The following is intended as a loose description of those parts of human history that are relevant, at least somewhat, to ourselves. Since these only cover about 2800 years—in context of 200,000 years of Homo sapiens, 600 million years of multicellular life, 4.5 billion years of the planet Earth and 13.8 billion years of the universe, I think they can properly be called “recent.”
Part 1: The Era of Interpretive Traditions
At some point, humans in certain regions began to depend on agriculture for their food. No one is sure why. The process likely took centuries. The reasons probably changed along the way.
It’s impossible for us to truly understand how humans of that era saw the world and their own lives. For that matter, it’s impossible for us to be sure of how people of, say, the Victorian Era saw the world and their lives, but in the case of the contrast between ours and those of the pre-Interpretive-Traditions-age time, the gap is even more profound. Sometimes people say “Primitive people invented myths to explain the world around them,” but that’s completely off. That’s us trying to explain them in our terms, not theirs. It’s deceptive.
Beginning in the 8th century BCE, something very peculiar happened. Some folks started expressing large ideas about life, in ways no one ever had before. Even more peculiarly, this phenomena occurred on three separate occasions in three separate places. This is often referred to as the Axial Age.
In India, religious scholars started trying to explain and elaborate on the Vedas, the immense complex mass of hymns and rituals developed by the Indo-European populace of the northern part of the subcontinent. They recorded their new visions in compositions called the Upanishads. Springboarding off this, other thinkers rejected the Vedas in favor of their own metaphysical systems, designed to escape the chains of existence. These were called the sramanas, and included such movements as the Buddhists, the Jains, and the Ajivikas.
In China, a need for experts in government led to a profusion of schools, each of which taught their own system of how a prince should rule and an official administer. The Confucians, the Daoists, the Moists and many others competed for the attentions of the ruling classes.
Finally in Greece, a bunch of weirdos & cult leaders—the Pre-Socratics–started spouting theories on the secrets of the universe. All of these theories were completely useless, but they led to a high standard of arguing with one another. As it happened, around this same time, many of the Greek city-states were changing from monarchies to more representational forms of government, which led to a high demand for people who could teach persuasive arguing.
Having a demand for their services, the leading weirdo groups formed themselves up into schools, such as the Peripatetics, Platonists, Skeptics, Stoics and Epicureans.
Now these three eruptions all occurred at roughly the same time, but in three separate ways, with relatively little contact. One very important commonality is that they all developed in decentralized, multipolity environments, which then unified, with the added dynamic of these new thought-systems. In China, the Warring States were unified by the short-lived Qin dynasty, under the banner of the Legalist school, and then the subsequent Han dynasty, which replaced the Legalists with Confucianism. In India, the Mauryas conquered all the Vedic states and then some, and promoted sramana ways, especially Buddhism. In Greece, Alexander brought all the city-states under his aegis, with his tutor Aristotle of the Peripatetic School nodding approvingly. Now these empires weren’t too stable—the Qin, Maurya and Macedonian states toppled soon—but they established the new thought forms on a high plane, a plane off which they would never again be pried.
Two important Almosts: in Persia, the prophet Zoroaster reworked and drastically simplified the existing system of gods and ritual in his native Iran. Over time, his successors developed new ideas, like an all-powerful single God, an almost-all-powerful spirit of evil to oppose him, and a state of existence after death that depended on moral behavior during life.
Meanwhile the unusual and stiff-necked Hebrew people developed their own unique system of thought. Neither Zoroastrianism nor Judaism per se had much influence outside their own peoples, but through their influence elsewhere—Zoroastrianism on Judaism and then Judaism on the Christianity and Islam—their effect has been profound.
(Note that religion and philosophy are not separated here. They should not be. Through most of human history, they have operated in ways more similar than not, and usually in ways intertwined.)
Now there was nothing about being an agricultural civilization that required the development of philosophy&worldreligion. In the Americas, the Mayans and Teotihuacans created major urbanized polities without its dubious benefits. In Persia, as noted, they developed a world religion, but no philosophy, and never seemed to regret the lack. Why exactly these things appeared where they did when they did is something I’m still trying to understand. It’s a major project. Writing this is a step along in that endeavor, not a capstone in any way.
So with those three empires (the Qin, the Maurya, and the Macedonian), the Era of the Interpretive Traditions was officially underway. It’s important to know what that meant. The Interpretative Traditions gave a measure of new social cohesion and new axes for conflict. What it didn’t provide was science. Although each of the new traditions had bodies of information and theory dealing with the physical universe, none of them were science.
For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to use “Science” as meaning the body of information that accurately portrays how the independent reality operates. In this regard, all of the Interpretive traditions were as off from the mark as a mouse in Acapulco looking for Boise, Idaho. The earth does not have seven great oceans composed of such substances as clarified butter. Heavier objects do not fall faster than light ones. The heart is not the seat of human thought. The elements that make up the world are not earth, air, water, fire, and aether, nor are they wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Virtually the only thing any of them got right was the Greek consensus that the Earth was round, and even that had more to do with Plato’s sphere fetish than with observation of fact.
The Interpretive Traditions could not be used as the basis for technology. Science can and is used as the basis for technology. That’s the crucial difference. As we will see, it has momentous consequences.
