Another Source of Stagnation

11 January 2013


Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction, 1836

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction, 1836

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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Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Desolation, 1836

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Desolation, 1836

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Grand Strategy Annex

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9 Responses to “Another Source of Stagnation”

  1. Why didn’t Africa lead in technology then? They were certainly fractious and combative, and also had access to Middle Eastern and Asian ideas.

    Not a very strong idea, though I will grant you it is an often cited one, in my opinion.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for your comment.

      I can think of a lot of exceptions and a lot of problems, but this was still an idea I wanted to explore.

      In the case of Africa, I think the continent was too big to support a universal empire. The continent is cut through the center by the Sahara desert, and since it is the only continent cut by both tropics, most of the continent lies within the tropics and this makes agriculture difficult. Add tropics and an enormous desert, and you have conditions that are quite unfriendly to the rise of the kind of civilizations seen in China, India, Europe, and the Americas.

      However, Africa did see something like a universal empire, and one of the earliest in human history, i.e., Egypt. Along the course of the Nile where the annual flooding makes possible large scale agriculture (of the sort that could support an agrarian era empire), we see the early rise of Egypt as a major power in early antiquity. Its geographical unity comes from the Nile, and possessing the kind of insular unity that China also possessed in the pre-modern era, it was an extremely static socioeconomic entity.

      Just as Gould and Eldredge in proposing punctuated equilibrium fostered the study of vast periods of evolutionary stasis that had been previously neglected, so too in making a distinction between extremely static civilizations — Egypt, China, Byzantium — and dynamic civilizations — Christendom, Islam, the Mongols — we can begin to look for characteristic patterns of dynamism and stasis.

      But, as I wrote above (or was it yesterday?), I think that dynamism and stasis move around within a given civilization, so that some aspects of a civilization may remain unchanged for hundreds of years even while other aspects change rapidly.

      Best wishes,


      • Those are very good points. Africa also had the Bantu, but if they were an empire, it was more along the lines of the Comanche Empire. Very dangerous, but so amorphus as to be almost unrecognizable as an Empire.

        • geopolicraticus said

          Or like the Mongols or the more aggressive and expansionist peoples of the Pacific, like the Maoris. Nomadic or non-settled peoples sometimes conquer empires, and sometimes simply destroy them, but rarely have the administrative expertise to run an empire themselves. Africa has hosted many nomadic peoples — perhaps there have been too many aggressive nomadic peoples in Africa for any empire to emerge or to last.

          Thanks again for your comments.

          Best wishes,


    • xcalibur said

      Africa had many natural setbacks. Jungles and savannahs have low agricultural potential – especially jungles, since they leach nutrients from the soil. Africa has a lack of natural harbors, and its rivers are full of waterfalls and rapids, which obstructed trade and transport (Conversely, rivers in Europe contributed significantly to trade and transport and the growth of European society). Combine this with disease and a huge desert, and you’ve got a very difficult environment for the growth of civilization. To use the Challenge & Response/Golden Mean concept of Toynbee, Africa had an excessive level of environmental challenge which stifled their growth.

      Therefore, it’s not surprising that sub-saharan Africa did not develop further, and was fractured into many polities with many different languages. It was the result of environment, so this cannot be used to support any racist arguments.

  2. T. Greer said

    The obvious example of this type of “stagnation” is Tokugawa Japan. During Japan’s “warring states” era both military tactics and military technology changed at a rapid rate — by the end of the era there were more guns in Japan than existed in Europe! But then the warring Japanese polities were united into one Shogunate… and it all disappeared. Japan was a closed system; the ruling elite had no interest in technological advancement — or really any kind of change — for it offered them nothing. Their system was incredibly stable. There was no need for guns. Up until the moment Commodore Perry shot his cannons off the Edo coast then.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Greer,

      Thanks for your comment!

      This is indeed a perfect example of stable stagnancy. As I suggested in my post, the study of social stagnancy may yield interesting insights. And it seems that Japan today may once again be headed toward long term stagnancy, although for superficially different reasons. On a structural level, however, I don’t think that these reasons are profoundly different, and I also think that all the elements of this same stagnancy are present in the West: essentially, feudalism in industrialized form. That, as I see it, is the great danger of our time. (One of my correspondents, Paul Ziolo, calls this “niche construction.”)

      Have you returned from your mission?

      Best wishes,


      • T. Greer said

        1. Return I have. Still getting settled in — being cut off from all technology, normal reading, and newspapers for two years, I feel a bit like Rip van Wrinkle coming down from the mountains. It was worth it (I have never done anything better), but still a bit disorienting when the service is done and normal life must be lived once again. I will probably get my own blog up and running around March or so. That will give me enough time to get my bearings… I hope!

        In any case, I am glad to see that your blog is still running. So many of the good ones no longer are.

        2. Another thought on this topic: One of the central claims of Firearms: A Global History to 1700 (disclosure: I have not read the book, but have discussed it with someone who has) is that the reason gunpowder was perfected as a military weapon in Europe even though it was invented in China is because it was useless when fighting China’s greatest enemies: the hordes of the Steppe. Until the Qing stamped out the last of the Mongols (they themselves being Manchu) China was almost always engaged in a life-or-death fight with one of the tribal confederations to its North. It was never a ‘closed system’ the way Japan was (Although the Qing tried, they really did), but fighting on the Steppe did not seem to necessitate the same amount of adaptation needed in earlier eras.

        Hmm. This would be actually be an interesting research topic. China is the home of some of the Earth’s greatest inventions and was until at least 1500 the greatest producer of such. (Needham and co’s Science and Civilization in China is 7 volumes for a reason!) In what periods was this technological change most dramatic? Was it when Chinese were fighting Chinese? Steppe tribes? Viets, Koreans, and other agricultural kingdoms on the periphery? Or perhaps was it more related to the dominant philosophical mode of the time — periods of inward looking neoconfucianism (Ming & Qing) vs. more inclusive outward looking times where Daoism, Buddhism, or no one philosophy at all (such as in the early Han, Tang, and Yuan dynasties) — that determined how eager the Chinese intelligentsia were to pour resources into technological advancement?

        • geopolicraticus said

          Dear Mr. Greer,

          Welcome back.

          I, too, have been surprised at the end of some influential blogs (at least, within the strategy community) — some not only discontinued, but entirely removed so that their content is no longer accessible.

          As you say, the questions about Chinese history would be wonderful points of departure for research.

          China and India, as sources of civilization, and therefore nodal points in human history, must be at the top of the agenda for anyone who seeks to study the phenomenon of civilization simpliciter.

          Best wishes,


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