Studying history in our culture—for those like myself without an immediate aptitude for the subject—pitches you between two polar extremes of difficulty. Firstly, the sheer amount of evidence at our disposal, combined with impossibility of admitting some form of cultural relativism without being wilfully ignorant, means that any attempt to cling to a simplistic “objective” narrative of events is doomed to failure. At the same time, actual objectivity presents us with a chaos of data, an inhuman torrent that can no more be grasped by the human mind than the human body can stay standing in the face of a tsunami. We need form, structure, a story, in order to comprehend at all. Only, we also need a dose of reflexivity, an awareness of the construction of the narrative that doesn’t spiral too far away from utility.
Ostensibly a book about eschatological religious beliefs and their relationships to the stars and planets, Nicholas Campion’s The Great Year is in the end a successful and significant general survey of Western history that gets this balance between construction and subversion of story just about right. Of course, any dichotomy between its specific focus on millenarianism and its achievement as a general book of history is only apparent. Well before the end of the book it’s clear that for the West, at least, history to a large extent is millenarianism; the frames we use to orient our passage through time are so thoroughly inspired by the turning heavens and the notion of periodic or ultimate catastrophes that Campion’s book makes more orthodox general histories themselves seem rather blinkered and skewed. As Campion points out, the general Christian and specific Enlightenment dismissal of astrology has lumbered us with a certain biased lack of understanding of the true shape of ancient models of the cosmos—and these models are not insignificant in the course of “actual events”.
This is, indeed, a “history of history”. Its narrative arc stretches from the cradle of civilization (and astrology, and eschatology) in Mesopotamia, all the way through Judaism, classical Greece, the Roman Empire, early Christianity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, up to the major political movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. And while the trip along this arc is certainly great for filling in gaps in your historical knowledge, and recapitulating and refining the familiar vistas in our culture’s rear-view mirror, the journey is greatly enriched by the focus on how the people of each successive era themselves looked backwards and forwards in time—the models and stories they used to situate themselves in the flux of manifestation.
“The Great Year” of the title is the basic metaphor seen to thread through these histories, a macrotemporal vision of the solar year’s cycle projected onto periods of greater length. Catastrophic punctuation from deluges and conflagrations are seen to be inspired by, or at least correspond with, the year’s wet and dry seasons. The cycles of the heavens, from Babylon through Plato to nearly everyone since, are seen to signify the divine order. Plato’s eternal Being is unfolded into its “moving image” that is the earthly realm of Becoming; and the starry heavens stand as an important field of signification indicating the nature of this unfolding. Campion is very much in sympathy with Whitehead’s famous assertion that European philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato”, and while he tracks changes in opinion carefully, the idea of Plato striking a dominant tone (perhaps with more Mesopotamian or Egyptian overtones than we usually assume) that still resonates is strong.
I was convinced as I read this book that I remembered John Gray—perhaps in Straw Dogs, certainly in Black Mass—referring to it as a source of inspiration. However, after some careful flicking of pages, and final desperate use of Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” feature, I can’t find any reference at all to it in Gray’s work. Either I’m missing a reference, or Campion was way ahead of Gray on numerous lines of research. By the time we reach his analysis of medieval utopian agitators, the positivists Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, and the supposedly secular attempts at heaven-on-earth of Marxism and Nazism, any Gray readers will find themselves in familiar territory—only taken there by words published around a decade earlier. Perhaps there’s a common source between them. Still, while Gray is the more potent writer, Campion’s analysis is deeper and more satisfying—especially his convincing spotlight on the astrological aspects of all these phenomena. The assertion that the revolutions of modern politics ultimately derive their structural logic and mystique from the revolution of the heavens may seem either trite or far-fetched; Campion reveals it to be neither.
In terms of writing, to say that John Gray is more potent is probably unfair, given the vastly different form of this enquiry to any of Gray’s books. It must be said in Campion’s favour that there’s a great deal of talent involved in sustaining a reader’s close interest over 500 pages of historical analysis. Clear, vivid diagrams constantly act to root various models of the historical process back in the visual field—originally, the gaze into the night sky—that seeded them.
My main point of contention with the work was the occasional emphasis on a constructionist perspective, stressing that ideas and concepts we perhaps take for granted or see as natural are in fact specific artifacts of specific cultures. Of course there’s a lot of value in this approach; it’s not “false”. At the same time, I often find myself frustrated by works that say “it could have happened otherwise”, yet leave this assertion lying around without much to back it up other than the assumption that the reader agrees. The inclusion of cosmological ideas from other cultural traditions—from China, perhaps, or South America—to make points like this may have swollen this already fair-sized work past an acceptable limit, though; I do qualify my criticism with this point of pragmatism.
Overall, there’s a great deal to recommend here. The subjects treated are of such fundamental importance for understanding how we got here, and how we’ve envisioned our journey, and the scholarship and crafting of this great story of stories are so thorough and accomplished, this book should be welcomed by many an intelligently-stocked bookshelf.