Self-deception, historic recurrence, and the wisdom of Rudyard Kipling
What if social progress is just an illusion? What if we are stuck in an endless cycle of events?
It’s not a new idea. Theories about historic recurrence have circulated for thousands of years. Among all the different views and theories, the theory of cyclical recurrence is one of the most widespread.
According to the cyclical view of historic recurrence,
“Historical phenomena pass through a fixed sequence…returning to what is understood to be an original point of departure, and beginning the cycle again.” -G. W. Trompf
Sound familiar? Rudyard Kipling thought so. He went and wrote a whole poem about historic recurrence, titled “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.”
Understanding “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”
“The Gods of the Copybook Headings” revolves around two groups of metaphorical deities: the Gods of the Copybook Headings and the Gods of the Marketplace. The Gods of the Copybook Headings represent reason, wisdom, the laws of nature, and immutable common truths. Meanwhile, the Gods of the Marketplace represent wishful thinking, foolishness, empty promises, and shallow pursuits.
Kipling points out the difference between the two groups in the first stanza.
As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
The Gods of the Marketplace are transient and fallible, while the Gods of the Copybook Headings are immutable. Humanity worships either one or the other.
The question is, which one? Do we follow wisdom and reason? Or do we cling to wishful thinking and make unwise decisions in exchange for empty promises?
According to Kipling we worship the Gods of the Marketplace, just like the narrator in Kipling’s poem. It’s not a huge problem…except the Gods of the Marketplace follow a cycle of flourishing and falling.
Kipling concludes that what we see as progress is really just the repetition of a set cycle of events. Where does he lay the blame? On human nature.
We were living in trees when they [the Gods of the Copybook Headings] met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
Throughout his poem, Kipling holds to the pessimistic idea that humans are naturally foolish creatures who abandon common truths because they are lacking in “Uplift, Vision, and Breadth of Mind.” As a result, we cause our own destruction in an endless cycle of repetition.
In other words, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” is a satirical poem about the non-existence of social progress.
“Men’s deeds conform to regularities and there remains necessity, or decision-involving situations, which induce typical responses.” -Machiavelli
You probably don’t need this reminder. Human nature is very, very predictable. Individuals might change, but humanity as a whole tends to stay the same.
Self-deception and historic recurrence
Kipling devotes three stanzas of his poem to describing three separate cycles of events. All three stanzas form the same pattern.
The cycle always begins with a deviation from the Gods of the Copybook Headings for the Gods of the Marketplace. The deviation is always caused by some ridiculous promise or dream that the Gods of the Marketplace offer, and which humanity continually falls for.
Then the cycle concludes with some sort of catastrophe, followed by the return of common sense and wisdom.
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They [the Gods of the Marketplace] promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”
You might be going, “Wait a moment! Humans are not that stupid!”
Maybe not, but here’s the problem: self-deception.
We tend to believe what we want to believe, whether it is true or not.
When truth does not give us what we want, we can deceive ourselves into ignoring it. In this case, optimism can be an enemy. Human beings are naturally optimistic, and therefore we often refuse to believe hard truths.
“Our desire to defy nature, conquer natural law and evolve toward a state greater than our flawed humanity brings advancement, but leaves us susceptible for manipulation by the Gods of the Marketplace.” -Tiffany Madison
Sometimes reality is not enough. Think about it for a moment. Why do we still love fairy-tales and superheroes? Why do we watch movies or play video games?
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshiped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
And sometimes reality is too much to handle, and self-deception provides an escape.
Either way, self-deception may be the root cause behind historic recurrence. By choosing to believe in what sounds good instead of what is real, we tend to let situations get worse and worse.
Eventually even governments can fall into disrepair as a direct result of humanity’s self-deception about the state of the government.
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
We may not be able to change reality, but we can ignore it.
Back to the idea of social progress…
If history repeats itself, and if human nature doesn’t change, then what happens to social progress? Are we really progressing?
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
Not very encouraging, is it? Kipling juxtaposes the idea of social progress with the idea that nothing has really changed. He uses satire to raise some serious questions about our ideas of progress.
In these lines, Kipling postulates that social progress is just a mental construct, and that humanity has not really progressed at all. Rather than learning new things with each stage of history, humanity has undergone numerous cycles of learning the same thing over and over.
If history repeats itself, it negates the existence of social progress.
Luckily, it’s not over yet
Now that you have been thoroughly depressed, don’t give up on humanity yet! The end of Kipling’s poem contains a lot of ambiguity, allowing for either an optimistic or nihilistic perspective depending on your personality.
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
These lines demonstrate hope that humanity might one day be able to break free from the cycle of historic recurrence and stop worshiping the Gods of the Market.
“From cycle to cycle, however, there could be a progressive accumulation of technique and wisdom.” -G. W. Trompf
Are we doomed, or do we have a chance to break the cycle? I guess it’s up to you to decide. Click here to read Kipling’s entire poem. What is your interpretation?