Viability through historical experimentation

13 March 2009


Previously in his forum I posted several pieces on what I called the principle of historical viability, such that “an x fails when it fails to change as the world changes.” I haven’t written recently on historical viability, though I have made numerous other suggestions about historical patterns, mostly focusing on selection and dialectical development.

These two lines of historical inquiry are related, as we will see. Viability often hinges on selection and dialectical responses to forces, while selection and dialectic are always expressed in terms of the presently available material for development. In this sense (and in an historical sense) civilization is a particular formulation of a more general problematic.

I have also written briefly in this forum about Byzantine history, and Byzantine history is instructive for us on several counts. Byzantium is “out of step with our ‘Enlightenment’ and our ‘progress’ and that is a good thing” (as I wrote about Gobineau). It would be more difficult to find a more alien tradition than Byzantium, and for that reason we can learn much from it. It stands as a great challenge to our assumptions.

The Byzantine Empire about 600 AD (in pink). Unlike the Roman Empire, geogrpahically defined by the contours of the Mediterranean, Byzantium is centered on a city (Constantinople) and a landmass (Asia Minor), so that while being an archetypal empire, it prefigures the geographical form of a nation-state.

The Byzantine Empire about 600 AD (in pink). Unlike the Roman Empire, geographically defined by the contours of the Mediterranean, Byzantium is centered on a city (Constantinople) and a landmass (Asia Minor), so that while being an archetypal empire, it prefigures the geographical form of a nation-state.

Byzantine civilization is a wonderful exemplar of historical viability, lasting through a thousand years of dangerous history from the late antique period to the late medieval or even early modern period. Byzantium was a survivor. We could say that Byzantium is the Roman Empire in its medieval form, and as such it represents the continuous survival or Roman institutions a thousand years after they failed in Western Europe.

A colossal bronze statue of a Byzantine emperor at Barletta, italy. He holds a cross in one hand and the orb of the world in the other (although the arms are probably not original as their bronze was once used by Dominicans to cast bells). It is not known how exactly this statue wound up in Barletta.

A colossal bronze statue of a Byzantine emperor at Barletta, Italy. He holds a cross in one hand and the orb of the world in the other (although the arms are probably not original as their bronze was once used by Dominicans to cast bells). It is not known how exactly this statue wound up in Barletta.

This survivability on the part of Byzantium illustrates the extent to which Rome had to change in order to remain historically viable. Historical viability, as we saw in earlier posts to this forum, demands flexibility, or, rather, adaptability. An evolving civilization is a sustainable civilization. And the evolution may represent a tendency to depart indefinitely from the original type. The species of civilization represented by ancient Rome is clearly distinct from the species of civilization represented by Byzantium, but the latter is related to the former by descent with modification.

The Emperor Justinian, here portrayed in a mosaic in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, presided over the Byzantine Empire at its extent shown in the map above.

The Emperor Justinian, here portrayed in a mosaic in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, presided over the Byzantine Empire at its extent shown in the map above.

In the west, Roman power was overrun and defeated, while the transition from medievalism to modernity was imperceptibly gradual. In the east, it was precisely the reverse: the transition from antiquity to medievalism was imperceptibly gradual, while Roman power was ultimately overrun and defeated in the next stage of history, ushering in the early modern period with a decisive break from the medieval past (in 1453). We can see this decisive break between antiquity and modernity as one break offset in two distinct traditions, or we can see it as two distinct breaks in history.

The Fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, as imagined in western Europe. This was painted in Paris in 1499, a world and an age away, although one man might have lived to see both the event and its rendering.

The Fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, as imagined in western Europe. This was painted in Paris in 1499, a world and an age away, although one man might have lived to see both the event and its rendering.

Natural selection is one mechanism that allows entities to respond to their environment. Something as large and as complex as a civilization, which is partly the result to conscious creation on the part of individuals and societies, and partly the result of naturally emerging structures that responded to forces present in the environment (an environment that includes natural, social, and cultural forces — none of them precisely distinguished from the other), responds both to social and natural forces that are continually shaping its development. The basic fabric of a civilization must be sufficiently flexible and robust that it can be acted upon by these forces without unraveling. Almost all that has been accomplished so far, whether in nature or civilization, has been the work of natural selection.

A strikingly naturalistic Byzantine mosaic. Up close, a mosaic looks like a work of fractured cubism, but from a distance the effect can be very different, even with mosaics notably less naturalistic than this.

A strikingly naturalistic Byzantine mosaic. Up close, a mosaic looks like a work of fractured cubism, but from a distance the effect can be very different, even with mosaics notably less naturalistic than this.

The conscious equivalent of natural selection is experimentation. A fully conscious civilization would direct its development on the basis of historical experimentation. As things are now, much is left to trial and error. Civilization proposes and history disposes. But it need not always be like this. When we choose to take full control over our historical destiny we will be able to direct our development in a way that is now only suggested by the limited aims that we are able to achieve by way of social planning. In the absence of thoroughgoing planning, we are at the mercy of forces to which we react — hence the dialectical development of civilization. But a fully mature and self-aware civilization could confine this dialectic to controlled circumstances — also known as scientific experimentation — and spare the world much unnecessary suffering.

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