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Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction, 1836

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction, 1836

A couple of days ago in The Byzantine Superweapon, and again yesterday in Innovation, Stagnation, and Optimization, I discussed some of the forces that led to the technological stagnation of classical antiquity, which ensured that there would be no industrial revolution in the classical world. Western civilization had to pass through the painful contraction of political and economic collapse in Western Europe, and lose much of what it had struggled so hard to build, before it could get to the point at which the conditions were right (and ripe) for industrialization.

Now, the way that I have worded the above paragraph suggests a kind of historical inevitability, and this is philosophically objectionable. If one is going to make a claim of historical inevitability, one has an intellectual obligation to state this claim, and to defend it. However, I am not making such a claim, although my position could be interpreted as a weak form of historical inevitability.

What do I mean by “weak historical inevitability”? A strong formulation of historical inevitability would simply be a statement of determinism. A weak formulation of historical inevitably need make no metaphysical claims about determinism, but does acknowledge that, given the kind of civilization that characterized classical antiquity — settled, slave-holding, agrarianism — it would have been virtually impossible, or in any event extremely unlikely for technological innovation to escalate to the point of an industrial revolution. Before industrialization could occur, certain social changes must occur. But the “must” in the last sentence is not the “must” of necessity or determinism, but only a weaker “must” of the preponderance of the evidence. Call this a scientific must if you must, because it shares in the inductivism and revisability of all scientific thought.

In the same spirit of a scientific perspective on history, imbued with an empirical and inductive approach (rather than an a priori and deductive approach, in which “had to” and “must” carry connotations of metaphysical determinism, as in Marxism), there is another factor in the stalling and stagnation of ancient Western civilization that bears examination, and this relates to the geophysical structure of the Roman Empire, which represented classical antiquity at its greatest reach and its most robust iteration.

Of course, the study of the geography of political structures is the meat and potatoes of geopolitics, and I have written a good deal on geopolitics and geostrategy. But even though geopolitics represents a “big picture” and “long term” view on political structures, in the field of geophysics geopolitics is the shortest of short term perspectives. Those who take the longer view of human history and civilization in the context of geography — Jared Diamond is probably the most famous contemporary example of this — are frequently charged with “geographical determinism,” and while in some instances this may be true, but, as I noted above, we can adopt a weak sense of geographical inevitably and avoid all metaphysical determinism.

The geographical unity of the Roman Empire was primarily a function of the Mediterranean Sea, which was ringed by ports that connected the cities of the empire with water-borne commerce — at that time in history, the only form of commerce that could move mass quantities of goods. Maps of the Roman Empire show it surrounding the Mediterranean. After the collapse of Roman power in the West, Western civilization moved inland and approximated pure agriculturalism until expanding again across the North Atlantic and new and larger geographical unity based on water-borne commerce.

During its medieval phase, and carried over into continental politics during the modern period, Western civilization gave rise to no durable empire on the scale of the Roman Empire. The European peninsula is too geographically divided by rivers and mountain ranges to posses the kind of geographical unity the Roman Empire had in virtue of the Mediterranean. George Friedman and Strategic Forecasting often argues in this vein, and in this I think he is right. Friedman has also pointed out that, geopolitically, China is an island. Separated from the rest of the world by deserts, mountain ranges, and the ocean, the traditional unity of Chinese civilization derives from this insular geography. The only people who penetrated the fastness of China were the Mongols; the Chinese themselves did not engage in successful power projection, but spent most of the history warring with each other to determine who would rule the geographical unity of China.

The same geographical divisions of Europe that led to a plethora of petty kingdoms, states, statelets, principalities, and city-states led to ideological, political, economic, and even aesthetic diversity by way of the cultural equivalent of allopatric speciation. In other words, civilization speciated rapidly on the European peninsula. Political and ideological diversity meant a history of continuous conflict, which was at times was ruinous, but at other times had the remarkable quality of competitive government, so that a variety of diverse candidates for political leadership contested with each other to demonstrate (usually militarily) who could provide the best rule. The brilliance of the Italian renaissance is sometimes credited — rightly, in my view — to the competition among principalities on the Italian peninsula.

The Roman Empire, possessing the geographical unity of the Mediterranean — similar in a certain sense to the insularity of Chinese civilization and its series of empires — did not benefit from competitive government. It became, in contrast, a political monoculture that iterated itself around the Mediterranean basin and penetrated as far inland was travel by road was practicable. Instead of competition, the Roman Empire bestowed peace — the Pax Romana.

In this context, the Pax Romana could be understood as a cause, if not the cause, of the decline of classical antiquity, for without the continual pressure of war there was no need reason to systematically harness science, technology, and engineering to practical ends, and these pursuits remained an elite preoccupation of a handful of privileged and relatively isolated individuals.

