“The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk.” — Hegel

To a modern ear Hegel’s manner of speech may seem badly overcooked, something like exclaiming “When Vesuvius rumbles, Ambrosia cannot be denied”, instead of “Gosh, I’m hungry”. But he wrote in a different age, and different ages have different linguistic conventions. Obscure though this sentence may now seem, he was on to something important.

With this metaphor, Hegel asserted that insight into what’s going on in the present can only occur when an historical era has reached a sort of mature apex, and even, perhaps, is beginning to pass. Only then it becomes possible to discern the great historical forces that sculpted the age, prefiguring thought and behavior, creating a new common sense.

Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom, and the owl, of course, the symbol of wisdom; hence, the owl of Minerva refers to insight. We can’t see the ultimate causes of what’s going on in our time if it is still unfolding and we ourselves are caught up in that process, our thoughts constrained by the bedrock of taken-for-granted understandings that are held in common. Historical eras only yield to analysis when they are far enough along that this common sense becomes fraught, making it possible to see through it and apprehend and call into question the thoughts and activities that make the times what they are.

As most people now appreciate, even apart from the pandemic, these are wild and crazy times, especially in the areas of politics, mental health, and social relationships. I believe that a factor greatly limiting our ability to understand what’s going on around us — the dramatic increases in rates of loneliness, anxiety, and depression; the political turmoil; the public reassertion of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and religious chauvinism; the reluctance to commit in intimacy amidst record-setting rates of relationship turnover; the decline of meaningful community; the seemingly narcissistic self-absorption so visible in the withdrawal from face-to-face contact into our ear buds, computer screens, and cell phones — is that social commentators often have little awareness of the powerful historical forces that shape what we do and how we think, act, and feel. The problems we see are not independent of each other, yet the roots that connect them are deep, and, like climate change, only become visible when we take the long view.

So, looking back over the last 400 to 500 years, we begin to see the impacts, both positive and negative, of a set of culture-bending trends. These include the decline of tradition as a meaningful source of information about how to act and make choices, freeing us, but also now requiring that we make decisions without benefit of traditional cultural wisdom; the dramatic movement in most societies from farms and small towns to cities, which has tended to undermine community, transforming us into a churning nation of strangers; astonishingly rapid increases in the speed of information flows, so fast as to undermine the idea that the world is comprised of stable truth; the decline of religious influence, which like tradition, once provided guidance about how to choose and act; the coming apart of social hierarchy in the face of equal rights, which cuts both ways — increasing freedom and justice, but in that new freedom, making it increasingly difficult to know who we are; the erosion of local culture against the growth of a world-spanning mass culture, which purposefully pumps the airways, the Internet, and print media full of destructive nonsense, sham, spin, and fraud, often specifically targeted to make us feel insecure and more vulnerable to marketing hype; large increases in the likelihood our future will involve many geographical moves, which undermines community; and the movement from lives lived largely in public view to lives lived increasingly out of sight, only fully appreciated by those few close intimates who are so vital to the stability of our sense of self (and heaven help those who don’t have them or lose them).

Collectively, the impacts of these changes have been massive, producing people in modern societies whose sense of self and ways of thinking have been so reconfigured as to become incomprehensible to forebears of only a few generations back who thought, acted, and felt so differently. Summing across these changes, one sees a gradually increasing alteration of the psychological and interpersonal climate. It has come on inch by inch, generally so slowly that we don’t see it, but leaving us in discomfort, prone to doubt, our society characterized by a pervasive low-grade jitteriness, as we are exposed to this new world of abundant choice and freedom that brings with it an anxious sense of chronic uncertainty about what to believe and value, and whether we are living as we should.

As most now understand, climate change is undetectable if all we have is a few years of weather data. Similarly, we would never be able to adequately understand why 86% of the American population has a refillable script for a psychiatrically-relevant medication if all we have is data from the current moment — perhaps from a survey in a cross sectional study, or maybe from a blood assay, or an fMRI scan, or from a psychological experiment. Among the social sciences, the field of sociology generally tends to be more aware of history than others, yet it too has been criticized as suffering from “a parochialism of time” — a trained incapacity to see the big picture. To see the big picture and appreciate the ultimate causes of the phenomena that color our age, we need historical awareness. Cue the owls.