Christopher Columbus (31 October 1451 – 20 May 1506)

There is a list on Wikipedia of seventy European and American voyages of scientific exploration from the French Geodesic Mission of 1735-1739 to the Valdivia mission of 1898-1899. This list does not include the voyages of exploration during the Age of Discovery, but these voyages of exploration, while not organized for strictly scientific purposes, did constitute, among other things, a form of scientific research. One could say that exploration is a form of experimentation, or one could say that experimentation is a form of exploration; in a sense, the two activities are mutually convertible.

Late medieval and early modern voyages of discovery were undertaken with mixed motives. Among these motives were the motives to explore and to discover and to understand, but there were also motives to win new lands for Christendom and to convert any peoples discovered to Christianity, to find riches (mainly gold and spices), to obtain titles of nobility, and to seize political power. Columbus sought all of these things, but it is notable that, while he did open up the New World to Christian conversion, economic exploitation, and the unending quest for power, he achieved virtually none of these things for himself or for his heirs, despite his intentions and his efforts. Columbus’ lasting contribution was to navigation and discovery and cartography, while others exploited the discoveries of Columbus to receive riches, glory, and titles.

Although I can attempt to assimilate the voyages of Columbus to the scientific revolution, there is no question that Columbus conceptualized his own life and his voyages in providential terms, and his motives were only incidentally scientific if scientific at all. Certainly Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and others also had mixed motives, and indeed a mixed mindset arising from the collision of a medieval conceptual framework with early modern discoveries that added to this conceptual framework while challenging it, and eventually destroying it. Of these early modern pioneers, Columbus had the greatest sense of mission — the idea that he was a man of a great destiny — and perhaps it was this sense of mission that prompted him to extract such spectacular concessions from the Spanish crown: the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Governor General of islands discovered and these titles to be inherited in perpetuity by his heirs. If Columbus’ plan had unfolded according to his design, the entirety of the Americas today would still be ruled by the descendants of Columbus.

The Age of Discovery was part of the Scientific Revolution, the leading edge of the scientific revolution, as it were, thus part of the origins story of a still-nascent scientific civilization. Today we still fall far short of being a properly scientific civilization, and how much further the European civilization of the time of Columbus fell short of this is obvious when we read Columbus’ own account of his explorations and discoveries, in which he insists that he found the route to India and China, and he insists equally on the large amount of gold that he found, when he had, in fact, discovered very little gold. Despite this, Columbus is, or deserves to be, one of the culture heroes of a scientific-civilization-yet-to-be no matter how completely he failed to understand what he accomplished.

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To celebrate Columbus Day I visited one of my favorite beaches on the Oregon coast, Cape Meares. While yesterday, Sunday, was stormy all day, with strong winds and heavy rain, today was beautiful — warm with no wind, a blue sky, and even the ocean was not as cold as I expected when I walked in the surf. When I arrived there were only three people on the beach besides myself; when I left, there were about ten people on the beach.

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Happy Columbus Day!

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Queen Victoria reigned 20 June 1837 to 22 January 1901.

There is not only an insufficient appreciation of the Victorian achievement in history, but perhaps more importantly there is an insufficient understanding of the Victorian achievement. Victorian civilization — and I will avail myself of this locution understanding that most would allow that the Victorianism was a period in the history of western civilization, but not itself a distinct civilization — achieved nothing less than the orderly transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization. As such, Victorianism became the template for other societies to make this transition without revolutionary violence.

The transition from agriculturalism to industrialism was the most disruptive in the history of civilization, and can only be compared in its impact to the emergence of agricultural civilization from pre-civilized nomadic hunter-gatherers. But whereas the the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism occurred over thousands of years, the transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization has in some cases occurred within a hundred years (though the transition is still underway on a planetary scale). The Victorians not only managed this transition, and were the first people in history to manage this transition, they moreover managed this transition without catastrophic warfare, without the widespread breakdown of civil order, and with a certain sense of style. It could be argued that, if the Victorians had not managed this transition so well, rather than a new form of civilization taking shape, the industrial revolution might have resulted in the collapse of civilization and a new dark age.

Today we think of Victorianism as a highly repressive social and cultural milieu that was finally cast aside with the innovations of the Edwardian era and then the great scientific and social revolutions that characterized the early twentieth century and which then instituted dramatic social and cultural changes that ever after left the Victorian period in the shadows of history. But Victorian repression was not arbitrary; it served a crucial social function in its time, and it may well have been the only possible social and cultural mechanism that would have made it possible for any society to be the first to make the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism.

Victorianism not only made an orderly transition possible from agriculturalism to industrialism, it also made possible an orderly transition from a social order (i.e., a central project) based on religious tradition to a social order that was largely secular. Americans (especially Americans who don’t travel) are not aware of the degree to which European society is secularized, and much of this occurred in the nineteenth century. Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach was an important early expression of secularization.

Nietzsche already saw this secularization happening in the nineteenth century, and, of course, Darwin, a proper English gentleman, worked his own scientific revolution in the midst of the Victorian period, which played an important role in secularization. Rather than being personally destroyed for his efforts — which is what almost any other society would have done to a man like Darwin — Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey and treated like a national hero.

Considerable intellectual toughness was a necessary condition of making a peaceful transition from agriculturalism to industrialism, and we can find the requisite toughness in the writers of nineteenth century England. The intellectual honesty of Matthew Arnold is bracing and refreshing. Arnold’s “Sweetness and Light” is a remarkable essay, and not at all how we today would characterize the aspirations of Victorian society, but in comparison to the horrific counterfactual that might have attended the industrial revolution under other circumstances, the grim Victorian world described so movingly by Charles Dickens is relatively benign. Since we have, for the most part, in our collective historical imagination, consigned nineteenth century English literature to our understanding of a genteel and proper Victorianism, it is easy to believe that the men of the nineteenth century did not yet possess the kind of raw, unsparing honesty that the twentieth century forced upon us. Reading Arnold now, in the twenty-first century, I see that this is not true.

Matthew Arnold’s world may have been innocent of World Wars, Holocausts, genocides, nuclear annihilation, and the rigorously realized horrors bequeathed to us by the twentieth century, but it was not an innocent world. History may always reveal new horrors to us, but even in the slightly less horrific past, there were horrors aplenty to preclude any kind of robust innocence on the part of human beings. And it is interesting to reflect that, while the Victorian Era is remembered for its social and cultural repression, it is not remembered for the scope and scale of its atrocities.

This is significant in light of the fact that the twentieth century, which has been seen as a liberation of society once Victorian constraints were swept away, is remembered for the scope and scale of its atrocities. Again, the Victorians did a better job than we did in managing the great transitions of our respective times. Voltaire famously said (during the Enlightenment) that we commit atrocities because we believe absurdities. If this is true, then the absurdities believed by the Victorians were less pernicious than the absurdities believed in the twentieth century.

The late-Victorian or early Edwardian Oscar Wilde in his De Profundis was raw and unsparing, but was rather too self-serving to measure up to the standard of intellectual honesty set by Matthew Arnold. (I fully understand that most of my contemporaries would probably disagree with this judgment.) However, Wilde’s heresies, like Arnold’s honesty, was characterized by a great sense of style. We may criticize the Victorian legal and penal system for essentially destroying Wilde, but it was also the Victorian cultural milieu that made Oscar Wilde possible. If Wilde had not been quite so daring, he might have gotten by without provoking the authorities to respond to him as it did.

Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism is a wonderful essay, employing the resources of Wilde’s legendary wit in order to to make a serious point. Like many of Wilde’s famous witticisms, his central motif is the contravention of received wisdom, forcing us to see things in a new perspective. Though we know in hindsight the caustic if not criminal consequences for individualism under socialism, Wilde did not have the benefit of hindsight, and Wilde makes the case that socialism will make authentic individualism possible for the first time. Wilde’s conception of individualism under socialism was in fact a paean to his own individualism, carved out within the limitations of Victorian society. This, too, is an ongoing legacy of Victorianism, which was sufficiently large and comprehensive to include individuals as diverse as Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde.

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The Three Revolutions

12 November 2017


Three Revolutions that Shaped the Modern World

The world as we know it today, civilization as we know it today (because, for us, civilization is the world, our world, the world we have constructed for ourselves), is the result of three revolutions. What was civilization like before these revolutions? Humanity began with the development of an agricultural or pastoral economy subsequently given ritual expression in a religious central project that defined independently emergent civilizations. Though widely scattered across the planet, these early agricultural civilizations had important features in common, with most of the pristine civilizations beginning to emerge shortly after the Holocene warming period of the current Quaternary glaciation.

Although independently originating, these early civilizations had much in common — arguably, each had more in common with the others emergent about the same time than they have in common with contemporary industrialized civilization. How, then, did this very different industrialized civilization emerge from its agricultural civilization precursors? This was the function of the three revolutions: to revolutionize the conceptual framework, the political framework, and the economic framework from its previous traditional form into a changed modern form.

The institutions bequeathed to us by our agricultural past (the era of exclusively biocentric civilization) were either utterly destroyed and replaced with de novo institutions, or traditional institutions were transformed beyond recognition to serve the needs of a changed human world. There are, of course, subtle survivals from the ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and historians love to point out some of the quirky traditions we continue to follow, though they make no sense in a modern context. But this is peripheral to the bulk of contemporary civilization, which is organized by the institutions changed or created by the three revolutions.

Copernicus stands at the beginning of the scientific revolution, and he stands virtually alone.

The Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution begins as the earliest of the three revolutions, in the early modern period, and more specifically with Copernicus in the sixteenth century. The work of Copernicus was elaborated and built upon by Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, and a growing number of scientists in western Europe, who began with physics, astronomy, and cosmology, but, in framing a scientific method applicable to the pursuit of knowledge in any field of inquiry, created an epistemic tool that would be universally applied.

The application of the scientific method had the de facto consequence of stigmatizing pre-modern knowledge as superstition, and the attitude emerged that it was necessary to extirpate the superstitions of the past in order to build anew on solid foundations of the new epistemic order of science. This was perceived as an attack on traditional institutions, especially traditional cultural and social institutions. It was this process of the clearing away of old knowledge, dismissed as irrational superstition, and replacing it with new scientific knowledge, that gave us the conflict between science and religion that still simmers in contemporary civilization.

The scientific revolution is ongoing, and continues to revolutionize our conceptual framework. For example, four hundred years into the scientific revolution, in the twentieth century, the Earth sciences were revolutionized by plate tectonics and geomorphology, while cosmology was revolutionized by general relativity and physics was revolutionized by quantum theory. The world we understood at the end of the twentieth century was a radically different place from the world we understood at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is due to the iterative character of the scientific method, which we can continue to apply not only to bodies of knowledge not yet transformed by the scientific method, but also to earlier bodies of scientific knowledge that, while revolutionary in their time, were not fully comprehensive in their conception and formulation. Einstein recognized this character of scientific thought when he wrote that, “There could be no fairer destiny for any physical theory than that it should point the way to a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.”

Democracy in its modern form dates from 1776 and is therefore a comparatively young historical institution.

The Political Revolutions

The political revolutions that began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, beginning with the American Revolution in 1776, followed by the French Revolution in 1789, and then a series of revolutions across South America that displaced Spain and the Spanish Empire from the continent and the western hemisphere (in a kind of revolutionary contagion), ushered in an age of representative government and popular sovereignty that remains the dominant paradigm of political organization today. The consequences of these political revolutions have been raised to the status of a dogma, so that it no longer considered socially acceptable to propose forms of government not based upon representative institutions and popular sovereignty, however dismally or frequently these institutions disappoint.

We are all aware of the experiment with democracy in classical antiquity in Athens, and spread (sometimes by force) by the Delian League under Athenian leadership until the defeat of Athens by the Spartans and their allies. The ancient experiment with democracy ended with the Peloponnesian War, but there were quasi-democratic institutions throughout the history of western civilization that fell short of perfectly representative institutions, and which especially fell short of the ideal of popular sovereignty implemented as universal franchise. Aristotle, after the Peloponnesian War, had already converged on the idea of a mixed constitution (a constitution neither purely aristocratic nor purely democratic) and the Roman political system over time incorporated institutions of popular participation, such as the Tribune of the People (Tribunus plebis).

Medieval Europe, which Kenneth Clark once called a, “conveniently loose political organization,” frequently involved self-determination through the devolution of political institutions to local control, which meant that free cities might be run in an essentially democratic way, even if there were no elections in the contemporary sense. Also, medieval Europe dispensed with slavery, which had been nearly universal in the ancient world, and in so doing was responsible for one of the great moral revolutions of human civilization.

The political revolutions that broke over Europe and the Americas with such force starting in the late eighteenth century, then, had had the way prepared for them by literally thousands of years of western political philosophy, which frequently formulated social ideals long before there was any possibility of putting them into practice. Like the scientific revolution, the political revolutions had deep roots in history, so that we should rightly see them as the inflection points of processes long operating in history, but almost imperceptible in their earliest expression.

Early industrialization often had an incongruous if not surreal character, as in this painting of traditional houses silhouetted again the Madeley Wood Furnaces at Coalbrookdale.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution began in England with the invention of James Watt’s steam engine, which was, in turn, an improvement upon the Newcomen atmospheric engine, which in turn built upon a long history of an improving industrial technology and industrial infrastructure such as was recorded in Adam Smith’s famous example of a pin factory, and which might be traced back in time to the British Agricultural Revolution, if not before. The industrial revolution rapidly crossed the English channel and was as successful in transforming the continent as it had transformed England. The Germans especially understood that it was the scientific method as applied to industry that drove the industrial revolution forward, as it still does today. It is science rather than the steam engine that truly drove the industrial revolution.

As the scientific revolution drove epistemic reorganization and the political revolutions drove sociopolitical reorganization, the industrial revolution drove economic reorganization. Today, we are all living with the consequences of that reorganization, with more human beings than ever before (both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of rates) living in cities, earning a living through employment (whether compensated by wages or salary is indifferent; the invariant today is that of being an employee), and organizing our personal time on the basis of clock times that have little to do with the sun and the moon, and schedules that have little or no relationship to the agricultural calendar.

The emergence of these institutions that facilitated the concentration of labor (what Marx would have called “industrial armies”) where it was most needed for economic development indirectly meant the dissolution of multi-generational households, the dissolution of the feeling of being rooted in a particular landscape, the dissolution of the feeling of belonging to a local community, and the dissolution of the way of life that was embodied in these local communities of multi-generational households, bound to the soil and the climate and the particular mix of cultivars that were dietary staples. As science dismissed traditional beliefs as superstition, the industrial revolution dismissed traditional ways of life as impractical and even as unhealthy. Le Courbusier, a great prophet of the industrial city, possessed of revolutionary zeal, forcefully rejected pre-modern technologies of living, asserting, “We must fight against the old-world house, which made a bad use of space. We must look upon the house as a machine for living in or as a tool.”

Revolutionary Permutations

Terrestrial civilization as we know it today is the product of these three revolutions, but must these three revolutions occur, and must they occur in this specific order, for any civilization whatever that would constitute a peer technological civilization with which we might hope to engage in communication? That is to say, if there are other civilizations in the universe (or even in a counterfactual alternative history for terrestrial civilization), would they have to arrive at radio telescopes and spacecraft by this same sequence of revolutions in the same order, or would some other sequence (or some other revolutions) be equally productive of technological civilizations?

