Monday, July 16, 2018

Dark Ages

We moderns often think we know it all, that the past was benighted, and we have progressed so far.

The truth is that history is not about forward progress at all. It is about the swings from enlightened eras to dark ages and back. In ways, that is discouraging. In ways, it offers hope. If you think what is happening today is bad, or even good, wait a bit and it will change—much like the weather in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, the swing from light to dark is often insidious, almost invisible, until the family next door is taken away in the middle of the night, you see armed guards with dogs at a railway station, or your child is murdered for pointing a finger at someone holding a gun. The return to enlightenment, however, all too often seems to require a catastrophe of such magnitude that there is no doubt that the dark path was the wrong one. Germany of today has come a long way from Hitler, but the cause was the Holocaust, a slaughter so horrible that words remain inadequate. The US finally abolished slavery after the fracture of the Union and approximately 620,000 war deaths, not counting the mutilations and psychological damage.

I wish we learned better from history. Demagogues and dictators frequently do not fare well. Mussolini was hanged upside down like a piece of meat after being shot. Joseph McCarthy died at age 48 from the effects of alcoholism. Yet aspiring demagogues and dictators never seem to learn. They keep popping up. The only thing we can hope is that we see through their paper-thin promises and ploys and cast them aside before they take us to the brink of destruction.

So was the distant past the Dark Ages compared to us? Sometimes, other times not. We certainly know more about science than the medievals did. Yet we lost the recipe for concrete for centuries and still don’t really know how the builders of Stonehenge could be so precise or get those rocks in place. When we walk city streets today, the poor areas are little better (other than better sewage disposal) than in past eras while the folks of greater means get the garage hauled faster and more efficiently. And the best medical advice from medieval doctors sounds all too similar today: everything in moderation and get more exercise.

Of course, we have made improvements, but we should be very cautious about assuming the past doesn’t hold valuable secrets that have been lost. What we arrogantly assume were dark ages compared to modern times might surprise us. Most of all, perhaps, we should never forget the greatest lesson history has to teach us: dark ages will follow brighter ones, just as brighter times will eventually overcome the shadows.

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