I rarely have occasion to walk through Times Square in Manhattan, so I found myself somewhat taken aback by how much it had improved when I walked through there one morning last summer. It was still noisy and crowded, of course, but surprisingly clean, with many new facades. If any of the stores specialized in pornography, they were discreet about it. Hustlers and pimps did not lurk under the eaves of storefronts. There was a policeman or security guard on every other corner. If Ridley Scott’s dark, dystopic film Blade Runner is the popular image of the future American city, here seemed to be a city evolving in a different direction.
I was in Manhattan to see Richard Landes, a medievalist from Boston University and an authority on the year 1000. With the year 2000 getting closer, this previously obscure subject is becoming increasingly topical, and we were meeting to talk about several of the academic projects that are in the works in connection with the upcoming turn of the millennium. But as we talked, I began to think that his ideas about the eleventh century may have a great deal to do with the once and future Times Square.
It was perhaps the nineteenth-century historian Jules Michelet who was most responsible for popularizing the idea of the terrors of the year 1000. Contemporary or nearly contemporary chronicles of the period describe the people of Western Europe as living in an agony of apocalyptic expectation. There are accounts of civil disturbances, of grotesque acts of mass public repentance, of popular prophets and their crazed followers.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, historians had begun to realize the flaws in this picture. While terror-filled accounts do turn up in some literature from the period, they do not dominate it, and Western Europe in the decades following the year 1000 did not generally act like a society paralyzed by fear of the imminent end of the world or disappointed by the failure of its eschatological schedule. The eleventh century saw the great cathedrals begun and the crusades launched, following decades of increasing contact with Byzantium and the Levant. Western Christendom was an expanding, curious, inventive society-which is perhaps the chief reason historians generally believe that the terrors of the year 1000 existed largely in the minds of nineteenth-century Romantics like Michelet.
Well, maybe not. Landes and other medievalists are taking a third look at the primary sources and finding both more and less in them than did their predecessors. It is true that nothing catastrophic happened to society around the beginning of the second millennium. On the other hand, it is not hard to find discussion about questions of universal eschatology in the writings of the period. Evidence of popular interest in these questions is fragmentary, but it is there. More accessible is the scholarly debate that arose about when the age might be expected to end.
Landes believes he detects a preference among writers of the period for Augustine’s model of history, which downplays the catastrophic and revolutionary. Augustine, in most interpretations, preserved the events of the Endtime depicted in Revelation and the Prophets as literal expectations for the indefinite future. However, he was very wary of attempts to discern eschatological significance in the events of secular history. The proper Augustinian reaction to millenarian enthusiasm, particularly enthusiasm sparked by calendrical considerations, is thus to declare the time of the end to be unknowable. What many of the authorities around the year 1000 did, however, was to quibble about chronology. Accepting the old thesis that the world would last six thousand years, they answered doom-mongers with estimates for the age of the world that put the beginning of the seventh millennium a comfortable distance into the future. Such arguments were not always wholly convincing, and they had the disadvantage of leaving time bombs for later Augustinians. (The excitement about the year 1000 was perhaps a time bomb planted by Augustine himself.) Whether by accident or design, however, their immediate effect was to channel millenarian excitement into socially constructive paths.
There is a great deal more to Augustinian eschatology, however, than the suppression of enthusiasms. Augustine is sometimes called the father of progress, and though this view can be exaggerated, his model of time is certainly a basic template on which ideas about history as progress can form. Augustinian history need not be progressive, but it can be. It has, in fact, a predilection to be under certain circumstances. What distinguishes the Augustinian view of time is its ability to impart meaning to favorable historical trends.
Although the idea of historical progress has received its share of derision in recent years, the fact is that many facets of history, and even whole historical eras, really are progressive. Population and economic output in certain parts of the world often rise steadily for a long time. New arts and sciences appear and are perfected over the course of a few centuries. Western Christendom at the turn of the first millennium, however, may have been the first society to give historical meaning to progress by undertaking great social enterprises terminating only at a horizon of unguessable distance. The medieval cathedrals and crusades may be symbols of a wider cultural assumption that social development can be a moral enterprise, perhaps even a morally necessary enterprise. Augustine may have hoped for no more than that the Vandals would go away and future emperors would be more edifying. But he hoped with good reason, for his view of time is the only one on which the foundations for the great cathedrals could be laid.
