There are two popular ways of looking at human history, as far as I know. Either it is linear like a highway headed to a destination, or it’s cyclical like the seasons and has no ultimate end.

In the linear view of history, each age builds upon the last. Whether inadvertently or not, each civilization sets the stage for the one to follow. The hope is that each successor is a little stronger than its predecessor, so eventually there will be a civilization that accumulates enough wisdom and knowledge to avoid being destroyed, or to avoid destroying itself. Eventually, in this linear view of history, we will have a Utopia.

In the cyclical view of history, each civilization is like every other living thing that is born, grows, wanes and dies; they all have their spring, summer, autumn and winter. The particular reasons for a civilization’s rise and fall are arbitrary, because every civilization is destined to go through the same cycle. If the conditions are right, its blooming – manifested through a flourishing of culture and the arts – is natural and to be expected. Its demise is also inevitable.

German philosopher of history Oswald Spengler (1880-1937) espoused this theory and came to the conclusion that “optimism is cowardice,” saying, “We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. … The honorable end is the one thing that cannot be taken from a man.”

Thankfully, there is a third way to view history that used to be popular. It is the Catholic way, and I’d like to make the case for why we should return to it.

The Catholic vision of history may be seen as a combination of the linear and cyclical views. In the ancient classic “City of God,” St. Augustine answered detractors who blamed Christians for the fall of Rome. He argued that all civilizations are destined to fall, but also that humanity is destined to something beyond this world. So while each civilization does have a natural end, as the cyclical view proposes, humanity as a whole is headed to its transcendent end, and history attests to this.

St. Augustine states, “Man was made to walk erect with his eyes on heaven, as though to remind him to keep his thoughts on things above.”

This hope of heaven, as C.S. Lewis so keenly explains, allows for creativity to take place, and for a spirit of discovery to inhabit the culture. “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next,” Lewis said.

Imbued with the hope of a transcendent end, Catholics have an alternative to the false optimism of a Utopian society and the pessimism that the endless cycle of history theory tends to breed. The Catholic philosophy of history is infused with the Holy Spirit, which drives us to discover deeper truths beyond this world. History is a story constantly unfolding before us and leading us to our end in heaven.

In the age of Christendom (from around 400-1500 A.D.), this was the dominant vision of history. Our greatest structures were cathedrals that reached for the sky. Religious orders wherein people sought the will of God prevailed. The principles of human dignity and subsidiarity were promulgated throughout the many strongholds of Europe. As these principles became more and more realized, tribes became small kingdoms and developed their own languages with the help of the religious orders, merchants began to prosper and form guilds, noble families contrived coats of arms, universities sprang up in the cities and countryside. Villages and towns were self-sufficient, and people were united by their religion – their journey to heaven. As they drew closer to that transcendent end, the realities, truths and beauties of this world and the next became clearer and clearer to them.

History isn’t purposeless and directionless, as the cyclical view of history suggests. History is linear, but it is not one seamless story of human progression. Humanity is headed somewhere, but not to some idealistic perfect society. We’re headed toward our transcendent, eternal end. This is true for individual souls, but also for the human race as a whole. All of history is a story that will eventually lead to the great wedding feast between God and humanity.

David Kilby is a freelance writer for The Monitor. He is a parishioner of St. Isaac Jogues Parish, Marlton, and can be reached at kilbyfreelancer@gmail.com.