Addendum on the Temporal Structures of Civilization

12 October 2012


The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are one of the great surviving relics of medieval civilization.

Last August in The Temporal Structures of Civilization I suggested that we might think of early modern civilization — what I have called Modernism without Industrialism — as an abortive civilization. Modern civilization, sensu stricto, was preempted and essentially overtaken by industrialized civilization, or, as I now like to say, industrial-technological civilization.

Implicit in this claim is the idea (not explicitly formulated in my post of this past summer) that our civilization or any civilization might be suddenly and unaccountably preempted by a macro-historical revolution that changes everything, if only that revolution is sufficiently large and catastrophic. Those were my thoughts of high summer, and now it is fall and the rains have begun. I have been meaning to return to some of these themes, and the change in the weather is as good a reason as any to revisit my less-than-sunny summer thoughts.

The most studied macro-historical transitions in Western history are 1) the transition from classical antiquity to the middle ages, and 2) the transition from the middle ages to modernity. Both of these transitions have must to teach us, and it is remarkable that the differences between these two macro-historical revolutions are so schematic that they also seem to have been formulated to give us two radically different perspectives on what it means to make the transition from one form of civilization to another.

The transition from medievalism to modernism was gradual, continuous, and incremental; any attempt to draw a clear line between medieval civilization and modern civilization must adopt some conventions simply in order to make the distinctions, and in adopting historical conventions we know that we could have chosen our conventions differently.

Despite the gradual transition from medievalism to modernism, the medieval mind and the modern mind could not be more different. Their separation in time was gradual but the result was nearly absolute incommensurability. To formulate it in Aristotelian modalities, it was the accidents of of life that remained continuous in the transition from medievalism to modernity, even while the essence of life fundamentally changed. There is a sense in which we could say that there was an essentialist revolution that left accidents unchanged.

The transition from antiquity to medievalism, on the other hand, while it did take several centuries to consolidate as a macro-historical revolution, involved a violent break with the past and its traditions — actually, several violent breaks in tradition. There was the relative suddenness of the abandonment of classical religious traditions in favor of Christianity; there was the collapse of any unified Roman legal and political power in Western Europe; there was the break with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, which continued on for another thousand years (turning itself into what Toynbee would have called a fossil civilization); there was the collapse the urban life in Western Europe and the flight from the cities, and with this came a radical economic transition from a unified system of commerce across the Roman Empire to a self-sufficient manorial system.

Although this transition from antiquity of medievalism involved a series of violent social dislocations, the scale of which have not been seen since in Western civilization (with the exception of the Black Death and industrialization), the medieval mind believed itself to be unchanged in essentials from the world of classical antiquity. It was common rhetorical and indeed an intellectual trope of the middle ages for people to speak of themselves as Romans and to assume that their world was simply a greatly diminished and impoverished Roman Empire. Rather than thinking in terms of a new civilization that had been born with the passing of classical antiquity, it was said that mundus senescit — the world grows old — and it was thought that the peoples of time were simply waiting for the old world to end.

From an historiographical perspective, medieval civilization is an historical phenomenon of great value, because it represents a fully contained macro-historical division of western history, with a more-or-less clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. In other words, we have the full arc of the story of medieval civilization.

Somewhere (I don’t recall where as I write this) I read that someone characterized the upshot of Toynbee’s historical effort as embodying the idea that civilizations are the proper unit of historical study. Civilizations are a unit of historical study — one unit among many other possible units of study — but every epistemic order of magnitude has its proper units of historical study. Those units are the “individuals” recognized by the conceptual infrastructure of a given epistemic order of magnitude.

Different objects of historical study will also mean different forms of historical transition between the objects in question. Civilizations have characteristic forms of transition. Demographic macro-historical transitions that affect the entire human population of the Earth, like the transitions from hunter-gatherer nomadism to agriculturalism, and then the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism, are of another order of magnitude. It is no wonder that the modernism of civilization gave way before the demographic revolution of industrialization; the latter is a far larger historical force that can easily swamp developments as relatively small as those on the scale of civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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