This may well sound like a strange question, perhaps an arbitrary question, but this is the sort of question that formal historiography asks. In several posts I have started to outline a conception of formal historiography in which our interest is not only in what has happened on Earth, or what might yet happen on Earth, but what can happen with any civilization whatsoever, whether on Earth or elsewhere (cf. Big History and Scientific Historiography, History in an Extended Sense, Rational Reconstructions of Time, An Alternative Formulation of Rational Reconstructions of Time, and Placeholders for Null-Valued Time). While this conception is not formulated for the express purpose of investigating questions like the Fermi paradox, I hope that the reader can see how such an investigation bears upon the Fermi paradox, the Drake equation, and other “big picture” conceptions that force us to think not in terms of terrestrial civilization, but rather in terms of any civilization whatever.

From a purely formal conception of social institutions, it could be argued that something like these revolutions would have to take place in something like the terrestrial order. The epistemic reorganization of society made it possible to think scientifically about politics, and thus to examine traditional political institutions rationally in a spirit of inquiry characteristic of the Enlightenment. Even if these early forays into political science fall short of contemporary standards of rigor in political science, traditional ideas like the divine right of kings appeared transparently as little better than political superstitions and were dismissed as such. The social reorganization following from the rational examination the political institutions utterly transformed the context in which industrial innovations occurred. If the steam engine or the power loom had been introduced in a time of rigid feudal institutions, no one would have known what to do with them. Consumer goods were not a function of production or general prosperity (as today), but rather were controlled by sumptuary laws, much as the right to engage in certain forms of commerce was granted as a royal favor. These feudal political institutions would not likely have presided over an industrial revolution, but once these institutions were either reformed or eliminated, the seeds of the industrial revolution could take root.

In this interpretation, the epistemic reorganization of the scientific revolution, the social reorganization of the political revolutions, and the economic reorganization of the industrial revolution are all tightly-coupled both synchronically (in terms of the structure of society) and diachronically (in terms of the historical succession of this sequence of events). I am, however, suspicious of this argument because of its implicit anthropocentrism as well as its teleological character. Rather than seeking to justify or to confirm the world we know, framing the historical problem in this formal way gives us a method for seeking variations on the theme of civilization as we know it; alternative sequences could be the basis of thought experiments that would point to different kinds of civilization. Even if we don’t insist that this sequence of revolutions is necessary in order to develop a technological civilization, we can see how each development fed into subsequent developments, acting as a social equivalent of directional selection. If the sequence were different, presumably the directional selection would be different, and the development of civilization taken in a different direction.

I will not here attempt a detailed analysis of the permutations of sequences laid out in the graphic above, though the reader may wish to think through some of the implications of civilizations differently structured by different revolutions at different times in their respective development. For example, many science fiction stories imagine technological civilizations with feudal institutions, whether these feudal institutions are retained unchanged from a distant agricultural past, or whether they were restored after some kind of political revolution analogous to those of terrestrial history, so one could say that, prima facie, political revolution might be entirely left out, i.e., that political reorganization is dispensable in the development of technological civilization. I would not myself make this argument, but I can see that the argument can be made. Such arguments could be the basis of thought experiments that would present civilization-as-we-do-not-know-it, but which nevertheless inhabit the same parameter space of civilization-as-we-know-it.

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In several posts I have argued that the structure of civilization consists of an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project, and that, moreover, the civilization extant today consists of an industrial economic infrastructure joined to a technical intellectual superstructure by the central project that we know as the Enlightenment project. Contemporary civilization as so defined dates back only to the 18th century, when the Enlightenment project emerged as a reaction to the carnage of the religious wars in Europe. The three pillars of modernity — the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and political revolutions — all burst the bounds of traditional feudal societies, and ever since the world has been trying to master the forces unleashed by these revolutions.

The American revolution was the first and the most successful of the political revolutions that swept aside traditionalism, feudalism, and aristocracy. (Sometimes I think of the American revolution as being, in this sense, like Augustus, who was the first of the Roman emperors, and arguably the best of the lot. After that, it was all downhill.) The unique confluence of circumstances that made the American revolution successful, both militarily and politically, included unlikely revolutionaries who were property owners, the pillars of colonial society, and also well-read, as Enlightenment gentlemen were expected to be.

There was nothing democratic about the mostly aristocratic founding fathers, other than their desire to found a new kind of political order drawing upon the best of ancient Greece (democracy) and the best of ancient Rome (republicanism). The founding of a new political order required a revolutionary war to separate the United States from the British Empire, but it also involved a profound intellectual challenge to conceptualize a new political order, and this challenge had already begun in Europe, where the Enlightenment originated.

The Enlightenment produced a large number of top-notch philosophers whom we still read today, and with profit: their insights have not yet been exhausted. Also, these Enlightenment philosophers were highly diverse. They disagreed sharply with one another, which is the western way. We disagree and we debate in order to analyze an idea, much as an alibi is dissected in a courtroom.

William Blake, who represents the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, wrote a poem criticizing Voltaire and Rousseau in the same breath:

MOCK on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Never mind that Voltaire and Rousseau quarreled and represented polar opposite ends of the Enlightenment. When Voltaire received a copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, he responded in a letter to Rousseau: “I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it.” But perhaps this was Blake’s intention to invoke opposite spirits of the Enlightenment, given his appreciation of antitheses as expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — both Voltaire and Rousseau were to be condemned for their mockery of tradition.

If these quarreling Enlightenment thinkers were alive today, feuding bitterly with each other, the popular press would say that the Enlightenment was obviously burnt out and was now “tearing itself apart.” Soon, the pundits would presumably say, we could go back to the comforts of monarchy and a universal church as though nothing had happened, the whole episode of the Enlightenment having been something like the social equivalent of a bad dream.

Strangely enough, we find a view much like this on both the far left and the far right today. The far left, as represented by the philosophers of the Frankfurt school (the dread prophets of “cultural Marxism”), rejected the Enlightenment (cf. Theory from the ruins: The Frankfurt school argued that reason is dangerous, mass culture deadening, and the Enlightenment a disaster. Were they right? by Stuart Walton), just as neoreactionaries reject the Enlightenment by contrasting the 18th century Enlightenment with the “Dark Enlightenment,” the latter growing organically out of the counter-Enlightenment of J. G. Hamann, Joseph de Maistre, and others.

Like Blake’s dual condemnation of Voltaire and Rousseau, the dual condemnation of the Enlightenment by both left and right is a condemnation of two distinct faces of the Enlightenment. Partly this is a result of the ongoing debate over the proper scope and application of reason, but I think that the deeper issue is the failure of western civilization to overcome the chasm separating its twin ideals of freedom and equality, which are two faces of Enlightenment morality.

Naïvely we want these two ideals to be fully realized together within democratic institutions; when we grow out of our naïveté we usually see these ideals in conflict, and assume that any attempt to mediate between the two must ultimately take the form of a compromise in which we lose some freedom in exchange for equality or we lose some equality in exchange for freedom. But the nineteenth century, which produced the counter-Enlightenment, also produced Hegel, and Hegel would have pointed out that a dialectic, such as the dialectic between freedom and equality, will only be resolved when we transcend the antithesis by a synthesis that is more comprehensive than either ideal in isolation.

When we consider the absolutizing tendency of political rhetoric we would not be at all surprised to see Hegelian formulations like, “The absolute is freedom,” later to be countered by, “The absolute is equality.” Even if such things are not stated so explicitly, it is clear from the behavior of many who set themselves up as the arbiters of American values that they typically take the one or the other as an absolute ideal, and absolutization of one or the other prevents us from seeing the more comprehensive synthesis in which freedom and equality can not only coexist, but in which each can extend the other.

