The Terror of Natural History
8 November 2011
Today an asteroid some four hundred meters across (Asteroid 2005 YU55) passed closer to the earth than the orbit of the moon. Astronomers were careful, prior to the flyby, to let people know that there was no danger of impact, for fear of contributing to a panic. If an asteroid this size hit the earth, it would cause enormous destruction, and would probably alter the climate. If a larger asteroid hit the earth, it could cause a mass extinction, and very probably the end of civilization. If a very large asteroid hit the earth, it could spell the doom of all life.
In the earlier years of our solar system, before a great deal of the loose matter in the solar system had either impacted on larger bodies or had been cleared out of the inner solar system by the gravitational influence of Jupiter, collisions between massive celestial bodies were more common than they are in the present epoch of the solar system. One theory of the formation of earth’s moon is that the earth was hit by a very large asteroid (of the size that would today wipe out all life on earth) that tore our a significant portion of earth’s material and flung it up into orbit.
On cosmological time scales, these things do happen, and although collisions of this magnitude have become rare (even on cosmological time scales) they can still happen today. While the impact of an asteroid the size of Asteroid 2005 YU55 would be an unprecedented natural disaster from a human perspective, most earth life would survive such an event, and civilization would likely survive such an event.
Because of the current state of scientific knowledge it is entirely possible to understand such natural disasters naturalistically, that is to say, according to the naturalistic conception of history, although we know that it is human nature (probably rooted in the agency detector of evolutionary psychology) to seek for meaning in events.
In several posts I have noted the response to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which occurred during the enlightenment, but at a time in history when the medieval memory of divine retribution was still very much kept alive. In Naturalism and Suffering I quoted a passage from Gabriel Malagrida’s 1756 pamphlet, “An Opinion on the True Cause of the Earthquake” (“Juizo da verdadeira causa do terramoto”), which argued that the disaster in Lisbon was divine retribution for the sins of the people of Lisbon:
“Learn, Oh Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins, and not comets, stars, vapours and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena. Tragic Lisbon is now a mound of ruins. Would that it were less difficult to think of some method of restoring the place; but it has been abandoned, and the refugees from the city live in despair. As for the dead, what a great harvest of sinful souls such disasters send to Hell! It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin. Holy people had prophesied the earthquake was coming, yet the city continued in its sinful ways without a care for the future. Now, indeed, the case of Lisbon is desperate. It is necessary to devote all our strength and purpose to the task of repentance. Would to God we could see as much determination and fervour for this necessary exercise as are devoted to the erection of huts and new buildings! Does being billeted in the country outside the city areas put us outside the jurisdiction of God? God undoubtedly desires to exercise His love and mercy, but be sure that wherever we are, He is watching us, scourge in hand.”
At the time of the Lisbon earthquake there were completely naturalistic accounts given of the disaster, but there were also eschatological accounts of the disaster that found cosmic meaning in suffering and destruction. Thus even though a naturalistic conception of natural disasters was already possible given the state of scientific knowledge in 1755, the eschatological conception of disasters was still a living influence. If a disaster of great magnitude occurs today, it is usually described in naturalistic terms, but there remains a sizable minority of people who understand such things eschatologically and who are determined to find human meaning in natural events.
The naturalistic understanding of massive natural disasters recognizes that a great cataclysm can befall human beings and all their works, and the event has no meaning at all. In fact, an event of such great magnitude could occur that would annihilate our species and, naturalistically understood, it would have no meaning. This is an idea that is beyond the ability of many apparently rational and intelligent people to comprehend. Indeed, even to say so sounds inhumane. Of course, a great disaster is given human meaning by the stories that emerge from the lived experience of the disaster (if anyone survives it), but this is importantly distinct from an event having an intrinsic meaning apart from that meaning given to it ex post facto by human beings who experienced it.
With the mechanized means of mass death that emerged in the middle of the twentieth century — Nazi death camps, firestorms, and the atomic bomb — new potential sources of human extinction appeared from human beings themselves. Now, someone committed to an eschatological reading of history would say that such inventions were demonically inspired, but I think that by the time mutually assured destruction had become a fact of life during the high point of the Cold War that most people understood the existential threat to humanity from nuclear war as being an entirely human creation. This was a time of conscious modernism, before the backlash that made modernity a target of cynicism and nihilistic criticism, and many people embraced a nascent naturalism as an apparently inevitable development of modern history.
