The Paris Review

The Questionable History of the Future

Many centuries ago, as history was being developed and before there was an idea of what prehistoric humans were like, societies generally imagined themselves to be of divine origin and to have always lived in a condition similar to their current state. People were most concerned not with invention, trade, discovery, or learning new things but with the natural forces that beset them, which could threaten their lives or provide for a good harvest. Nature and these forces might manifest differently at different times, of course. But it was thought that nature would stay more or less the same over the years. There was no reason the future would be different.

Later, when human nature rather than the natural world became central to people’s concerns, the belief in the static nature of societies persisted, with unchanging human nature taking the place of unchanging nature. The historian and economist Robert Heilbroner cites Machiavelli, who wrote early in the sixteenth century, “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever

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