Friday, May 02, 2008

Invisible changes

The great upheavals which precede changes of civilisation, such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the Arabian Empire, seem at first sight determined more especially by political transformations, foreign invasion, or the overthrow of dynasties. But a more attentive study of these events shows that behind their apparent causes the real cause is generally seen to be a profound modification in the ideas of the peoples. The true historical upheavals are not those which astonish us by their grandeur and violence. The only important changes whence the renewal of civilisations results, affect ideas, conceptions, and beliefs. The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought. The reason these great events are so rare is that there is nothing so stable in a race as the inherited groundwork of its thoughts.

Written by Gustave Le Bon in 1895. It is an interesting notion and one which has more than a grain of truth. I guess the problem is that such changes are truly epochal, and as such can only be seen from a great distance.

For example, the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa seemed truly wonderful at the time. It still seems quite amazing. For those of us brought up on the totem of an imprisoned Nelson Mandela refusing to back down to tyranny, the joyous eruption of a new South Africa under his leadership, and the honest, mature, decent way with which they dealt with the historical baggage through their Truth and Reconciliation process, was completely inspirational. This truly, we, thought, was a mammoth upheaval in civilisation, one which would surely resonate throughout the world.

Today, South Africa is still a free country; it is still a good country. But divisions are emerging, corruption is suggested, traces of spite and malice and recidivism can be seen in the political debate. Is this a necessary and inevitable part of the political growing process; or will we see, from the distance of twenty, thirty or forty years, that Truth and Reconciliation was a moment, merely a moment, and that less changed than we believed (and hoped) at the time?

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