How Would You Draw History?

Recent world events — take your pick — might have you wondering about where human history is headed, and by what route. You would not be alone.


The fracturing of global alliances and the rise of hard-right movements like those in Hungary, Brazil and the United States have caused many of us to question the inevitability of what we generally call progress. Ecological disasters like the California wildfires, plausibly connected to climate change and suburban development, raise the specter of a human history moving inexorably toward self-destruction.

The philosophy of history, which flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries and has enjoyed periodic revivals in the hands of thinkers like Arthur Danto and Francis Fukuyama, set itself the remarkably ambitious project of describing the forces that shape human events: history’s structure, its direction, its aim, its point and even its end.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of such a project, which we might associate above all with the names Marx and Hegel, and it is possible that history has no coherent shape or direction, or many. It may be, too, that the shape of history depends on our decisions and not on impersonal forces. But the philosophy of history is also a seductive project because, among other things, it seems to promise an understanding — even an approximate one — of what might happen next.

The basic timeline of history, which still ornaments elementary-school classrooms, remains the way many of us picture how we got to where we are. Its ubiquity suggests that drawing history, trying to capture the shape of time graphically, on a page or in our imaginations, is fundamental to how we understand both the past and the future; we need to diagram history to grasp it, if it can be grasped at all.

There is only one history or course of time, in this view, and all humankind is swept up in it. As we tilt the right end up, we portray “the Whig interpretation of history,” a term coined in 1931 by the historian Herbert Butterfield to describe what he thought of as naïve progressive optimism, the idea that history was headed pretty directly for freedom and enlightenment. We’ve often gotten very much the same picture from progressive leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Barack Obama, who tell the story of America as a march toward justice, characterized by the enfranchisement of oppressed groups, presented at times almost as inevitable.

On the other hand, many theorists and many traditional cultures have envisioned time as circular or at least cyclical, which is even suggested by the rhythm of day and night or of the seasons.

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