Whatever the validity of these reflections with respect to the eleventh century, this interpretation of Augustine is alive and well and being expounded from the throne of St. Peter. John Paul II’s 1994 encyclical on the celebration of the millennium, Tertio Millennio Adveniente , can hardly be described as a millenarian document. Nevertheless, it looks forward to the turn of the century as far more than an obvious occasion for historical commemoration. The Pope anticipates that the beginning of the next millennium will be a time of novel significance in the history of salvation. The encyclical puts the Second Vatican Council into perspective as a providential event whose true significance was to prepare for this new era. The specifics of the document are concerned with how the Church should ready herself to take advantage of these coming opportunities.
If in fact the next century is another time of constructive hope in progress, future historians may see this transformation as in part a reaction to the dark images of the future that have prevailed since the 1960s. While the sixties were a time of exhilaration for the young, we should not forget that one of the tenets of the counterculture of that era was also the coming collapse of civilization. William Irwin Thompson reported in his still-interesting 1971 book At the Edge of History that the San Francisco hippies in the summer of 1967 devoutly expected the end of civilization in a catastrophic chain of earthquakes or the arrival of flying saucers. But they were not alone. The leaders of what would become the New Age Movement confidently anticipated salutary effects from the breakdown of American society, which they called a broken-back technocracy. Afterward, they believed, a new spiritual age would emerge.
The hope for a new spiritual age has waxed and waned, but the expectation of a future with a broken back has shown a quarter century of resilience. Examples of it can be found from before the 1970s, of course. It is related to post-apocalypse stories, of which H. G. Wells’ novel The Shape of Things to Come (1933) may be the classic example. And yet, while many of these older stories, including Wells’, are about the rebuilding of civilization, the stories of the broken-back future are about civilization’s progressive darkening, often with social chaos coexisting with high technology. Among the genre’s prominent literary exponents are Doris Lessing, in her novels Memoirs of a Survivor and Shikasta , and John Crowley, notably in his Engine Summer . We find it in films from Soylent Green to the influential Blade Runner . The influence of the Mad Max series seems inescapable. In fact, in recent years it has become difficult to find fictional presentations of the near future that do not feature decaying cities, a ruthless ruling class, economic collapse, and impending ecological catastrophe.
These images have effects beyond the arts. They inform a great deal of social and economic thought of the last twenty years, like the declinist school of geopolitics, most notably associated with Paul Kennedy’s provocative book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987). On a more serious level of ethical reflection, John Lukacs’ The End of the Twentieth Century (1993) anticipated a new dark age of clashing ethnic nationalisms. This image of the geopolitical future is not original with Lukacs. It is close to being the consensus view of the post-Cold War world.
At various levels, however, the realization that this simply isn’t true seems to be gradually seeping in. It is, perhaps, even affecting public administration, as projects like the renovation of Times Square illustrate. If you expect Mad Max to rule the future, then you are unsurprised by the decay of public places and disinclined to do much about it. What is perhaps most interesting about American culture today is the revulsion, sometimes inarticulate but emerging with increasing clarity, against the assumption of a dark future.
Attempts to predict the future are best kept to the briefest of outlines, unless you want to afford amusement to people who live in the future you attempt to describe. All I am suggesting, really, is that if the turn of the second millennium is significantly similar to the turn of the first, then we should look for a dynamic century of hope and progress on many levels. Many of our opinion leaders make a point of ignoring the current pope, but he may have sniffed a change in the eschatological wind far before anyone else. We live at the end of a chaotic interlude, but that it was going to end should not have surprised us: few conditions are so ephemeral as chaos. That insight is likely to be a commonplace in the civic order awaiting us on the other side of what John Paul II calls the Holy Door of the year 2000.
John J. Reilly , Reviews Editor of Culture Wars magazine, is a member of the Center for Millennial Studies located at Boston University.