Ripples in History

I recently finished Victor Davis Hanson’s Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), with the give-it-all-away subtitle How wars of the past still determine how we fight, how we live, and how we think. Generalizing a bit, not just wars but many major events and some small, unnoticed ones send ripples into the future, silently influencing future generations. Could the present, our present, have turned out differently?

First, a bit about the book. For such a detailed and informative book, it was an easy read. The book recounts three battles — Okinawa, Shiloh, and Delium — and shows how events that played out in a matter of days or even hours produced long-lasting consequences that are still with us. The kamikazi pilots and fight-to-the-death soldiers at Okinawa are suddenly echoed by today’s suicide bombers. At Shiloh, the Union’s General Sherman emerged from heavy fire with bullet holes in his uniform but only slight wounds, while the Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston (of Utah War fame) died in a mid-day charge on a Union position — how differently future battles might have gone had a rifle ball or two been two inches this way or that and the outcomes been reversed. At Delium, the rustic Boeotians displayed clever tactics (later picked up by Philip and Alexander) and routed the sophisticated Athenians, slaughtering thousands of fleeing hoplites. But they didn’t get Socrates, or philosophy might have taken a much different path. You wouldn’t have read The Republic in college, for instance.

There are several interesting extensions from this basic theme. One which the author pursues in his conclusion is our contemporary event of 9-11, which promises to send large ripples forward for a century or more. Hanson notes, “If our understanding of Greek tragedy, art, philosophy, politics, and war were changed by a relatively obscure battle at Delium, why would not the destruction of the World Trade Center and the bombing of the Pentagon not similarly alter American culture?”

We might ask related questions about Mormon history rather than military history. What if the door to the upper room at Carthage Jail had been stronger with a solid lock, and Joseph not perished there? What if Governor Ford had heeded Joseph’s plea and taken Joseph and Hyrum to Nauvoo with his party? Or earlier, what if young Joseph had been welcomed by his local Methodist congregation rather than snubbed? What if Mount Tambora had not erupted in 1815, causing crop failures across the world in 1816, including New England? It was the last straw for the Smith family, who moved from Vermont to Palmyra in upstate New York late that summer.

Somehow it is easier to play counterfactual history with Sherman and Johnston at Shiloh (there are always extra generals around to carry on the fight) than with Joseph at Carthage. But both raise a deep philosophical question: Could the present have turned out differently? Can we change the future? Our LDS emphasis on what used to be called free agency suggests we have the power to choose and consequently to change the course of the future. But our emphasis on prophecy and God’s foreknowledge suggests that power to alter the course of future events is illusory. Then there is this enigmatic passage canonized in verses 14 and 15 of Section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants, described in the heading as items of instruction given by Joseph Smith in 1843.

I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following: Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.

I don’t know if this means that if the jailer had put a strong lock on the door at Carthage Jail, we’d be a hundred years into the Millennium right now. But that passage does seem to imply the future is open, not determined. Past and present events, even our own personal actions, will ripple though the future. Good deeds pay future dividends. And that is an encouraging thought.

9 comments for “Ripples in History

  1. RogerDodger
    August 3, 2010 at 6:07 am

    What if Hyrum had not died with Joseph in Carthage jail?

  2. Dan
    August 3, 2010 at 7:15 am


    But both raise a deep philosophical question: Could the present have turned out differently? Can we change the future?

    Of course it definitely WOULD have turned out differently, not just could. But we would never have known differently. History is written as we walk forward, and nothing is definitive or set in stone. I think about this a lot, because I had an opportunity in my youth for a vastly different outcome than the one I’m currently on. I could have remained in Romania and grown up there. I’ve thought about that hypothetical often, and very simply, I don’t bother with it at all, because when I come to a fork in the road, my thought isn’t “hmm, how can I send ripples down to my future generations?” but rather, “this seems like a better path than that.”

  3. August 3, 2010 at 10:55 am

    DB: But at the same time, we must “confess the hand of God in all things.”

    This statement seems logical to me: “Things that happen, which God does not directly cause, He allows.” I conclude that based on God’s omniscience and being all-powerful, and Him foreknowing all things.

    And with his foreknowledge, I must then logically conclude He takes those events into account in his plans, and His further decisions to cause/not-cause or allow/not-allow both subsequent _and_ preceeding events.

    A time paradox (along with paradoxes of agency and randomness) occurs when we try to take God’s foreknowledge, and bring it into our temporal sphere of linear time. We just can’t wrap our limited temporal one-way (timewise) past-to-present-to-future minds around a Being who appears to exist in a higher dimension and for whom past/present/future are all “present” to Him.

    God knew Sherman was going to live and Johnston was going to die. God knew it from before the foundation of the world. Using phrasing I picked up somewhere, “Johnston always did die in the battle. Johnston always dies in the battle. Johnston will always die in that battle.”

