24 January 2012
Even a brief look at Peru reveals a society, which though burdened by a great disparity of rich and poor as is commonplace throughout Latin America, nevertheless shows clear signs of increasingly distributed prosperity — it would not be going too far to call this process of increasingly distributed prosperity economic democratization.
The highways in Peru are my Exhibit “A” for economic democratization — the roads themselves are well maintained and well traveled, but more importantly there is the dependable police presence and the regular weigh stations along the Panamericana, which are signs of the kind of rule of law that touches on the ordinary business of life (in Marshall’s famous phrase), i.e., commerce. It must be emphasized that this manifestation of the rule of law is the antithesis of that sense of the law mordantly expressed by Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
Rule of law can be an excuse for the powerful to exploit the powerless (thus exemplifying the infrastructure/superstructure dichotomy), as in the Anatole France quote, but rule of law at its best provides a level playing field in which all enjoy equality of opportunity, not equality of exploitation. Also regularly visible along the Panamericana are billboards advertising consumer goods of every familiar kind, which suggests that consumers have disposable income and a choice in how to spend it. It may sound perverse to praise the emergence of a consumerist economy as a virtue, but in comparison to the quasi-feudal economy that preceded it, this represents remarkable progress.
My Exhibit “B” for economic democratization in Peru is the city of Ica. Ica is not well known to tourists, and I did not see another tourist while I was there. If you stay on the Panamericana and breezed through Ica it might strike you as just another dusty town in the desert, and not much different from Nazca. But Nazca, which appears to live almost exclusively off the tourist trade, is quite small, and really appears to be a dusty desert town, whose streets are filled with watering holes for tourists. In Ica, on the other hand, where tourists are not in evidence, the downtown core (some distance from the unattractive aspect presented on the Panamericana) is busy and bustling with locals patronizing all manner of local businesses. While many of the historical buildings in Ica have not been repaired since the last severe earthquake, some traditional facades and arcades are filled with small businesses, attractively placing contemporary commerce in a traditional setting.
My anecdotal account of the Peruvian economy would be no surprise to those who follow statistics and know that Peru’s economy has been growing steadily for many years. When I was last in Peru, in 1994, it had not yet been long that “Presidente Gonzalo” (Manuel Rubén Abimael Guzmán Reynoso) had been captured and Sendero Luminoso demoted from an existential threat to the state to being an occasionally deadly irritant. Fujimori was still in power at that time, but since then several popularly elected presidents have both served their terms in office and have then peacefully handed their power of that office to their successors. There were some worries in the business community when Ollanta Humala was elected, on account of things he said in the past and his political friendships with leftist leaders, but his term so far has brought no destabilizing changes or radical initiatives and the Financial Times has had good things to say about him.
All of this can be gotten from statistics and newspapers; what cannot be gotten from statistics and newspapers is the temper of the people and tone of life. Well, in Peruvian cities the tone of life is loud. Everyone in traffic honks all the time. If you go straight, people honk; if you go right, people honk; if you go left, people honk. Speed up, honk; slow down, honk; stop, honk. You get the idea. But beyond this nerve-wracking clamor, people were spontaneously helpful. Several times, without being asked and without expecting a tip, bystanders helped me to pull out of a tight spot, to maneuver in traffic, and get where I was going when I was not at all certain as to how to do this. There are many cities in the US where you would not encounter this.
In fact, not long ago (in What’s with the attitude?) I wrote about the increasing rudeness of traffic confrontations in Portland. Now, I cannot imagine Peruvian drivers lining up neatly as drivers sometimes do in Portland when there is an obvious traffic queue due to construction or an accident, but I certainly can imagine Peruvian drivers demonstrating spontaneous acts of generosity in the midst of a non-queue. Neither social custom is superior; each simply reveals a distinct manner of acknowledging the humanity of The Other, and this is necessary to a healthy society. Elsewhere I have called this Social Gift Exchange.
Perhaps you think that I have gone on rather too long about in too great detail about roads and traffic, and that this reveals more about myself than about Peru. Perhaps so. Perhaps not. But I will defend my discussion on objective grounds. The model of development that prevails in the Western Hemisphere is predicated upon intermodal transport disproportionately relying on truck transport across highways. Trains are important, but trains will never have the tradition or the economic centrality that they have had in the Old World. In the New World, the truck and the highway are the economic ties that bind.
