The arc of history is long, but how do we bend it?

Ada Palmer — novelist, singer, historian — just dropped a 10,000 word essay on the nature of progress and historical change that has provided some of the most significant perspective on our own strange moment that I've yet to read — and in so doing, has provided a set of mental tools for figuring out how to survive 2017 and beyond.

Palmer starts by reviewing the nature of "progress" and its relationship to "Whig history," a belief-system that holds that things generally progress towards a better world, with missteps and dead-ends on the way ("apple seeds into apple trees, humans into enlightened humans, human societies into liberal democratic paradises") — an idea that pervades our modern conception of progress.

Whig history dominated the 20th century, and it has many undeniable points of contact with reality, but it's also demonstrably far from a complete view of what's happened before and what will happen next, and its insistence of things being "progressive," "regressive" or "dead ends" means that it has to discard whole fields of endeavor, whole centuries and nations, as not fitting into its narrative.

But Palmer is most concerned with Francis Bacon's invention of the idea of "progress" and the two centuries of massive public investment in science that his ideas spurred, without much results for the first 199 or so years. But even though Bacon's science didn't bear much fruit, the application of scientific thinking to social questions really did shake things up, sometimes for the better (ending torture) and sometimes for the worse (guillotines ahoy!).

Progress, Palmer shows, is subjective, local, weird, and not always obvious in the moment. It's driven by both massive social forces and the individual choices of dedicated people — don't miss the end of her essay where she describes her annual classroom exercise where students reenact a Renaissance papal election, an exercise that shows that parts of history are seemingly inevitable, while others can change with the wind and the whims of the great and good.

This definition of progress — grounded in history and scholarship — puts the current moment into much-needed perspective. Something more than "this too, shall pass," and also "the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice" — more like, "better to light a candle than curse the darkness" and "together, we are strong."

Economic historians, and social historians, write masterful examinations of how vast social and economic forces, and their changes, whether incremental or rapid, have shaped history. Let's call that Great Forces history. Whenever you hear people comparing our current wealth gap to the eve of the French Revolution, that is Great Forces history. When a Marxist talks about the inevitable interactions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, or when a Whig historian talks about the inevitable march of progress, those are also kinds of Great Forces history.

Great Forces history is wonderful, invaluable. It lets us draw illuminating comparisons, and helps us predict, not what will happen but what could happen, by looking at what has happened in similar circumstances. I mentioned earlier the French Wars of Religion, with their intermittent blips of peace. My excellent colleague Brian Sandberg of NIU (a brilliant historian of violence) recently pointed out to me that France during the Catholic-Protestant religious wars was about 10% Protestant, somewhat comparable to the African American population of the USA today which is around 13%. A striking comparison, though with stark differences. In particular, France's Protestant/Calvinist population fell disproportionately in the wealthy, politically-empowered aristocratic class (comprising 30% of the ruling class), in contrast with African Americans today who fall disproportionately in the poorer, politically-disempowered classes. These similarities and differences make it very fruitful to look at the mechanisms of civil violence in 16th and 17th century France (how outbreaks of violence started, how they ended, who against whom) to help us understand the similar-yet-different ways civil violence might operate around us now. That kind of comparison is, in my view, Great Forces history at its most fruitful. (You can read more by Brian Sandberg on this issue in his book, on his blog, and on the Center for the Study of Religious Violence blog; more citations at the end of this article.)

But are we all, then, helpless water droplets, with no power beyond our infinitesimal contribution to the tidal forces of our history? Is there room for human agency?

History departments also have biographers, and intellectual historians, and micro-historians, who churn out brilliant histories of how one town, one woman, one invention, one idea reshaped our world. Readers have seen me do this here on Ex Urbe, describing how Beccaria persuaded Europe to discontinue torture, how Petrarch sparked the Renaissance, how Machiavelli gave us so much. Histories of agents, of people who changed the world. Such histories are absolutely true — just as the Great Forces histories are — but if Great Forces histories tell us we are helpless droplets in a great wave, these histories give us hope that human agency, our power to act meaningfully upon our world, is real. I am quite certain that one of the causes of the explosive response to the Hamilton musical right now is its firm, optimistic message that, yes, individuals can, and in fact did, reshape this world — and so can we.

This kind of history, inspiring as it is, is also dangerous. The antiquated/old-fashioned/bad version of this kind of history is Great Man history, the model epitomized by Thomas Carlyle's Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (a gorgeous read) which presents humanity as a kind of inert but rich medium, like agar ready for a bacterial culture. Onto this great and ready stage, Nature (or God or Providence) periodically sends a Great Man, a leader, inventor, revolutionary, firebrand, who makes empires rise, or fall, or leads us out of the black of ignorance. Great Man history is very prone to erasing everyone outside a narrow elite, erasing women, erasing the negative consequences of the actions of Great Men, justifying atrocities as the collateral damage of greatness, and other problems which I hope are familiar to my readers.

But when done well, histories of human agency are valuable. Are true. Are hope.

On Progress and Historical Change
[Ada Palmer/Ex Urbe]