Home > History > A Grid for Understanding History, Part II

A Grid for Understanding History, Part II

In my last post I laid out my grid approach for understanding history. Today I am examining the way individuals fit into the grid.

Similarly to my study of world history, this is the problem I have when studying biographies: I have trouble figuring out where the subjects fit in relation to everything else. Now with the grid, I have a place I can quickly ‘file them’ in my mind. It gets a little tricky, since very few people were born right on one of the grid lines, so what I do is get a rough approximation of where they fit. Here is how it works:

Segment the person’s life into 25-year segments, beginning at their birth. Next figure out approximately how far off the 25-year marks from world history the person is (that is, the 0, 25, 50, and 75 year dividers in world history). For instance, Martin Luther was born in 1483, so he is about one third off from the 1475-1500 block.

Generally, every person gets three 25-year blocks if they live a full life. During the first block there are very few individuals that ever do anything important. You are just learning about the world. But it is important to pay attention to this block of time in a person’s life because whatever is happening in world history is going to be formative. During this block, people may be willing to change the world, but generally are not able yet.

You can safely assume that each individual has indirect access to three blocks of time before they were born. That is, even if the subject did not personally experience those blocks, he or she will know people who did – typically parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

When people drastically change the world, it is generally during the second block of their lives(25-50 years old). By this block, people have acquired enough knowledge and experience to have a real impact, but generally have no deep commitments to the received wisdom of the past generation. People in this period are still willing to change the world, but now have acquired the ability.

Taking Martin Luther as an example again, he nailed his theses to the door in 1517. Because he is about a third off of the historical blocks, his second block starts about a third after 1500, or about 1508. It is the middle of his second block that he departs from the conventional wisdom of his time, becoming the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. For Luther, it is his second block of time that is most important.

It is the third block, from 50-75 years, that people generally do their best work. They have already taken their stands on whatever issues they have chosen to tackle. These are the years when people are best able to really flesh out positions taken earlier in life. It is not so much that people in this block no longer wish to change the world, but they have already taken a stand on how to change it. Usually the people we are interested in studying are the kinds of people who overturned the prevailing orthodoxy, but once that is done, their own positions have become the new orthodoxy and need working out. People in this block of life are generally the most effective in whatever they have decided to do because they have so much knowledge and experience to bring to bear on it. Keeping with our example, Martin Luther died only a few years into his third block.

Occasionally people like Billy Graham get a fourth block. This used to be pretty rare but with modern medicine is becoming a lot more common. I call this the bonus round. It’s usually harder to do things during this block, but it’s like you get double points for everything you do.

I think this system helps give a quick-and-dirty view of a person’s life. By comparing the person to the grid, you can often guess about when the person’s major life events occurred. Nine times out of ten the grid’s predictions will be spot-on. The remaining 10% of the time are worth taking note of, because there is probably a detail that accounts for it that is worth noting.

Let’s look at a few more examples:
Karl Barth (1886-1968) – He is almost half way off the 1875 grid line.

  1. 1st block (approx. 1886-1915)
  2. 2nd block (approx. 1915-1940) – Romans commentary written 1922 (about a third of the way into his second block), the bomb in the playground of liberal theology; Barmen declaration written 1934 against Nazism.
  3. 3rd block (approx. 1940-1965) – Church Dogmatics, begun in 1932, but mostly written during this block of time, representing Barth’s later theology and moving away from the dialectical theology of the 2nd block. Many of his most important lectures are delivered at the end of this block, 1962-1965.
  4. Bonus (1965-1968)

Paul (10-65, though much of this is guesswork) – This puts him just over a third off the Year 1 grid line.

  1. 1st block (10-35) – Paul is converted near the end of this period, about the year 33.
  2. 2nd block (35-60) – The first third of this block is spent in Cilicia and Syria; the second two-thirds are his missionary journeys.
  3. 3rd block (60-65) – Paul in Rome. We have very little information about Paul’s activity during this time. Tradition says he was beheaded in Rome.

Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) – He’s just a few years behind the 350 grid line, so we’ll line his up at about five years off.

  1. 1st block (356-330) – One of the very few individuals in history to make an impact during his first block, which makes him noteworthy. He takes over Macedonia after his father’s assassination in 335. Even so, he contributes militarily rather than intellectually, which partially explains this deviation.
  2. 2nd block (330-323) – Alexander dies early, having conquered the known world.

In my next post, I will look at a specific time period, the period that has grabbed my interest currently: Israel under the Maccabees and the time leading up to the New Testament gospels.

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