Elsewhere I have defined (what I call) a Stage 1 civilization as a civilization in which transportation has been globalized so that persons, goods, and services move throughout the world without respect to the geographical obstacles that defined the character of Stage 0 civilizations — when the human diaspora resulted in isolated pockets of civilization, each ignorant of the other. Today, a functioning transportation infrastructure is the price for participating fully — not merely peripherally — in global industrial-technological civilization.
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While I am posting this a couple of days after the fact, this entire account was written in longhand on the day here described.
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23 January 2012
A short distance north of Nazca, along the Panamericana, and situated between the designs of the “hands” (“manos“) and the “tree” (“arbol“), there is a tower (the “Torre Mirador”) that can be climbed, probably about 40 or 50 feet in height, in order to view some part of the lines of Nazca without flying over them. This close-up view of the lines clearly reveals the construction methods that I quoted yesterday (in Lines in the Desert) from Mason’s The Ancient Civilizations of Peru — stones have been removed from within geometrically defined areas and the removed stones have been piled at the edges of the designs. The piled stones not only represent the space cleared, but the piles themselves serve to make the demarcation between cleared and non-cleared areas all the more obvious, making the distinction more visually striking.
This construction technique was also used at nearby Palpa, and continues to be effective in the present day, as driving along the Panamericana (once outside the archaeologically preserved area) one sees a variety of messages spelled out in the desert, from the initials and names of individuals to fairly elaborate advertisements for small roadside stores.
In my naïveté I though that any intrepid visitor of sufficient curiosity might walk out into the desert and and look at the construction of the lines for themselves, but the desert has been fenced off along the Panamericana to prevent further damage to the lines, and once made aware of the threat it becomes immediately obvious how damaged many of the lines and figures are, which accounts for some of the difficulty in seeing some of the patterns from the air. Some — but not all.
Much is revealed by a close inspection (as one can gain from the tower along the Panamericana) that is lost in a distant view from the air, just as much is revealed in a distant inspection from the air that is close in the close-up view from near the ground. This is a perfect concrete illustration of what I was recently writing about in relation to the distinction between constructive and non-constructive thought (in P or not-P). In this post (on my other blog) I employed an image taken from Alain Connes to illustrate the constructive/non-constructive distinction such that the constructive perspective is like that of a mountain climber while the non-constructive perspective is like that of a visitor who flies over the summit of a mountain laboriously climbed by the other.
Any thorough investigation will want to make use of both perspectives in order to obtain the most comprehensive perspective possible — even though each perspective has its blind spots and its shadows that compromise our perspective on the whole. Indeed, it is precisely because each perspective incorporates deficits specific to the perspective that one will want to supplement any one perspective without another perspective with a different set of specific deficits. Between two or more fundamentally different perspectives on any one state-of-affairs there is the possibility of constructing the comprehensive conception that is excluded by any one perspective in isolation.
The two perspectives offered on the Nazca lines by the tower and an airplane flyover also reminded me of a point that I imperfectly attempted to make in my post on Epistemic Orders of Magnitude, in which I employed aerial photographs of cities in order to demonstrate the similar structures of cities transformed in the imagine of industrial-technological civilization. This similarity in structure may be masked by one’s experience of an urban area from the perspective of passing through the built environment on a human scale — i.e., simply walking through a city, which is how most people experience an urban area.
Now, in light of what I have subsequently written about constructivism, I might say that our experience of a built environment is intrinsically constructive, except for that of the urban planner or urban designer, who must see (or attempt to see) things whole. However, the urban planner must also inform his or her work with the street-level “constructive” perspective or the planning made exclusively from a top-down perspective is likely to be a failure. Almost all of the most spectacular failures in urban design have come about from an attempt to impose, from the top down, a certain vision and a certain order which may be at odds with the organically emergent order that rises from the bottom up.
This reflection gives us yet another perspective on utopianism, which I have many times tried to characterize in my attempts to show the near (not absolute) historical inevitability of utopian schemes transforming themselves upon their attempted implementation into dystopian nightmares — the utopian planner attempts to design from a purely non-constructive perspective without the benefit of a constructive perspective. This dooms the utopian plans to inevitable blindspots, shadows, and deficits. The oversights of a single perspective then, in the fullness of time, create the conditions for cascading catastrophic failure.