(In considering the Interpretive Traditions, we must be open to the idea that their work was entirely useless. Just to give one example, each tradition has an accompanying body of medical practice—and all of them are, by light of what we now know of the human body, completely wrong. It is an open question whether medicine prior to the Unprecedented Era killed more people than it healed. We must remember that it is entirely possible for human beings to spend lives and resources in pursuit of aims that have no existence save in their own minds.)
From their beginnings, the Interpretive Traditions developed
In India, the swift rise and fall of the Maurya hold over most of the subcontinent was followed several centuries later by the Guptas. Besides these two large empires, no native state ever again managed to establish itself over more than a third of India. In the intervals, states took over varying portions. After the rise of Islam, waves of Muslim invaders invaded from the northwest. Indian civilization found itself doing whatever it could just to preserve itself.
For several centuries Buddhism, Jainism, and the Hindu sects competed for the patronage of princes and followers. Following the Mauryas, Buddhism acquired a plurality of followers, but subsequently declined. New Hindu varieties rose up, focused around bhakti, supreme personal devotion to a god. These intensely emotional and popular forms pushed aside the old sramana ways. Buddhism faded away entirely, forgotten in its homeland. The invasions from Muslim lands brought new ideas, but Indian thinkers mainly reacted against them, rather than adopting them. One more syncretic new form was Sikhism, which drew from both Muslim and Hindu traditions while proclaiming itself separate from either.
In China, a rhythm of dynasties developed, each established, then falling into some time of chaos, only to be succeeded by another. A line of tension developed with the nomads of Inner Asia, with invasion a constant threat.
After the fall of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century Indian culture, via Buddhism, flooded into the Chinese sphere, the only time such a major breach ever occurred in the Interpretive Era. From this point, Confucianism, Buddhism and a third new force, the Daoist religion, maneuvered in conversation with Chinese folk practice to form a unique blend. During the 13th century Confucianism, which had declined after the introduction of Buddhism, found itself rejuvenated by a movement similar to that of the European Renaissance.
After the fall of the Macedonian Empire, the Greek West and its Mediterranean cousins found their sphere unified and extended through the mighty Roman Republic/Empire, carrying the ways of Greece, as modified by the Romans, to the very ends of Europe and North Africa.
During the early centuries of the Roman Principate, a strange thing happened. A movement arose that took the Zoroastrian-influenced corpus of Judaism and applied to it the methods of Western Philosophy. That movement was Christianity, and its appeal, whatever that appeal was, caused it to spread throughout the Empire. With three centuries, it grew into an established subculture, powerful enough that an emperor decided to use it as his power base, which caused it to grow further. In time, it became the nigh-universal form of Western thought throughout that sphere (although the Jewish minority, stubborn as always, maintained their traditions even under persecution).
Both Christian and Jewish ideas bounced around the Arabian peninsula in the centuries of Late Antiquity, conversing with local beliefs and emerging in new forms. One of those forms found a political base and quickly expanded out of the region into Roman and Persian territory. Inside of a century, this new cultural region, that of Islam, extended from Spain to Inner Asia.
It could be said that the Islamic Sphere is part of the Western Sphere. Both its religious and philosophical traditions come out of the Western corpus. However, the degree of difference, to my eye, is great enough to think of as a separate sphere, or at the very least that the “Abrahamic Sphere” is composed of two wings, the Christian and the Islamic. In any case, Islam was the last major religion to be founded, and the Islamic interpretive tradition the last to appear.
As the Interpretive Traditions developed, they expanded. The population holding these traditions spread over more of the Earth’s surface, and swelled to a higher proportion of the total number of humans on Earth. Sometimes this was by force, but just as often it was voluntary. The Prince of Kiev, for instance, actually held auditions among Islam, Judaism and Christianity to determine to which world religion (and accompanying cultural sphere) his people would convert. The Indian sphere spread into the Malay Archipelago and Southeast Asia. The Chinese sphere, with the addition of Buddhism, spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The Western sphere spread north over Europe; Islam south into Africa and northeast into Central Asia. Once accomplished, these conversions mostly held, though there were some exceptions—the Malay region, for example, converted from the Indian cultural sphere to the Islamic. However, no region or polity, having accepted any Interpretive Tradition, reverted to the state of having no Interpretive Tradition at all.
Technological change happened during the Era of the Interpretive Traditions. But technology improved less on knowledge than on empirical trial-and-error. Generation of brilliant craftsmen honed their arts as far as they could while never understanding what, exactly, they were causing to occur. Though at times one of the cultural spheres fell behind or sprang ahead in terms of economic development (as during the Dark Ages in Western Europe, or, conversely, the commercial surge of Song Dynasty China), none ever got substantially ahead of the others. In the same way, none of the cultural spheres ever substantially outpaced any of the others in understanding of objective reality.
By the year 1500, all four major interpretive traditions were comfortably ensconced, interwoven with the societies that propounded them. Individual institutions, such as the Papacy, might have problems, but to the traditions as a whole, there were no threats. Such had been the state of affairs for centuries. At that point, there was no sign that anything would ever have to substantially change.