Monday


In his book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls presented several highly influential doctrines that have come to be widely discussed. Rawls says that justice is fairness, and his method for arriving at fairness in social structures is that these structures should be formulated from behind a “veil of ignorance,” with that ignorance being the ignorance of the individual as to their place in the society in which they would live. The method that Rawls formulated is a thought experiment called the “original position.” Here’s how he stated it:

“In justice as fairness the original position of equality corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract. This original position is not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice. Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain.”

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 11

As noted in the above quote, this stands in the tradition of “state of nature” thought experiments familiar from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Pufendorf. State of nature or original position thought experiments posit a time before human societies existed — a blank slate upon which human beings were free to write as they pleased — so as to try to imagine how the existing societies with which we are familiar came into existence.

Many formulations of visions of the human future (including spacefaring futures) implicitly incorporate something like Rawls’ thought experiment without even realizing that this is what they are doing. Outer space as a place for human activity and achievement gives us the same opportunity as state of nature thought experiments to reflect on counterfactual human societies against a backdrop that has been putatively purged of contemporary social presuppositions, though, with outer space, applied symmetrically to the future instead of the past. In so far as we perceive outer space as a blank slate, and in so far as we attempt to project a future upon outer space as though it were a blank slate for future human spacefaring societies, then outer space takes on the properties (or, rather, the lack of properties) of a blank slate.

In the case of outer space, we try to imagine how existing societies with which we are now familiar will pass out of existence and be replaced by some future society. Since the advent of spacefaring futurism (probably traceable to the Golden Age of Science Fiction) outer space became a place where human beings could project what was best in themselves in order to cultivate a hopeful future. Early science fiction such as Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells was markedly dystopian, but the genre rapidly transformed into an optimistic and expansive vision of the future. With this minimal framework of sapcefaring and optimism and progress toward a better future, outer space became a blank slate for human hopes and dreams. For a time, utopianism reigned, but when the simple utopianism faded, it was replaced sometimes by dystopianism, but, more interestingly to me, by the idea of outer space as the kind of blank slate for a better tomorrow in spite of the problems we have today.

This latter conception is something I have personally encountered many times. The idea seems to be that human beings have made many mistakes on Earth so that outer space is a “second chance” for humanity and we consequently have a moral obligation to only establish human societies away from Earth when we are fully prepared to do a better job than we have done on Earth — hence the waiting gambit. Sometimes this position is presented such that humanity does not deserve to establish a presence beyond Earth, because we have made such a mess of things here.

Here the “original position” has been transposed with a “final position” for human society — the ultimate form that human society is to take, projected onto a spacefaring future in which outer space is the setting for a perfect society that has not been realized on Earth, and which cannot be realized on Earth because of our history. Thus the “final position” takes the form that it does because the “original position” was corrupt. This is very much in the spirit of Rousseau, who saw the original foundations of human society to be corrupt, and this inherited corruption (not of the individual, who, according to Rousseau, is naturally good, but of social institutions) has been passed down to all subsequent human societies. Thus outer space presents itself as a domain free from this inherited corruption where a “final position” can be brought into being, and humanity can, for the first time in its history, realize a righteous society.

It is interesting to note that this is in no sense a revolutionary view, as it imagines human beings confined to the purgatory that is Earth for an indefinite period of time until the sins of the youth of our species have been burned and purged away. Only when we have fully completed our penance — a gradual and excruciatingly incremental process — and become perfect, do we deserve to take the next step and inhabit the blank slate of outer space as newly innocent beings, a humanity that has made itself innocent, and thus worthy of the final position, through great moral effort.

A revolutionary view, in contradistinction to this moral incrementalism, would be that the final position is there before us, suspended in the air like Macbeth’s dagger, which we can reach out and grasp at any time. We can, in this view, attain the final position simply by taking a sequence of revolutionary steps that will transform us and our world because we have the boldness to take these steps. This revolutionary moralism vis-à-vis the final position would fit well with what I have called an early spacefaring breakout in The Spacefaring Inflection Point (and further elaborated in Bound in Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift).

An early and sudden inflection point in the development of spacefaring civilization could be both the revolutionary step required to put in place the final position as well as the advent of a new kind of civilization. This view seems more historiographically justified that the more prevalent incrementalist view, but I have only ever heard the incrementalist view — though, I ought to say, I know of no one who has formulated the incrementalist view in the full sweep of the vision. One usually gets only bits and pieces of the vision, which leaves its advocates with a certain plausible deniability in regard to the future final position implicit in their conception of human destiny in outer space.

It may sound like I am here advocating one conception of the final position over another, but I find both to be as profoundly mistaken as original position or state of nature thought experiments. While I think there is something to be learned from both thought experiments — the original position and the final position — I regard them as being as Rawls has characterized them, “…a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice.” Hypotheticals have a value, but that value is not absolute. Moreover, we know that hypotheticals, whether past or future, are not actual depictions of the past or accurate predictions of the future; they are scenarios that allow us to rehearse certain ideas as they might play out in practice.

In practice, there are no blank slates. Human societies don’t arise from nothing; they arise from prior societies, and these societies can be traced backward in time to long before human beings existed. The same is true of our brain and our intelligence, that we use to shape our social order: both have a deep history in the biosphere, but both bear the lowly imprint of their origins. We can’t even say, as Nietzsche said, that all this is human, all-too-human, because it all precedes humanity. It is terrestrial, all-too-terrestrial.

There was no paradisaical state of nature to which we might dream that we can return (if only we could deconstruct the injustices of human social institutions, which seems to have been Rousseau’s position), and there will be no final position of a perfectly just human society in the future, whether on Earth or in space. Both ideas are painfully naïve, and if we are ever to make real progress, and not the imaginary progress of utopias safely compartmentalized in the distant past or the distant future, we must disabuse ourselves of the idea that humanity is ever going to be anything other than human, all-too-human. Justice and morality did not reign in the past, and they are not going to reign in the future, whether on Earth or in space, world without end. Amen.

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Note added Friday 28 February 2020: A perfect example of the blank slate of outer space can be found in the recently announced contest for a design for a city of a million persons on Mars, Mars City State Design Competition Announced. The text of the announcement includes this: “How, given a fresh start, can life on Mars be made better than life on Earth?”

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I have previously written a number of blog posts on the idea of the blank slate, including:

The Metaphysical Blank Slate: Positivism and Metaphysical Neutrality

Addendum on the Metaphysical Blank Slate

Further Addendum on the Metaphysical Blank Slate

Blank Slate Cosmology

Of Vacuity and Blankness

Two (or Three) Metaphysical Themes

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Fifty Years of Civilisation

31 December 2019

Tuesday


Kenneth Clark, 1903-1983

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Fifty years ago, in 1969, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View was first broadcast on television, and the book based on the series was published in the same year. In my Centauri Dreams post of last Friday, Bound In Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift, I pointed out that the same year in which Clark’s documentary first aired, the Space Race reached its culmination in the Apollo moon landing: “In his Civilisation: A Personal View, Kenneth Clarke noted that, ‘Great movements in the arts, like revolutions, don’t last for more than about fifteen years.’ In so saying, he might well have been speaking of the Founding Era of space exploration, a revolution through which he had just lived as he spoke these lines.”

Clark’s Civilisation was never intended to be a scholarly study or to break new ground, theoretically speaking. In the first few minutes of the first episode Clark says he doesn’t know what civilization is or how to define it — but he does apparently know it when it sees it, and Exhibit A is Notre Dame de Paris. And Clark’s background as an art historian meant that his focus was on the masterpieces of the art of western civilization, which is a more narrow focus than civilization itself. Nevertheless, as readers of my blog are likely to know, Clark’s television series and book have had an outsized influence on my thought concerning civilization, and I find myself returning time and again to Clark’s deceptively simple formulations, which conceal a great deal of wisdom often lacking in more academic treatments.

Clark’s art historical conception of western civilization unsurprisingly entailed his dismissing scientific historiography with a wave of the hand (so to speak), but I can’t fault him for this. It’s not my approach, but Clark’s perspective is still worth listening to despite this. Sometimes a narrowly focused perspective reveals to us aspects of a phenomenon that we would not have noticed otherwise. So it is with Clark and civilization: the focus on art as the manifestation of civilization makes us aware of historical processes we might otherwise have neglected or even rejected.

My own thought over the past year in particular has re-focused my interest on art, as I have come to see aesthetics as playing a central role in western civilization. I made this argument in Science and the Hero’s Journey, in which I wrote:

“The philosophical presuppositions about beauty have given art a distinctive role in western civilization. Art is about appearances, which made art profoundly problematic for Plato (and others), but western civilization converged upon a compromise solution such that the beautiful is a revelation of the truth by way of appearance. It is not the case that any appearance whatsoever is revelatory of the truth, but specifically it is the beautiful that is the revelation of a deeper truth. If we make the effort to transcend appearances and to gaze on reality in itself — to look upon beauty bare, as Edna St. Vincent Millay said of Euclid — this is the highest form of beauty. This is also the beauty that Plato ascribed to seeing the Forms in and of themselves, not through an imitation of an imitation.”