Historically speaking, it is not difficult to see how this comes about. After the astonishing planned cities of early antiquity, many from prehistoric societies that have left us little record except for their admirably regular and disciplined town plans, Europeans turned to a piecemeal, organic approach to urbanism. Once this approach was rapidly outgrown when cities began their burgeoning growth with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it was a natural response on the part of Haussman-esque planners to view organic urbanism as a “failure” that necessitated replacement by another model that envisioned the already-built environment as a tabula rasa to be re-built according to rational standards. Cities henceforth were to be wholly planned to address to inadequacies of the medieval pattern of non-planning, which could not cope with cities with populations that now numbered in the millions.
I have observed elsewhere (in my Political Economy of Globalization) that many ancient prehistoric societies were essentially utopian constructions over which a god-king presided as a living god, present in the flesh among his people, and indeed some of the most striking examples of ancient town planning date from societies that exhibited (or seem to have exhibited) this now-vanished form of order. For only where a god-king is openly acknowledged as such can a social order based upon living and present divinity within the said social order be possible.
Nazca, however, does not seem to have been based on this social plan of a divinely-sanctioned social order which can bring utopian (and therefore likely non-constructive, top-down) planning into actual practice because of the physical presence of the god in the midst of his people. The book that I cited yesterday, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru by J. Alden Mason, has this to say of Nazca society:
“…the general picture seems to be one of a sedentary democratic people without marked class distinctions or authoritarianism, possibly without an established religion. There is less difference in the ‘richness’ or poverty of the graves, and women seem to be on an equality with men in this respect. The apparent absence of great public works, of extensive engineering features, and of temple pyramids implies a lack of authoritarian leadership. Instead, the leisure time of the people seems to have been spent in individual production, especially in the making of quantities of perfect, exquisite textiles and pottery vessels. This seems to indicate a strong cult of ancestor-worship. Cloths on which an incredible amount of labor was spent were made especially for funerary offerings and interred with the dead. The orientation seems to have been towards individualized religion rather than towards community participation, dictation, coercion, and aggression.”
J. Alden Mason, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru, Penguin Books, 1968, p. 85
Such egalitarian societies focused on the satisfaction of consumer demands were rare in the ancient world, but we should not be surprised that it was an egalitarian society, organized constructively from the bottom up, that produced the astonishing lines in the desert of the Nazca. Without an aerial perspective, the making of these lines was a thoroughly constructivistic undertaking, not even counter-balanced by a non-constructive perspective, which has only been obtained long after the Nazca civilization has disappeared, leaving only traces of itself in the dessicated sands of the desert.
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While I am posting this a couple of days after the fact, this entire account was written in longhand on the day here described.
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22 January 2012
The Humboldt current (also called the Peru current) circulates cold water from Antarctica along this section of the South American coast, and this current only turns back into the center of the Pacific at the equator. The combination of the cold Humboldt current and the Andes running close to the coast create a natural air conditioner that has made the Atacama desert of Northern Chile the driest place in the world, and deserts of the Peruvian coast nearly as dessicated. But there seems to be just enough water hidden among the dry, gray hills around Nazca to make life and a little bit of agriculture possible. I expected to see desert; I did not expect to see the occasional green valley between the otherwise barren hills.
The most astonishing feature of Nazca, and that which has made it a tourist destination for the work entire (lots of European tourists are in evidence in Nazca, though relatively few from North America) is a feature of the unique climate, and this is the network of lines and figures drawn into the sand of the desert. The aridity of the climate ensures that weather is almost entirely unknown here, which means that a change to the surface of the desert is largely unaffected by the natural weathering processes present elsewhere. The early Nazca culture bequeathed a patrimony to the world and a steady income to their distant descendents by carving lines in the desert and otherwise altering the appearance of the desert in a systematic way.
It is relatively easy to understand how the lines were made — push a stick in the sand and drag it some distance and the furrow of the plow brings a different color of sand to the surface. From an engineering stand point I was more interested in the large geometrically-defined spaces and long lines, which are a different color that the other parts of the desert, but which could not be made by the same simple method as the lines. The Ancient Civilizations of Peru by J. Alden Mason explains these spaces:
“The small stones that cover the surface probably contain iron, and the suns of many millennia have formed a dark patina on their upper faces. These stones were removed from certain areas by the ancient peoples and piled at the edges of these places, leaving designs in the lighter-colored sand and gravel below.” (p. 88)
This method is simplicity itself, and accords in this respect with the methods of ancient peoples in the construction of their geoglyphs. It is an irony of human history that the most lasting and durable works of human beings have been among those earliest works created by the simplest methods — geoglyphs, petroglyphs, and megaliths created by peoples some might well deny the status of being “civilized.” If the geoglyphs of Nazca or the cave paintings of France and Spain or the megaliths found around the world are not the work of civilized peoples, so much the worse for civilization. This constitutes prima facie evidence that that which is uniquely human and of enduring if not perennial value can be isolated apart from civilization.
