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(October 2000) [Printed in "Reality Module No.18."]

The Philosophy of History

I. A Tapestry of Time
II. The Concept of Deep History

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A Tapestry of History

(Based loosely on "E.D." 1-1-90. p.2084.)

One of the comforting aspects of New Year's Day for me is an awareness of how much of the past continues to exist in the present. Buildings remain, machines, books, people.

It is a feeling that the past is not dead, but continues to exist and evolve as the present. Time is not a series of closed and sealed boxes which may be labelled as 1999, 2000, 2001, etc. Rather it is a living, evolving thing - years are milestones (artificial markings) all that is real is change, continuance, endings, and beginnings.

It is rather like this:

Timeline reaching from past to present (and beyond). Coloured lines representing entities coming into being, changing, and ending.

Each line represents some facet of the world. (You can imagine each line as being a different colour, or with colours that alter subtly as your eyes follow a line - and there are, of course, considerably more lines than are shown here - indeed an infinite number.) It is like a changing tapestry of happenings with changing colours, and several things may happen:

  • A thread may finish. (It may be replaced by a new thread, but the new thread is subtly different from the original.)

  • A new thread can enter the tapestry. (Sometimes these have ancestors, sometimes they do not.)

  • Some facet may be represented by several short threads in the same path. (Technological succession in some area of life.)

  • A thread can change colour - and divide into two or more threads. (Threads can conceivably join, but it is the usual habit for the tapestry to become more complex as time passes.)

  • Sometimes a thread will continue on for great lengths without change. (Some things do not change, or change very slowly.)

All these types of threads exist at the same time. It is impossible to understand history without considering this. Things have deep roots, or they have evolved from older things, or they have sprung fresh into being.

Some facets seem static, some are ever-changing.

Only four things exist: change and non-change, and endings and beginnings.

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The Concept of Deep History

The chronicle of events (the succession of coloured threads) can be considered as Surface History. You can imagine considering the pattern and colours of the threads at a single moment, or within a narrow window of time. [Rule a vertical line down the diagram and count and locate the threads and record the colours of the threads you cross; or, alternatively, record in however much detail you want the nature of a section of the infinite tapestry.]

But - what happens to the threads when they disappear from the surface of the tapestry?

What happens to facets of reality when they disappear from history? To give some concrete examples: what happened to the dinosaurs when they died and became fossils, what happens to a building after it has been demolished?

Looking at these questions brings us to the concept of Deep History.

It is a difficult concept to explain but I'll give you several touchstones:

  1. Mother Earth (or a human body) bears scars from her history - meteorite impact craters, dried river beds, the foundations of razed cities. [It is probably not possible to remove all traces of the past from the present.]

  2. Human beings have memories - and recorded histories. When people die they are remembered by those who knew them - they continue to influence the lives (and thoughts) of their friends and family. We have detailed architectural drawings (and sometimes photographs) of buildings which have been demolished - or which have never been built! [This is a sort of cultural equivalent of the scars on planet Earth.]

  3. Take this further - civilisation is more than the history of artifacts, people and events. Of considerable importance - is what is going on in people's heads! [We all live in two worlds - an outer world [Earth] and an inner one [our minds] - as Buddha said - 'With our thoughts we make the world' - it is this concept that brings us to the threshold of the concept of Deep History.]

Deep History concerns itself with the causes of history, with what goes on in people's heads to make them behave the way they do. (There is a rather new concept called 'memes' - which are a sort of 'cultural virus' which spreads an idea, behaviour, style or usage through a culture.)

When something vanishes (physically) from history it continues to live on in memory and artifact, and memory influences human thinking and human behaviour. (Something does not have to be physically present to have influence.)

When threads vanish into the depths of the tapestry (no longer visible on the surface) - they continue to exist and to work in an unconscious way.

History has a conscious and an unconscious aspect. It is the unconscious aspect that can be called Deep History.

If you are not sure whether deep history is a real thing, consider these ideas:

  1. The concept of Heaven (which isn't something you can touch) - and its influence on the society of the Middle Ages. [People put up with suffering in this life because they saw this world as a half-way house on the route to eternal bliss.]

  2. The Nuclear Arms Race only makes a kind of sense when you consider the spectre of Communism in people's minds at the time. (Ideas can shape the world - paranoia can change the path of civilisation.)

  3. Dinosaur fossils! Dug up, imagined, brought to "life" in the popular imagination - leading to cultural phenomena such as the "Jurassic Park" film, and that BBC documentary series "Walking With Dinosaurs."

History is more than a stale documentary of places, people and events - it is a phenomena shaped by ideas, emotions, belief systems, fears, imaginings.

When you clasp that nothing ever dies but continues on with a changed existence (and strange evolutions) in the human collective unconscious, and that "things" can emerge from the "dark" - you will realise the power and the importance of Deep History.

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Copyright © 2000 by Michael F. Green. All rights reserved.


Last Updated: 24 April 2004