I have planned to expand upon this at some point in an exposition of the central project of western civilization — the kind of inquiry that Clark made possible for me. I suspect that Clark will remain important to me, however far afield I take the ideas that began to develop in me as a consequence of Clark’s work. Not everyone today shares my view of Clark’s Civilisation.

If you simply do a search on “Kenneth Clark Civilisation” you will find online any number of opinions about Clark’s series and book — some of them in praise of, some of them critical, some of them downright petty, little more than individuals who want to demonstrate their confidence in their own cleverness by irony, sarcasm, and iconoclasm — from all the major newspapers and magazines of our time. None these can match Clark’s own self-criticisms in the Forward to the book. After acknowledging the many limitations of his presentation, he asked himself if he should have dropped “Civilisation” as the title, given that his was no comprehensive survey of civilization:

“Should I then have dropped the title Civilisation? I didn’t want to, because the word had triggered me off, and remained a kind of stimulus; and I didn’t suppose that anyone would be so obtuse as to think that I had forgotten about the great civilisations of the pre-Christian era and the East. However, I confess that the title has worried me. It would have been easy in the eighteenth century: Speculations on the Nature of Civilization as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day. Unfortunately, this is no longer practicable.”

Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation, Forward

Clark’s Enlightenment era title — Speculations on the Nature of Civilization as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day — would have been the perfect title for the unwritten seminal work on a science of civilization that I suggested as a thought experiment in Thought Experiment on a Science of Civilization.

Given the tenor of contemporary opinion on Clark’s Civilisation, this is a series that could not and would not be made today. Similarly, intimations of a spacefaring future implicit in the Apollo program as it landed human beings on the moon in 1969 could not and would not be realized today. But at this moment in time fifty years ago, we could look back in gratitude and look forward in hope and anticipation. As we all know, 1969 was also a turbulent time politically and militarily. No doubt fifty years ago it felt like the world was in chaos, that modern times had little in the way of gratitude or hope, and that the lucky ones were those safely in the past when the certainties of life went unchallenged. It can only be seen as I have portrayed it in hindsight.

There is a sense in which 1969 is a pivot point of recent history. Clark was able to look behind us at where western civilization has been, and the Apollo moon landings seemed to look ahead toward the direction that western civilization seemed to be taking. During what I have called the Founding Era of space exploration — Sputnik to Apollo — the future seemed as open to us as history opens the past to us. Space exploration gave us a clear direction and populated a future history for humanity in a way that was eminently comprehensible despite its utter novelty in comparison to all that we have known on Earth. Poised at that crucial year, the whole of history opened up all around, as past and future were simultaneously manifested themselves to us.

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Wednesday


Storage has always been a problem for electricity, as batteries are large and heavy, expensive to manufacture, and limited in the quantity of electricity they can store and for how long they can store it. As a result of the limits of batteries, electricity production, distribution, and supply on an industrial scale has not involved any storage mechanism at all. The vast bulk of electricity is produced and simultaneously consumed, so that the electrical generation infrastructure has been constructed around the awkward requirements of having the start up and shut down entire generating facilities as demand waxes and wanes. This is an unhappy compromise, but it has been made to work for more than a century as the industrialized economy has expanded both quantitatively and qualitatively, and the use of electricity has expanded into sectors previously entirely reliant upon fossil fuels.

Electrical motors were already being developed in the 1820s, and before the first workable prototype diesel engine was operational in 1897, electrical motors had progressed to the level of sophistication of Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky’s three phase current and asynchronous motor with squirrel-cage rotor. But the twentieth century was to belong to fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine, and it was with these technologies that industrialized civilization grew to the planetary scale we know today.

The father of all diesel engines.

The early and rapid convergence of industrialized civilization on the use of fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — was, at least in part, a function of the ease of storage of fossil fuels. The ease of storage also meant ease of transportation, which made fossil fuels ideal for the transportation industry, and they still are. Coal and oil in particular are easily stored for significant periods of time without loss of energy value and without elaborate technological methods. Natural gas isn’t much more difficult to store, but when liquefied the technology becomes a bit more complex and safety becomes more of an issue.

Fossil fuel storage also meant the possibility of continuous operation. Here we see the origin of the 24/7 always-on world that we know today. This is historically very recent, and the exception rather than the rule. As long as the machinery could be built to tolerances that allowed for continuous operation, a sufficient supply of fuel could power an engine non-stop. Ships and trains could operate for days or weeks if necessary. Nothing needed to be turned off. Industries could operate without regard to the any of the natural circadian and seasonal rhythms that had ruled human life since before we were human. And they did so. Shift work was born, and the dark Satanic mills that offended William Blake and Robert Southey ran night and day.

One of Blake’s dark Satanic mills?

Prior to the industrial revolution, energy infrastructure intermittancy was a fact of life, and the industrial processes of pre-industrial society (paradoxical, yes, but not a contradiction) were constructed around the fact of intermittancy. Everyone accepted (because they had to accept) that the stream that turned the waterwheel at the mill was reduced to a trickle in the summer. The solution was to build a mill pond that would store an amount of water, so that the mill could be put into service, at least on a “surge” basis, even when water flow was at a minimum. Even with a mill pond, the use of a water mill was limited in the summer months in comparison to other seasons. Hence mill production was often seasonal. This has been the case for thousands of years. Recent research into the ruins of the Roman water mill at Barbegal has suggested that this mill operated seasonally (cf. The second century CE Roman watermills of Barbegal: Unraveling the enigma of one of the oldest industrial complexes by Gül Sürmelihindi, Philippe Leveau, Christoph Spötl, Vincent Bernard, and Cees W. Passchier).

Everyone accepted, and accepted with equanimity, that windmills worked only when the wind blew. As a consequence, windmills were constructed at locations with the steadiest winds, but even then there would be becalmed days when the windmill wouldn’t be grinding any grain or pumping any water, and there would be days when the wind was dangerously strong and the vanes of the windmill had to be secured so that it wouldn’t be destroyed.

La Bretagne at Brest harbor, 19th century.

Everyone also accepted that international commerce was dependent upon the wind. The intermittancy of the wind did not prevent a planetary-scale economy emerging after the Columbian Exchange. Much shipping in the Age of Sail was seasonal, but when it absolutely, positively had to be there at the earliest possible time, sailors could beat to windward and make progress whatever the season. On the other hand, when sailing conditions were poor and no particular urgency was felt, sea voyages that usually took weeks could drag on for months at a time. Commerce had to accept a certain flexibility in delivery times, as some shipments would come in a few days earlier than expected, and some would be delayed for days, weeks, or months.

With a planetary-scale communications network, we no longer rely upon shipping for news and information; shipping, like railroads, is about freight, and freight can wait. Just as the electrical grid will incrementally transform from fossil fuels to renewable fuels, our transportation infrastructure could be transitioned from fossil fueled container ships to a larger number of smaller sailing ships, perhaps robotically piloted, that take longer to get to their destination, but which would take more efficient routes around the globe, reserving powered movement for specific circumstances like getting stuck in the doldrums or getting into port. Our planetary-scale communications network also allows for communication with ships at sea, so that production schedules can be continuously updated on the basis of the known location of materials in transport. We don’t have to wait at the harbor’s edge with a spyglass and then rush to make a deal after a sail has been spotted on the horizon, as was once the case.

The Cousteau Society’s Alcyon employed turbosails — a sailing technology that could be employed in shipping.

It is lazy thinking to raise the problem of intermittancy to a major barrier to the adoption of renewable resources. Energy infrastructure is tightly-coupled with social structures, and social structures are tightly-coupled to energy infrastructures. This coupling of social and energy structures throughout the history of civilization has not been as tight as the coupling between agriculture and civilization. However, if we rightly understand agriculture as a form of energy (food literally being fuel for human beings and for their beasts of burden), then we can see that tightly-coupled energy and social infrastructures have been definitive of civilization since its inception. And both structures admit of flexibility when flexibility is necessary to continue the ordinary business of life; there is some “give” in both society and energy use.

These two structures — energy infrastructure and social structure — roughly coincide with the institutional structure I have used to define civilization: namely, an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project (cf. my previous post, Five Ways to Think about Civilization, for more on this). In the foregoing, what I called “energy infrastructure” roughly corresponds to economic infrastructure, as it also roughly corresponds to what Robert Redfield called the “technical order,” while what I called the “social structure” roughly corresponds to intellectual superstructure, as it also roughly corresponds to what Robert Redfield called the “moral order” (more on this in a future post). While all of these orders and structures can be distinguished in a fine-grained account, our account is undertaken at the scale of civilization, and so we are looking at the big picture, at which scale these different concepts coincide sufficiently closely that we can disregard their differences.

