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The Arch: Five Themes


The five master themes of metahistory may be imagined to form an arch, like that of an elegant Chinese bridge perfectly reflected in the water it spans. The bridge we cross is history, defined by the step-march of linear time and known events. The mirrored arch is the reflection of history in the depths of the human psyche, in collective memory and phylogeny.

Five themes comprise the arch, but not in chronological order. Their relation inheres in a timeless gestalt rather than in timebound duration. Although these themes recur in all times, history is a chronological ordering of experience, and so we may treat the themes as if they were sequential. From left to right, the arch stretches from a remote past in prehistory to our present global civilization, the world today. All five master themes are always operating in human experience, but their dynamics change through time. Technology is the dominant theme in the world today, but the theme of Technology has been active in all previous epochs as well.

As we refine our understanding of the arch, we learn to see how all five themes interact and permutate between minor and major keys. Subsumed themes resonate at different levels of psychospiritual concern, reflected in fugue-like variations of cultural and historical modalities. (These subthemes or multi-thematic variants are described in linked paragraphs.)

Sacred Nature

Sacred Nature is the mysterious source of humanity. In the remote past, long before events were recorded in historical writings, the human species lived its stories in direct interaction with its habitat. All ancient traditions saw in the bond between nature and humanity a parent-child relationship with nature as the sacred, life-supporting factor. The motifs and mythemes comprised by this category are universally oriented toward a supreme, feminine divinity, the Goddess, who embodies both the natural world and the supernatural dimension of that world. Before theology and religion of any kind asserted beliefs about a male creator god, the Great Mother was the focal point of human spirituality. Our relation to nature was directly reflected in reverence for the Goddess, and so our attitudes toward the sacredness of nature changed as human attitudes toward the Goddess shifted.


Opposition is the experiential pattern that emerges when humanity alters its life-sustaining bond with nature. Still deep in prehistory, the human species began to define itself on its own terms, to form societies, and to develop culture, largely through the use of language and symbolic systems. The making of culture involves differentiation that can take the form of oppositions, the first being culture versus nature. Social identity develops through conflict (“taking sides”) and social power is acquired by mastery of conflict. What appears to be conflict in nature, such as the interplay of light and darkness, becomes symbolic of what now develops in the self-defined terms of the "human condition." The human species enters a long experiment in which every conflict challenges it to restore balance, within and without. Opposition always calls for rites and acts of compensation, as C. G. Jung insisted.

The belief that the human species is in conflict with nature, a hostile environment to be dominated in order to survive, conflicts with the belief that civilized societies can exist in harmony with the natural world and other species. Many myths from around the world attest to memories and visions of paradise, an Edenic way of life, and the question of how our species departed from this condition (if it ever existed) is much debated. Throughout the natural world, conflict and competition exist without overwhelming the symbiotic balance that supports all species, but the presence of humanity alters this equation. In the perspective of split-source duality, opposition is viewed as a superhuman situation of Good Versus Evil. This perspective engenders endtime scenarios such as the apocalypse and Judgement Day. But if the origin of opposition, Rather, it is an ongoing dilemma that humankind experiences as it emerges from empathic participation in Sacred Nature.


Origins for humanity are the ultimate mystery. The truth is that we do not know how we evolved, i.e., how we came to be human. The evolution of the human species runs back into prehistory, to its emergence from Sacred Nature, and the dispute about how this occurred is far from resolved. The search for Origins is shifted from the ultimate case, the origin of humanity as a unique species, to the origin of society and culture. The story of the human adventure begins in Sacred Nature, but there is no textual record of that experience, so the agreed beginning occurs far later, at the moment when human beings began to remember and record their experience in writings that survive, and in a sense, comprise the autobiography of the human species. This is why Origins in the historical sense are the central theme of the arch. In metahistory, the telling of different histories is the central problem we aim to explore.

In this perspective, the story of “civilization” takes center stage. We ignore the formative childhood of the species, more or less as an individual ignores the first three or four years of life. The analogy is odd because the time spans are hugely divergent: a person of eighty years is oblivious to the first four years of life, or 1/20th of his or her total lifespan, but for humanity as a whole, its infancy in prehistory is estimated to be about 2.2 million years, while its “adult” historical life (since the rise of civilization) is only about six thousand, 1/360th of the species’ entire lifespan. Imagine an eighty-year-old individual who bases her identity and actions on the last eighty days of her life. Such is the historical perspective of humanity on its own origins, yet this oddly compressed version of our experience determines how we think about history, and how we think about history in turn determines our identity as a species.

Metahistory proposes that the problem in history is the disproportionate impact of the brief historical scenario on the long-term evolution of humanity.

