Sunday, January 20, 2008

Understanding Change (I): Not Progress, Cycles

And now for something completely different ...

In a three part article Dr. Sam Holliday has worked out how change - in the very general sense - is effected.
Parts I, II, and III will be linked to each other, and will finally be integrated into one single dossier on Articles, with a printable link provided.

Change has never been so rapid. Is it possible to cope with such change without anxiety, frustration, broken dreams, and despair?

We can view changes as either progress or cycles. Today progress is the assumption of most Europeans and Americans. Yet this "progress" is the pursuit of many different utopias. Yes it is change, but is it building (true progress) or is it decline, the outcome of manipulation by those with a political agenda. Cycles provide an attractive alternative to "progress".

Cycles more accurately describe reality. This conceptual framework helps us understand the past and the present while we contemplate the future, and it can be an assistance to the brave, strong and skillful in their efforts to influence events.


Plato, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam sowed the seeds for progress. However, progress did not become a common assumption until the science of Western culture surpassed religion as a belief system. Christianity and Islam had provided an end superior to that offered by the myths and mysteries, which preceded them. Then science convinced many that man had achieved mastery of nature and was not a slave to fate. As a result it was possible to consider the possibility of indefinite improvement. Sir Thomas More gave substance to this view and added the word utopia to our language.

In l8th Century Europe the idea of universal human progress through science and secular authority were core concepts of The Enlightenment. Then Karl Marx used Hegel's ideas and defined utopia as a classless society of perfect freedom and equality, which would be realized after a series of class struggles and bloody revolutions. Classical Liberalism and the logic of the hierarchy of knowledge reinforced this view of unstoppable progress.

World War I damaged the belief in science, reason, and progress. It became clear that science, and man's domination of nature, produced bad as well as good consequences. If science could not insure indefinite progress to utopia, what could? Some turned to politics: nationalism, communism, socialism, fascism, the rule of law, or world government. However, World War II showed that politics was no better than science and reason as the basis of unstoppable progress. Today Islamic true believers and postmodernists have their own paths to utopia, based not on science and reason, but on feelings and emotions.

All fundamentalism stresses unquestioned acceptance of doctrine over reason and balance. Such acceptance has produced true believers of pre-Christian mysteries, nature worship, and witchcraft. But of greater significance is the certainty offered by two movements. One is an extreme version of Islam. It is the fuel of the global Islamic revivalist movement known as the Third Jihad. The other is the homogeneity of ideas and lack of intellectual diversity in Western Culture resulting from postmodern thought.

The flaws of all true believers are intolerance for others, the danger of extremism, and the vulnerability of individuals to manipulation. Currently the leaders of the Third Jihad manipulate those seeking a way to know ultimate reality. In the other movement many in the West have sought certainty through postmodernism. This movement has used a vision of a nonjudgmental, nondiscriminatory future, in which disagreements are resolved by debate and compromise. Actually both of these movements have filled new bottles with old wine, yet they gain true believers because they claim to have found "the way" to a better life-in the next world or in this one. However, a clear Utopian message can obscure reality. Unanswered is whether the outcomes of the "progress" offered by these movements will be a rise or a decline.


Cycles are probably better than progress as the way to understand change. During the dominance of progress in Western thought, cycles were kept alive by thinkers such as Bodin, Vico, Nietzsche, Spengler, Sorokin, and Toynbee. The rise and fall of families, communities, states, nations, cultures and civilizations are no longer seen as the work of gods, as they were in ancient times. It is now understood that cycles are never identical and that no cycle is deterministic. Each group has its unique origin, growth, contentment, and decline--its own virtues and its own secular authority. However, similarities can be noted and patterns can be found.

Cycles are the oldest attempt to give meaning to change. The most primitive of people saw the natural world as stages in cycles of birth, growth, decay and death. People living close to nature through fishing, hunting or farming think in terms of spring, summer, autumn and winter. Babylonian, Indian, Chinese and Aztec myths were often placed within cycles. Hindu and Buddhist visions are those of an eternal cosmic process, which repeatedly rises to a golden age and then declines into a watery or flaming ruin. Aristotle wrote of civilizations as a continuous "coming to be and falling away." Both Stoics and Epicureans in the Roman Empire saw history as endless cycles. Although the names for the parts of the cycles often changed, the cycles were the primary way to explain change until the rise of Christianity, Islam, and Hegelian dialectic.

It is possible to describe the similarities and patterns in cycles of any group: family, gang, tribe, commune, community, polity, state, or nation. Cycles are never identical and cycles are not the results of antecedent causes. However, each collection of persons related in someway shares some virtues and have some means of governance, and it is possible to identify cycles of four stages--thus to have a conceptual framework to help us understand change.

The distinguishing characteristic of all groups is a common identity--a sense of kinship. Those in a group need not have common genes, or speak the same language, or even have the same culture, but they must think of themselves as "we". As Vico has stated: the past is "the record of the result of wills, of human facts themselves, the order of the succession, and the circumstance of the production.". Some groups spend a long time in one stage, yet others move rapidly through the stages. Other groups are able to reverse to an earlier stage, while others go through several iterations of decline/rally, disorder/order, and stagnation/prosperity. Therefore, it is from the cycles of past organisms with a collective biography, i.e. groups, that we can understand our present and gain a glimpse of our future.

There is no agreement on the names of the four stages of cycles. However, it is suggested that the stages be referred to as Birth, Maturity, Contentment, and Decay, and the first two stages as Building (or Rise) and the last two stages as Declining (or Fall).

A conceptual framework of cycles can only be seen confusedly. However, an attempt to dispel the mist, and to fix the outlines of the vague form that is looming through the mist, is a noble goal. Perhaps words to satisfactorily describe cycles are an impossible dream, yet that should not prevent a quest.

~ To be continued in "Part II: Understanding Change: the Rising Stages" in which the first two Stages that make up a full four part Cycle are further developed.

Copyright © 2008 Armiger Cromwell Center

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