In the same way that individuals who live in very large cities like Tokyo or New York or Paris understand that it is impracticable for all but the wealthiest to drive a car, so that most individuals must use mass transit, on a planet with more than seven billion individuals using the energy infrastructure, individuals will need to adjust their expectations for instantaneous gratification. Industries, too, will need to adjust their expectations in the convergence of the global economy on sustainable practices. And, make no mistake, these adjustments will happen in the fullness of time. How it happens will be a matter of historical process, and many distinct scenarios for the transition of the terrestrial electrical grid to sustainable and renewable fuels are still possible; we are not yet locked in to any particular compromise.

Germany has come in for much criticism for its de-nuclearization program, which has meant that they have had to re-start some coal-fired power plants in order to maintain contemporaneous energy supply expectations. A number of energy experts regard the Germans as deluded, and believe that renewable resources can never meet the demands of an industrialized economy. I cannot wave away the problems of scaling and intermittency with a magic wand, but with adjustments to the industrial infrastructure and improved renewable technologies coming online, the two will eventually meet in the middle. However, those who ridicule renewables as impractical also cannot wave away the problems with their solutions with a magic wand. The most common answer to carbon-free electric generation is to ramp up nuclear power production. This comes with problems of its own. While I strongly support the development of advanced nuclear technologies, I do not delude myself that the public is going to suddenly embrace nuclear power and forget about the dangers. The Germans proved to be overly-optimistic over what can be done today with renewables, but this does not call the transition to renewables into question in the long term.

It is not at all clear that the public would prefer the dangers of nuclear power to the dangers of climate change, and both issues are so emotionally charged that it would be nearly impossible to take an honest poll on the question.

A continental-scale energy grid could greatly mitigate intermittency. If it’s not sunny somewhere on a continent, it is likely to be windy somewhere. However, even at a continental scale there will be becalmed nights when there is neither sunshine nor wind. The larger the surface area of the planet that is covered by an interconnected electricity grid, the more that these low points of intermittency can be minimized, but they cannot be entirely eliminated. For these minimized intermittancy low points, existing hydropower infrastructure could be used with a minimum of modification to store power. During peak periods of intermittent electricity supply, water could be pumped from lower elevations to fill a dam, which can then later be used to generate hydropower during times of peak demand.

A planetary-scale energy grid could eliminate intermittency, since the sun is always shining somewhere in the world. I made this point previously in a blog post from a few years back, A Thought Experiment on Collective Energy Security. As I said in that post, we do not have the technology and the engineering expertise for a planetary-scale electricity grid, and with a planetary electrical grid, the political challenges would probably be greater than the technological problems. However, we also do not have, at present, the technology and engineering expertise for advanced nuclear, and we don’t have the technology and engineering expertise to run an industrial economy on renewables. All of these technologies, however, are on the cusp of fulfilling their intended function, and significant capital investments in any one energy future could accelerate its practical availability.

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Sunday


Twelve months down on the farm. An illustration from Liber ruralium commodorum, by Pietro de’ Crescenzi; for a description of the tasks illustrated cf. http://www.medievalists.net/2014/06/03/year-medieval-farm/

Twelve months down on the farm. An illustration from Liber ruralium commodorum, by Pietro de’ Crescenzi; for a description of the tasks illustrated cf. http://www.medievalists.net/2014/06/03/year-medieval-farm/

On the Reflexive Self-Awareness of Civilizations (or the Lack Thereof)

For all the faults and failings of agrarian civilizations, there is a sense in which the self-awareness of agrarian civilizations exceeded the self-awareness of industrialized civilizations. Almost all agrarian civilizations were rigidly hierarchical and stratified, but from the bottom to the top of the feudal hierarchy of agrarian civilizations everyone understood that agriculture was the source of the wealth and productivity of their society. Wealth was measured in land and in the number of peasants working the land. Income was formulated in terms of the annual produce of the land, which, over time, became more formalized as part of a commercial economy. It is due to this background that we read in nineteenth century novels that so-and-so had an income of so many pounds per year: this is the survival of the accounting of agricultural civilization into the early developmental stages of industrialized civilization.

This reflexive self-awareness on the part of agrarian civilizations of the economy that sustained that civilization is not shared by industrialized civilization. Very few today seem to understand that the source of our wealth and productivity is science. This is a failure of collective self-knowledge, and a failure that may have consequences for our very young industrialized civilization. Even the putative “leaders” of contemporary society seem to have little awareness of the centrality of science to the economy, but if the scientific method had not been systematically applied to industry, we would not have progressed more than incrementally beyond the technology and engineering of earlier civilizations. That we have outstripped these earlier civilizations many times over in terms of wealth and productivity is a measure by which the scientific method and the cultivation of scientific knowledge can transform an economy.

How should we define scientific civilization?

How should we define scientific civilization?

Five Ways of Conceptualizing Scientific Civilization

This reflection on the lack of self-knowledge on the part of our would-be scientific civilization suggests a way in which scientific civilization might be defined, specifically, that a scientific civilization is a civilization that knows itself to be a scientific civilization, and in which all sectors of society know that the wealth and productivity of their society is derived from science, and from technology and engineering made possible by science. In previous posts I have suggested several other ways in which scientific civilization might be defined. For example:

In Scientific Civilization: The Economic Perspective I suggested that a scientific civilization could be defined as, “a civilization that invests a significant portion of its economic activity in science.”

In Scientific Civilization: The Central Project I implied that a scientific civilization is a civilization that has science, or the pursuit of scientific knowledge, as its central project. (A view that I later elaborated in more detail in Properly Scientific Civilization and The Central Project of Properly Scientific Civilizations.)

In Sciences Hard and Soft I suggested that a scientific civilization is a civilization in which science has come to full maturity, by analogy with Nick Bostrom’s use of the term “technological maturity” — but how scientific maturity can be defined may be more difficult to say.

In The Conditions of Scientific Progress I said that we could define a mature scientific civilization as one in which science could be conducted in complete openness, both in the technical terminology of the discipline in question as well as in the intuitive terms according to which idea flow functions in a social context. This is the kind of intellectual context in which it would be possible for everyone to imbibe the spirit of science, and, rather than accepting any results as a new orthodoxy, press forward with extending scientific inquiry so that we not only have idea flow but the acceleration of idea flow and even idea proliferation.

In my notebooks I have several additional ways in which scientific civilization might be defined, though I have not yet given an exposition of these other ideas for defining scientific civilization. For example, skimming a notebook from few years ago I find this entry on 11 June 2016:

Science communication is only a problem in a non-scientific civilization in which there is a disconnect between science and the non-scientific public. One way to define a scientific civilization is as a civilization in which there is no disconnect between scientific research and popular knowledge, as scientific knowledge is pervasively present in the general public. (There would still be disagreements, and different scientific research programs would find differing degrees of support in different sectors of society, but it would be understood that these disagreements will be resolved by further research even as new scientific problems appear on the horizon.)

This idea could be assimilated to the last of the four ideas above, as both are concerned with science communication and scientific literacy, which presumably would be greatly facilitated in a truly scientific civilization, but which suffer in a suboptimal scientific civilization, or in a non-scientific civilization (as in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization).

The four itemized ideas above from previous posts (with the last of these four ideas assimilated to the idea from my old notebook), plus the idea above incorporating reflexive self-knowledge, gives us five ways to think about scientific civilization:

1. A scientific civilization is a civilization that knows itself to be a scientific civilization.

2. A scientific civilization is a civilization that invests a significant portion of its economic activity in science.

3. A scientific civilization is a civilization that has science, or the pursuit of scientific knowledge, as its central project.

4. A scientific civilization is a civilization in which science, or scientific knowledge, has come to full maturity.

5. A scientific civilization is a civilization in which there is no disconnect between scientific research and popular knowledge.

None of these ideas are as yet definitively formulated. I could easily point out ambiguities in any of these formulations. For example, in No. 3, concerned with the economic definition of scientific civilization, there is considerable ambiguity involved in what it would mean for a civilization to invest a significant portion of its economic activity in science. Does this mean that, as a matter of fact, that science constitutes a major economic sector, like agriculture or transportation? Or does this means that a highly productive industrialized civilization chooses to plow a significant portion of its surplus value into scientific research? There are other ways to interpret this beyond these two alternatives. I beg the reader’s indulgence to take these imperfect formulations charitably, extracting whatever value there is in them, and setting aside what is incoherent or poorly expressed.

