National Commentary

Long Views of Space & History

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Don’t you love a good eclipse, and wasn’t the one in the wee hours Tuesday a doozie? Talk about casting a long shadow!

Don’t you love a good eclipse, and wasn’t the one in the wee hours Tuesday a doozie? Talk about casting a long shadow!
Eclipses are visible events in deep space, different than the seemingly stationary Milky Way or the routine courses of the sun or moon. Eclipses are an eventful reminder of the vast context in which we live out our lives.
Standing on my back deck at 3 a.m. Tuesday, staring up at a copper, almost invisible moon was eerie. It put me in the company of ages of mankind that have looked at such an event in similar awe, at something so overwhelmingly and unfathomably greater than the day-to-day problems of life.
Tuesday’s eclipse wasn’t just any old eclipse. It was the first total eclipse to coincide with the winter solstice to happen since 1638. Just as the eclipse itself causes one to think of the vastness of the universe, so the great distance in years between the events provokes thoughts of all that has transpired in the 372 years since Cotton and Increase Mather were colonizing Connecticut.
It’s often by contemplating the “long waves” of history that one can find the greatest treasures of wisdom.
Our current age, for example, may call for a fresh review of Edward Gibbons’ multi-volumed “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Publishing in 1776, the British historian was tasked with an arduous examination of why the great Roman empire underwent a gradual decline over 320 years to its final demise, resulting in a near 1,000-year Dark Age. Fashioning themselves to become the next Roman empire, the Brits wanted to know how to avoid Rome’s unhappy demise.
It’s ironic that the work was published the same year that the American Revolution was launched, taking a big bite out of those British plans.
With attention to the meticulous details in Gibbon’s work, the reader can envision how, at every step of the process, the longer-term direction the Roman empire was headed was not at all clear on the ground. It seemed a matter of just one event leading to another, one decision to another. It took hundreds of years and the benefit of hindsight to see what it added up to.
Usually in modern politics, it is considered profound and ponder-some if anyone thinks back even a decade.
Another good read to the same end is Bertrand Russell’s “Freedom Versus Organization,” about the emergence of the modern industrial state out of the struggles with the end of the feudal order over the course of the 19th century.
Russell maps, again with the benefit of hindsight, the kinds of developments that set in motion the process that led to the outbreak of The Great War, which later became known as World War I. Little did anyone anticipate that would be the outcome of a 19th century of unprecedented industrial and scientific progress and its attendant optimism for the future.
Even more ominous was Russell’s prediction for the future in the conclusion of his work, based on what he’d derived from the events that led to the Great War. For you see, he wrote “Freedom Versus Organization” in 1934, in what we now know was a pause between two great, earth-shaking world wars.
He concluded that the same seeds that led to the Great War were still alive and well, and building toward a disaster. He could see the inevitability of World War II written in the history of what led to World War I.
“The prevalent creed throughout the civilized world in the years preceding the (Great) War…is still more so at the present day,” he wrote. Earlier, he said, “the world brought itself to a condition threatening to the very existence of civilization….The Great War was, in some respects, the end of an epoch, while in other respects it was a mere incident in a continuing process…the War was the first large-scale expression of forces which had been operative for fifty years, and are still growing continually stronger…The same causes that produced war in 1914 are still operative, and, unless checked…they will inevitably produce the same effect, but on a larger scale” that could result, he said, in “collective suicide.”


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at nfbenton@fcnp.com

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