The Structure of Cultural Revolutions

Cultures, like institutions, periodically lose their way. And, over time, they develop archetypes for who shall call the culture back to its senses and how.

The cultural inheritors of the Abrahamic and Greco-Roman traditions — generally speaking, Western and Islamic societies — stand in the prophetic tradition. We rely on our prophets and philosophers to do the difficult and often dangerous work of pointing out where we have strayed and exhorting us back onto the correct path.

Unlike sages, who tend to retreat from the world in order to renew themselves or the culture, prophets confront the culture head-on. And, despite how uncomfortable they make us, we depend on gadflies and jeremiads to urge us beyond ourselves.

And, unlike utopians, the basic trope of the prophetic tradition is to recall a time when things were right with the world: Rulers were just. The economy worked for everyone. The culture was healthy and walking upright in its truth.

Even as we grow increasingly un-churched and de-institutionalized, the cultural memory of the prophetic tradition still runs deep. There is an accepted form for these messages: what once was right has now gone wrong and must be set right again.

If you want to engage in the difficult work of bending the culture, it’s worth understanding how to create a narrative that resonates with our subconscious memory of how these messages — and messengers — are supposed to sound. It’s also worth choosing your origin story carefully: memory is deeply personal and part fictional, and there’s no such thing as precisely winding back the clock.

We might need to return to what we used to know when we walked in the old ways, but we are a new people with new experiences. The question is how to recover the old wisdom in our own days.