    I don’t think we can fully resolve the apparent paradoxes or apparent conflicts that temporal randomness and temporal human agency have with God’s foreknowledge until we ourselves exist beyond this temporal sphere of 3-D space and linear one-way time. As I understand it, only those who attain unto exaltation, ie, have “eternal” life (outside of linear time) will be able to grok it. The ministering angels (2nd and 3rd levels in the CK), and the inhabitants of the Terrestrial and Telestial Kingdoms probably won’t be able to comprehend it, at least not fully as they won’t be able to experience it personally.

    Even Non-christian theorists (sorry, I can’t quote sources handily) have said that time is a “local phenomenon.” And that there are dimensions beyond our 3-D space and time, where what we consider as “time” does not exist, or is limited to the lower dimensions.

    Another point: God’s foreknowledge does not require randomness. Or conversely, apparent randomness (from out point of view) does not negate God’s foreknowledge. IE, flipping a coin may be considered random by us, but that doessn’t prevent God from knowing what the result is going to be.

    Here are some things that give examples of a higher dimension where our time line appears as “present” to those who inhabit the higher dimension:

    1. a metaphor in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, about the view from a moving
    2. A couple episodes of Star Trek Deep Space 9, that deal with the worm-hole aliens having a conversation with Sisko. One conversation seemed like it came right out of the D&C.
    3. Bruce Webster’s article on higher dimensions:

  4. August 3, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    My favorite “what if” has to do with two days in 1914. On the first, Grigorii Rasputin was stabbed, and lived. On the next, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, and died. My speculation begins with having Rasputin die and Ferdinand living. Postponing WWI is likely, and slowing the deterioration of the Romanov Dynasty in combination with that makes both the Revolutions of 1917 unlikely. No Third Reich and no Soviet Union makes the last half of the 20th Century a whole different world — quite literally.

    My favorite “what if” in Mormon history has to do with the Assiti Shards series beginning with 1632 by Eric Flint. It brings a rural modern American town into Germany in 1632, which destabilizes the word sufficiently that every event after that point is considered to be altered such that it is impossible for Joseph Smith as he was to have been born. But it does include a small Mormon congregation who has a full set of Standard Works, and there are stories involving a missionary who is publishing the Book of Mormon and preaching the gospel through Europe.

    I haven’t read the whole series, but, up until the point I had, they never dealt with the theological problems for Mormonism with having the Restoration breaking out in 17th Century Europe in a world without a First Vision or any other of the founding historical events of Mormonism. With no Apostles, how do you restructure the Church? Answering the questions definitively requires getting God’s opinion on the matter, but just having the conversation with the PEC of the branch could be really interesting (to geeky Mormon nerds).

    Alternate history fascinates me, but it is often dissatisfying because it’s exploration of things that just didn’t happen.

  5. H. Bob
    August 4, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Since college I’ve wondered why it was that Joseph Smith spoke English, and that the Book of Mormon was translated into that language to begin with. I mean, if the Spanish Armada hadn’t been destroyed in the Channel, he’d likely have been a native Spanish speaker. If the French and Indian Wars had ended slightly differently, he’d have been speaking French in Canandaigua. Maybe this whole topic only occurs because we tend to see a hand involved with, say, the Mount Tambora incident, but it does get pretty fascinating imagining the possibilities.

  6. Bob
    August 5, 2010 at 9:25 am

    I believe in “Ripples in History”. But I don’t see them as part of a Grand Plan for Mankind.
    I guess I am a little off on Mormon thought. I believe only the past is real, the ‘now’ is but a moment, and the future is empty.

  7. American Yak
    August 5, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    I have been developing a theory for a while now regarding the terrestrial imperfection of time and space, and how the atonement could (and I believe does) literally make up for error. Such changes in “ripples,” are ultimately accounted for by God, then, through his forever-reaching atonement. The very words “eternal,” “forever,” and so forth imply His eventual, if not immediate, care over time. “Foreknowledge.”

    By the way, what would have happened had Hanson never written his book.

    Also incidental, I love VDH.

  8. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    August 5, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    As Latter-day Saints, we have some pretty uncanny prophecies in our history and scriptures, including not only Nephi’s vision, with its prediction of the destruction that was later recorded in 3 Nephi, but also the prophecies about Christ by Benjamin and Samuel. And then there is the doozy about the loss of the 116 pages of Book of Mormon manuscript, and being replaced by a record that Nephi felt compelled to make as a spiritual duplicate of his prior historical record, and which Mormon discovered and felt compelled to add to his abridgment.

    However God does it, he clearly is able to make very detailed predictions of certain future events, over 2000 years down the line. Is it because God is very smart in making deductions about probable events, in light of his intimate knowledge of the character of the people eh sends to earth? Or does he have an extra sense that is not timebound like ours are, raising all sorts of questions about God’s unwillingness to prevent bad events, even in the subtle ways we would expect a really smart guy to know? Is his knowledge of the future restrained in order to give us maximum freedom to fail or succeed?

    The paradox is that God affirms that we have moral agency to choose our actions, even as he affirms that his program is not going to fail in the end.

  9. Bob
    August 6, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Again, I believe in “Ripples in History”. But I don’t think they can be used in a theory of ‘Cosmos’. I believe they will work in a theory of ‘Chaos’. Particularly when the Ripple Rings start to run into each other.

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