Mark Lewis: The history of the future

[Mr. Lewis is a staff writer for Forbes.]

The future, as a concept, was born in ancient Mesopotamia, when people began studying the heavens for clues to impending events. But the Babylonians and their fellow stargazers (including the Maya) had a limited idea of the future: They thought time was cyclical, so they were not inclined to contemplate the shape of things to come. What goes around, comes around; why conjure up visions of an improved future Babylon if it will only be destroyed when the cycle ends?

These days, certain New Age seers who study the Mayan "Long Count" calendar have concluded that time's current cycle is due to end--cataclysmically--on Dec. 21, 2012. Consider yourself warned. But most of us look at time as a linear continuum, and we expect the future to be different than the present. For the more optimistic among us, the future will not merely be different--it will be better.

Where did we get this idea? Not from the Greeks and Romans, who "really did not have any idea of progress per se," says history professor Timothy Burke, who teaches a course at Swarthmore College about the cultural history of the idea of the future.

In Pictures: Futurists Through The Ages

Nor did we get it from the great Eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, which emphasize reincarnation and a cyclical sense of time. Judaism, in contrast, is rooted in a sense of history, which it bequeathed to Christianity. And for Christians, time is most definitely linear: It began with the Creation and it will end on Judgment Day. In between, according to Saint Augustine, there is room for progress toward a better world.

Most Christian prognosticators during the Middle Ages were fixated on the Book of Revelation, which points to the Apocalypse. But in due course came the Renaissance, which gave rise to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment--and it was at this point, Burke says, that the idea of a better future took hold. At first, it was a matter of moral progress: Mankind was expected to use reason to develop philosophically. "In the 19th century, that kind of idea becomes much more technological and scientific," Burke says.

The key transition figure was Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology, first published in 1830, promulgated the concept of geologic time. This was a world-shaking development, comparable to the insight of Copernicus that the Earth revolved around the sun. Prior to the 19th century, people in the West had generally assumed that the world was less than 6,000 years old. After Lyell, people had to contend with the mind-boggling idea that the world was, in fact, billions of years old, with billions of years still to come. Human history was merely a blip on this cosmic timeline....

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