Another Source of Stagnation
11 January 2013
A couple of days ago in The Byzantine Superweapon, and again yesterday in Innovation, Stagnation, and Optimization, I discussed some of the forces that led to the technological stagnation of classical antiquity, which ensured that there would be no industrial revolution in the classical world. Western civilization had to pass through the painful contraction of political and economic collapse in Western Europe, and lose much of what it had struggled so hard to build, before it could get to the point at which the conditions were right (and ripe) for industrialization.
Now, the way that I have worded the above paragraph suggests a kind of historical inevitability, and this is philosophically objectionable. If one is going to make a claim of historical inevitability, one has an intellectual obligation to state this claim, and to defend it. However, I am not making such a claim, although my position could be interpreted as a weak form of historical inevitability.
What do I mean by “weak historical inevitability”? A strong formulation of historical inevitability would simply be a statement of determinism. A weak formulation of historical inevitably need make no metaphysical claims about determinism, but does acknowledge that, given the kind of civilization that characterized classical antiquity — settled, slave-holding, agrarianism — it would have been virtually impossible, or in any event extremely unlikely for technological innovation to escalate to the point of an industrial revolution. Before industrialization could occur, certain social changes must occur. But the “must” in the last sentence is not the “must” of necessity or determinism, but only a weaker “must” of the preponderance of the evidence. Call this a scientific must if you must, because it shares in the inductivism and revisability of all scientific thought.
In the same spirit of a scientific perspective on history, imbued with an empirical and inductive approach (rather than an a priori and deductive approach, in which “had to” and “must” carry connotations of metaphysical determinism, as in Marxism), there is another factor in the stalling and stagnation of ancient Western civilization that bears examination, and this relates to the geophysical structure of the Roman Empire, which represented classical antiquity at its greatest reach and its most robust iteration.
Of course, the study of the geography of political structures is the meat and potatoes of geopolitics, and I have written a good deal on geopolitics and geostrategy. But even though geopolitics represents a “big picture” and “long term” view on political structures, in the field of geophysics geopolitics is the shortest of short term perspectives. Those who take the longer view of human history and civilization in the context of geography — Jared Diamond is probably the most famous contemporary example of this — are frequently charged with “geographical determinism,” and while in some instances this may be true, but, as I noted above, we can adopt a weak sense of geographical inevitably and avoid all metaphysical determinism.
The geographical unity of the Roman Empire was primarily a function of the Mediterranean Sea, which was ringed by ports that connected the cities of the empire with water-borne commerce — at that time in history, the only form of commerce that could move mass quantities of goods. Maps of the Roman Empire show it surrounding the Mediterranean. After the collapse of Roman power in the West, Western civilization moved inland and approximated pure agriculturalism until expanding again across the North Atlantic and new and larger geographical unity based on water-borne commerce.
During its medieval phase, and carried over into continental politics during the modern period, Western civilization gave rise to no durable empire on the scale of the Roman Empire. The European peninsula is too geographically divided by rivers and mountain ranges to posses the kind of geographical unity the Roman Empire had in virtue of the Mediterranean. George Friedman and Strategic Forecasting often argues in this vein, and in this I think he is right. Friedman has also pointed out that, geopolitically, China is an island. Separated from the rest of the world by deserts, mountain ranges, and the ocean, the traditional unity of Chinese civilization derives from this insular geography. The only people who penetrated the fastness of China were the Mongols; the Chinese themselves did not engage in successful power projection, but spent most of the history warring with each other to determine who would rule the geographical unity of China.
The same geographical divisions of Europe that led to a plethora of petty kingdoms, states, statelets, principalities, and city-states led to ideological, political, economic, and even aesthetic diversity by way of the cultural equivalent of allopatric speciation. In other words, civilization speciated rapidly on the European peninsula. Political and ideological diversity meant a history of continuous conflict, which was at times was ruinous, but at other times had the remarkable quality of competitive government, so that a variety of diverse candidates for political leadership contested with each other to demonstrate (usually militarily) who could provide the best rule. The brilliance of the Italian renaissance is sometimes credited — rightly, in my view — to the competition among principalities on the Italian peninsula.
The Roman Empire, possessing the geographical unity of the Mediterranean — similar in a certain sense to the insularity of Chinese civilization and its series of empires — did not benefit from competitive government. It became, in contrast, a political monoculture that iterated itself around the Mediterranean basin and penetrated as far inland was travel by road was practicable. Instead of competition, the Roman Empire bestowed peace — the Pax Romana.
In this context, the Pax Romana could be understood as a cause, if not the cause, of the decline of classical antiquity, for without the continual pressure of war there was no need reason to systematically harness science, technology, and engineering to practical ends, and these pursuits remained an elite preoccupation of a handful of privileged and relatively isolated individuals.
By contrast, the continual (internal) warfare of medieval Europe eventually gave birth to the scientific revolution even before the industrial revolution made the application of science to technology systematic.
Universal empire — as in Rome or China — leaves peoples with a choice between civilization and barbarism, whereas competing political entities offer peoples a choice between different representatives of a particular tradition of civilization.
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