Different definitions of scientific civilization would yield different civilizations identified as a scientific civilization, though some of the above definitions may overlap or coincide. For example, it is entirely possible that, in a civilization that has the pursuit of science as its central project, all sectors of the populace would understand the centrality of science to that civilization, so these two definitions of scientific civilization may coincide. However, I think that the idea of scientific maturity is much further off even than the possibility of a civilization with science as its central project, if scientific maturity is attainable at all, so that these definitions do not coincide, but they might coincide at some point in the distant future. Indeed, it may require a civilization that takes science as its central project to drive the development of science to scientific maturity.

Ideally, given a multitude of possible definitions of scientific civilization, it would be possible to reduce all the definitions to one, or to single out one definition that is, in principle, preferable to all others, or to have the various non-coinciding definitions of scientific civilization systematically related in some essential way, as in the degrees of continuum, or as stages in the development of scientific civilization.

It may be that only a fully scientific civilization could understand what definition of scientific civilization is adequate, and, if the Hegelian principle holds good, that the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun, it would not be possible to adequately define scientific civilization until a scientific civilization was already senescent.

Defining Agrarian Civilizations in Hindsight

Defining Agrarian Civilizations in Hindsight

Generalizing a Definition of Civilization Derived from one Class of Civilizations

Can we, then, apply these conceptions retroactively, mutatis mutandis, to some civilization, or, better, to some kind of civilization, that has already passed out of history? Do these characterizations of scientific civilization admit of formulations of sufficient generality that they can be applied to other civilizations, non-scientific civilizations? Let us take these five ways of characterizing scientific civilization and apply them to agrarian civilizations, and see how they fare in this context.

Consider these reformulations of the above five conceptualizations of scientific civilization, here stated in terms of agricultural civilization:

1. An agrarian civilization is a civilization that knows itself to be An agrarian civilization, and in which all sectors of society know that the wealth and productivity of their society is derived from agriculture, and activities related to agriculture.

2. An agrarian civilization is a civilization that invests a significant portion of its economic activity in agriculture.

3. An agrarian civilization is a civilization that has agriculture, or the pursuit of agricultural production, as its central project.

4. An agrarian civilization is a civilization in which agriculture has come to full maturity.

5. An agrarian civilization is a civilization in which there is no disconnect between agronomy and popular knowledge, as agronomy is pervasively present in the general public.

All of these formulations are highly suggestive, but the parallelism is not always perfect between agrarian and scientific civilizations, and, viewed from the perspective of agrarian civilization, we can see how these conceptualizations are beholden to our ideas of the relationship of science to society today. Let us consider each in turn:

1. Here the parallelism is at its strongest, because I began with this reflection on agricultural civilizations being aware that their wealth flowed from working the land, and applied it to scientific civilization to see how well it worked in that context. But what is reflexive self-awareness at a civilizational scale? Must this awareness be represented throughout society, or is it sufficient that some sector of society, or some sector of the economy, knows what kind of civilization they have and subsequently act efficaciously upon this knowledge? Above I have specified all sectors of society, and arguably this was the case for agrarian civilizations, in which even the mythology of the central project reflected the crops and the agricultural calendar of the civilization in question. However, it is also arguable that the awareness of the agricultural basis of agricultural civilization was sufficiently distant from the mythological central projects of agrarian civilizations that many individuals in the society were so invested in the mythology that they were unaware of agriculture as the driving economic force of their society. Indeed, religious rituals intended to ensure good harvests might be said to invert any valuation placing agriculture at the central of agricultural civilization, as it implies that the agriculture engine of the civilization is fueled by supernaturalistic processes, which are the true drivers of civilization.

2. We have seen above that there are obvious ambiguities with any claim of a society’s investment in some given sector. Moreover, any such “investment” in pre-modern civilization takes a radically different form than what we think of today as investment in some sector of the economy of some sector of society. From our industrialized point of view, investment in a sector means taking surplus value generated by economic activity on the whole and literally using this capital to further some sector by investment in capital equipment or better working conditions in the sector, etc. Most of all, we would conceive of investing in a sector of the economy as funding major research and development projects that would expand and improve the sector, hopefully resulting in major innovations that contribute to increases in productivity and efficiency. This sort of investment in agriculture began to appear during the British Agricultural Revolution, but this was already after the scientific revolution (it was the scientific revolution applied to agriculture) so after western civilization was already beginning the developments that would lead it to industrialization. Even then, investment into basic research didn’t appear until the 19th century, and didn’t become consequential until the 20th century. Nevertheless, agrarian civilizations prior to the scientific revolution of necessity poured resources into agriculture, because if it failed to do so, starvation would result. The elite culture of the period that we now value, and visit museums in order to see, was the result of a small fraction of the wealth of the agricultural economy skimmed off by elites and employed for their own purposes (e.g., prestige projects). In this sense, 2. seems to hold for agrarian as for scientific civilization, but the sense in which it holds is not exactly in the spirit in which it holds for scientific civilization.

3. I have elsewhere used the binomial nomenclature “agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations” to describe most agrarian civilizations, because these civilizations almost without exception (I can’t think of a counterexample) do not have agriculture as the central project, but rather religion as the central project, or some close religious surrogate as a central project. The economic infrastructure is almost entirely agricultural, but the intellectual superstructure is almost always derived from a religion, and this intellectual superstructure tells us that the central project of the civilization in question is the fulfillment of the requirements of religious doctrine. This fulfillment might take a popular form, as in the demand that all souls be saved, which entailed both the salvation of the agricultural laborer as well as expansionist warfare to enable the salvation of peoples outside the civilization, or this fulfillment might take on an elite form, as when Mesoamerican elites engaged in ritualized bloodletting. Of course, it would be possible to imagine, as a thought experiment, an agrarian civilization in which agriculture was the central project; perhaps such civilizations have existed, perhaps they could still exist, but this has not been the paradigmatic form of agrarian civilization. It may be this disconnect between central project and economic infrastructure in agrarian civilizations that inspired Marx to make the distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure, as this distinction is less in evidence in contemporary industrialized civilization.

4. It is a very interesting question whether agricultural civilization came to full maturity before it yielded its place as the central form of civilization to industrialized civilizations. It is entirely possible that a civilization might endure for a significant period of time and then go extinct, without ever achieving full maturity. This is the case with what Nick Bostrom calls permanent stagnation: a civilization that never comes to maturity. Agricultural civilizations tend to stagnation, so it may be in the nature of agricultural civilizations to converge on permanent stagnation, and, when they do transcend this stagnation, they do it at the cost of being transformed into another kind of civilization, in which case the consequence is no longer an agrarian civilization. It could be argued that agricultural civilization has not yet reached full maturity at the present time, because the techniques of scientific agriculture that began to transform agriculture during the British Agricultural Revolution continue to be revolutionized by scientific discovery. The latest techniques of gene-editing can be used to create new crops, so that agricultural technology is as open-ended as any industrial technology. Does it follow that agricultural civilization as agricultural civilization can never achieve maturity, and that it can only achieve maturity by the means of industrialized civilization?

5. This formulation doesn’t work at all when a straight-forward substitution of agriculture for science is made. One of the reasons for the failure of this substitution is that agriculture was the dominant activity under agrarian civilizations, and so agricultural knowledge was “popular” (but, of course, it is misleading to call anything “popular” at a time before popular sovereignty). However, a slightly altered formulation would give essentially the same idea: an agricultural civilization is a civilization in which there is no disconnect between agricultural producers and consumers. While this formulation makes sense, judging its validity is another matter. Certainly the various sectors of society in agrarian civilization knew that agricultural productivity was the source of their wealth, but the rigidly hierarchical structures of feudal society meant that there was a profound disconnect between consumers and producers, who almost belonged to different worlds. So, what we learn from this is that the idea of a “disconnect” between members of the same society needs to be clarified. Individuals and classes within agrarian civilizations can be at once both tightly coupled and yet more distant from each other than any two individuals or classes in industrialized civilization; this needs to be understood in greater detail. When the elite sectors of society did begin to concern themselves with agricultural knowledge, not merely leaving this to farm laborers, the British agricultural revolution was the result. Many eminent country gentlemen became enthusiasts of agriculture and threw themselves into the betterment of their estates. While this behavior does not strike us as odd today, in a social context in which working with one’s hands was believed to be demeaning, demonstrating an enthusiasm for agriculture was to place one’s social status at risk. This development progressed so far that it eventually found its way into the fine arts, with the result being paintings like Benjamin Marshall’s “Portraits of Cattle of the Improved Short-Horned Breed, the Property of J. Wilkinson Esq. of Lenton, near Nottingham” (see below), which is, essentially, a portrait of a head of livestock.

