Civilization as social technology: the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven. Was it also the poster child for civilizational stagnation?

Civilization as social technology: the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven. Was it also the poster child for civilizational stagnation?

In my post from yesterday, The Byzantine Superweapon, I suggested that the civilization of classical antiquity experienced technological stagnation from lack of interest in technological innovation, rather than lack of ability in technological innovation.

Above I specifically mentioned technological stagnation, i.e., stagnation specific to technology. To say that a civilization experiences technological stagnation is not to find it stagnant across the board, and generally suffering from decay, decline, and decadence (the condition once attributed to “dark ages” — a term now generally held in historiographical disrepute). The condition of technological stagnation is an intentionally narrow and focused formulation. In other words, technological stagnation simpliciter does not equate with a “dark age.”

Now, it may well be that classical antiquity also suffered from other forms of stagnation — e.g., political stagnation, social stagnation, ideological stagnation, religious stagnation, aesthetic stagnation, which, when taken together, may well constitute a “dark age” — but to only discuss classical antiquity in terms of its technological stagnation is to engage in a kind of historical abstraction. In other words, it is to take a scientific perspective, and indeed a formal perspective, on history.

In the Preface to my Political Economy of Globalization I wrote this about the abstract nature of economics:

“Logic, as paradigmatically representative of rationalism, has in particular been subject to attacks from a variety of perspectives — empiricist, Marxist, feminist, post-modernist; every tendentious school of thought seems to find its own particular fault with logic. This is not to say that the doctrines of logic are fixed, which they are not, but that there are, on the one hand, constructive ways to contribute to the changing discipline of logic, and, on the other, ignorant and uninformed criticisms that contribute nothing because they are so wide of mark that they have no relevance. A political critique of logic is without meaning, rather than false. Similarly, a cultural critique of economics that fails to recognize economics as a particular species of abstract thought is meaningless, though not false.

To which was appended this footnote:

According to Robert L. Heilbroner, “…economics only comes into being in the first place through the most heroic process of abstraction.” (Between Capitalism and Socialism: Essays in Political Economics, New York: Vintage Books, 1970, Preface, p. xiii)

Heilbroner himself famously called economics the work of the “worldly philosophers,” and in this spirit we tend of think of social sciences like economics and history as being more concrete sciences, but they are as given to abstraction and formalization as any other theoretical discipline.

I make these distinctions, conditions, and qualifications in order to make it clear that it is entirely possible and coherent to talk about some kind of historical phenomenon in tightly circumscribed terms. We must get clear about this in order to move on to the next observation that, even if classical antiquity was a civilization in terminal decline, stagnant in almost every field of endeavor, this is not true of all civilizations.

Once we adopt a sufficiently objective and impartial perspective on history and civilization, I think it will be obvious that in most civilization — also throughout entire eras of civilization, which witness several closely related civilizations rise and fall in parallel and in succession — growth and stagnation are localized phenomena.

It is entirely possible that a civilization experiences growth and even innovation in one area while experiencing stagnation or decline in another area. Moreover, innovation and stagnation may migrate among different expressions of civilization throughout the history of a civilization.

Human history exhibits a pattern of localized escalating growth and localized stagnation, perhaps also localized decline or catastrophic collapse, so that human creativity gets poured into one area at the expense of other areas, and then after this particular fascination wanes, another area of interest captures the human fancy and is the recipient of disproportionate attention, effort, and resources. This makes for a highly uneven texture of human experience and the human condition.

Our own industrial-technological civilization, for all its achievements, experiences limited and localized stagnation. I think we need to honestly acknowledge that specifically in terms of the human presence in space, we are in a period of extended stagnation (hopefully not permanent stagnation). This is not only about the human presence in space, but also space technologies. Kurzweil is known for mapping out the exponential growth of technologies, and this model fits some technologies (like computer technology) but it pretty obviously doesn’t apply to space propulsion technology (or, at very least, to the systematic exploitation of propulsion technologies). We’re still using the chemical rockets of the 1960s, just as we are still using the subsonic jets of the 1960s — although the onboard entertainment offerings are much improved.

An optimal civilization, consisting of intelligent institutions, would involve minimizing stagnation across the board while maximizing innovation across the board. Whether or not human beings could sustain this effort I can’t say for sure, but I have to admit that I am quite optimistic about this, because an optimized civilization would be a much more exciting and interesting context for all human endeavors, to which everyone would have something to contribute. In an optimized civilization we would not have to settle for our less than optimal labor market, and an optimal civilization would offer the possibility of optimally harnessing human enthusiasm, which would in turn mitigate the existential risk of permanent stagnation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Above is a photograph that I took of Prague when I visited in 1992. There are many readily identifiable elements in the image. Even individuals without deep geographical knowledge might recognize the Charles Bridge or St. Vitus Cathedral, even if they didn’t know the names of these structures. More generally, a person is likely to notice that it is a European city that is in the photograph. The closer up your view, the more detail you see, and the more detail you see, the more knowledge that you have — though it is knowledge of a certain kind, specific to a particular scale. We could call this knowledge of a particular order of magnitude, or an epistemic order of magnitude.