The problem of freedom and equality is the equivalent for social thought of the problem of general relativity and quantum theory for physics. Some are certain that the solution to their integration lies on one side or the other of the divide — there must be quantum gravity because all of physics is now formulated in quantum terms — but the truth is that, at our present stage of intellectual development, the solution eludes us because we have not yet achieved the intuitive breakthrough that will allow us to see the world as one and whole.

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Happy 4th of July!

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The theater of Marcellus as depicted by Giovanni Battista Piranesi in the early modern period illustrates how later civilizations grow in, through, around and on top of earlier civilizations.

From the perspective of the phenomenon of civilization, i.e., civilization understood at its furthest reach of generality (which might also be called a meta-civilizational perspective), one would expect to find not only patterns of development of civilizations, as was Toynbee’s project to identify, but one would also expect to find patterns by which one civilization gives way to, or is transformed by or into, another civilization. In other words, a big picture perspective on civilization would reveal both intra-civilizational structures and inter-civilizational structures. Both of these are structures in time — ways in which things change.

Diocletian’s Palace at Split is another wonderful example of how a later civilization will grow like weeds within the interstices of an earlier civilization, displacing what came before but also preserving it — what Hegel called aufheben.

Civilizations, like individuals, swim in the ocean of history, and we can say of civilization what Marx said of men, viz. that civilizations make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. Each civilization is heir to the history that preceded it, and is in turn the ancestor of each civilization and succeeds it.

In several posts I have discussed the work of Toynbee, not least because he is the most devoted to the idea of civilization as the proper object of study of historiographic inquiry. Toynbee’s focus on civilization means that, even when he gets things wrong, he usually has something interesting to say. Apart from the list of fully developed civilizations that Toynbee recognized, he also discussed abortive civilizations and arrested civilizations. Among the abortive civilizations he included the Celtic Fringe of early Christianity and the Viking world. Among arrested civilizations he included the Eskimo, Polynesians, and nomads of the Asiatic steppe.

In Why We Are All Eskimos I tried to show how Toynbee was wrong to call Eskimos an arrested civilization. Obviously, when Toynbee made this claim, he was thinking that civilizations began in temperate regions and spread from areas more friendly to the full development of civilization to regions less friendly to the development of fully developed civilizations. Toynbee did not know what we know now in terms of the detailed paleoclimatology of the Earth. Scientific historiography since Toynbee’s time has revealed to us new worlds of knowledge that are not derived from any text, unless we count the world itself as a text, and our genetic structure as well.

Toynbee had it exactly backward with the Eskimos: they are not an arrested side branch of the main stream of civilization; they are the robust channel flowing inexorably from past glaciations, as though swollen with the meltwater of an entire ice age. “Eskimos” broadly speaking are the ancestors of us all, because all human ancestors had to come through the test of the ice age in order for them to be present to found the civilizations that have flourished during the present interglacial period.

I am beginning to think that Toynbee also had modern Western civilization exactly backward also. Toynbee begins his examination of civilizations by taking as examples of civilization, “…twenty-one societies of the species to which our Western Society belongs.” (A Study of History, Vol. 1, I, C, III, a, p. 147) Toynbee is honest about the fact of beginning with his own civilization, but I think that there is a legitimate question here as to whether our civilization today is modern civilization in the strict and narrow sense, or whether our civilization is a successor civilization to that of modernity. Let me try to explain this.

There is a sense which modern civilization has triumphed, especially in its Western form, but there is another sense in which modernity proved to be abortive, and we can speak of an abortive modern civilization that never fulfilled its promise because it was overtaken by events. What I mean is that modern civilization taken in its strict and narrow sense was displaced by another kind of civilization while modernity was still in its developmental stage. What displaced modern civilization was industrial-technological civilization, which is sufficiently different from what was developing as modernity prior to industrialization that it may deserve to be considered another kind of civilization entirely.

Some time ago, when I wrote a few posts on early modern Europe, particular in reference to Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down, I received a comment from Christopher Thompson, who had been a student of Christopher Hill. Professor Thompson scolded me for suggesting that early modern English was not, “a ‘peasant society’ or even a predominantly peasant one.” He was right to call me on this. It is worthwhile to read in its entirety Professor Thompson’s comment on my post (follow the link above and go to the bottom of the page), since he summarized in a few sentences the complexity and diversity of early modern English society.

In a later post of mine, Modernism without Industrialism: Europe 1500-1800, I tried to sketch the peculiar civilization of Europe of the early modern period, which I have come more and more to see as a kind of civilization that was only just getting off the ground when it was overtaken by the violent transformation of society initiated by the Industrial Revolution.

This period of modernism without industrialism can be understood as an abortive form of modern civilization — a civilization cut short and which never attain maturity on its own terms. As Professor Thompson pointed out, this was not a predominantly peasant society; in other words, it was not a medieval society. Throughout the early modern period we see a very gradually increasing division of labor and the social differentiation that this implies. The elaborate feudal structures of carefully gradated hierarchy was being slowly replaced by another kind of social gradation not as explicitly hierarchical as that of the Middle Ages. The scientific revolution was making itself felt, literacy was becoming more widespread, and at the end of this period we have two great political revolutions — the American Revolution and the French Revolution — both of which can be understood in isolation from the first stirrings of industrialization, which were starting about the same time.

It is possible to imagine, as an exercise in counter-factual historiography, a world that might have followed from the combined effects of the scientific revolution and the American and French revolutions but without the industrial revolution. While we are at it, we can just as well attempt to imagine a world that might have followed from modernity, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution without the political revolutions or the industrial revolution. I think this would have been a civilization much more similar to that of the Roman Empire at its height — relatively wealthy, cosmopolitan, internationalist, essentially agrarian and rural despite the existence of a few very large cities — than what we now know as industrial-technological civilization.

If we can identify modernity as an abortive civilization, like the Christian Celtic Fringe and the Vikings (according to Toynbee), overtaken by industrial-technological civilization, we must acknowledge that the transition from one civilization to another was relatively seamless, despite the social upheavals that attended industrialization. There was no “dark age” between modernity and industrialization, and in this respect the transition from modernity to industrialization resembles the transition from medievalism to modernity. Again, there was no “dark age” between medieval and modern civilization, but there was a transition nevertheless.

It has often been remarked that the modern world is continuous with the medieval world in several important ways, even while there is little in history that has been as completely abandoned as medieval civilization and its institutions. I would like to suggest that, when one civilization more-or-less seamlessly gives way to another civilization, without an intervening dark age or similar massive disruption of institutions, what is happening is that the ordinary business of life, the accidents of life (in the Aristotelian sense of “accident”), go on uninterrupted — which is to say that they evolve gradually so that very little change is noticed from one generation to the next, but that these gradual changes in the ordinary business of life accumulate and eventually add up as significant social change. At the same time that the accidents of life are undergoing gradual change, the essence of a civilization is undergoing relatively rapid change, so that the more-or-less identical practices passed from one generation to the next have a very different meaning because they are now accidents of a different essential nature.

Given the continuity of the medieval and modern worlds, how do we know that one civilization gave way to another? Well, one indicator species of the climax civilizational ecosystem of medievalism was the cathedral. Monumental architecture often serves as an indicator species of climax civilizational ecosystems. What the pyramids were to the Egyptians, what temples and baths were to classical antiquity, and what the skyscraper is to industrial-technological civilization, the cathedral (and the palace) was to medieval civilization.

Hans Memling, St Ursula Shrine: Arrival in Cologne (scene 1), ca. 1489, Oil on panel, 35 x 25,3 cm., Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges, Belgium.