The above disconnects are of particular interest to me because of what I wrote about disconnects in A Philosophical Disconnect and Another Disconnect and A Metaphysical Disconnect, inter alia. That contemporary industrialized civilization is marked by a disconnect between political philosophy and philosophy of law is especially significant in this connection: different kinds of civilization may be subject to different internal structural disconnects. Different structural disconnects within one and the same civilization imply different areas of reflexive self-knowledge as well as different areas where self-knowledge fails, which brings us back to where we began this post.

Portraits of Cattle of the Improved Short-Horned Breed, the Property of J. Wilkinson Esq. of Lenton, near Nottingham 1816, Benjamin Marshall 1768-1835, Bequeathed by Mrs F. Ambrose Clark through the British Sporting Art Trust 1982

From Generalization to Formalization

Now that we have applied these five ways of thinking about civilization to scientific civilization and to agricultural civilization, can we formalize these ideas so that they are applicable to any civilization whatever? Consider the following:

F(civ) knows itself to be F(civ).

The economic infrastructure of F(civ) is disproportionately invested in F.

F(civ) has F as its central project.

F(civ) such that F is mature.

In F(civ) there is no disconnect between individuals directly involved in F and individuals not directly involved in F.

In the above, F(civ) means “a civilization with the property F” which, in the particular case of scientific civilization might be expressed: “there is a civilization civ such that civ has the property of being scientific.” If we attempt to formulate this in terms of quantification theory we get something like, “There exists an x such that x is a civilization and x is scientific” or ∃x.C(x)F(x), and then any other property annexed to that civilization is simply another predicated G(x), thus 1. above becomes ∃x.C(x)F(x)G(x). Where the property of being scientific is modified by the definition we face quantifying over properties and thus shifting from first order logic to second order logic.

I’m not satisfied with any of these formulations, but that is why I titled this post “Five Ways of Thinking about Civilization.” Nothing here is definitive. These are ways of thinking about civilization, and we can employ these ways of thinking about civilization if they prove fruitful, in which case we would attempt to extend, expand, and further formalize the approach, and if they prove to be unfruitful we would not be likely to invest any more time in the approach, unless we have some nagging intuitive sense that there is something important here that has not yet been made explicit.

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Monday


Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV) worshipping Aten.

In The Elizabethan Conception of Civilization I examined some of the nomothetic elements of the otherwise idiosyncratic character of Elizabethan civilization. In that post I emphasized that the large-scale political structure of European civilization in the medieval and modern periods entails an ideology of kingship in which the monarch himself or herself becomes the reproducible pattern for his or her subjects to follow.

There is another source of nomothetic stability in the case of idiographic Elizabethan civilization, and that is the long medieval inheritance that was still a living presence in early modern society. The classic exposition of the Elizabethan epistēmē (as perhaps Foucault would have called it) is E. M. W. Tillyard’s book The Elizabethan World Picture, which emphasizes the medieval heritage of Elizabethan society. The elements of the medieval world view that Tillyard rightly finds surviving into the conceptual framework of Elizabethan England could be understood as the invariant and continuous elements that constitute the nomothetic basis of Elizabathan civilization.

Peter Saccio in his lectures Comedy, Tragedy, History: The Live Drama and Vital Truth of William Shakespeare (this was the first set of lectures that I acquired from The Teaching Company, which has since changed their name to The Great Courses, but it was as The Teaching Company that these lectures were first made available) briefly discussed Tillyard’s book and its influence, which he characterized as primarily conservative. Saccio noted that recent Shakespeare scholarship has focused to a much greater extent on the radical interpretations of Shakespeare. As goes for Shakespearean theater, so it goes for Elizabethan society. We could give a conservative Tillyardian exposition of Elizabethan society that portrays that society primarily in terms of its medieval inheritance, or we can give a more radical exposition of Elizabethan society that portrays that society in terms of the rapid changes and innovations in society at this time.

While Elizabethan civilization retained many deeply conservative elements drawn from the medieval past, the underlying theme of Elizabethan civilization — the consolidation of the Anglican Church as a state institution — was in fact among the most radical changes possible to a social structure within the early modern context of civilization, and may be compared to Akhenaten’s attempt to replace traditional Egyptian mythology with a quasi-monotheistic solar cult. But whereas Akhenaten’s religious innovations did not endure, with the kingdom reverting to traditional religious practices after Akhenaten’s death (i.e., the central project of Egyptian civilization survived Akhenaten), the religious innovations of Elizabeth I did endure.

Up until the Enlightenment, almost all civilizations had, as their central project, or integral with their central project, a religion (or, more generally, a spiritual tradition). If we regard the Enlightenment as a secularized ersatz religion (or, if you prefer, a surrogate religion), then this has not changed to the present day. Regardless, changing the religion that is identical with, or is integral to, the central project of one’s civilization, is akin to making changes to the center of the web of belief (to employ a Quinean motif) rather than merely making changes at the outer edges of the web.

The Protestant Reformation in England, then, can be understood as the opening of Pandora’s Box. While retaining the forms of tradition to the extent possible, the establishment of the Anglican Church demonstrated that even the central project of a civilization can be changed out at the whim of a monarch, and this was as much as to demonstrate that everything hereafter was up for grabs. Subsequent history was to bear this out. One might even say that regicide was implicit in the fungibility of early modern England’s central project, but it took a hundred years for that to play out (on civilizational time scales, a hundred years is a reasonable lead time for causality). If you can change your church, why not cashier your king?

Many years ago in the early history of his blog, I wrote some posts about Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (in The Agricultural Paradigm and The World Turned Right-Side Up; cf. also the links embedded in these posts), which book is a somewhat sympathetic history of the radical movements in early modern England represented by groups like the Ranters, the Diggers, the Levelers, and the True Levelers. Hill imagined that a much more radical revolution might have emerged from Elizabethan England and the revolutionary movements that followed. Now, in the spirit of what I wrote above, I can ask whether, if you can change the central project of your civilization, cannot you also go down the path of the kind of radical revolution that Hill imagined, toward communal property, disestablishing the state church, and rejecting the Protestant Ethic?

This question points to something important, I think, but I will not attempt at this time to give an exposition of what all is involved, because it has only just now occurred to me while writing this. While I have come to see the Protestant Reformation as opening Pandora’s Box in England, I think there is also a limit to the amount of revolution that a population can stomach. As wrenching as it is to replace the central project of your civilization, or to execute your king, it would be even more wrenching to attempt to uproot the whole of the ordinary business of life. Certainly you wouldn’t want to attempt to do both at the same time. If I am right about this, how then would be draw a line between the ordinary business of life, that is to remain largely undisturbed, and the extraordinary business of life, in which a population can tolerate violent punctuations and periods of instability?

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Saturday


Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
The Armada Portrait, c.1588. Attributed to George Gower (c.1546-1596).

In his book and television series Civilisation, Kenneth Clark cast doubt whether there was anything that could be legitimately called an Elizabethan civilization, hence, I assume also, any possibility of an Elizabethan conception of civilization:

“I suppose it is debatable how far Elizabethan England can be called civilised. Certainly it does not provide a reproducible pattern of civilisation as does, for example, eighteenth-century France. It was brutal, unscrupulous and disorderly. But if the first requisites of civilisation are intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality, then the age of Marlowe and Spenser, of Dowland and Byrd, was a kind of civilisation.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 6, “Protest and Communication”

This might seem like a rather trivial passage to pluck out of a larger work and to use as a lens to focus on the concept of civilization, but there is much of interest here, so hear me out.

Firstly, let’s start with the implicit distinction with which I began between a civilization and a concept of civilization. It is entirely possible that the Elizabethans had a concept of civilization, even if they themselves did not measure up to this concept, but it is highly unlikely that this is the case despite the possibility. The term “civilization” was not explicitly introduced until much later — significantly for Clark’s observation, by a French writer, Victor de Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau, in 1757 — and we will assume that the terminology was introduced to meet a need that was felt to express an idea for which there was, as yet, no terminology. Again, it is possible that the concept of civilization existed in Elizabethan England before the term was introduced, but, if so, that would be a separate inquiry, though what we will have to say here would be relevant to that inquiry.

Setting aside the concept of civilization for the Elizabethans, there is the simpler question of whether the Elizabethans themselves were civilized, and Clark allows that Elizabethan England was a kind of civilization (a kind of civilization perhaps, but not, it is implied, civilization proper). This remark in passing is worth noting. Clark himself seems to prefer his characterization of civilization as a reproducible pattern, but he also allows for the possibility that intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality may characterize a civilization even in the absence of a reproducible pattern. In other words, there may be several distinct kinds of civilization, such that Enlightenment France exemplifies one such kind, while Elizabethan England exemplifies another kind. This seems pretty sensible, and, moreover, I agree with it. But if there are several kinds of civilization, what are these kinds? In other words, what is, or what ought to be, the scheme of taxonomy for civilizations?

