In my last post I argued that history is entropy: the inexorable but random disintegration of human systems under the pressure of time and change. Odd bits endure or are remembered. Millions of lives are consigned to an everlasting silence.
Entropy is the irreversible loss of available energy: it defines the arrow of time as moving from difference to sameness, from action to stillness, from imbalance to equilibrium. According to the second law of thermodynamics, the entropy of the universe is increasing and must continue to increase. It all ends in utter dissipation: “heat death.”
This vision of the universe as a process of perpetual decline would have been congenial to the ancient Greeks, who believed, with Hesiod, that we have fallen from a happy golden age to an age of iron men and iron hearts. And, to be sure, to the extent that human beings are chunks of energetic molecules they must abide by the second law. Every person, in the end, dissipates into stillness and atomic dust.
But there are counterfactuals to consider. The law of entropy posits that change must always be from complexity to simplicity. As clever observers like Alicia Juarrero have pointed out, however, this doesn’t seem to cover the evolution of organic or cultural life.
I want to focus here on the weird trajectory of human history.
To the extent that we are clusters of symbols, we seem to be able to hold entropy at bay, and reverse the arrow of time in the direction of complexity. It isn’t just that we began with fire and flint and are now worried about the laws of thermodynamics. Even members of hunter gatherer communities, living in relatively simple social structures, perceive the world in extraordinarily complex ways.
History, then, can be understood as progress. The human race has multiplied and grown greatly in numbers. Human knowledge has built upon itself and expanded into ever more specialized domains. Health, wealth, literacy and education, life expectancy, access to music, literature, art: all are measurably superior today to the time of our Upper Paleolithic great-grandfathers.
But history is also tragedy. Entropy can be kept at bay, but only for so long. Every human group has had an allotted time-span. Every symbol will grow hollow and die. I can wave my hand rhetorically at Ozymandias and the looted tombs of the pharaohs, but the truth is that most societies that ever existed, with all their toil and yearning for an ideal life, have been swallowed into that everlasting silence.
There is no progress in feeling or in wisdom. A single play by Aeschylus or Shakespeare is far superior to all the bloviations produced today.
Progress and tragedy are positive and negative poles: between them flows the alternating current of human history.
The capacity of symbolic systems to push back entropy, even for a moment, needs to be explained. This doesn’t happen to the law of gravity. No social arrangement or science or art form will allow us to levitate.
My candidate for an explanation is straightforward and requires no mathematical formulas. The great symbolic systems developed in a harsh, savagely competitive environment. Each represented the struggle of a community, a way of life, not only against the entropy of time but also against other communities, other ways of life. Even when people were thin on the ground, the world was always crowded with symbol.
In such an environment, the system of all human systems would be what N. N. Taleb calls anti-fragile. It turned disaster to advantage. It used entropy to clear a space for greater complexity: that is, for development at a higher level. When a community perished, and its symbols lapsed into silence, that wasn’t the end of the story. A frontier was now open to another community, another set of symbols, another model of how to be human.
The result wasn’t always progress: but often enough, it was.
The reason for this is also straightforward. Unlike, say, a salt molecule, human beings possess intentionality. They act to a purpose. The sum of individual purposes is demonstrably reproduction, expansion, social complexity. At the level of the whole community, the grand ideals, those models of existence, organized purpose beyond the individual and across centuries.
Ideals of courage, sexual behavior, love of country, etc., provide the motivational fuel that drive symbolic systems forward. For a time – not forever – they defy and defeat entropy, a law binding on the lifeless and purposeless only.
It used to be said that history was written by the winners. We now call the manipulative authors “oppressors.” This implies that there are things that we should remember – the role of women in society, for example – and other things that we have leave to forget.
But if history is entropy, the question of what should be remembered has no meaning. We might as well ask what the most effective style of levitation is. In the short term, no doubt, our squabbles will stagger and stumble around favored bits of memory. In the end, however, those bits and much more will be devoured by time and change. Entropy is an equal opportunity destroyer of identity, an eraser of groups.
So the alternative to history isn’t a more inclusive and just history. It’s silence. The real question, let me suggest, is what to do with the history we’ve got.
History, like memory, has many legitimate uses: I will touch on two that subsume many of the others.
Let’s accept that history is not a record of the past, faithful or otherwise. Rather, it’s a glimpse into the remarkable struggle that defines the human race: that between the symbolic systems that identify communities and the inexorable advance of entropy. Greek city-states and Chinese imperial courts didn’t deal in the issues that obsess 21st-century social thinkers. They faced survival or dissolution as ways of life in their own environments. Both endured for a time. The random pieces they have left behind suggest their endurance rested on radically different models of humanity.
From this perspective, history is a fragmentary vision of the attempts of some communities to cheat the silence. It’s a patchwork of tricks and ruses, compounded of will and imagination, and amounting, for the living, to a sort of progress.
Since we, too, are dangling over the chasm, and must ultimately be swallowed by it, these flashes of tenacity should be of abiding interest to us.
The second perspective concerns the cost of the struggle. I shouldn’t have to say it, but I will: there is always a cost. That was true in the days of cave paintings and it is true in the age of the iPhone. There is always a cost – sometimes, a terrible one. Individuals and communities have compromised their purposes, and absorbed much suffering and heartache, to keep the silence at bay.
It’s perfectly licit to note that the ancient Greeks exploited their slaves and shut away their women. It’s nonsensical to chide them as if they were elected officials of a liberal democracy in the year 2015. Our complaints say more about us than them: we have lost sight of entropy, to the extent that we feel free to trample on the few remaining shards of human memory.
We live inside a system of symbols that instructs us how to behave: a moral structure. By our lights, the Greeks did wrong. But the Greeks never knew our moral ideals. Like all communities at all times, they followed their own. They paid the price in their own coin, not in dollars or euros. If we find their way of life reprehensible for our own good reasons, it’s not difficult to imagine that they would have found our way equally repellent, for reasons that were entirely theirs.
At a basic level, the study of history is that of the moral and material cost of persisting in an entropic universe. It can be likened to an inquest into the bits and pieces that remain from a tragic accident.
Dead societies are easy enough to ignore or condemn, but very hard, maybe impossible, to understand. The effort is made worthwhile by the need to see the moment of action, our decisive now, in depth rather than in a single dimension. Without history, we have nothing with which to compare ourselves, no way to measure or judge the cost we bear, no idea whether we live in the best or worst of possible worlds.
Human systems differ in their ideals and strategies, but the struggle, pitting purpose against silence, stays the same. We children of the digital age haven’t been granted a cosmic pass. We can’t pretend to be conscientious objectors.
The tragic accident – that’s us, and we forget that to our peril.