Thus, what makes us human originally becomes secondary to what humans make of the world, and how they create their own ways of life, cultures, and societies. Origins occupy the top of the arch because the scripts that describe the rise of civilization present the guiding principles that tell us how to live. Curiously, much of the evidence about the origins of civilization in many cultures indicates that they appeared at an apex, the Golden Age, and then declined. This is precisely what ancient myths say about civilization. Many traditions conflict with the recent belief that humanity has progressed (“ascended”) since the dawn of civilization. Whatever the case, we look up to the keystone of the arch for orientation to the big picture, the long-term vision. The “rise of civilization” presents a plot-structure by which we make sense of what we are becoming and keep track of where we are going.

Moral Design

Moral design is the imperative for acting truthfully in the situations posed by complex historical developments. It determines the way we define the purpose of the human adventure. Initial attempts to define purpose emerge in the context of another master theme, Opposition, because conflict demands moral judgments and forces black-and-white choices. Yet the sense of morality does not come into full operation until humanity is able to conceive a design, a pattern of overall and pervasive intention in the cosmos. In great measure, the record of history shows how humankind has interpreted the course of human events with the aim of understanding how everything that happens might fit into a master scheme.

What morality might have been when we lived in nature, before history, is uncertain, but within the flow of history, morality is continually tested. Civilization is possible, we believe, because we have codified moral principles through the great religions. The three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, can be defined as world-scale belief-systems because they have impacted world history more powerfully than any other religious or philosophical systems. All three assert that the ultimate form of moral design is a contract between humanity and a creator god. This belief contrasts with spiritual philosophies such as Buddhism and Taoism, which do not posit the existence of a creator god, as well as with the sacred traditions of indigenous people who find moral design in contact with nature and communion with non-human species. The course of history has largely been shaped by the dominance of the three world religions which all assert the superiority of the human species in the eyes of a single male creator god. The search for Moral Design outside the monotheistic paradigm represents one of the foremost challenges of metahistory.


Technology comprises all the skills and tools developed by humanity for controlling nature and organizing society. In the West (Europe and America) the age of high technology is considered the apex of civilization, the fullest expression of common striving. Much to our dismay, however, civilization turns out to be a precarious venture that opposes the human-made world, the social order supported by technology, to the realm of Sacred Nature. This tension defines the baseline of the arch of metahistory.

Beliefs encoded in ancient myths from the Middle East and elsewhere suggest that human evolution was boosted by the intervention of more advanced beings, variously conceived as gods, divinities, and “ancient astronauts.” As the science of genetics moves us toward playing God by manipulating the ultimate code of life (DNA), humanity is faced with doubts about its qualifications for such divine status. The scientific, technological imperative insists that what can be done must be done, but this conflicts with the growing evidence that science, especially when allied with commercial interests, often acts precipitously and against the well-being of society. Far from offering the keys to a utopian world, technology proves on a daily basis to be a Pandora’s box of mixed blessings. Ultimately, the beliefs we hold about technology may be as powerful in determining the future for global society as technological innovations themselves. Summary of Core Themes The opposition between the natural world and technological society involves tremendous tension and determines many of the crucial moral dilemmas and survival-issues of our time. The three overarching themes — Opposition, Origins, and Moral Design — resonate with the structural tension of the baseline of the arch, and so these themes recur constantly in every situation of contemporary life.

Each component of the arch represents a comprehensive and repeating phase of experience enacted through a range of specific mythemes through which human beings identify their personal and collective belief-systems. For instance, Eden, Paradise, and the Golden Age are subsumed in Sacred Nature. The Fall, the Flood, and War in Heaven are subsumed under Opposition. The mytheme of sacrifice, considered in two earlier cases in the Guidelines, appears in the category of Origins, because the sacrifice of the sacred king (messiah, the anointed one) is a ritualized belief upon which all civilizations were known to be originally based. But sacrifice is not exclusively restricted to that category. The meaning of sacrifice also figures within Moral Design and even Technology. The belief that we must sacrifice the natural resources of the earth to have an adequate standard of living for global society is also an example of this mytheme.


Part of our goal, undoubtedly, is to learn what it means to live without paradigm, but I also sense a much more complex possibility, viz., developing a radical new code that is itself about coding, and is not merely a shift of coding.
- Morris Berman, Coming to Our Senses

In short, mythemes are fluid, capable of assuming different profiles relative to the five components of the arch. In the language of comparative mythology and depth psychology, the operative mythemes are said to “constellate” human activities both externally and in the personal psyche. This means that a mytheme such as sacrifice gathers around itself a specific pattern of enactments (constellation), rather like a magnet gathers iron filings into a rosette or figure eight. The overarching themes of metahistory are tools for detecting and deciphering these patterns. The five components — Sacred Nature, Opposition, Origins, Moral Design, and Technology — are discussed at greater length in individual pages dedicated to them, elsewhere in this metahistory site.
















Sacred Nature
Moral Design



Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.