Historical Continuity and Discontinuity

3 August 2009


An Islamic army imposing historical discontinuity on Western civilization: according to the Pirenne Thesis, this is the decisive break with classical antiquity.

An Islamic army imposing historical discontinuity on Western civilization: according to the Pirenne Thesis, this is the decisive break with classical antiquity.

In several posts to this forum, especially in The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited and Revisiting Civilization Revisited, I have argued that the material and technological progress of civilization has revealed a pattern of growing stability and pervasiveness, so that the nearly perennial human fear of the “The end of the world”, of apocalypse, of man-made catastrophe, is a misplaced fear that reveals more about ourselves than it reveals about the state of the world.


We think of ourselves and our civilization as being qualitatively distinct from medieval man and medieval civilization, and so we are. We read the classics of Greek and Roman civilizations as contemporaries, and they speak to us directly as rational men of the world who knew what the stakes were. When we confront the medieval world, with its fabulous legends, colorful heraldry, and fantastic mythologies, its credulity and its violence, its coarseness and its delicacy, we feel as though we face something truly alien, albeit with some recognizable human signs in it.

A scene from the apocalypse tapestry at Anger, France

A scene from the apocalypse tapestry at Anger, France

Kenneth Clark in his Civilisation (in the second episode in his discussion of Sainte Foy) noted the gap between the modern and the medieval mind, and, after telling some amusing anecdotes about pilgrimage and relics to underline the difference, concluded:

…that’s the medieval mind. They cared passionately about the truth, but their sense of evidence was different from ours. From our point of view nearly all the relics in the world depend on unhistorical assertions; and yet they, as much as any factor, led to that movement of diffusion of ideas from which western civilization derives part of its momentum.

Why do I mention medieval civilization in this context? Because medieval civilization shared with us this fascination with the end of the world. The particular twist we have given to the end of the world since the Cold War is that of nuclear war, atomic apocalypse, but the fear itself is not essentially new in the Western tradition. Medieval man also believed that his world was on the verge of a catastrophic end, a cataclysm of such magnitude that it would mean not merely the end of the material world, but the end of man’s spiritual evolution: time would be replaced by eternity and the moral order of the world heretofore familiar would come to a close.

A concrete manifestation of fear of the end of the world, as well as of the optimism needed to believe that one will survive as an individual (or as a family) even if civilization is a casualty along with millions of other individuals.

A concrete manifestation of fear of the end of the world, as well as of the optimism needed to believe that one will survive as an individual (or as a family) even if civilization is a casualty along with millions of other individuals.

There are, of course, important differences between medieval apocalypticism and modern apocalypticism. In America, at least, the apocalypse is welcomed by some, and our inveterate optimism — perhaps pathological optimism — is such that, whether the catastrophe be spiritual or material, most people believe that they will be survivors, certainly on the side of the angels. Medieval apocalypticism was much less confident. It was frequently said in the Middle Ages that only one out of a hundred would be saved, or even one out of a thousand, when the end of the world came.

But our worry, if we do in fact worry, is misplaced: the medieval world is not the only iteration of man with a questionable “sense of evidence” as Kenneth Clark put it. However passionate we are about the truth, we delude ourselves relentlessly. Civilization is not collapsing. Civilization and all the institutions that support it are becoming more robust over time. And a good thing, too.

Civilization depends upon continuity for its progress (or, if you prefer a less “loaded” term, its expansion) in both material and technological terms, because once a new technology wholly replaces an old technology, and once this cycle of technological succession and replacement iterates itself a few times, the intermediate stages of technology are mostly lost to common knowledge. The consequence of the loss of intermediate technological knowledge is that a significant historical discontinuity — like the Dark Ages of Western Europe — imposes on what remains of society the need to rebuild its technology almost from square one.

It is true that once we reach a given level of intellectual and technical sophistication we can copy from advanced developments in the past, just as when medieval man re-discovered the Corpus Iuris Civilis he could begin the process of constructing a sophisticated legal code such as civilization demands in order to function reasonably smoothly. But even with sophisticated relics of the past to assist us, the process of reconstructing the technological infrastructure of civilization is vast and daunting and tedious.

Moreover, even if we have the help of the past to reconstruct our technological infrastructure after any historical discontinuity, the actual, physical process of building that technological infrastructure may have to proceed through all or most of the steps that were previously taken in the past, because the tools and technology of one stage of civilization are needed to build the tools and technology of the next stage of civilization.

We cannot build a contemporary computerized steel mill until we have computers, and computers in turn require an entire specialized industrial and technological infrastructure to build, and we can’t build this infrastructure until we have built a simpler steel mill, but to build a steel mill is a large undertaking that requires a certain level of technical and industrial expertise, and so on back through all the historical levels of technology. Moreover, precision instruments are needed to build precision instruments. With each iteration of precision instruments we can make marginal improvements, but one cannot jump directly from Clovis points to computers without filling in the steps in between.

The steps in between are rarely lost completely, but they are generally lost, as I said above, to common knowledge. The broad economic base that is necessary to the construction of industrialized and technological society rests upon an equally broad base of mature technology. In more complex and advanced societies, masses of people use technologies that they do not understand. The people who use technology cannot produce, maintain, or even in some cases operate this technology without the assistance of related technologies and technological expertise.

A society that experiences an abrupt and catastrophic historical discontinuity may not have to go back to square one — which could probably be defined as subsistence agriculture — but it will certainly be thrown back on to what I have elsewhere called perennial technologies, i.e., technologies that can be employed and maintained separately from an industrial infrastructure. Technologies that require an industrial infrastructure for their production, maintenance, and operation (as, for example, with the need for fossil fuels) are subject to the need to re-build technologies level by level as outlined above.

Antiquarian technologies will always exist in museums, and there will always be a few hobbyists who continue to work with antiquarian technologies out of pure fascination with them. Some perennial technologies are at present essentially antiquarian technologies, but they are not simply technologies that have fallen out of general use. A perennial technology has reached a level of maturity that makes it robust and dependable — the sort of thing you can count on to supply you with your next meal — and usually has the property of being readily mastered by any adult of reasonable capacity, who can both employ and maintain and possibly even rebuild the technology without access to an industrial infrastructure or specialized tools and education.

Bicycle technology has improved significantly, but the basic design has not changed in more than a hundred years.

Bicycle technology has improved significantly, but the basic design has not changed in more than a hundred years.

I have previously cited the technology associated with horses as an example of perennial technology. Another example that comes to mind is the bicycle. It is interesting to note that, in some parts of the contemporary world, that the horse and the bicycle are part of the infrastructure of daily life. Most people could learn how to ride a horse or how to plow with a horse. And most people could, if need be, learn to take apart a bicycle and re-assemble it, in order to make necessary repairs. This is the level of mature, dependable, perennial technology on which a society that experienced an abrupt and catastrophic historical discontinuity would be thrown back. (Not only individuals experience thrownness in the Heideggerian sense, but societies can experience thrownness as well.)

It could be argued that the gradual progress of civilization over the past few thousand years has added to the stock of perennial technologies. Plowing with a team is an ancient technology that goes back to the beginnings of civilization; bicycles are scarcely more than a hundred years old, but now that someone had the idea, and the technology rapidly matured to a robust state, the bicycle has been added to the list of perennial technologies. If this argument is correct, then this is perhaps one of the mechanisms by which the phenomenon of civilization is self-sustaining and has established a pattern of becoming more robust over time.

Civilization itself provides the continuity which is the foundation not only for the continuation of civilization, but for the strengthening of the phenomenon of civilization.

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