At this time I am not prepared to offer a taxonomy of civilizations (although this is implicit in my other writings on civilization — more on that another time), but I can make some observations relevant to a taxonomy of civilizations. Since Clark focuses on civilization as a reproducible pattern, let’s also focus on that for the moment. Here I am reminded of a passage that I quoted in Civilization and Uniformity from Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s classic work, The Indus Civilization:

“…the Harappans were, first and last, lowlanders, as befits a civilized folk. The diversity of the hill-divided village groups is in standing contrast to the widespread uniformity of the riverine civilization.”

Sir Mortimer Wheeler, The Indus Civilization, third edition, p. 2

For Wheeler, mountain peoples remained idiosyncratic in their isolation, while lowland agricultural peoples mingled and lost much of their uniqueness. The emergence of uniformity, hence a reproducible pattern, is a product of the evolution of certain societies, and once a society evolves in this direction the process reinforces itself. Uniformity lends itself to iteration, and iteration renders any idiosyncratic tradition uniform over time; uniformity is the chicken and reproducible pattern is the egg.

Other examples of reproducible patterns would be the Hellenistic civilization that dominated the Mediterranean Basin during classical antiquity and the industrialized civilization that has emerged since the industrial revolution. Later iterations of Hellenistic civilization were highly uniform, but this pattern had its origins in the earliest societies of classical antiquity, which were likely highly idiosyncratic the closer we approach to their origins. E. R. Dodd’s classic study, The Greeks and the Irrational, highlighted the idiosyncratic nature of ancient Greek society as against the prevalent perception of Greek rationalism. Probably, like most peoples, the Greeks began with highly idiosyncratic institutions and evolved toward reproducible patterns. That others also took up the Greek pattern of civilization and reproduced it themselves probably contributed to wearing away of what remained that was peculiarly Greek in Hellenistic civilization.

I have previously discussed this contrast between iterable models and the idiosyncratic in terms of The Iterative Conception of Civilization and The Heroic Conception of Civilization. In my post on The Iterative Conception of Civilization I also implicitly reference Kenneth Clark in relation to the civilization of classical antiquity in the Mediterranean Basin. My implicit reference to Clark was to this passage:

“The same architectural language, the same imagery, the same theatres, the same temples — at any time for five hundred years you could have found them all round the Mediterranean, in Greece, Italy, France, Asia Minor or North Africa. If you had gone into the square of any Mediterranean town in the first century you would hardly have known where you were, any more than you would in an airport today. The so-called Maison Carree at Nimes is a little Greek temple that might have been anywhere in the Graeco-Roman world.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 1, “By the Skin of Our Teeth”

That Clark mentions the comparison with an airport today shows the relevance of a reproducible pattern not only to Hellenistic civilization but also to our contemporary industrialized civilization.

It has only occurred to me now, after all these years, that the distinction between the iterative conception of civilization and the heroic conception of civilization can be assimilated to the familiar historiographical distinction between the nomothetic and the idiographic formulated by Wilhelm Windelband:

“…the empirical sciences either seek the general in the form of the law of nature or the particular in the form of the historically defined structure. On the one hand, they are concerned with the form which invariably remains constant. On the other hand, they are concerned with the unique, immanently defined content of the real event. The former disciplines are nomological sciences. The latter disciplines are sciences of process or sciences of the event. The nomological sciences are concerned with what is invariably the case. The sciences of process are concerned with what was once the case. If I may be permitted to introduce some new technical terms, scientific thought is nomothetic in the former case and idiographic in the latter case.”

Rectorial Address, Strasbourg 1894, Wilhelm Windelband, History and Theory, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Feb., 1980), p. 175

Following Windelband, when a civilization is constituted by a form which invariably remains constant, it is a nomothetic civilization; on the other hand, when a civilization is constituted by the particular in the form of an historically defined structure, it is an idiographic civilization. Given this distinction, Clark’s implicit distinction between French civilization of the Enlightenment, which is characterized by a reproducible pattern of civilization, and Elizabethan English civilization, which was brutal, unscrupulous and disorderly, corresponds to the distinction between nomothetic and idiographic civilization.

But I would not go so far as to assert that there was nothing idiosyncratic about French civilization during the Enlightenment, and nothing nomothetic about Elizabethan civilization; it is a matter of degree, and degree of separation, between the nomothetic and the idiographic. Other civilizations that tended toward the idiographic would include, by my reckoning, Viking, Polynesian, Mongol, and Turkic civilizations (I mentioned all of these in a recent newsletter as instances of semi-nomadic societies); we have already seen other examples of highly nomothetic civilizations, viz. Hellenistic and industrialized civilization.

There are certainly nomothetic features of Elizabethan England… so what are they? Let us take a passage from The Life of King Henry the Eighth as an indicator of nomothetic structures of Elizabethan civilization, when Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, says the following in regard to the infant Elizabeth:

She shall be loved and fear’d: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.

William Shakespeare, The Life of King Henry the Eighth, Act V, Scene v, lines 31-38

To reduce this passage to the skeleton of implied properties of a successful society, we get security, including food security, peace, religious truth, and moral edification. Just below this passage, in line 48, the above is reduced to the litany, “Peace, plenty, love, truth, terror…”

“Neighbours” in the above Shakespeare passage must be taken literally to mean neighbors in one’s immediate geographical vicinity, as the passage has already drawn a clear distinction between “her own” and “her foes.” It is only among her own that the happy picture of peace and plenty obtains; while no sketch is given of the condition of her foes, we can make an imaginative extrapolation that this was a life of conflict and hardship, in some measure imposed by the benevolent Elizabeth no less than the peace and prosperity of her subjects was bestowed as a kind of royal gift upon the people of England.

Even though England at the time was a monarchy (it is still a monarchy today, but a constitutional monarchy in which the queen reigns but does not rule), it is fascinating that there is in this passage an explicit renunciation of virtue claimed by inheritance, and, presumably, also by social position or condition. The passage opens with “her own” blessing their queen, so that the people of England have offered up blessings to their queen, and she, in turn, provides the model of virtue for her subjects to adopt and practice (in other words, the moral model provided by the Elizabeth I as a pattern reproducible by her subjects). This places the queen not only as the political and military leader of England and the English people, but also the moral leader of her people. Arguably, the moral unity of Elizabethan civilization being explicitly disconnected from inheritance (i.e., blood) is a device that allows for the iteration of the model beyond any narrow biological definition of civilization.

The moral unity of a civilization, as with religious truth and moral edification in the foregoing list of properties, is certainly among the most important reproducible patterns that transforms an undifferentiated mass into a coherent whole capable of carrying out great works in the realization on a civilization’s central project, as, for example, the defense of the realm against the Spanish Armada and the consolidation of the Anglican Church as a specifically English religious institution that has ever since defined the spiritual life of England.

Wherever or whenever an exemplar is raised to prominence and presented as an example for others to follow (as with the queen and the queen’s behavior) we know we are in the presence of an explicit model intended as reproducible pattern. Since the form that European civilization took after the collapse of the western Roman Empire was that of a multiplicity of small kingdoms, each idiosyncratic to some significant degree, the ideology of kingship (and queenship) played a crucial role in the iterative elements of medieval European civilization, of which Elizabethan England was one example. It is to be noted in this context that France was always the largest of the medieval European kingdoms, and therefore that kingdom that most nearly approximated the geographical extent and population size that could result in a more nomothetic civilization, as arose in France with the Enlightenment.

The Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, attributed to George Gower (reproduced above; there are several contemporaneous copies of this image — one might even say iterations of this image), presents the monarch as an idealized archetype in conformity with the ideology of kingship. Elizabeth I is shown in regal splendor, with paintings of the defeat of the Spanish Armada behind her, and her right hand on a globe of the world, covering North America as though protecting the personal property of the crown. Any number of allegorical elements of this painting could be characterized as exemplars for her subjects not merely to reproduce, but to extrapolate to the end of an imperial destiny for the English crown. This is no small invitation to the nomothetic elaboration of the Elizabethan English model.

The European model of geographically bound kingship was a personal appeal to the people of a given kingdom at a time when literacy was rare and the primary forms of conveying an ideology were through sermons and images. In so far as the subjects of the English crown could look to Elizabeth (or, rather, to images of Elizabeth) as an exemplar, the connection between monarch and subject was personal. This personal relationship to civilization might be considered a distinctive trait of idiographic civilizations, but we should not think of civilizations of this kind as somehow deviating from an ideal model, or as constituting a lesser form of civilization, but rather as an adaptation to particular conditions. Whereas the Hellenistic model was iterated throughout the Mediterranean Basin at a time when this geographical region had already been civilized for thousands of years, and the exemplars of this civilization therefore grew in fertile social soil, the civilizations of Europe were extending their conception of civilization into a wilderness where no previous knowledge of civilization could be assumed.

