Wednesday, October 2, 2013
A schematic of the long time scale
In the interests of further clarifying the question of the cycle of myth, the human perception of time, and the man's knowing of the place he is at, I have created the above diagram, which can also be found and shared at the following link: the long time scale. (You can also view a larger version by just clicking on the above image.)
This schematic uses simple visual devices to contrast the way that ancient societies thought about time and themselves, versus the way we do now. In the image, time moves from the left (the past) into the future.
Time, on both sides of its blue line, is framed by the unknowable — which we will call God or the Gods. This unknowable property was entirely tangible to ancient societies, because they saw how little they understood about the way the world worked.
The result of this was a proportional allocation of perception to temporal forces and their relative importance. Gods, which represented unknowable but immensely powerful qualities, loomed the largest in the landscape, although they lay outside of time itself.
Ancestors, who did have some knowledge — often, it was considered to be better than and more important than contemporary knowledge — were highly valued. This was because of the knowledge base that they imparted to their descendants.
Individuals saw themselves as small players in a vast universe, the fortunate inheritors of a large body of knowledge that had been passed down to them which they could make only incremental contributions to.
Their descendants were considered to have high value, because individuals understood through the instrument of myth and tradition that they were playing the role of ancestors to them, and that the degree to which they performed this function would have an immediate and important impact on the future of their own families, cultures, geography, and civilization itself.
A modern reallocation of perception began during the Age of Enlightenment, when human beings— consequent to a set of admittedly meaningful scientific discoveries—began to aggressively devalue everything that reminded them of their ignorance. The dawn of new sciences and the scientific method itself, along with a rise in belief in the ultimate triumph of rationalism, caused men to believe that earlier societies were primitive, and to be held in contempt.
This devalues ancestors dramatically. It also devalues God or the gods, because the perception becomes that all mysteries can be penetrated— often, very soon. It's not even uncommon for this idea to be accompanied by the delusion that everything is already known, a premise that fundamentalists of various stripes adopt with great fervor.
In this "system of the moment," descendants became relatively worthless, because one doesn't really owe them anything, and they are unable to contribute to the power structures du jour, which are the only things that matter.
It must be noted, however, that in absolute terms, virtually nothing has changed between the first and the second case.
Measured against the total sum of knowledge about the universe that can be acquired, man's position is exactly the same as it was in ancient times. All of the knowledge he has acquired (and, in some cases, lost) since ancient times amounts to a zero sum measured against the total sum of the unknown: a fraction so small that one would be typing zeros after the decimal place for millennia in order to define it.
Nonetheless, humans, in a stunning display of hubris, have assumed that their gains are very major ones against the sum total of the unknown, and have consequently discounted it in their psychological landscape.
The fact that man's total base of knowledge remains, essentially, unchanged from ancient times when measured as a percentage of all the knowledge in the universe is completely forgotten. The individual has now become the one with the power, not the universe and the gods. Modern societies are continually reminded of the fact that this isn't the case at all when natural catastrophe strike them, but they don't see the psychological and perceptual discontinuity that is given birth to their astonishment. Because they have forgotten the cycles of myth, the long timescale, and the essential on knowability and mystery of the universe, they have fallen victim to delusions in which they believe they actually know a great deal, when, in fact, we are profoundly ignorant.
The modern misperception of the long timescale leads to drastic mismanagement of future events and circumstances, since the perception of "now" becomes primary, and everything is seen exclusively as an opportunity for exploitation and personal gain. Because one no longer plays a role in a vast cycle where one owes a debt both to one's ancestors and one's descendants, one perceives one's self as fully licensed to act in a selfish manner.
As I pointed out in one of the earlier essays on this, the long timescale is actually a dialectic between the transcendent and the immanent. In the first case, the transcendent — the mystery, the unknowable ability, of the universe and of life itself — is the powerful, formative, and transformational force that dominates the transaction between the individual and Being. In this arrangement, the ego is subordinate, even if only by the strength of social form and tradition.
In the second case, the immanent, the known, and the materially tangible, is the powerful, formative, and transformational force that influences and forms the transaction between individual and Being. This arrangement is a direct affirmation and validation of ego at the expense of mystery and unknowability. It is the dominant form our society has assumed in the present day.
We have reversed the psychological arrangement that evolved in man from the earliest time in which he formed societies, and we have done so in a few brief centuries. This essentially destructive reversal, which focuses us almost exclusively on our own self-importance, is gradually being seen for the mistake that it was from the beginning. Unfortunately, it is unleashing equally reactionary and divisive forces which — like many over aggressive immune system reactions — may do more harm than the good they attempt to bring.
Understanding these forces from this macroscopic point of view may help us to find sympathy for others, and create a different form of harmony that can include both what we know, and what we don't.
May your soul be filled with light.
Note to readers: there's another new post at the microbial octave today.