In my formative years the books by Erich von Däniken, and the films based on these books, were quite popular. I myself read the books and saw the films. I have to wonder now, many decades later, how many people in the industrialized world had heard of the lines of Nazca before his work. While there is a sense in which von Däniken can be credited for bringing some of the astonishing works of antiquity to wide attention, but one has to ask if it was all worth the price that was paid. There continues to be a popular culture industry is promoting such artifacts as the consequence of alien visitation, and in fact the first figure shown to us today, a friendly figure waving to the sky, is called the “Astronauta” — the astronaut. For this, von Däniken deserves the credit or the blame, as you prefer.
The most obvious geoglyph as seen from above is the highway — indeed, the Panamericana runs right through the center of the most famous lines and figures. One has to wonder if the road had been built today if some kind of detour around this unique-in-the-world archaeological site might have been considered. On the other hand, none of the actual figures seems to have been bisected, so that this industrial-age vandalism to a prehistoric site could have been worse.
After the highway, the next most obvious feature as seen from above is an enormous dry riverbed. There are many traces of water flow that I guess to be ancient, but given the lack of weather in his desert, they might be from a few weeks or months ago. One suspects there are flash floods here, probably highly infrequently, but their traces are retained for the same reason that the geoglyphs are retained. Walking around Nazca today after the overflight of the lines, I walked over a bridge that crosses a dry riverbed. For someone from the Pacific Northwest, where there are no empty riverbeds and empty stream courses, it is an odd feeling.
The lines of Nazca can be difficult to see, and many of the famous figures are difficult to make out, though the assemblage of the site on the whole is striking: the ground has be altered over a vast tract of land. On the one hand, the site is enormous, on the other hand, it is fairly well defined and confined to a definite area. No doubt experts can cite many examples further afield, and relics of the Nazca culture extend throughout the region, but that part of the desert that has been utterly transformed by the lines and figures of Nazca is as carefully grouped as if it were designed to be an archaeological park.
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I previously wrote about the Nazca culture in Civilization: A Rope or a Broom?
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19 January 2012
Since I last wrote I have experienced a dramatic change in hemispheres, going from the snow of rural Oregon, pictured above from just a few days ago, to the overcast heat and humidity of Lima, Peru. The contrast would have been even more striking had it been as sunny as I expected the southern hemisphere to be in January, but it is still a dramatic hemispherical shift. There is a scene in Goethe’s Faust when Faust requests grapes (or some other fruit — I can’t precisely recall), and Mephistopheles disappears only to return momentarily with the grapes. Although the feat is magical, Faust does not ascribe it to magic, but furnishes the explanation to Faust that on the opposite side of the world it is summer even as it is winter in Faust’s Europe. This is how the man of the Northern Hemisphere views the exotic climes of the Southern Hemisphere.
Even while taking leave of the Northern Hemisphere I have remained within the Western Hemisphere, and I am very pleased to be back in Peru, since it has been almost twenty years since I was last here. Peru is the fons et origo of civilization in the Western Hemisphere. Like Anatolia and Mesopotamia, the history of civilization runs deep here. The succession of peoples and cultures has left stratified layers in time, and this stratigraphy of history gives a definite shape to the past.
There has also been a succession of empires through the ages. When I was last in Ecuador, at the Hacienda San Agustin — which in its earlier iterations was an Inca outpost on the periphery of empire — the Ecuadorians spoke of the Peruvians as warlike and given to quarrel. I do not know if this is true, but I do know that when they spoke, they spoke with the knowing look of a neighbor on their faces.
We should not be surprised at this. Civilization and war are born twins. Recently on Twitter I wrote that one could uncharitably say of civilization that is is merely epiphenomenal of war, or one could say more charitably that war is merely epiphenomenal of civilization. Perhaps each is epiphenomenal of the other, and there is no one, single foundation of organized human activity — it is simply that large-scale human activity sometimes manifests itself as civilization and sometimes manifests itself as war.