With this in mind, we should not wonder at the success of the early modern European powers in colonial expansion, since the conditions of European civilization entailed a model iterable under hostile conditions.

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Saturday


The 50th anniversary of what exactly?

On 20 July 1969 the Apollo 11 mission landed two men on the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another astronomical body in the solar system. I was alive for the moon landings, and remember watching them on a black and white television. It was a triumph of science and technology and human aspiration all rolled into one.

What does the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 mean? We cannot say, “Fifty Years of Lunar Voyages,” because fifty years of lunar voyages did not follow the Apollo program. Except for the handful of human beings who have been to the moon because of the Apollo program, no one else has been beyond low Earth orbit. We cannot say, “Fifty Years of Human Space Exploration Records,” because the achievement of reaching the moon was not followed by further achievements of human space exploration (except for long-duration stays on space stations — periods of time sufficient for exploration of the solar system, if only we had undertaken such missions). The human mission to the moon was not followed by a human mission to Mars and then further human missions to the farther reaches of the solar system.

I have heard it argued that there needed to be a pause in space exploration and development after Apollo, whether because the cost of the program was unsustainable (when people say this I remind them that the Apollo program didn’t tank the US economy; on the contrary, it stimulated the US economy) or because life on Earth simply had to “catch up” with the Space Age. Either we weren’t ready or (worse yet) weren’t worthy of following up on the Apollo Program with further and more ambitious programs. When I hear this I am reminded of Pascal’s following pensée:

“‘Why does God not show Himself?’ — ‘Are you worthy?’ — ‘Yes.’ — ‘You are very presumptuous, and thus unworthy.’ — ‘No.’ — ‘Then you are just unworthy.'”

This appears as no. 13 in the Penguin edition of the Pensées in the appendix, “Additional Pensées,” and attributed to Blaise Pascal, Textes inédits, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1962 (i.e., you won’t find this in most editions of the Pensées.)

Regardless of your response, you’re going to be unworthy. There is always some reason that can be found that human beings don’t deserve any better than they have. This may sound like an eccentric point to make, but I believe it to be deeply rooted in human psychology, and we neglect this aspect of human psychology at our peril.

So if I ask, “Why do we not have a spacefaring civilization today?” Someone may respond, “Is humanity worthy of a spacefaring civilization?” I answer “Yes,” and I am told, “Humanity is very presumptuous, and therefore unworthy of it.” And if I answer “No,” I am told, “Then humanity is just unworthy.” Put in this context, we see that this is not really an observation about religion, as it appears in Pascal, but an observation about human self-perception. We have, if anything, seen this attitude grow significantly since 20 July 1969, so that there is a significant contingent of persons today who openly argue that humanity should not expand into the universe, but should remain, ought to remain, confined to its homeworld, and entertain no presumptions of greater things for itself.

It is easy to see how a long history of high-handed moral condemnations of the human condition, only just below the surface even today, even in the busy midst of our technological civilization, can be mobilized to shame us into inaction. In other words, this is about original sin, expiation, atonement, sacrifice, and purification — a litany that sounds strikingly similar to what Hume called the “monkish virtues”: celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, and solitude. Is this to be our future? Do we aspire to medieval ideals in the midst of modernity? Should we aspire to medieval ideals?

It is worth noting that this spacefaring inaction represents one particular implementation of what I have called the waiting gambit: things will be better eventually, so it is better to wait until conditions improve before undertaking some action. If we act now, we act precipitously, and this will mean acting suboptimally, and perhaps it will mean our ruin. Better to wait. That is to say, better to consign ourselves to silent meditation upon our sins than to exert ourselves with bold adventures. And this reminds me of one of Pascal’s most famous pensées:

Diversion. — When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

No. 136 in the Brunschvicg edition and no. 139 in the Lafuma edition

While there are some among us who are suited for this Pascalian quietude, for most of us, we are at our best when exposing ourselves to pain and peril, engaging in what William James called the “strenuous life.” As Hegel once said, nothing great in the world is accomplished without passion, and pain and peril are the inevitable companions of passionate engagement with the world.

The most charitable thing that can be said about the past fifty years of non-achievement in spacefaring development is that it constitutes a “strategic pause” in the development of spacefaring civilization. But fifty years could easily stretch into a hundred years, and after a hundred years a strategic pause in the development of spacefaring civilization takes on a different character, and we would have to ask ourselves if a century spent waiting to be worthy was a century well spent. Could we call a century of inaction a “pause”? I don’t think so. A century has a particular historical resonance for human beings; it represents a period of historical significance, and cannot be readily dismissed or waved away.

Though I am concerned about the human future and the eventual development of a spacefaring civilization, I also have reason to hope: recent years have seen the development of reusable rocket technology — by private industry, and not by the government run space programs that participated in the Space Race — and this may become a major player in space development. Moreover, my own study of civilization has made it clear to me that civilization today, despite pervasive declensionism in the western world, is more robust than ever before, and the ongoing prospect of civilization is hopeful in and of itself, because as long as technological civilization endures, and new technologies are developed, eventually the technology for a spacefaring breakout will be available at a sufficiently low cost that a small community interested in space exploration will eventually be able to engage in this exploration, even if the greater part of humanity prefers to remain quietly on our homeworld.

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Thursday


This cartoon from 1754 is attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed on 04 July 1776, it was a manifesto to explain, defend, and justify the action of the Founders in breaking from Great Britain and founding an independent political entity. The boldness of this gambit is difficult to appreciate today. Benjamin Franklin said after signing the document, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” It was a very real possibility that the Founders would be rounded up and hanged on the gallows. They had signed their names to a treasonous document, which was published for all to read.

Any Royalist with a grudge could have taken down the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and used it as a checklist for revenge and retaliation, even if the Founders were successful. And, had the British put down the rebellion, execution would have been certain. Less than a hundred years previously, following the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, the Bloody Assizes executed hundreds and transported hundreds more to the West Indies under the auspices of Judge Jeffreys, made Lord Chancellor by King James for his services to the crown in the wake of the rebellion. The spirit of the assizes had not subsided, as less fifty years later, the Bloody Assize of 1814 in Canada saw eight executed during the War of 1812 for aiding the Americans. If the revolution had failed, the bloody assizes of 1776 would have been legendary.

To rebel against what the world could only consider a “rightful sovereign” demanded that some explanation be given the world, hence the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” was a necessary diplomatic move, perhaps the first diplomatic initiative undertaken by what would become the United States of America. But at the same time that a world ruled by monarchs and autocrats, Tsars and Popes, kings and princes, emperors and aristocrats, Caliphs and satraps, would not look kindly upon the rebellion of subject peoples, the Founders could also expect that, in the Great Power competition, other powers would come forward to help the nascent nation simply in order to counter the presumed interests of Britain. The Declaration of Independence provides plausible deniability for any who came to the assistance of the rebels that the cause of the rebels was not mere lèse-majesté that other sovereigns should want to see punished.

The litany of abuses (eighteen items are explicitly noted in the Declaration; item thirteen is followed by nine sub-headings detailing “pretended legislation”) attributed to George III were intended to definitively establish the tyranny of the then-present King of England. I doubt anyone was convinced by the charges made against the British crown. If someone supported the crown or supported the colonies, they probably did so for pretty transparent motives of self-interest, and not because of any abstract belief in the divine right of kings on the one hand, or, on the other hand, any desire to engage in humanitarian intervention given the suffering the colonists experienced as a consequence of the injuries, usurpations, and oppressions of King George III.

King George III made an official statement later the same year, before the Revolutionary War had been won or lost by either side, and the crown’s North American colonies south of Canada might rightly have been said be “in play”: His Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech to Both Houses of Parliament on Thursday, October 31, 1776. A number of newspaper responses to the Declaration of Independence can be found in British reaction to America’s Declaration of Independence by Mary McKee. I don’t know of any point-by-point response to the grievances detailed in the Declaration of Independence, but I would be surprised if there weren’t any such from contemporary sources.

Subsequent history has not had much to say about these specific appeals to a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. The Declaration of Independence has had an ongoing influence, and might even be said to be one of the great manifestos of the Enlightenment, but the emphasis has always fallen on the ringing claims of the first few sentences. These sentences include a number of phrases that have become some of the most famous political rhetoric of western civilization. The litany of grievances, however, have not been among these famous phrases. The idea of taxation without representation occurs in the form of “For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,” but the more familiar form does not occur in the Declaration.

