By and large, those who disputed Vico, Spengler, Toynbee, et al. either brushed aside the entire question of patterns of historical change, or conceded that, well, of course, those other civilizations of the past might have followed a shared trajectory, but ours? Never. That’s still the predictable response to any suggestion that the past might have anything useful to say about the future, and regular readers of this blog will have seen it deployed countless times in critiques posted by commenters here: in words made famous in any number of speculative bubbles, it’s different this time.
There’s a wry amusement to be had by thinking through the implications of this constantly repeated claim. If our society was in fact shaking off the burdens of the past and breaking new ground with every minute that goes by, as believers in progress like to claim, wouldn’t it be more likely that the theory of historical cycles would be challenged each time it appears with dazzlingly new, innovative responses that no one had ever imagined before? Instead, in an irony Nietzsche would have relished, the claim that history can’t repeat itself endlessly repeats itself, in what amounts to an eternal return of the insistence that there is no eternal return. What’s more, those who claim that it’s different this time seem blissfully unaware that anyone has made the same claim before them, and if this is pointed out to them, they insist—often with quite some heat—that what they’re saying has nothing whatsoever to do with all the other times the same argument was used to make the same point down through the years.
There are deep patterns at work here, but it’s probably necessary to tackle the different-this-time argument on its own terms first. Of course there are differences between contemporary industrial civilization and those older societies that have already traced out the completed arc of rise and fall. Each of those previous civilizations differed from every other human society in its own unique ways, too. Each human life, to use an analogy Spengler liked to cite, differs from every other human life in a galaxy of ways, but certain processes—birth, infancy, childhood, puberty, and so on through the life cycle to old age and death—are hardwired into the basic structure of being human, and will come to every individual who lives out a normal lifespan. The talents, experiences, and achievements that fit into the common sequence of life will vary, often drastically, from person to person, but those differences exist within a common frame. The same thing, the theorists of historical cycles suggest, is true of human societies, and they offer ample evidence to support that claim.