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13 January 2012
Why do I keep writing about Marx? I have already discovered that repeatedly writing about Marx confuses people. Indeed, it confuses some people so completely that if you write a long, detailed criticism of some Marxian idea, those who don’t take the time to read or don’t have the capacity of understand simply assume you’re a Marxist because you’re writing about Marx. Why not get “Karl Marx” tattooed across my knuckles, then? It’s a fun idea. People who read me, but don’t read me closely, sometimes think I’m a Marxist, while people who see me but don’t look closely sometimes think I’m a John Bircher. Really. I was in a coffee house in a trendy part of Portland some years ago having a long and detailed conversation about logic with a friend, and someone asked us if we were from the John Birch Society. I guess it must have been due to our clean-cut looks and the moral earnestness of our discussion. I once asked one of my sisters why people often mistake me for a reactionary, and she said I wasn’t “flying the flag,” and that if I wore my hair in dreadlocks and dressed the part, people would probably think differently. I realized later how right she was.
For my part, I continue to write about Marx because Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas. And so it is necessary to grapple with Marx. I might even be willing to go so far as to say of Marx what Hegel said of Spinoza: To be a philosopher, one must first be a Marxist.
I have on many occasions written about the eschatology implicit in Marx, which is a pretty straight-forward secularization of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. Recently in Missing the point I used this famous phrase to describe the dead-end ritualism of mass labor under advanced industrialized capitalism, but it is just as true of Marx’s original vision. Some time ago I quoted a famous passage from Bertrand Russell to this end (Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization). This post was cited in a discussion on The Rational Responders web site. No one told me about the discussion; I found it by following the links back from hits to my post. Some seemed to agree with me, while others thought I got it all wrong, and Russell too.
It was one of the central features of Karl Löwith’s philosophy of history that modernity itself consists of a number of secularizations of originally theological concepts, and Löwith clearly implied that this rendered much modern thought essentially illegitimate. This implication was sufficiently clear that Hans Blumenberg wrote a long book, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in order to rebut Löwith. Unfortunately, Löwith and Blumenberg are not well known in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, so their works are little discussed. Marx seems to slot in well with Löwith’s secularization thesis, but if secularization is a legitimate historical process, what’s the problem?
I just argued yesterday in Areté and Selection that the medieval world was the direct ancestor of modernity, and if this is indeed the case, then no one should be surprised that many modern concepts of our secular civilization are secularizations of medieval concepts derived from a primarily theological civilization. This is just what happens when a theological civilization gives way to a secular civilization. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think that I will begin referring to that which preceded industrial-technological civilization as religio-philosophical civilization.
In any case, to get around to my main point of today’s post, I was thinking about Marx’s own conception of Marx’s communist millennium that would be a worker’s paradise in which:
“…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, A. Idealism and Materialism
Marx was careful to be vague about the coming worker’s paradise under communism partly because he didn’t want to held to any overly-specific predictions, and partly because he wanted to avoid being called a Utopian. In social science circles, to be called a Utopian is the end the discussion with one’s exclusion as a serious thinker. Marx knew it, dismissed other social theorists himself as utopians, and forcefully argued that communism would come about as a result of inevitable historical processes, not in order to fulfill our dreams of a more just social order in the future.
In other words, Marx’s conception of communism is closely parallel to the line I have consistently argued about the industrial revolution, and, by extension, globalization, since I have also argued that globalization is simply an extension of the industrial revolution — its continuation, and eventually, some decades hence, its completion and fulfillment.
The industrialization of the world’s economies has not come about because of utopian plans for a better, healthier, and more just society, and it did not come about as the result of the nefarious plotting of hidden powers who pull levers behind a curtain. The industrial revolution came about as an historical process that escalated due to a feedback loop of science, technology, and industry. This process is still incomplete. As the process continues its march around the globe — again, not as the result of utopian dreams or evil conspiracies — it creates what we now call globalization, as institutions that first appeared in Western Europe begin to appear elsewhere in the world. But the institutions are symptoms, not causes. People who see only the surface of things see the institutions of industrialized societies as the causes of changes; they are not the causes; these institutions follow from deep structural changes in economic organization.
