Addendum on David Hume’s Book Burning Bonfire

2 June 2019

Sunday


David Hume

Today I had a new comment on a blog post that I wrote ten years ago. The comment was from Luke Thompson, and the blog post in question was Counter-Cyclical Civilization. I had to re-read my ten-year-old blog post to remind myself of what I had written, and of course I don’t recall in detail what I had in mind ten years ago.

In my ten-year-old post I discussed how the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution (what I would subsequently come to call the Three Revolutions, of which these constitute two) have changed the pattern of previous civilization, which seems to have more-or-less exemplified an organic model of civilization, such that civilizations behave like biological individuals and pass through predictable life cycles from birth to growth to maturity to decline to death. I argued that the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution had disrupted this pattern and thus suggest that the organic model of civilization is inadequate to describe civilization as we know it today. These revolutionary forces are “counter-cyclical” to the predictable cycle of the organic model of civilization.

Mr. Thompson asked what exactly I had meant in that blog post where I had written, “…this time around, the pattern has been interrupted. New forces are at play, and the result must be as unprecedented as the circumstances.” In my response I offered a number forces present in the modern world that apparently work counter-cyclically to the predictable forces of decay and disintegration that begin to break down a civilization when it has run its course and started on its decline.

In my recent post David Hume’s Book Burning Bonfire I described the “dark underbelly of the Enlightenment,” that is to say, the aspects of the Enlightenment that we are less apt to discuss, like Hume’s eagerness to burn the books of “school metaphysics” (by which he meant Scholasticism). Reflecting on this in the light of reading my old post about the organic model of civilization and counter-cyclical forces working against cyclical decline, I see now that I could have (had I remembered) characterized the Enlightenment era interest in book burning and clearing away of the relics of the past as a predictable force in history. When a new kind of civilization appears in the world — in this case, Enlightenment civilization — it is on the rise as the traditional form of civilization is on the decline. Thus Enlightenment civilization, as it emerges, engages those familiar forces of the organic model of civilization, hastening the decline of its predecessor so that it can more rapidly take its place in history.

The high-water mark of communism in the twentieth century similarly sought to eliminate the traces of traditionalist civilization in Russia and China, and in the domains controlled by these superpowers during their communist phases, so that that communist millennium could all the more rapidly take its place as a new communist civilization. During the twentieth century, when communism was the revolutionary ideology par excellence, the transition to a communist social order was seen (and was theorized by Marx to be) the inevitable outcome of historical progress, and all the devices of historiography and philosophy were mobilized to make it seem so. One of the examples I like to cite in this connection is the idea of a new “Soviet Man,” Homo sovieticus, that would mark a new stage in the development of humanity, and not merely a new stage in the development of history.

As catastrophic as the Enlightenment willingness to preside over the destruction of the medieval past, Soviet purges, and the Cultural Revolution were each to the past of the relevant society, these disruptions of the historical record must be considered little disruptions in history, because the intent of those engaged in these historical projects was to continue civilization, but to continue in a radically new direction. This meant that some of the ground had to be cleared in order to make way for the new civilization, but it did not necessarily demand that the entirety of the past be erased.

Radical disruptions in history sometimes do call for the complete effacement of the past and as the necessary step toward clearing the ground for a new civilization that will rise de novo from the ashes of the former civilization. The early Christians and some Muslims today often have this attitude to the past. Some revolutionary groups have this attitude to the past. The most radical communist groups, like the Khmer Rouge, who emptied out cities and sought to force the population into utopian rural agrarianism, had this attitude to the past.

This distinction between limited effacement (like Hume’s book burning) and radical effacement of the past (as in the collapse of Roman civilization) may be useful in theorizing the scope of historical disruption, and it could be employed to further articulate the organic model of civilization in relation to non-organic conceptions of civilization.

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