Nevertheless, eschatological language was routinely employed to discuss nuclear war: Nuclear Armageddon was a typical phrase one heard during the Cold War. Despite the persistence of eschatological language, the possibility of human self-annihilation was rightly understood to have human meaning because it was a possibility brought about by human agency. Human beings were forced to recognize that they had created a power capable of destroying themselves, and many philosophers as diverse as Karl Jaspers and Bertrand Russell bent every effort to impress this fact upon the popular mind.
With the advent of atomic weapons and the possibility of human self-annihilation philosophers realized that humanity was faced with a qualitatively new and unprecedented historical development, and they quite frankly struggled to take account of it and to create new categories of evil and new ways of thinking about history in order to convey this qualitatively changed historical circumstance. This effort is unfinished in our day. Much work remains to be done. It also suggests parallel work that might be done in understanding natural disasters.
It may well be that human beings do not yet possess an adequate conceptual infrastructure, and sufficient historical experience, to be able to understand massive natural disasters naturalistically. Because of our limited conceptual infrastructure and limited historical experience, in times of great duress we are thrown back on eschatological conceptions that so dominated earlier forms of human civilization. While our industrial-technological civilization (predicated as it is upon a relentless naturalistic instrumentalism) has far outstripped most of the institutions of nomadic and agricultural society, we do not yet possess the intellectual institutions commensurate with the forces that have been unleashed. We are all of us like the sorcerer’s apprentice.
We could make a start in the direction of a conceptual infrastructure adequate to the exposition of natural and man-made cataclysms by adapting the idea of the “terror of history” to natural history. It was Mircea Eliade who introduced the phrase “The Terror of History” (in his famous book The Myth of the Eternal Return), and it is one of those rare historical bons mots — like, for example, Weber’s “The disenchantment of the World,” to which it is related — that sententiously encapsulates a paradigm shift in a single phrase.
The transhistorical models and metahistorical meanings that Eliade attributes to non-historical peoples in their understanding of history can all be found in relation to natural history as well as humanistic history. Once the disenchantment of the world takes away the possibility of investing the world with transhistorical meaning and we are, as it were, left naked before the depredations of time, we experience the terror of history. Human history had its terrors of war, disease, failed harvests, famine, riots, and cruel monarchs that could all be blunted (to some degree) by an “understanding” that all of this had happened before, all of this would happen again, and there is nothing new under the sun. Natural history is similarly replete with disasters such as earthquakes, fires, floods, and droughts.
Several of these disasters, most particularly famine and disease, are in equal measures human and natural disasters, so that any distinction one draws within them cannot but be conventional. Given that human history emerged incrementally from the natural history with which it is continuous, I would argue that the cyclical and eschatological conceptual means employed to effect the devalorization of history probably emerged first in relation to natural disasters and were only later applied to specifically human history. I don’t think that Eliade would have disagreed with this, and it may well have been his intended meaning.
As far as my knowledge extends — and this is not as far as I would like — the idea of the terror of history has been exclusively applied to a traditionally humanistic conception of history. To extend the terror of history to the terror of natural history both preserves the continuity of the idea while acknowledging its extension beyond humanistic history to natural history. And the intrinsic naturalism of industrial-technological civilization intrinsically places that civilization in the context of natural history rather than eschatological history.
The idea of history has been dramatically expanded by the application of scientific methods to inquiry into the past, so much so that the distinction between humanistic history and natural history breaks down at some points (I have addressed this in several posts, especially The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History). While calling this a “break down” carries a certain negative connotation, the assertion of the essential continuity of history seems to me to be a good thing. Indeed, I have devoted a great many posts of an extended conception of history that I once called integral history and which I now call metaphysical history.