I don’t think that Marx would have disagreed with me too strenuous only this, and I don’t think that he would disagree all that much with the next claim I will make. I have called the industrial revolution a macro-historical revolution, as it initiates a new stage in human history. There have only been two previous fundamentally distinct forms of human society, and these were hunter-gatherer nomadic societies, and settled agricultural societies. If communism had come about as Marx believed it would come about, then this too would have qualified as a fundamentally new form of human society, and communism would have inaugurated a new macro-historical division. The material conditions of life would have changed for the greater part of humanity. This is simply to put Marx’s idea in my terminology.
I have also argued that Marx’s theory has not really received its experimentum crusis, because the industrial revolution has even in our time not yet been completed. We cannot say that Marx was wrong in his essential argument until globalization has transformed the world entire into an industrialized economy, and then, under these conditions, no communist revolution occurs that expropriates the expropriators. People who still argue today about whether Marx was right or wrong, whether he has been refuted or validated by history, are missing the point: the conditions do not yet obtain under which Marx can be judged to be right or wrong. Thus Marxism must remain an open question for us if we are going to maintain our intellectual integrity.
Given, then, that the fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy is still a live option for history, I ought to count it among the macro-historical possibilities that I began to delineate in Three Futures, where I identified singularization, pastoralization, and extraterrestrialization as historical forces that could sufficiently transform the basic organization of human societies to the point that a new macro-historical division is defined by the transformation. I ought, then, to speak of four futures, except that I am working on another possibility that I hope to discuss soon, which would define five futures — or, better, five strategic trends that suggest transformation on the civilizational level if extrapolated to a sufficient degree.
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11 June 2009
Last month in The Phenomenon of Civilization, after briefly surveying some possible fates not merely of our civilization, or of any one particular civilization, but of civilization on the whole, I concluded thus: “The present world would seem to offer no clues as to which scenario we should favor. Certainly there are many possibilities, and scenarios can be spun endlessly, but there is no dominating fact of the development of our time, or of the character of civilization of our time, that points to any one course of evolution or devolution.”
I now have reservations about the claim that there is no dominating fact of the development of civilization. Civilization is a temporal phenomenon and it has exhibited a significant measure of historical viability. That, in and of itself, is significant.
Although particular civilizations have come and gone since the origin of the first civilizations, there has been no time since that origin that the phenomenon of civilization itself has been completely extinguished, however dimly the flame may have burned during some periods of time and in some places throughout the subsequent history of civilization. While there has been much savagery and barbarism since our ancestors first began to live settled lives in cities supported by agriculture, there have been at least an equal number of Golden Ages and cultural high points. The continuum of civilization is riddled with exceptions and discontinuities.
It could be argued that the proven historical viability of civilization has slowly and gradually increased the robustness of civilization over time, making the continued likelihood of civilization higher than its possible disappearance from history. The longer civilization lasts, the stronger, the more durable, and the more pervasive it seems to become. The Greek Dark Ages from about 1200 BC – 800 BC were dark indeed, but elsewhere in the world civilization carried on at a minimal level. The Dark Ages of later Western history were not nearly so dark (nor as protracted) as the Greek Dark Ages, but, relative to the level of civilization immediate prior and immediately following, the European Dark Ages represented a low ebb of civilization.
Recent scholarship has reacted against the very idea of a “Dark Ages” and the term is scarcely used today, but it remains a useful way to characterize western European civilization from about 400 AD to 800 AD (roughly speaking). In Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective, I observed that, “No one reads Spartan poetry. No one admires Spartan architecture. The Spartans themselves had little use for such niceties.” It could be similarly observed that, while there is surviving literature from the European Dark Ages, it is not widely read today. Beowulf, the best-known classic of the early Middle Ages, comes from the ninth century, already a period passing out of the Dark Ages, as testified by the production of classic literature. Thus civilization did reach a low ebb, but it flourished elsewhere, beyond western Europe, and ultimately returned to western Europe.
The above considerations imply that the overall development of civilization does point to a pattern of development, and that pattern of development suggests that, if future will be like the past (the basic premiss of inductive reasoning), then civilization has a future that is stronger and greater (in a quantitative sense) that its history to date. But whether it is ever adequate to characterize civilization in quantitative terms is at least questionable: what we rightly value most in the history of civilization are the qualitative achievements that show themselves to exemplify an ideal not previously even conceived, much less concretely realized.
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