson and Marx were mistaken, and Fukuyama is offering academic apologies. Ideology and theology, it seems, are immune to our precepts of past, present and progress. The old is new and the new is remarkably as relevant in 2020 as it was in 670. Time is indeed a continuum and we are about to learn human mortality does not apply to the world of ideas. Life imitates Osiris.
[iii] For further read: James Gleick, 2016, Time Travel, Pantheon Books.