The Arch: Five
The five master themes of metahistory may be imagined
to form an arch, like that of an elegant Chinese bridge perfectly reflected
in the water it spans. The bridge we cross is history, defined by the
step-march of linear time and known events. The mirrored arch is the
reflection of history in the depths of the human psyche, in collective
memory and phylogeny.
Five themes comprise the arch, but not in chronological
order. Their relation inheres in a timeless gestalt rather than in timebound
duration. Although these themes recur in all times, history is a chronological
ordering of experience, and so we may treat the themes as if they
were sequential. From left to right, the arch stretches from a remote
past in prehistory to our present global civilization, the world today.
All five master themes are always operating in human experience, but
their dynamics change through time. Technology is the dominant theme
in the world today, but the theme of Technology has been active in all
previous epochs as well.
As we refine our understanding of the arch, we learn
to see how all five themes interact and permutate between minor and major
keys. Subsumed themes resonate at different levels of psychospiritual
concern, reflected in fugue-like variations of cultural and historical
modalities. (These subthemes or multi-thematic variants are described
in linked paragraphs.)
Sacred Nature is the mysterious source of humanity.
In the remote past, long before events were recorded in historical writings,
the human species lived its stories in direct interaction with its habitat.
All ancient traditions saw in the bond between nature and humanity a
parent-child relationship with nature as the sacred, life-supporting
factor. The motifs and mythemes comprised by this category are universally
oriented toward a supreme, feminine divinity, the Goddess, who embodies
both the natural world and the supernatural dimension of that world.
Before theology and religion of any kind asserted beliefs about a male
creator god, the Great Mother was the focal point of human spirituality.
Our relation to nature was directly reflected in reverence for the Goddess,
and so our attitudes toward the sacredness of nature changed as human
attitudes toward the Goddess shifted.
Opposition is the experiential pattern that emerges when
humanity alters its life-sustaining bond with nature. Still deep in prehistory,
the human species began to define itself on its own terms, to form societies,
and to develop culture, largely through the use of language and symbolic
systems. The making of culture involves differentiation that can take
the form of oppositions, the first being culture versus nature.
Social identity develops through conflict (taking sides)
and social power is acquired by mastery of conflict. What appears to
be conflict in nature, such as the interplay of light and darkness, becomes
symbolic of what now develops in the self-defined terms of the "human
condition." The human species enters a long experiment in which
every conflict challenges it to restore balance, within and without.
Opposition always calls for rites and acts of compensation, as C. G.
The belief that the human species is in conflict with nature, a hostile
environment to be dominated in order to survive, conflicts with the belief
that civilized societies can exist in harmony with the natural world
and other species. Many myths from around the world attest to memories
and visions of paradise, an Edenic way of life, and the question of how
our species departed from this condition (if it ever existed) is much
debated. Throughout the natural world, conflict and competition exist
without overwhelming the symbiotic balance that supports all species,
but the presence of humanity alters this equation. In the perspective
of split-source duality, opposition is viewed as a superhuman situation
of Good Versus Evil. This perspective engenders endtime scenarios such
as the apocalypse and Judgement Day. But if the origin of opposition,
Rather, it is an ongoing dilemma that humankind experiences as it emerges
from empathic participation in Sacred Nature.
Origins for humanity are the ultimate mystery. The truth is that we do
not know how we evolved, i.e., how we came to be human. The evolution
of the human species runs back into prehistory, to its emergence from
dispute about how this occurred is far from resolved. The search for
Origins is shifted from the ultimate case, the origin of humanity as
a unique species, to the origin of society and culture. The story of
the human adventure begins in Sacred Nature, but there is no textual record
of that experience, so the agreed beginning occurs far later, at the
moment when human beings began to remember and record their experience
in writings that survive, and in a sense, comprise the autobiography
of the human species. This is why Origins in the historical sense are
the central theme of the arch. In metahistory, the telling of different
histories is the central problem we aim to explore.
In this perspective, the story of civilization takes center
stage. We ignore the formative childhood of the species, more or less
as an individual ignores the first three or four years of life. The analogy
is odd because the time spans are hugely divergent: a person of eighty
years is oblivious to the first four years of life, or 1/20th of his
or her total lifespan, but for humanity as a whole, its infancy in prehistory
is estimated to be about 2.2 million years, while its adult historical
life (since the rise of civilization) is only about six thousand, 1/360th
of the species entire lifespan. Imagine an eighty-year-old individual
who bases her identity and actions on the last eighty days of
her life. Such is the historical perspective of humanity on its own origins,
yet this oddly compressed version of our experience determines how we
think about history, and how we think about history in turn determines
our identity as a species.
Metahistory proposes that the problem in history
is the disproportionate impact of the brief historical scenario on
the long-term evolution of humanity.