This Oslo street scene (above) that I took in 2009 reveals more detail than the landscape view of Prague — for example, one can read individual signs, and perhaps even recognize a particular advertising campaign — but it would be difficult to identify the city unless you had really encyclopedic knowledge of the area. While this probably holds true for street scenes in most cities, there are, of course, immediately identifiable street scenes, such as that below, since it includes a portion of the readily identifiable Brandenburg Gate.

When we pull back further, looking at a city from a great distance, the texture and fabric of urban space presents a certain sameness to the eye, although a keen observer will still be able to pick out distinctive features. In Modernization, Industrialization, Urbanization I wrote regarding this distant perspective:

“Viewed from a distance, a contemporary Japanese city and a contemporary American city are indistinguishable, like two threads, black and white, held at arm’s length at twilight. But up close, profound differences are obvious. Seeing the big picture is just as important as seeing the details.”

The photograph below of San Francisco might be mistaken for another large city of the industrial era, and it could be just about anywhere, except it does reveal some of those distinctive features, such as the distinctive Transamerica Pyramid.

Pulling back even farther, moving to another order of magnitude in perspective, identifying a city can become quite problematic. Individual landmarks mostly disappear, except for truly monumental constructions, and most cities lack truly monumental constructions and thus become indistinguishable at this level. Consider the photograph below:

I cannot remember where I found this photograph, and I can’t identify it. The photograph admirably shows the road and rail networks that cut through all cities of the late twentieth century, and I suspect that it is in Europe or North America, but it could just as well be on other continents. There are details that can be picked out, but what we must notice at this level of magnification is the overall structure.

Some cities, even from orbital distance, are immediately recognizable, as with Brasília, which we can see (above) retaining the structure of its original plan (below). Generally speaking, planned cities built rapidly in accordance with a recognizable geometry are likely to be readily identifiable, whereas organic cities that grew up without a plan are less clearly differentiated.

Other cities have distinctive harbors or a relation to a distinctive river or ocean coastline or other natural feature that would make them identifiable, although few people have an encyclopedic knowledge of harbors and would be able to identify a city on that basis. Here (below) is Naples from space:

It used to be said, “See Naples and die,” such was its reputation for urban beauty. Whatever the reputation of Naples today, this kind of beauty is not recognizable from a great distance. Probably Naples would be a little more recognizable if the entire Bay of Naples were included. Here (below) is Tokyo’s harbor from space:

Whatever one knows or does not know about Naples and Tokyo, the satellite photographs tell you something important about their economies that may well not be revealed by a photograph of a street scene: both are major ports, and their economies are therefore tied to trade. And here (below) is São Paulo from space:

São Paulo is close to the coast, and while many maps make it look like it is on the coast, it is in fact an inland city. While São Paulo is one of the largest cities in the world, and therefore an economic force to reckon with, we can see that a port does not play the same role in its economy that port facilities play in Tokyo or, for example, Seattle, which is as wedded to Puget Sound, into which ocean-going ships can freely enter, as Tokyo is wedded to Tokyo Bay. While not a satellite photograph, this picture gives a great sense of Seattle’s dependence on water-borne commerce:

Some cities are a surprise from an aerial view, and present an aspect not at all evident from the ground. Take this city for example:

Who would have guessed that Khandahar is so orderly, with its regular grid plan and cruciform center? No street scenes give a sense of Khandahar’s overall order. It certainly surprised me. I suspect there is an interesting story behind Khandahar’s macroscopic order, and I would like to know that it is. My first intuition is that Khandahar has grown up from an ancient Roman street plan, which centered a city on the perpendicular crossing of the Decumanus Maximus and Cardo Maximus. This may be the case, but I have not confirmed this. The city of Poreč on the Istrian Peninsula, known for retaining it Roman street plan, has a far less obvious cruciform plan than Khandahar:

Poreč on the Istrian Peninsula

Barcino, Split, Umm Qais, and Damascus are also known for their preservation of Roman planning, and now that I think of it I will need to look at aerial or orbital pictures of these cities and see if they approach the rectilinear regularly of Khandahar. In any case, at least part of a city’s history may be evident from the abstract perspective afforded by distance.

