History, wrote the Roman Catholic saint Gregory of Nyssa (335–395), is a non-stop sequence of new beginnings. Some sixteen centuries later, we are still tied up with the idea that history is all about decline, thanks largely to the influence of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Indeed, we tend to think of history as a non-stop sequence of declines, and constantly search for causes of degeneration. It is like looking at a weather map to spot a coming storm. One of these overwhelming storms seems to be the ‘Middle Ages’, or the ‘Dark Ages’, as the historians describe the period between the fifth and fifteenth centuries in Europe, following the collapse of the Roman Empire
The history of dates and proper names, History with capital letters, tends to live on this perception of passing time. It consists largely of the biographies of heroes, great men who conquered territories for their motherland, and shaped the world and their times – a perception best illustrated by Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History; and Carlyle’s numerous crypto-followers.
But this perception of history is guilty of incoherence and self-contradiction. Life is not a downhill road to a perceived end. Life always expands and spreads in all directions, although not necessarily in the way we expect. In fact, in life and in history everything interacts with everything else, morphs, changes, synthesises, is always on the verge of becoming something different, something new. We cannot understand the past if we select and isolate a portion, take it out of context. So here is a truism: everything was born from something previous.