Thus, what makes us human originally becomes secondary
to what humans make of the world, and how they create their own ways
of life, cultures, and societies. Origins occupy the top of the arch
because the scripts that describe the rise of civilization present the
guiding principles that tell us how to live. Curiously, much of the evidence
about the origins of civilization in many cultures indicates that they
appeared at an apex, the Golden Age, and then declined. This is precisely
what ancient myths say about civilization. Many traditions conflict with
the recent belief that humanity has progressed (ascended)
since the dawn of civilization. Whatever the case, we look up to the
keystone of the arch for orientation to the big picture, the long-term
vision. The rise of civilization presents a plot-structure
by which we make sense of what we are becoming and keep track of where
we are going.
Moral design is the imperative for acting truthfully in the situations
posed by complex historical developments. It determines the way we define
the purpose of the human adventure. Initial attempts to define
purpose emerge in the context of another master theme, Opposition, because
conflict demands moral judgments and forces black-and-white choices.
Yet the sense of morality does not come into full operation until humanity
is able to conceive a design, a pattern of overall and pervasive intention
in the cosmos. In great measure, the record of history shows how humankind
has interpreted the course of human events with the aim of understanding
how everything that happens might fit into a master scheme.
What morality might have been when we lived in nature, before history,
is uncertain, but within the flow of history, morality is continually
tested. Civilization is possible, we believe, because we have codified
moral principles through the great religions. The three monotheistic
religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, can be defined as world-scale belief-systems
because they have impacted world history more powerfully than any other
religious or philosophical systems. All three assert that the ultimate
form of moral design is a contract between humanity and a creator
god. This belief contrasts with spiritual philosophies such as Buddhism
and Taoism, which do not posit the existence of a creator god, as well
as with the sacred traditions of indigenous people who find moral design
in contact with nature and communion with non-human species. The
course of history has largely been shaped by the dominance of the three
world religions which all assert the superiority of the human species
in the eyes of a single male creator god. The search for Moral Design
outside the monotheistic paradigm represents one of the foremost challenges
Technology comprises all the skills and tools developed by humanity for
controlling nature and organizing society. In the West (Europe and America)
the age of high technology is considered the apex of civilization, the
fullest expression of common striving. Much to our dismay, however, civilization
turns out to be a precarious venture that opposes the human-made world,
the social order supported by technology, to the realm of Sacred Nature.
This tension defines the baseline of the arch of metahistory.
Beliefs encoded in ancient myths from the Middle East and elsewhere suggest
that human evolution was boosted by the intervention of more advanced
beings, variously conceived as gods, divinities, and ancient astronauts. As
the science of genetics moves us toward playing God by manipulating the
ultimate code of life (DNA), humanity is faced with doubts about its
qualifications for such divine status. The scientific, technological
imperative insists that what can be done must be done, but this conflicts
with the growing evidence that science, especially when allied with commercial
interests, often acts precipitously and against the well-being of society.
Far from offering the keys to a utopian world, technology proves on a
daily basis to be a Pandoras box of mixed blessings. Ultimately,
the beliefs we hold about technology may be as powerful in determining
the future for global society as technological innovations themselves.
Summary of Core Themes The opposition between the natural world and technological
society involves tremendous tension and determines many of the crucial
moral dilemmas and survival-issues of our time. The three overarching
themes Opposition, Origins, and Moral Design resonate with
the structural tension of the baseline of the arch, and so these themes
recur constantly in every situation of contemporary life.
Each component of the arch represents a comprehensive and repeating phase
of experience enacted through a range of specific mythemes through which
human beings identify their personal and collective belief-systems. For
instance, Eden, Paradise, and the Golden Age are subsumed in Sacred Nature.
The Fall, the Flood, and War in Heaven are subsumed under Opposition.
The mytheme of sacrifice, considered in two earlier cases in the Guidelines,
appears in the category of Origins, because the sacrifice of the sacred
king (messiah, the anointed one) is a ritualized belief upon which all
civilizations were known to be originally based. But sacrifice is not
exclusively restricted to that category. The meaning of sacrifice also
figures within Moral Design and even Technology. The belief that we must
sacrifice the natural resources of the earth to have an adequate standard
of living for global society is also an example of this mytheme.
Part of our goal, undoubtedly, is to learn what it means to live without
paradigm, but I also sense a much more complex possibility, viz., developing
a radical new code that is itself about coding, and is not merely a shift
Morris Berman, Coming to Our Senses
In short, mythemes are fluid, capable of assuming different profiles
relative to the five components of the arch. In the language of comparative
mythology and depth psychology, the operative mythemes are said to constellate human
activities both externally and in the personal psyche. This means that
a mytheme such as sacrifice gathers around itself a specific pattern
of enactments (constellation), rather like a magnet gathers iron
filings into a rosette or figure eight. The overarching themes of metahistory
are tools for detecting and deciphering these patterns. The five components Sacred
Nature, Opposition, Origins, Moral Design, and Technology are
discussed at greater length in individual pages dedicated to them,
elsewhere in this metahistory site.