History is cyclical and not accretive

John Gray invokes the Russian Civil war to show that the Covid-19 pandemic is only mildly apocalyptic.

In any case, apocalypse, as originally understood from the theistic world in which it originated, marks the end of time:

In the theistic religions from which the idea is derived, apocalypse means a final revelation that comes with the end of time. Elected during the Roman plague of 590 from which his predecessor Pelagius II had died, Pope Gregory the Great wrote: “The end of the world is no longer just predicted, but is revealing itself.”

But the world did not end; the four horsemen came and went, while history stumbled on. In the eschatological sense in which Gregory understood it, there is no such thing as apocalypse. But if it means the end of particular worlds that human beings have fashioned for themselves, apocalypse is a recurrent historical experience. [Link]

Indeed, it redounds to his credit that, in contrast to many pundits and conventional wisdom, he did not see the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 as something that heralded a new beginning but merely as a return to the old. In other words, he did not see history as proceeding in a secular or linear fashion. This is what he had written then:

What we are witnessing in the Soviet Union is not the end of history, but instead its resumption — and on decidedly traditional lines. All the evidence suggests that we are now moving back into an epoch that is classically historical…Ours is an era in which political ideology, liberal as much as Marxist, has a rapidly dwindling leverage on events, and more ancient, more primordial forces, nationalist and religious, fundamentalist and soon, perhaps, Malthusian, are contesting with each other…If the Soviet Union does indeed fall apart, that beneficent catastrophe will not inaugurate a new era of post-historical harmony, but a return to the classical terrain of history, a terrain of great-power rivalries, secret diplomacies and irredentist claims.

This is important:

That a reversion to history as usual should be unthinkable testifies to the mind-numbing power of secular faith. While progressive ideologies are often divided into reformist and revolutionary varieties, the difference is not fundamental. Both rest on the faith that history is an accretive process in which meaning and value are conserved and increased.

He is right. So-called progressive ideologies – liberal (Left) or revolutionary (ultra-left) see history as an accretive process – that is, linear or secular in which each new episode or event merely builds on the old. It never returns.

This view is false.

I am able to relate to John Gray much better partly because Eastern philosophies and my familiarity with them do not say so. I am a believer in cycles, mean reversions than in linear progression.

Even in the world of  finance, which I inhabited actively for more than two decades and now on and off, if values are always conserved and increased, bubbles can only get bigger and bigger over time. It also tells us that many investment strategists in investment banks and in stock broking institutions are linear in their thinking.

I am able to see this linearity as the dominant western thinking and hence their inability to cope with shocks of this nature like covid-19 pandemic. This is not accretive. It sets them back. That is not possible in their mental models.

As I read ‘Fourth Turning’, the problems with this linear thinking become more apparent.

This attitude is not so much about forgetting history but forgetting that historical cycles  play themselves out repeatedly. Regardless of whether we forget or remember, cycles are cycles. They come back. History is cyclical.

Indeed, John Gray is brilliant in this line:

Progress occurs in interludes when history is idling.

He concludes that the pandemic is apocalyptic as many other past ‘apocalyptic’ events have been but none has been yet apocalyptic in the religious sense of the word. He thinks that the pandemic is milder than most apocalyptic events.

It is a matter of detail and is not fitting with the discussion of how history plays itself out to talk about two specific cases here. Many dream that the pandemic would bring back cleaner air and water. But, to the extent that the pandemic has  created a fear of public transport, cars could stage a comeback and so will fossil fuels. Not good.

Second, technology may enable online education. But, the education of an individual is not about finishing a syllabus and passing an exam. It is a socio-cultural and interpersonal experience. If campuses become a relic of the past, then education as an endeavour will be seriously undermined. It is not good for human evolution.

But, as one of the commentators notes below the article on Pepys’ diary, all of these predictions might be unconsciously over-weighting the present situation and predicting that things would never be the same again. They may never be the same again in some areas or in some aspects but not for all things and in all places.

Samuel Pepys who maintained a diary (He kept the diary between 1660 and 1669) during the Great Plague of London in 1665-66, wrote this on 31st December 1665:

‘To our great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to be open again. Pray God continue the plague’s decrease! for that keeps the Court away from the place of business, and so all goes to rack as to public matters, they at this distance not thinking of it.’ [Link]

Then again, it depends on one’s attitude towards life, death and uncertainties. May be, even in the West, they believed in a more cyclical than secular view of the world and hence could bounce back. May be, we are made differently now or have become different now and hence may not bounce back. I don’t know.


Amidst this discussion on whether the covid-19 pandemic is an apocalyptic event or not,  the tiny bits of details on the Russian civil war are chilly:

Russian may be the only language that contains two words for cannibalism. One — trupoyedstvo — denotes the eating of corpses, the other — lyudoyedstvo — killing in order to consume the victim. According to some reports at the time, public markets for human flesh appeared in famine-struck areas in which body parts from cadavers in the latter category commanded higher prices on account of their freshness. [Link]

There is a bit more on the Russian civil war in the original piece. You can read it there.

4 thoughts on “History is cyclical and not accretive

  1. I enjoyed this essay. You begin with a reference to “the four horsemen” which is widely seen as a harbinger for the end of the world. There was much talk about this when the Beatles landed in New York on February 7, 1964, and in a way it was. In the context of Strauss and Howe’s “the fourth turning”, the shaggy haired “four horsemen” brought the end of one generation and the rise of a new generation to influence. The four horsemen metaphor can well be seen to suggest the rise of a creative new beginning; the wild, runaway horses are new ideas, new thinking and passions come to awaken in the world again. In Jung terms, they represent “thinking, feeling, sense, intuition”; the four aspects of human consciousness which also find expression in many Buddhist mandalas. We are certainly at such a turning now; the end and the beginning. I prefer to see the awakening.


    1. The reference to the ‘Four Horsemen’ is not from me. It is by John Gray. In the framework of Howe and Strauss, awakening comes after a ‘High’ and ‘High’ comes after the ‘crisis’. We have to get through the phase. Our preferences may not count. But our prayers might, if we are so inclined.


  2. Very interesting piece, I for one believe that all history and knowledge gained from is accretive, we never return to any point since we have gained knowledge about previous instance. And history is different from philosophy and finance cycles. Even in examples provided by you Russia or finance bubbles, we never return to the same point but a different cycle or point.


    1. It is difficult to explain this. Understanding the point being made by John Gray or the combine of Neil Howe and William Strauss in ‘Fourth Turning’ is a matter of personal experience and it is a personal journey too. Many thanks for the comment.


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