Once medieval European civilization reached a given level of stability and wealth, cathedrals went up rather quickly, sometimes in a single generation. Some magnificent palaces were erected on a time scale not at all unlike monumentral architecture in our time, say 5-10 years — easily within the lifetime of a single master builder. Some monumental projects stalled, however, and once stalled they tended to remain stalled, sometimes for hundreds of years. A good example of this would be the Cologne cathedral, which was an enormous undertaking, and when it was abandoned the civilization that began it essentially lost interest in it. Abandoned in its unfinished state, the construction crane on top of the south tower became iconic in its own right, appearing in depictions of Cologne throughout the intervening centuries.

This detail from the above Hans Memling painting shows the construction of Cologne cathedral already abandoned in 1489 (work had ceased in 1473); the cathedral was to remain in this unfinished form until construction was resumed in 1842.

Cologne cathedral was eventually completed, but it was not completed by medieval civilization. Medieval civilization was utterly extirpated by the time that the cathedral was completed by different men with a different agenda. During the nineteenth century there was a vogue for medievalism that is called “neo-gothic,” and during this time there were a few cities, Cologne among them, who dusted off the unfinished medieval plans to their cathedrals and decided to finish them. The Houses of Parliament in London date from the same period, and are a classic example of neo-gothic architecture. But the monumental rock-cut tombs of Lycia, along the Turkish coast, many of which were abandoned unfinished, were not completed by later civilizations that displaced the classical antiquity in which these monumental projects were initiated. Perhaps too much had changed, too much time had elapsed between the phases of surplus wealth of the dominant regional civilization, and probably also it was the non-continuous transition between civilizations.

A photograph of the unfinished Cologne cathedral in 1856, from Köln in frühen Photographien 1847-1914, Schirmer/Mosel Verlag, München, 1988. The medieval construction crane is still visible on the south tower.

Thus when we see industrial-technological civilization completing the work of modernism, we ought not to assume that this is one and the same civilization; if industrial-technological civilization is essentially different from that of modernity prior to with without industrialization, then the choice to continue and complete the monumental projects of modernity can be understood as an exercise in inter-generational piety — rather than worshiping our immediate ancestors, we continue and complete their projects, even if these projects mean something very different to us than the projects meant for them.

If we make the distinction between the essence and accident of civilized life as I have tried to do above, I think we come to a better appreciation both of the temporal structures of intra-civilizational change and the temporal structures of inter-civilizational change. Intra-civilizational change is marked by essential continuity and accidental discontinuity; inter-civilizational change is marked by essential discontinuity and accidental continuity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One theme to which Joseph Campbell recurs at several places in his recorded lectures is the idea of a “primary mask” — an idea which he attributes to W. B. Yeats. Here’s a short exposition of the primary mask from an interview with Campbell:

“Yeats, in A Vision, speaks of the two masks that life wears. The first is the primary mask that society has put upon you — the technique of life. But in adolescence the individual has a sense of the potentiality within himself that has to throw off that mask and find what Yeats calls ‘the antithetical mask’ — the mask contrary to that of society. And then comes that struggle so characteristic of youth in our society. In the traditional society, you are not allowed to follow the antithetical; the primary is there like a cookie-mold on you. But here comes this struggle. Now, if the family or society opposes that, it becomes rather fierce. But with a gradual yielding and attention, the young person can learn his own possibilities and what they can do for him. This is the proper way.”

An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in conversation with Michael Toms, p. 74

We are fortunate to have Joseph Campbell’s commentary on this idea of Yeats’, as Campbell spent a lot of time reading “difficult” twentieth century authors like Yeats and Joyce. Moreover, Yeat’s A Vision is a notoriously difficult text. Here is what Yeats himself wrote about the “primary mask”:

For Primary Man one must go to the Decline of the Commedia del Arte for an example. The Will is weak and cannot create a role, and so, if it transform itself, does so after an accepted pattern, some traditional clown or pantaloon. It has perhaps no object but to move the crowd, and if it “gags” it is that there may be plenty of topical allusions. In the primary phases Man must cease to desire Mask and Image by ceasing from self-expression, and substitute a motive of service for that of self-expression. Instead of the created Mask he has an imitative Mask; and when he recognises this, his Mask may become an image of mankind. The author of “The Imitation of Christ” was certainly a man of a late primary phase. It is said that the antithetical Mask is free, and the primary Mask enforced; and the free Mask is personality, a union of qualities, while the enforced mask is character, a union of quantities, and of their limitations — that is to say, of those limitations which give strength precisely because they are enforced. Personality, no matter how habitual, is a constantly renewed choice, and varies from an individual charm, in the more antithetical phases, to a hard objective dramatisation, which differs from character mainly because it is a dramatisation, in phases where the antithetical Tincture holds its predominance with difficulty.

W. B. Yeats, A Vision, pp. 18-19

I don’t know about you, but I find this nearly impenetrable, and I have a pretty good record of making sense of difficult texts. So the idea may come from Yeats, one way or another, but I am going to discuss Campbell’s version of it.

I can’t recall which lecture it’s in (I didn’t have the time to re-listen to all of them prior to writing this post, though it would be a pleasure to do so) but I recall that Campbell connects the idea of the primary mask with several quite gruesome rituals documented by anthropologists — rituals of initiation from societies that we would have formerly called “primitive” but that word is no longer considered acceptable. And rightly so. Those peoples once called primitive are in fact more in touch with their long prehistoric past, by way of continuity of tradition, than peoples who experienced the socio-cultural processes of agriculturalism and industrialism.

In any case, Campbell cited some truly horrific rituals associated with initiating young people into nomadic and pastoralist societies and credited these as instances of imprinting a primary mask that the individual then takes with him or her through life, and which is the proper or correct mask for an individual to wear in that society.

Well, we aren’t entirely past brutal rituals of the kind that forced our ancestors to wear the primary mask of their tribe. While this sort of thing has deep roots in human prehistory, traditions of initiation have altered over time but rarely have they disappeared. And often they retain their brutality, as in this passage of Enlightenment era advice on child rearing:

“This, therefore, I cannot but earnestly repeat, — break their wills betimes; begin this great work before they can run alone, before they can speak plain, or perhaps speak at all. Whatever pains it cost, conquer their stubbornness: break the will, if you would not damn the child. I conjure you not to neglect, not to delay this! Therefore, (1.) Let a child, from a year old, be taught to fear the rod and to cry softly. In order to this, (2.) Let him have nothing he cries for; absolutely nothing, great or small; else you undo your own work. (3.) At all events, from that age, make him do as he is bid, if you whip him ten times running to effect it. Let none persuade you it is cruelty to do this; it is cruelty not to do it. Break his will now, and his soul will live, and he will probably bless you to all eternity.”

John Wesley (1703-1791), On Obedience to Parents, Sermon 96

While advice of this nature is not likely to be found in contemporary parenting manuals, from this vigorous expression of the doctrine of corporal punishment we can see that the tradition of imprinting a primal mask survived well into modern times. And not only into modern times, but all the way into the latter half of the twentieth century, and probably to the present day.

This reminds me of a striking example of the importance placed upon the primary mask that comes from a controversy that erupted at Wheaton College in 1961. This is from Episode 7 of the 7 part documentary Evolution, titled “What about God?” Here is how the documentary sets up the quote:

“In 1961, at a Wheaton symposium on Christianity and human origins Walter Hearn told the crowd that the same chemical processes that bring each of us into existence today could have produced Adam and Eve. When the news got out, Wheaton found itself under attack.”

And here is a quote from a letter written by a mother about her daughter who was at that time attending Wheaton:

“Twice I have heard that the college is growing liberal; that they teach evolution at Wheaton. What grieves me most is that our daughter may lose her faith at Wheaton. Is this possible? If her faith should be shattered or even shaken, I’d rather see her dead.”

