Wednesday 21 March 2018

Should history be understood as a meaningful process of development?

Edited from Unancestral Voice by Owen Barfield (1965).

"I still wonder", said Chevalier, "if it is really as important as you suggest for people to find a meaning in history?"

"I will tell you one reason why it is important", came the swift answer. "As long as a man sees history as a meaningless jumble of events, he will see his own life - which is a part of history - and the lives of those around him in the same light... Just one-damn-thing -after another."

To find meaning in our own lives, or the lives of our friends, family, or those we admire - entails that history has a meaning; which entails that history has a direction, a destiny, an intended plan that is good.

It is also necessary that our own lives (and everybody else's life) be joined together; and joined with the destiny of history.

For there to be meaning in one thing requires a great deal more - in fact meaning in one thing requires meaning in every-thing.

And - taking a further step, which can't be explained briefly here, but may be obvious... Meaning in everything also requires that everything be alive and (to some degree, in some way) conscious...

Conversely... to deny meaning, shape, purpose to history (including that history which is the origin and evolution of the planet and life) - is to deny meaning in Everything.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I don't really agree with this. It is apparently true that meaningful things can be made up of individually meaningless components (as meaningful words and sentences are composed of meaningless letters), but it is even more certainly true that a collection or series of meaningful things need not itself be meaningful. A random collection of books arranged higgledy-piggledy on a shelf (a more-or-less accurate description of my personal library!) may not tell a coherent story as a whole, but each individual book can still be deeply meaningful.

I'm not saying history is meaningless; in fact, I assume the opposite. But I do think the meaningfulness of history and the meaningfulness of individual lives are distinct questions, and neither entails the other.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Well, not every defined unit is meaningful in the sense of purposive and coherent in its own right; but everything is (at least) part of some unit which is meaningful.

There is no such thing as random - your books are not randomly distributed; the shelf order will have a reason or several reasons.

What isn't possible is to have islands of meaningfulness in a sea of genuinely meaningless space or time - because the larger non-sense renders the smaller into nonsense.

I think we have learned this, culturally, by experience in the half century since Barfield wrote. People have asserted, again and again, that their personal lives can and do have meaning although the world doesn't. But we can see that the perceived/ asserted meaninglessness of the world has relentlessly eroded the meaning of each life.

We usually don't happen to know the meaning of things, but we do know (or should know) that everything is part of meaning; nothing is exempt.

Barfield is also asserting that Time is real, and significant. Early Romantics asserted meaning in the moment - that each moment included eternity. (The 'Eastern' metaphysics.) They asserted that there was meaning but not purpose - the meaning was in the unity, but things were going nowhere. However, Western adherents to Eastern religion are incoherent - since they are usually political progressives (often extreme and radical) - which makes no sense in terms of their supposed religion.

Christianity - by contrast - insists on a shape and direction to history (at least during mortal incarnate life). Barfield is trying to make this more explicit.

Jared said...

Dr. Charlton- I really liked this post. I believe we are not the story of history and God's influence in history is the real purpose both of why there is history and what history is about. I think this idea is compatible with what you posted here.