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The urge to project the course of future events far outruns mere curiosity. Diviners and sorcerers of various sizes and shapes and skills have enliverted the pages of our history books; the marvel of Merlin comes to mind. Some insist that history runs in cycles which can be studied and predicted. They make their case on the basis of the permanence of human nature and its generally flawed and self-interested orientation. Others see a steady, upward climb of progress, especially in the scientific and technological area, where research demonstrates that this is indeed the case. But in the realm of morality no such happy empirical condition exists. Still others point to the dialectic of Plato, Socrates, Hegel, and Marx, whose automatic operation assures an unstoppable advance in liberal democratic politics in the case of Hegel and of the new classless society in the case of Marx. The evil therein was well described by Karl Popper, especially in his works The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies.
In the twentieth century it was Arnold Toynbee who suggested that it was the response of each civilization to outside challenges which determined who was
winning and who was losing. Central to this theory was the idea of perduring challenge, but no one really knew the outcome. The historian William McNeill sought to demonstrate in 1963 that the clash of civilizations brought about change and that it was under these conditions of conflict that the long rise of the West took place. The people of the West were the first to master modem science and technology. The idea that it was the people who were the superior ingredient and not the equipment soon proved to be untrue; and the attempt to claim that race was the main factor in progress, as William Howard Taft did, was soon disabused. The spread of science and technology moved faster than the American leaders' ability - for a brief moment in the middle of the twentieth century, for example - to control it.
Equating a nation or race or civilization with superiority (technological or otherwise) over the rest could not be sustained. As Hans Morgenthau wrote in outlining his philosophy of international relations: "Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe."
Henry Luce, as he wrote in LIFE magazine in 1941, was convinced, through what he considered adequate evidence, that the future was America's, that the "American Century" was at hand. Thus we have the old world order competition, the rise and fall from favor as science and technology and capitalist modes of organization granted their favors indiscriminately to anyone who would master them, raising in some quarters once again Kaiser Wilhelm's notion of a "yellow peril." The twenty-first century will be Chinese, mumbled a prominent Chinese scholar recently in Taipei, Taiwan. Is such an assertion predictive or descriptive? Do we still need crutches to make sense out of all these examples? Or would an effort to eliminate some of these grand schemes make what is left more intelligible? We shall consider some of the strengths and weaknesses of the formidable dialectic and its link to the idea of progress. After this general digression, necessary, however, to set the background to the controversy recently stirred up by Samuel P. Huntington's article "The Clash of Civilizations?" and its aftermath - we will begin by dealing with more specific problems that lead back to the original inquiry.
Is there direction in history, a pattern in events that is woven independently of man's will and makes its own way regardless of human desires? If so, what is the source of this phenomenon? The Roman Catholic notion of "free will" (to account for evil deviations from God's commandments) seems to rule out a divine input. Such alleged phenomena as the "dialectic" have been sufficient for Plato, Hegel, and Marx to have found a base cause (different for each) for the unfolding of historical events. Dialectic is a logical term, used today for abstract …