Clearly, these are the words of someone who is deeply committed to the primary mask even above and before the lives of those closest to her. If a member of your family cannot wear the primary mask, or perhaps even wears it askew, then it is better that they are dead, because the primary mask gives them the only identity that is worth having.

This is, admittedly, strong stuff. And to anyone who has spent some time reading twentieth century philosophy it is all very familiar in so far as it represents spectacular instances of inauthenticity. The very idea that there should be any value in the life of the individual that springs from their peculiar individuality is foreign to these strongly-worded assertions of the primacy of the primary mask.

It is not only an existentialist who would notice this sort of thing. A Freudian would immediately notice that these strong proscriptions upon any deviance from the primary mask are only present (like the incest taboo) because there is a strong tendency to deviate. If the individual did not feel a strong desire to assume the antithetical mask, as Campbell describes, there would be no need for the dire expressions of calamity in the event of a failure of the primary mask.

The peculiar qualities of twentieth century modernity, especially as represented by the above-cited examples of existentialism and psychotherapy, precipitated a decisive change in the nature of the societies of advanced, industrialized nation-states. There is, perhaps more than at any time in history, tolerance for the social display of antithetical masks.

However, despite the gains that have been made for individualism during the twentieth century, I think that the primary mask still dominates our thinking and our interaction when it comes to inter-communal relationships. The “safety” that societies once relied upon from harsh imposition of the primary mask has now been passed along so that within a community there is some tolerance for the antithetical mask, but in the relations between communities we have not come so far. The primary mask retains its potency in a milieu in which the safety and security of non-pluralistic society (call it the primary society, if you will) cannot rely upon a single set of socio-cultural practices for normative consensus.

The primary mask was primarily worn in societies in which there was little if any interaction with other communities, each possessing their own primary mask. In the modern industrialized cities, peoples from all over the world mix together, usually peacefully, sometimes violently. The attempt to understand the nature of normative consensus in such a milieu has exercised social scientists since this new reality of industrialized urbanism emerged.

The de facto normative consensus that has emerged has been that of the tolerance of the primary mask. The “celebration” model of diversity is built upon this, as is the notion of pluralism that is most prevalent in the US, which is arguably home to the most racially and ethnically distinct urban centers in the world. (Note that I say “arguably” — there probably are good counter-examples that I can’t think of as I am writing this.)

We already find this attitude to pluralism and diversity expressed in Voltaire, when described with admiration the urban milieu of eighteenth century London:

“Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.”

This was a very advanced sentiment in its time, but, as we see from the quote above from the very Reverend John Wesley, it coexisted with less advanced sentiment.

Now, I don’t for a minute believe that individuals actually live exclusively according their primary mask in an urban milieu. The primary mask is a caricature, and as we have learned to cast it aside and live with ourselves and individuals as individuals, people readily do so. Especially in an urban context, people led (by their individuality) to pursue a particular interest, usually find themselves is quite eclectic company, discovering that they have something in common with others they would never have met in another social context — others whose primary mask would be incomprehensible and fundamentally alien.

But public discourse and formal institutions remain wedded to the primary mask. The weakness of the contemporary idea of pluralism and diveristy (which I had previously attempted to analyze in Diversity and Pluralism) is its commitment to the primary mask over and above the individuals.

It has become a commonplace in contemporary social commentary (especially among those who self-identify as “communitarians”) that individualism has run amok and “gone too far,” and that what we really need to do is to reign in individualism for the sake of the community. This is not only wrong, it is viciously wrong. This is the voice the primary mask speaking. The primary mask does not tolerate deviance.

I am reminded here of the opening passage of Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience:

I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

I similarly feel that, when men are prepared for it, they will have a society that accepts individuals as they are, and feels no need to impress upon them a primary mask.

Someday, when we have really matured as a species, we will have a society of individuals, for it is only when the individual fully comes into his own that a society can emerge that is truly voluntary and without coercion. This is my utopia. Individualism is not only good for the individual, individualism is also good for society. Any society built by individuals who have been compromised by their need to conform will be as compromised as the individuals who build that society. The strongest society is built by the strongest individuals, who choose to come together, not under duress, but of their own free choice.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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It is interesting to reflect on the peculiar character of civilization in Western Europe after the decisive shift to historical modernity, which we can locate in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, yet before the decisive (and transformative) emergence of industrialization. Roughly speaking, the period of European history from 1500 to 1800 represents a unique transitional stage in the history of civilization.

I touched upon this indirectly in Counter Factual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution, which was an inquiry into possible alternative forms of industrialization that did not happen. But there is a sense in which these alternatives did happen, but continuing economic and technological development made it possible for industrialization to fully overtake modernism so that the two appeared to be two aspects of a single social development, whereas they are in fact isolatable and distinct historical processes.

Jethro Tull's seed drill was an important innovation of the British Agricultural Revolution.

Modernism without industrialism comprises the emergence of science in its modern form in the work of Galileo, and even the triumphs of Newton, the emergence of modern philosophy in the work of Descartes, the emergence of nation-states as the primary form of socio-political organization, and developments like the British agricultural revolution — the name of Jethro Tull may not be as familiar as that of Newton and Descartes, but his contributions to civilization ought to be reckoned on a similar level.

Enjoying a ploughman's lunch in the field

As noted above, the scientific revolution preceded the industrial revolution, and indeed made the latter possible. One could interpret the British agricultural revolution as a dress rehearsal for the industrial revolution, as it involved the systematic application of scientific methods to agriculture, resulting in increased agricultural production that in turn resulted in more and better quality food for many people in England. It was this abundance of food for all that made possible the ploughman’s lunch.

As another exercise in a counter-factual thought experiment (as in Counter Factual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution), we might similarly imagine the scientific revolution being brought to other areas of life (other than agriculture) but without the peculiar developments specific to the industrial revolution — mass production, the factory system, the mobility of labor, the dissolution of traditional social institutions and so forth. There is a sense in which this did happen in some places, but it happened in parallel with the industrial revolution, and thus was overshadowed by the more far-reaching effects of industrialization.

There is also a sense in which modernism without industrialism still emerges from time to time. In those regions of the world in which industrialism has been imported, where industrialization has not emerged from the indigenous economy, we find circumstances not unlike the transitional conditions of modernism without industrialism in Europe immediately prior to the industrial revolution. One will find a few sporadic traces of industrialism, but not anything like the wrenching social changes which, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto:

“The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Remember this line the next time you hear someone complain about the inability of small businesses to compete with the cheap prices of Wal-Mart: the Industrial Revolution remains an on-going process, and now it is our own “Chinese walls” that are being battered down. The period of European civilization that constitutes modernism without industrialism is a world in which this observation of Marx and Engels is not true; we know that in our time it is true, and is becoming more true as industrialized civilization continues to develop.

If imported industrialism eventually takes root in an economy in which it is not indigenous, it can in time approximate the kind of industrial development we find in places where it has emerged from the indigenous economy. Thus the order of industrialization can vary in different circumstances, but it is likely that there are some orders of industrialization that are more efficient and more effective than others. That is to say, there is the possibility that there is an optimal form of industrialization. If we could go back and do it over again, we would probably do a better job at it, but the industrial revolution is a unique one-time event in the life of a society. Other societies even now are being transformed or will be transformed by industrialization, but they cannot (for obvious reasons) learn our lessons; they must learn these lessons for themselves.