So far I have above only discussed catastrophic events in the context of naturalistic and eschatological conceptions of history, but I have divided conceptions of human history into four categories based on the conception of human agency involved:
● Political history understood in terms of human agency
● Cataclysmic history understood in terms of human non-agency
● Eschatological history understood in terms of non-human agency
● Naturalistic history understood in terms of non-human non-agency
Since I have already covered (to a limited extent) naturalistic and eschatological conceptions of natural disasters, for the sake of completeness I ought also to comment on cataclysmic and political conceptions of natural disasters.
How could there possibly be a political conception of natural disasters? One of the consistent themes in Machiavelli, to which he frequently recurs, is that while human beings cannot control fortune, they can certainly control the circumstances that dictate one’s response to fortune. In other words, one may never know when the river will flood, but in times of social stability one can build dams and levees and make every effort to assert one’s control over fortune so that, when the worst happens, it can be managed.
Chapter twenty-five of Machiavelli’s The Prince is titled, “What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs, And How To Withstand Her.” It is here that Machiavelli gives his famous formulation in which he compares fortune to a river:
“I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.”
Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XXV
In this sense, then, the political conception of natural disasters, almost all disaster planning in the industrialized world constitutes an exercise in the political conception of natural disasters. Disaster and recovery planning has become more sophisticated than at any time in the past, and wealthy governments (as well as some NGOs) have contingency plans in place for all manner of contingencies, not excluding visitation of the earth by extraterrestrials. This conception of natural disasters is closely related to the naturalistic conception, and in some contexts the two many be indistinguishable.
Similarly, the cataclysmic conception of natural disasters is nearly indistinguishable from the eschatological conception, only that the eschatological conception adds a layer of meaning that is absent from the brute recognition that unprecedented and unpredictable disasters can befall us for no reason at all, just as the political conception of natural disasters adds a layer of meaning to the naturalistic conception of natural disasters.
A sensitive and subtle account would bring out the differences between the natural and political conceptions of natural disasters on the one hand, and on the other hand the eschatological and cataclysmic conceptions. I will try to work more on this later, but for the moment I have another idea I want to sketch.
In relation to the eschatological conception of history and its realization in the concept of cosmic war, I have noted that when grievances are formulated in eschatological terms, only a cosmic war is felt to address this particularly eschatological concerns. An eschatological grievance answered with pragmatic and utilitarian measures will leave those who have asserted the grievance still with an eschatological hunger than has been unfilled. And so it is that apparently happy and prosperous peoples will throw themselves into disastrous wars (seemingly exemplifying the cataclysmic conception of war) when as eschatological need has gone unfilled and the only obvious way to fill it is to undertake some action of great moment (even if ill-conceived) equal to the feeling that demands satisfaction.
Similarly in the case of natural disasters, how they are conceived, according to what conception of history they are understood, will have much to do with the kind of aid and comfort that the victims will find to speak to their needs. Given the instrumentalist presumptions of industrial-technological civilization, those of us in the industrialized world want to know that every practical effort is being taken in order to minimize our suffering and maximize our comfort in the midst of great disruption and turmoil. Conventional disaster planning models speak precisely to these needs.
It is typically later, once the initial danger has passed, and the political process reasserts itself, that people begin asking the political questions and aligning their thinking according to the political conception of natural disasters: why there the levees and flood walls allowed to degraded? Why were they not maintained or even strengthened? Why was not more planning done, and why were not more adequate contingency plans formulated.
For the eschatological conception of natural disaster, what is wanted is spiritual aid and comfort. We can cite numerous examples from medieval and early modern history in this context. When great plagues swept across Europe starting in 1348 and continuing throughout the early modern period, the response was not typically to undertake public health measures, but rather to parade religious statues, reliquaries, and sacred objects in great processions through affected areas in order to act upon the relevant eschatological concerns.
While this sort of response is somewhat rare today, it is not absent, in in circumstances in extremis, it is not at all unusual for religious leaders to call for repentance and atonement, and to point to the disaster as an opportunity for individuals to realign themselves with an eschatological conception of the world.
For the cataclysmic conception of natural disasters I cannot imagine any response, for in the grip of actual cataclysmic events, the cataclysmic conception is, as it were, actively unfolding and proving itself. In the face of such events, what could possibly be done? For the true believer in the cataclysmic conception of history, I cannot at present imagine any more appropriate response than running and screaming in terror.
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