There have been three main revolutions in human history in terms of global thinking.
The first started around 500bc in various parts of the world. It consisted of the rise of a concept of human being that transcended local, cultural or historical identities. Until then people were defined mainly in terms of the myths of their culture. Others were defined as people with other myths. But in the Axial age of the first millennium BC, people from vastly different cultures could identify with each other under an identity which was seen to apply to all people.
Socratic reflection, Buddhist ideas or Taoist conceptions applied to all people – if only people would cultivate that universal part of themselves. There were religious versions of such universalism in Zorastrianism, Judaism, the Upanishads and so on – and most explicitly later on with Christianity.
People had started to see themselves primarily as people and secondarily as belonging to this race, region or language. Not completely. But it was the beginning of it.
The second revolution started about 2000 years later, around 1500AD. This was the rise of the modern understanding of the physical layout of our world. An exploration of the world as the globe.
Until then each civilization’s sense of the world was defined by their cultural mythology and socio-political boundaries. They didn’t have a sense for the physical reality of the world – for the globe as a brute reality independent of cultural dynamics.
This second revolution was enabled by two things: imperial exploration and the rise of modern science. Newtonian physics suggested it was the language of math – not English or French or Sanskrit or Chinese or Arabic – that captures the nature of the physical world. And so the cultural ways of understanding the world have to fit into the universal conception of the physical world, rather than the other way around.
The first revolution of 2,500 years ago showed that even if my neighbor speaks a different language or has a different culture, they and I are bonded through a higher bond – of rationality or spirituality, or, as with Buddhists or the ancient European skeptics, a spiritual rationality.
The second revolution of 500 years ago showed that all people are bound by a common limit and situation – the shape, size and contour of the globe, and also the natural physical laws which govern the globe and the cosmos.
We are living through the third revolution. The end of colonialism, mass migration, the rise of global problems like climate change and the rise of AI, and especially the rise of computer and the internet have totally redefined our sense of our neighbors and to whom we owe our primary alligencies and our first loyalties.
No longer is our sense of community given by physical concentric circles: those physically closest to us as the ones we are most like and who constitute our community. Conservatives in America and Russia find more in common than they do with liberals living next door to them. Liberals in India and Brazil feel more aligned with each other than with their conservative family members.
Of course this was true for a long time. A Christian in Rome felt closer to another Christian in the Middle East than to a non-Christian Roman living next to him. Or the Muslims in Spain in 1000AD felt greater kinship with other Muslims outside Europe than with their Christian neighbors in Spain.
But these premodern global identities were still beholden to the premodern sense of the physical globe. And the rise of the modern sense of the physical globe coincided for five centuries with a colonialism which made it seem as if only the colonizers are truly global and the colonized are only local and so backward.
Now in our own time and in the unfolding third global revolution, the past two global revolutions have run head long into each other. To create a sense of the world which is not only bound by a sense of our common humanity but also by our common physical global reality – thus creating the sense that the world is in fact small after all. Facebook, Twitter and social media in general reinforces this by the reality that I might share my life as easily and as quickly with a friend across the world as with the friend in the next room.
Humanity has faced a steep task since the first global revolution: to balance the dawning consciousness of our shared humanity with our past of hundreds of thousands of years of identities and life patterns based on more local forms of interaction, rooted in hunter gatherer and early agricultural societies.
The last 2,500 years have been a struggle to balance our senses of similarity and difference so as to grow and raise our collective consciousness. We are now in a new phase of that struggle and unfolding.
As happened with the rise of ancient philosophy and then of modern philosophy, so too our period calls for reconceptualizations and thinking afresh which can meet the new needs of our time.
Conservatives think the answers from 2,000 years ago can be applied now. Liberals think the answers from 200 years ago can be applied now. Both are true in a sense. But wrong in another sense. For both fail to see that our time is yet another new inflection point in human transformation, and as such calls out for its own new questions, problematics, conceptualizations and answers.
The more we think afresh, the more we can transforms our ideas and ideals to bring them to bear to our current moment. This requires the full bearing and reorientation of all of ourselves – mind, body and spirit; nature, culture and history.
Great things are afoot. It is not enough to learn and repeat the lessons of the ancients or the moderns. We need to be like both and be revolutionaries in our time. To see things anew, with a clear new light. To base such vision on the foundation of one’s personal commitment and transformation towards the light, and to transforming and overcoming the suspicions, angers and fears which hold us back.
To create a more enlightened world requires each person to grow further in their personal enlightenment.