Once again we are forced to recognize the lack of intelligent institutions of our society, institutions that would adapt and develop to meet changing circumstances. While we cannot do the Industrial Revolution over again, we can look forward to future wrenching social changes. Intelligent institutions would require a great deal of time to craft, but in all honesty we probably have a great deal of time before our next wrenching social transformation (unless communicants of the Technological Singularity cult are not as deluded as they appear to be), so that a truly civilized undertaking for a society today would be to formulate intelligent institutions for itself that will serve its interests in the long term future. I suspect this is too dull a proposal to count as a “vision” for the future, but it would be a worthwhile undertaking.

I have formulated a couple of fairly concrete proposals of events that may loom in our future, and which may transform societies around the world (and off the world). The “events” (such as they are) that I have in mind are extraterrestrialization and the next Axial Age. Extraterrestrialization, which would be the transition of the bulk of the human species off world, would constitute a social, political, industrial, and economic transformation of society. The next Axial Age, which would be a period in the spiritual development of humanity in which our mythological institutions would finally catch up with industrialization and provide us with a mythology equal and adequate to industrial society, would constitute a social, cultural, and spiritual transformation of society.

These events — extraterrestrialization and axialization (as it were) — are of a very different character, but both have the potential to have profound and far-reaching influence upon the way ordinary people live their day-to-day lives. They are also likely to lie hundreds of years in the future, and that gives us plenty of time to formulate intelligent institutions that would help us make the transition — with a minimum of violence and bloodshed — to the changed socio-political conditions that would be occasioned by these historical developments.

The Industrial Revolution would have truly done its work, and we could count ourselves as a mature civilization, if we could apply our scientific knowledge to a systematic reform of our institutions making them intelligent institutions that could prepare the way for a peaceful future, even if that future means that the historical viability of civilization can only be secured by the result of civilization being so transformed that it would be no longer recognizable as what we think of as civilization. A mature civilization would be able to look at its other and see not barbarism, but heretofore unrecognized civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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crematoria ashes with Wittgenstein quote

At what point do we pass the threshold of atrocity? If a single death is a tragedy (and therefore not an atrocity) while a million deaths is a statistic (and therefore possibly an atrocity), at what point between one death and a million deaths do we pass the threshold of atrocity? This is what philosophers call a “sorites paradox” or a “paradox of the heap”: if you continue to pile grains of sand together, eventually they will form a heap, but when? What is the threshold of a heap?

I introduced the phrase “the threshold of atrocity” in The Moral Status of Non-Atrocities, in which I attempted to identify on-going forms of political brutality that fall short of atrocity but which nevertheless ruin countless lives. In that post I predicted that the world would see more violence and suffering that falls just short of the threshold of atrocity as a result of political calculations of tyrants and dictators who are learning to contain their depredations within limits that will not arouse the interest of the wider world (“rousing the sleeping giant,” as Mike Burleson put it in a recent New Wars post).

One form of near atrocity is population transfer. In his series of lectures for The Teaching Company, Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century, Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius discusses population transfer in his seventh lecture, “The Hinge of Violence.” He observes that after the First World War, with the ideological reconstruction of political entities as nation-states, the “problem” of ethnic minorities emerges. An ethnic minority within a nation-state putatively defined in terms of an ethnic nationality is a source of cognitive dissonance, like a splinter that festers and irritates. What does one do with a splinter? One removes it. Thus Liulevicius says of this peculiarly modern problem:

“As an expedient to deal with these new situations there was arrived at, by politicians, the notion of something that’s ubiquitously and euphemistically called “population transfer.” This is a case of a trend we will see repeatedly in the course of our lectures of the power of euphemisms, of code words, to cover up harsh human realities. “Population transfer” sounded, and was meant to sound, neat, humane, and efficient. The reality, however, was of a brutal, uprooting process of populations who were now to be moved around involuntarily.”

Liulevicius cites the example of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne between Greece and Turkey, which set a precedent for population transfer. He recounts how the uprooting of Greek Christian populations from Turkey and Muslim populations from areas in Greece and the Balkans became a series of horrors, and then remarks:

“…in spite of this bloody record of the Treaty of Lausanne, in spite of the atrocities and violence that accompanied the policy of population transfer, the mark that this procedure left in European intellectual history was quite different. It was truly starkly in contrast to the human reality that historians record. It was hailed by European historians of the time as a successful model of problem solving, of the redrawing of borders, of dealing with the supposed problem of ethnic minorities within new national states, and this hailing of so brutal an expedient, this euphemistic policy of population transfer, was truly to have ominous results…”

Thus Liulevicius clearly sees such “procedures” as atrocities, or at least as often involving atrocities, though he also remarks that few today recall the episode, and that it was viewed as a success in its own time. This atrocity, then, was not only not the focus of an intervention, but was seen as a model to emulate.

Population transfer is treated a little differently in another contemporary source, which calls it “expulsion,” though we can see how the two treatments are related. Daniel Goldhagen, in his Worse Than War (which I previously mentioned in Revolution, Genocide, Terror), distinguishes five levels of what he calls human eliminiationism. Of these five levels, expulsion is the third, coming between repression and prevention of reproduction. Goldhagen characterizes expulsion thus:

“Expulsion, often called deportation, is a third eliminationist option. It removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps. From antiquity to today, expulsions, often by imperial conquerers, have been common.”

Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, pp. 15-16

One contemporary example of such euphemized violence that involves small scale brutality is the recent dispossession of white farmers in Zimbabwe. Recently the BBC ran a surprisingly soft piece on Robert Mugabe’s “land reform programme,” Zimbabwe’s new farmers defend their gains, in which some of the violence of the evictions is described but not given much attention, as the story focuses on the new farmers who have acquired the lands of those who were evicted. To call the process of evictions in Zimbabwe “land reform” is clearly in the tradition of a policy intended to sound “neat, humane, and efficient” but which in fact has involved widespread suffering. And that suffering is not primarily the suffering of the 4,000 or so white farmers. The primary targets of the violence of the evictions were the native employees of the farms, and the entire population of Zimbabwe has suffered horribly from the botched “land reform” that has meant a catastrophic fall in the country’s agricultural productivity. How are we to take the moral measure of the impoverishment of millions for the benefit of a few well-connected Zimbabweans who prosper because of their relation to the ZANU-PF party?

Is Zimbabwe’s “land reform” an atrocity? We have already seen that the attempt to define an atrocity involves us in a classic philosophical paradox. There are, of course, philosophical responses. An excellent book by Claudia Card, The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil (a book imbued with the true spirit of philosophical inquiry, I must say, however much I disagree with parts of it), focuses on atrocities. Card writes:

“…evils are foreseeable intolerable harms produced by culpable wrongdoing… Evils tend to ruin lives, or significant parts of lives…” (p. 3)

Thus Card does not demand that atrocities be defined in terms of mass death, so we avoid the paradox posed by locating an atrocity between the tragedy of one death and the statistic of a million deaths. Further along Card writes:

“Why take atrocities as paradigms? Many evils lack the scale of an atrocity… Atrocities shock, at least when we first learn of them. They seem monstrous. We recoil of visual images and details… It is not for their sensationalism, however, that I choose atrocities as my paradigms. I choose them for three reasons: (1) because they are uncontroversially evil, (2) because they deserve priority of attention… and (3) because the core features of evils tend to be writ large in the case of atrocities, making them easier to identify and appreciate.” (p. 9)

While I agree in spirit with much of this, it misses what I have been trying to capture above. The near atrocities of expulsion or population transfer are not uncontroversially evil. As we have seen, such actions are sometimes employed as models of sound policy. Further, because near atrocities are not uncontroversially evil, the core features of evil are not writ large. On the contrary, the evils that I see growing in the world today, and which I also see as dominating the world of the future, are often writ in a very subtle script, and at times in invisible ink. Sometimes it is very difficult to discern the subtle, ongoing evil that distorts and disrupts lives in the millions. Precisely because mass, low-level suffering can come to seem the norm, one’s perspective can become distorted and evil no longer appears as evil, but just as the typical way of the world.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A few days ago in a post to this forum titled Revolution, Genocide, Terror I observed the revolution has become the established mechanism of political change, genocide the established mechanism of purging the nation-state of unwelcome national and ethnic constituencies, and terror has become the established mechanism of asymmetrically expressing grievances often brought about the failures of nation-states brought about by revolution and purged by genocide.