If the Declaration has intended as plausible deniability for any power that assisted the rebellious colonies, that is not the message that has been transmitted by history. The message that got through was the forceful statement of Enlightenment ideals for political society. In this, the colonies, later the United States, was eventually successful in their appeal to the opinion of mankind. Few today dispute these ideals, even if they act counter to them, whereas other statements of ideals of political society — say, The Communist Manifesto, for instance — have both their defenders and their detractors. It is no small accomplishment to have formulated ideals with this degree of currency.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Pulling Down the Statue Of King George III, New York City, Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, 1852-1853

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Tuesday


In geostrategic circles it is common to speak of China as an island, even though China is very much a part of the Eurasian landmass. China is isolated from its civilizational neighbors by mountain ranges and deserts and an ocean. These barriers have not been absolute, but these have been effective in isolating China and limiting Chinese interaction with other Old World civilizations. The less often recognized flip side of an insular China surrounded by mountains, deserts, and an ocean is that of Chinese unity. Chinese insularity and Chinese unity are two sides of the same coin; China’s geographical barriers both isolate and unify the region.

The idea of Chinese unity has a deep history in geostrategic thought, both in China and elsewhere in Eurasia and the world. Chinese civilization seems to have had its origins in the Yellow River Valley during the Neolithic, and it has been continuously Chinese civilization more-or-less since that time. There is direct line of descent from these earliest origins of civilization in East Asia to the China of today. And while the idea diffusion of Chinese civilization populated East Asia with other civilizations, related to China by descent with modification, few of these other civilizations had a profound reflexive influence upon Chinese civilization, even as they came to maturity and become regional powers. Moreover, when China has not been unified — as during the period of Warring States or the Taiping Rebellion — this has been regarded as an historical aberration.

Chinese unity is a far greater and much older imperative than any one Chinese regime, including the communist iteration of China as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chinese communists are as keen on Chinese unity as any Chinese emperor of the past (much as general secretaries of the communist party in the Soviet Union were as keen on Russian imperialism as was any Tsar). Any great disruption within China threatens Chinese unity, and so is perceived as an existential threat to one of the core strategic imperatives of Chinese civilization. Another way of stating this is Martin Jacques’ contention that China is a “civilization-state” that derives its legitimacy from the continuity of its civilization (cf. Civilization-States and Their Attempted Extirpation).

At the recent 18th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese General Wei Fenghe, State Councilor and Minister of National Defense, PRC, gave a speech largely focused on Taiwan and the South China Sea. Taiwan perfectly exemplifies the Chinese concern for Chinese unity. It has been seventy years since the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and Mao was forced to accept their control of Taiwan because he did not possess the resources to follow the Nationalists across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan has been a de facto independent nation-state since that time, but China has not forgotten Taiwan, and remains intent on re-asserting political control over the island.

After General Wei Fenghe’s speech he was asked questions, and he surprised many in the audience by explicitly answering a question about Tiananmen — the “June Fourth Incident” (天安門事件) — of which he was quoted as saying:

“Everybody is concerned about Tiananmen after 30 years,” Wei said on Sunday. “Throughout the 30 years, China under the Communist Party has undergone many changes — do you think the government was wrong with the handling of June Fourth? There was a conclusion to that incident. The government was decisive in stopping the turbulence.”

Turbulence threatens Chinese unity and stability, and as such it constitutes not merely a threat to the PRC or the ruling communist party, it constitutes a threat to Chinese civilization. Contrast this to Thomas Jefferson’s well known claim that, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Jefferson descended from the tradition of European civilization, which was always at war with itself, and never unified. And if you trace western civilization to its origins in Mesopotamia and Anatolia (cf. The Seriation of Western Civilization) it is obvious that western civilization has a different relationship to its origins than does Chinese civilization.

China’s grand strategy is dictated by these core concerns for continuity, stability, and unity, and China is willing to play the long game in order to secure these grand strategic goals. China has been mostly content to employ persuasion to this end, and this was the motivation for the “one country, two systems” policy that was supposed to assuage concerns in Hong Kong about its reunification with the Chinese mainland. For optimists, the success of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong would persuade Taiwan to voluntarily accept a similar deal for itself. But China also plays the long game in Hong Kong, and it has been steadily wearing away at the autonomy of Hong Kong, so that the “two systems” of the “one country” come ever closer to coinciding.

The Chinese mainland implicitly offers to Hong Kong and Taiwan the opportunity to hitch their wagons to a star, as the large and growing Chinese economy represents the possibility of great wealth for all who get on board (but at the cost of what Rufus Fears called “national freedom”). Now that China feels its growing strength, both economically and militarily, we hear much less about “one country, two systems” and much more about the core strategic concerns of continuity, stability, and unity. China can now afford to be more direct about its grand strategy.

Thirty years’ on, the Tiananmen Square massacre is now perceived as being safely distant in the past so that it can be acknowledged by Chinese military leaders, who have moved on to other concerns. There will be no official commemorations in mainland China, but the Chinese government may eventually become sufficiently confident of its position and its view of Chinese history that it can acknowledge the incident and place it in a context that they believe contributes to the narrative of the ability of the Chinese leadership class to ensure the strategic imperatives of Chinese continuity, stability, and unity.

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Previous posts on Tiananmen Anniversaries:

2009 Anniversary of a Massacre

2010 Twenty-one years since Tiananmen

2011 Was the Tiananmen massacre an atrocity?

2013 A Dream Deferred

2014 Tiananmen and the Right to be Forgotten

2015 Tiananmen and Chinese Grand Strategy

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Sunday


David Hume

Today I had a new comment on a blog post that I wrote ten years ago. The comment was from Luke Thompson, and the blog post in question was Counter-Cyclical Civilization. I had to re-read my ten-year-old blog post to remind myself of what I had written, and of course I don’t recall in detail what I had in mind ten years ago.

In my ten-year-old post I discussed how the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution (what I would subsequently come to call the Three Revolutions, of which these constitute two) have changed the pattern of previous civilization, which seems to have more-or-less exemplified an organic model of civilization, such that civilizations behave like biological individuals and pass through predictable life cycles from birth to growth to maturity to decline to death. I argued that the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution had disrupted this pattern and thus suggest that the organic model of civilization is inadequate to describe civilization as we know it today. These revolutionary forces are “counter-cyclical” to the predictable cycle of the organic model of civilization.

Mr. Thompson asked what exactly I had meant in that blog post where I had written, “…this time around, the pattern has been interrupted. New forces are at play, and the result must be as unprecedented as the circumstances.” In my response I offered a number forces present in the modern world that apparently work counter-cyclically to the predictable forces of decay and disintegration that begin to break down a civilization when it has run its course and started on its decline.

In my recent post David Hume’s Book Burning Bonfire I described the “dark underbelly of the Enlightenment,” that is to say, the aspects of the Enlightenment that we are less apt to discuss, like Hume’s eagerness to burn the books of “school metaphysics” (by which he meant Scholasticism). Reflecting on this in the light of reading my old post about the organic model of civilization and counter-cyclical forces working against cyclical decline, I see now that I could have (had I remembered) characterized the Enlightenment era interest in book burning and clearing away of the relics of the past as a predictable force in history. When a new kind of civilization appears in the world — in this case, Enlightenment civilization — it is on the rise as the traditional form of civilization is on the decline. Thus Enlightenment civilization, as it emerges, engages those familiar forces of the organic model of civilization, hastening the decline of its predecessor so that it can more rapidly take its place in history.

The high-water mark of communism in the twentieth century similarly sought to eliminate the traces of traditionalist civilization in Russia and China, and in the domains controlled by these superpowers during their communist phases, so that that communist millennium could all the more rapidly take its place as a new communist civilization. During the twentieth century, when communism was the revolutionary ideology par excellence, the transition to a communist social order was seen (and was theorized by Marx to be) the inevitable outcome of historical progress, and all the devices of historiography and philosophy were mobilized to make it seem so. One of the examples I like to cite in this connection is the idea of a new “Soviet Man,” Homo sovieticus, that would mark a new stage in the development of humanity, and not merely a new stage in the development of history.

As catastrophic as the Enlightenment willingness to preside over the destruction of the medieval past, Soviet purges, and the Cultural Revolution were each to the past of the relevant society, these disruptions of the historical record must be considered little disruptions in history, because the intent of those engaged in these historical projects was to continue civilization, but to continue in a radically new direction. This meant that some of the ground had to be cleared in order to make way for the new civilization, but it did not necessarily demand that the entirety of the past be erased.

Radical disruptions in history sometimes do call for the complete effacement of the past and as the necessary step toward clearing the ground for a new civilization that will rise de novo from the ashes of the former civilization. The early Christians and some Muslims today often have this attitude to the past. Some revolutionary groups have this attitude to the past. The most radical communist groups, like the Khmer Rouge, who emptied out cities and sought to force the population into utopian rural agrarianism, had this attitude to the past.

This distinction between limited effacement (like Hume’s book burning) and radical effacement of the past (as in the collapse of Roman civilization) may be useful in theorizing the scope of historical disruption, and it could be employed to further articulate the organic model of civilization in relation to non-organic conceptions of civilization.

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