The Grand Narratives of History

Humans like to bottle up knowledge into simple narratives. Stories to be told around the campfire or to help us understand the world. Our conception of history is shaped by two grand narratives which sweep beyond their remit to inform our politics and society as well. The fall from grace and march of progress do make for appealing stories, but with one major caveat. They aren’t real.


Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And yes, together we will make America great again.

-Donald Trump, 2017 inauguration speech


The core narrative of world history until the modern period was one of a fall from grace. The world had been great, but was no longer. We had been thrown out of an imagined Eden, just like in the Biblical stories which held philosophical sway. The height of civilisation was Greece (for the intellectuals) or Rome (for the warlords), and what remained was but a mere pale shadow.


Critical to this notion is that we were kicked out of Eden for a reason. An original sin. The details of this sin depend on its invoker, but are heavily influenced by the narrative’s Biblical origins. Foreigners, lack of respect for traditions, degenerate culture or nefarious influences commonly appear. If we were only to purge the sinful and return to our traditions, we could return to those halcyon days.


A powerful innovating movement, issuing from the war and of which Fascism is the purest expression, was to restore Italian thought in the sphere of political doctrine to its own traditions which are the traditions of Rome.

The Political Doctrine Of Fascism, Alfredo Rocco – Italian Minister for Justice under Benito Mussolini


Since it is no longer reasonable to claim ancient Rome as the peak of humanity, this narrative has usually morphed with the times. While some still yearn for the iron fist of Caesar under the guise of ‘Western Civilisation’, most adherents invoke their own Edens. The white picket fences of 1950s suburbia are a common expression, though the Americans also like to look back to their deified founding.


The beauty of this story is how heavily it is ingrained in our culture. After 1800 years as the dominant narrative, one doesn’t even need to invoke a particular Eden. Identify a sin of modernity and the listener will fill in the dots. Take back control by kicking out the immigrants (and return Britain to an idyllic Anglo-Saxon past). Discipline the university students who’ve fallen under the sway of cultural Marxism (and purge their ideas from old-fashioned polite society). In our current political moment, the fall from grace is everywhere.


For much of western history, the fall from grace was the pre-eminent narrative. The misery of feudalism was divine retribution for our faults. In the early 1800s, one German philosopher changed all that. As industrial production ramped up and conditions for one of his position improved, Hegel posited an alternate theory.


There can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today, until it is superseded by tomorrow.

-Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress


Hegel saw the dramatic changes afoot in the early modern period and rejected the old thesis. Instead of an Eden in the past, he saw history as a continual progression guided by a Weltgeist (roughly ‘world spirit’) through stages of development to find its optimal expression in the present. Rather than a fall from grace, history was the inevitable march of progress onwards and upwards.


Though Hegel is confined to the philosophy class today, the idea of an inevitable march forwards found plentiful adherents. Things were improving more rapidly than they had for 1500 years. Feudalism gave way to capitalism and Eden was supplanted from the past into the future. Society would continue to develop and improve forevermore, or so it seemed.


Communism is … the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and recovery.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844


Marx – the philosophical titan of the 19th century – took Hegel’s idea and ran with it. His idea of historical materialism supposed different drivers of history but the same progression towards an Edenic future. Though Marx’s ideas fell out of favour, the onward march of progress remained central to the very idea of modernity.


Today, the liberal and social democratic traditions cling tightly to this narrative, which has become bound up with a kind of techno-utopianism. Technology will solve all our problems, our role is only to clear away any obstacles to its ascendence. The cult of Elon Musk continues to grow, its adherents ignoring the exploitation of the present in hope of a techno-magical future.


Progress has marched ever onwards with technology in its vanguard. But though more accurate than the fall from grace, the march of progress is itself only an approximation. One which falls apart before 1800 or after 2000.


Just as the Eastern Roman Empire bedevilled those who imagined a fallen Rome as their Eden, climate change is an existential challenge to the idea of an ongoing march of progress. The ever expanding growth of industry is simply incompatible with maintaining a viable biosphere unless radical changes are made. Yet progressives assume that technological development will invent a magic bullet and we can continue on our merry way. Down that route lies not an idyllic garden, but a parched and barren hellscape. To continue expanding production and hope for a technological miracle is no less absurd than praying for an ecumenical one.


Eden is not in the past, present nor future. We have only the real world, with all its wrinkles and nuances. Instead of universal narratives, we need to consider the real nature of things, warts and all. Or so the postmodernists believe, and I’m inclined to agree.


These universal narratives are everywhere, informing not just our history but society and politics as well. Beware the racketeer promising salvation, for he knows not what he speaks.