This unholy trinity of revolution, genocide, and terrorism presents a frightening tableau of our age. The oft-remarked violence of the twentieth century has shown no signs of abating in the twenty-first century, and if this is true we must brace ourselves for a sickening repetition of this cycle of violence. But this isn’t the whole story of our troubled age, and perhaps not even half the story.

It seems to me that the greater part of suffering and misery in our time is not the result of spectacular events like revolution, genocide, and terror that punctuate the equilibrium of the ordinary business of life, but rather that in many cases the ordinary business of life is rendered difficult, if not miserable, if not unbearable, by policies, procedures, and practices that have been bureaucratized and purposefully kept at a level that does not cross the threshold of atrocity. Brutal leaders know that if they incur the displeasure of the world community that they may well be removed from positions of power, but if they maintain their depredations on their populations at a level that minimizes, as far as possible, state-sponsored horrors such as genocide and terror, they will largely be safe. Thus choosing the lesser part of horror is a strategy of regime survival and historical viability.

Human history, like natural history, demonstrates a pattern of punctuated equilibrium. We are easily re-directed to focus on the great events of history, and thus we pay attention to headline-grabbing events like revolution, genocide, and spectacular acts of terrorism engineered as thought to exemplify the Baudelairean conception of Fleurs du mal. It is the work of an evil genius to conceive and execute the kind of horrors to which we are all-too-accustomed. But, again like natural history, the bulk of human history is consumed by the ordinary, day-to-day existence of human beings not subject to spectacular evils. Nevertheless, the conditions of ordinary, day-to-day existence can be brought to a keen level of desperation without crossing the threshold of atrocity.

In Grand Strategy Celebrates One Year! I quoted one of my favorite passages from the famous Annales school historian Fernand Braudel, :

Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901

It has been said (by Friedrich von Schlegel, I think) that the historian is a prophet facing backward. In this case, Braudel is the prophet of the longue durée, and the longue durée is not constituted by events properly understood as such, however spectacular. It is daily life and ordinary experience, so often itself consigned to the ephemera of history, that constitutes the substance of the longue durée.

Consider the tyrants we have seen over the past couple of decades, people like Slobodan Milošević and Robert Mugabe. While Milošević can be connected to a genuine atrocity like the Srebrenica Massacre, most of Milošević’s actions did not rise to the level of atrocity. And while Mugabe brutally suppressed the Ndebele groups in the provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands, which might be considered an atrocity, like Milošević, most of his actions have not risen to the level of atrocity. As noted above, a brutal leader can carefully contrive his policies so that the stop just short of the level of atrocity that would draw the attention of the international community, hence the possibility of intervention.

Nevertheless, a life lived under conditions just short of atrocity is itself a kind of atrocity, a low-level atrocity, a largely silent atrocity. We might call such conditions non-atrocities. What is the moral status of non-atrocities? If a political leader presides over policies that stunt the growth of his nation, that limit the lives of millions, and that make millions unnecessarily impoverished, how are we to judge such actions? We cannot compare such men and such actions to twentieth century monsters like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, who calmly presided over mass death. Stalin has been (probably incorrectly) credited with the statement, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” While he probably never said it, it was readily believed of him because it captures the casual brutality of his rule.

If Milošević was no Hitler, and Mugabe is no Stalin, nevertheless such men as these contemporaries of ours have meant the ruin of countless lives. This ruin has not always come in the form of mass murder, but lives can be ruined, stunted, and made hopeless without being lost in an absolute sense. If someone thus loses the potential of their life but does not lose life itself as the result of the actions of a tyrant or his minions, how ought we to properly conceive of this evil? Again, what is the moral status of non-atrocities? The fact that we largely lack a conceptual framework to discuss loss of quality of life in a detailed and meaningful way demonstrates that we are not yet prepared to deal with one of the great moral issues of our time.

I think that throughout the coming century we will see more non-atrocities, more widely spread, and influencing the lives of more people. The tyrants have learned some lessons from the twentieth century. Unfortunately, instead of learning the lessons of good government, they have learned that brutality kept within limits will be ignored and unpunished. Non-atrocities will proliferate even as genuine and undisputed atrocities will decrease. This will not mean that the world is, overall, a better place, but that the tyrants who perpetrate near atrocities will be more calculating and cunning in their use of force, constrained only by the threshold of atrocity.

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A drawing of the plan of Brasilia.

The 21st of April is the birthday of Brasília, and this year marks fifty years since the city was inaugurated. As cities are not usually built to order, fixing a birthday for them is a matter of historical speculation, but Brasília belongs to that small class of cities — which also includes, inter alia, Herod’s Caesarea, Constantine’s Constantinople, Aigues Mortes, Canberra, Islamabad, and Naypyidaw — that were, in fact built to order, and since it was built to order in modern times there is a great deal of documentation available, as well as precise dates, that chronicle the rise of the city. The black and white photographs of Brasília have a haunting quality to them, a palpable emptiness.

A satellite photograph of contemporary Brasilia, showing it still very much a realization of its plan.

I previously mentioned Brasília in The Rational Reconstruction of Cities, where I was concerned with the difference between cities that emerge organically from a particular social, economic, ecological, and climatological circumstances in contradistinction to planned cities. Of course, most cities are a mixture of planning and organic growth. The same is true with Brasília: it began as a planned city, but in so far as the city has taken on a life of its own that is underdetermined by the planners, it has since grown both organically and inorganically.

It takes time for a planned city to begin growing organically, as it is usually built to a certain assumed population size and time is needed for the population to catch up with the initially empty city. It is only after the population has caught up with and then surpassed the intent of the planners that a more organic growth pattern is likely to emerge. If a planned city never exceeds its intended population, it remains largely in its originally planned form.

Cities are like the maps that describe them in both prescribing a reality and being prescribed by reality. I tried to explain what I meant by this in A Theory of Maps. It seems to me that there are classes of facts that are partly constituted by human actions and partly constituted by matters outside human control. The classical distinction between realism and alternatives to realism like constructivism or nominalism force us into a dichotomy between objects of the world being independent of us (realism) or dependent upon us (idealism, constructivism, etc.). I suggest that there are degrees of dependence, and that some objects are partly dependent and partly independent of us. In the terminology I used previously, in so far as they are partly constituted and partly independent, cities are ontogenic.

The Osler House by Marcio Kogan in Brasília, Brazil.

In A Theory of Maps I used the examples of timetables and schedules as constituted facts that create realities, although not without exceptions and qualifications. Cities, as we all know, are constituted by a great many schedules and timetables, as well as other contrived facts that begin as an idea in the mind of an urban planner and may someday issue in actual concrete living conditions for a mass of residents. Planned cities like Brasília are the most obvious and complete example of this, but even planned cities are not entirely governed by their plan, and therefore not entirely contrived.

In Life and Landscape I argued that the landscape a people comes from shapes the life and character of that people, and this way of life in turn shapes the ideas of that people. Thus ideology is a highly derived form of geography. As I noted above, cities emerge from particular social, economic, ecological, and climatological circumstances. All of these factors contribute to the structure and function of a city. We have very little control over ecological and climatological circumstances, other than moving to another area, but we have more control over social and economic circumstances, but not absolute control, as social and economic circumstances also emerge from the landscape.

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