If we pull back far enough, a city ceases to even look like a city. In the NASA photograph above, it has been observed that London at night looks like a constellation. Many of the satellite images above reveal cities that, from a distance, look like organic growths — or, if you prefer a more threatening image, like a cancer on the land.

There is a sense in which an view of cities from a distance gives us an abstract perspective — both upon the city itself, as a whole and as an artifact, and upon urbanized human life, which is inseparable from the city upon which it supervenes.

Abstract perspectives of necessity lack the kind of detail of a concrete perspective, but we learn particular kinds of things from an abstract perspective, and different kinds of things that we learn from close up concrete detail. The abstract and the concrete represent distinct (though complementary) epistemic orders of magnitude.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Plato, who said that the definition of being is power — the power to affect or be affected.

Yesterday in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being I raised the possibility in connection with Abbagnano’s interpretation of Plato’s definition of being that we can distinguish being-at-an-instant from being defined in terms of some discrete period of time during which the existent in question affects or is affected by other existents.

Nicola Abbagnano, 15 July 1901 – 09 September 1990, who re-interpreted Plato on being as power in terms of being as possibility.

Being-at-an-instant is a highly abstract conception, though it has the virtue of simplicity: it is a minimalist conception of being. A snapshot of being cannot exist independently of a being extended in time. As Sartre put in it in Being and Nothingness (since we have already invoked Sartre in our discussion of being): “M. Laporte says that an abstraction is made when something not capable of existing in isolation is thought of as in an isolated state. The concrete by contrast is a totality which can exist by itself alone.” (p. 33) While there are potential problems with this formulation, it is suggestive.

Jean-Paul Sartre, who was better known for existence than abstraction, nevertheless had an interesting suggestion about abstraction.

At the other end of the great chain of being, and equally abstract, is the idea of a totality of being. This, presumably, would differ from being-at-an-instant by exemplifying being-for-eternity. As it is difficult for me to imagine how this might work, and lacking a ready-to-hand definition of eternity, I will simply mention it in passing. Of greater interest, for its obvious naturalism, would be the totality of being for a given existent: in so far as we can individuate any given existent, all the other existents it has affected for been affected by in the course of its existence would constitute the totality of being for that existent.

The Great Chain of Being illustrated as a stairway from lower orders of being to higher orders of being: we tend to think of the great chain of being in terms of objects in relation to each other, but we can also think of it in terms of the temporal duration inhabited by objects, from the ephemeral to the eternal.

Having defined these extremes of the scope of being, from being-at-an-instant to the totality of being for an existent, we might further classify beings according to the difference between the former and the latter. That is to say, some beings we change dramatically from one moment to another and from one stage of life to another, so that in the course of their existence a great gap will open between being-at-an-instant and their totality of being, while for other existents totality of being is depart only slightly from being-at-an-instant.

Among the many possibilities of being that the above classifications suggest, we can posit a being that does in fact affect all beings and is in turn affected by all beings, and it is interesting to note that this could be considered a novel formulation of the traditional object of theology. This is perhaps the only conception of totality that actually approaches a totality that can exist on its own, and therefore counts as “concrete.”

Karl Löwith argued that many modern concepts are secularizations of theological concepts.

It could be argued that at the moment of the big bang, the progenitor singularity of the big bang was, for an instant, affected by everything in the universe, and in turn affected everything in the universe. That is to say, at the moment of the big bang, the universe was instantaneously identical to the object of traditional Western theology (though strictly speaking this ought to be considered a variety of pantheism). Theists have not been slow to point out the apparent theological overtones of the big bang, and we could indeed characterize the big bang as a secularization (after the manner of Karl Löwith) of creatio ex nihilo. At this point we are in need of some serious philosophical thinking, but the pursuit of serious philosophical thinking in cosmology is problematic.

Cosmology is a science that has that distinction of being at the fine end of the scale as quantitatively precise as astronomy, of which it is a natural extrapolation. But at the grand end of the scale, the further that cosmology departs from the readily grasped quantifiable conceptions of astronomy it finds itself entangled in traditional philosophical concepts, but since the practitioners of cosmology usually come from a scientific background they battle valiantly against having their discipline construed as philosophical (and therefore, in their eyes, as merely speculative and without practical utility). Thus philosophical questions regarding the nature and origin of the universe are treated as if (and one must here keep in mind Vaihinger’s sense of the Als-Ob) they were quantifiable and experimentally verifiable scientific questions when they are not. The result is confusion.

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Hans Vaihinger who formulated the doctrine of the as-if (Als-Ob).

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Grand Strategy Annex

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