On the Future
James V. Schall, S.J. on four eschatologies, religious and secular, and the “catastrophic end of history” that be our inner-worldly destiny.
The Catholic Thing
The future often has a bad reputation. “In the long run, we’re all dead.” No actual beings exist in the future. The past is all over. The future has not come around. It need not. The only real thing is the present, which keeps changing. The advantage the past has over the future is that – at one time – actual, not imaginary, human beings walked about, folks with names. They did things. We grasp what human beings are like by looking at what they did or did not do, or what they did do, but shouldn’t have.
The theory of progress once assured us that things necessarily become better. By redefining evil out of existence, by historicizing it, some can still think progress is automatic. Paradise thus is down the ages, in this world’s future. We can hardly wait to arrive there. We put all our energies into the future. We want to shed the present messiness. We educate the young about the future, not the past. They thus remain largely clueless. The only trouble is that most of us, like our ancient and recent ancestors, won’t make it to this anticipated, blissfully happy future.
This progressive view is the opposite of that often depicted in the classics. They thought the world was pretty good in the beginning, like the Garden of Eden, but without the Tree in it to rile things up. Yet while many things seem better as future becomes past, a gnawing sense spreads. Things are getting progressively worse. We hear apocalypse more often than we hear utopia. The world betrays multiple “deviations” from the good, not an untroubled “progress” to something perfect.
The circular view of history – say, in Thucydides – tells us that things will come around again and again in pretty much the same way as they did on their first tour. In the cyclic order of change, all things become intelligible to us. In the extreme form, over time we become everyone else. We even become ourselves a second or third time around. It is difficult to see how someone who holds such a theory does not end in despair: “You mean this is all there is?”