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Do you believe in cause and effect? Today it’s hard to find anyone who rejects that idea—so, like most of us moderns, you probably accept the concept of causality.
Just so you can check, here’s the premise: one process (the cause) interacts with another process and produces the effect. Your parents got together and made you—they were the causes, and you are the effect. Rushing water in a river flows downhill because of the law of gravity; we build a dam with turbines; the turbines make electricity; the electricity powers the device you’re reading right now. Cause and effect: the cause is responsible and the effect depends on that cause.
Causality probably seems so elementary to us now because it underpins the entire scientific method. But think about causality in terms of history for a moment. If history is cyclical, as many of the ancient Greeks believed, that would negate the law of causality, because in a cyclical universe different causes would always result in the same basic effect. Oops. So that’s how the Linear Theory of history, and the very idea of progress itself, came into being—the early philosophers and scientists observed causes and their effects and then applied that linear theory to history itself.
Even the pre-Platonic philosophers had some theories of causality, but Plato probably said it best: “… everything that becomes or changes must do so owing to some cause; for nothing can come to be without a cause.” – Timaeus, 28a.
Aristotle expanded on that idea of causality, and the Stoic philosophers, with their firm belief in the ultimate coherence of the universe, took it even further:
Prior events are causes of those following them, and in this manner all things are bound together with one another, and thus nothing happens in the world such that something else is not entirely a consequence of it and attached to it as cause. […] From everything that happens something else follows depending on it by necessity as cause. – an unknown Stoic philosopher.
Makes sense, right? Linear Theory says that history itself is based on cause and effect, which means the world constantly progresses, moving forward toward an ultimate goal.
In Linear Theory, history does not repeat itself, although some events may seem similar to others in the past. Mark Twain famously said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Instead, a linear view of history reflects the rule of causality—one thing happens, and then another, and then another—all from the original cause of whatever happened first. In school, you answered those causality questions on every history test or essay: “What caused the American Civil War?,” or “List five causative factors for the fall of the Soviet Union.”
Given our modern beliefs in science and the scientific method, it’s hard to argue with causality. But here’s the main argument against applying it to history: Just because causality is true doesn’t mean that human civilization actually makes progress. Since progress implies improvement, and the 20th Century saw such barbarism and destructive global warfare, many historians now argue against the idea of human progress itself, calling it a myth. Progress, they say, is really an Enlightenment-era invention, further advanced by Darwin and Spencer, that claims human evolution always tends to make life better. World War I pretty much ended Spencer’s theory of progress, called “social Darwinism,” because humanity saw how advances in technology and warfare could take us backwards rather than forwards.
The Baha’i teachings pointed out that stark reality long before World War I:
Consequently, when thou lookest at the orderly pattern of kingdoms, cities and villages, with the attractiveness of their adornments, the freshness of their natural resources, the refinement of their appliances, the ease of their means of travel, the extent of knowledge available about the world of nature, the great inventions, the colossal enterprises, the noble discoveries and scientific researches, thou wouldst conclude that civilization conduceth to the happiness and the progress of the human world. Yet shouldst thou turn thine eye to the discovery of destructive and infernal machines, to the development of forces of demolition and the invention of fiery implements, which uproot the tree of life, it would become evident and manifest unto thee that civilization is conjoined with barbarism. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 283.
The linear theory of history has fallen out of favor in the modern world, chiefly because of this problem of progress that Abdu’l-Baha raises. We have seen, over and over, how material and technological advances have made life better for some, and much worse for many others. The Baha’i teachings say that will always be the case—until we can find ways to inculcate spiritual ideals into our civilizations:
Progress and barbarism go hand in hand, unless material civilization be confirmed by Divine Guidance, by the revelations of the All-Merciful and by godly virtues, and be reinforced by spiritual conduct, by the ideals of the Kingdom and by the outpourings of the Realm of Might. – Ibid.
In the next essay in this series, we’ll see if we can find a way to understand how those individual virtues and spiritual ideals find their way into our civilizations by examining the Great Man Theory of history.