By contrast, the continual (internal) warfare of medieval Europe eventually gave birth to the scientific revolution even before the industrial revolution made the application of science to technology systematic.

Universal empire — as in Rome or China — leaves peoples with a choice between civilization and barbarism, whereas competing political entities offer peoples a choice between different representatives of a particular tradition of civilization.

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Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Desolation, 1836

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Desolation, 1836

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Saint Paul was able to preach the length and breadth of the Roman Empire because of its transportation infrastructure and its political unity.

Saint Paul was able to preach the length and breadth of the Roman Empire because of its transportation infrastructure and its political unity.

One of the reasons that Christianity has held a near-universal appeal is that it was formulated during an unusually tolerant and cosmopolitan period of human history; Christianity is as much a creation of pagan Rome as of Christ and His Apostles, if not more so. There have been many charismatic religious visionaries and leaders through the ages, and only a handful have successfully founded new religions that went on to play a significant role in human history. In each case, the conditions of success were unique to the time and the place of the inception of the incipient faith. With Rome, the universal empire of the western world, there was peace, unity of political control, a network of roads and shipping, literacy, and a vast population ripe for spiritual exploitation.

Roman roads

Any religion formulated under the social conditions of the Roman Empire would have had a certain worldly outlook, a cosmopolitanism and universality, and a familiarity that still feels fresh two thousand years later. The writers of antiquity speak to us directly as though to contemporaries, to an extent that archaic and medieval literature cannot speak to us, and so the most successful religion of late antiquity speaks directly to men and women of the modern world. The religious traditions of archaic Greece as, for example, related in Homer, or even those of medieval Europe, though the latter constituted the immediate predecessor of our civilization today, are far more distant and foreign than the religious traditions of the Roman world.

Vladimir Putin as action figure.

In his widely quoted State of the Nation address of 25 April 2005, Vladimir Putin said that, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I heard a commentator at the time make the case that it was the most cosmopolitan institutions of the Soviet Union that suffered the most from the Soviet collapse. Large political entities like the Soviet Union tend to support certain types of cultural expression that are seen to reflect positively on the state (say, the Bolshoi Ballet, for example). In this sense, Putin was right. But the Soviet Union, on the whole, suppressed far more cultural expression than it supported.

Putin's predecessor, Tsar Vasily III.

There is a connection here with classical antiquity. In 1511 the monk Philotheus wrote in a letter to Tsar Vasily III, “Hear me, pious Tsar, all Christian kingdoms have converged in thine alone. Two Romes have fallen, a third stands, a fourth there shall not be.” Thus Moscow is the Third Rome, and the vanguard for Orthodox Christendom.

Byzantine version on the left, Russian Federation version on the right.

Double-headed eagles: Byzantine version on the left, Russian Federation version on the right.

Samuel Huntington, in his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, identified a region of Orthodox civilization, the core state of which is Russia. To a certain extent, then, Huntington and Putin are on the same page. Orthodox civilization apparently is thought to deserve its own sphere of influence. However, it would be a stretch to suppose that the Soviet Union represented the interests of Orthodox civilization. On an explicit ideological level, it allied itself not with a regional interest, but with the vanguard of international communism.

New York, New York.  Page 159.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1996 The Clash of Civilizations. Simon & Schuster: New York, New York. Page 159.

While the collapse of the Soviet Union may have been the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century, the greatest geopolitical tragedy of Western history was the collapse of Roman power in the West. We live with the consequences of it still. The Middle Ages looked backward to a lost Golden Age, while the beginning of the modern period in the renaissance looked back to classical antiquity as its model of a civilization to emulate.

Even with the loss of the cultural cosmopolitanism of the Roman Empire, the eventual emergence of Christendom in Western Europe created a culture that extended (as has been said by others) from Iceland to Sicily. And while the unity of Christendom came at a certain cultural cost, there were serious scholars of the Middle Ages, all churchmen, who studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic in order to read the ancient books of these traditions.

Christendom around 1230 AD.

Christendom around 1230 AD.

Today new cosmopolitan institutions have emerged. For example, the English language, as well as international science and scholarship. The critics of American hegemony will say that the use of the English language is a form of imperialism. The political left, in particular, has worked itself into a real lather over apparent ambitions for an American Empire.

Despite the gains of clarity in political science over the past hundred years, the terminology of the discipline is so vague as to virtually guarantee the people will be talking at cross purposes. Part of this is because the vocabulary of political science includes everyone’s favorite propaganda terms — “glittering generalities” as they are sometimes called. Think of terms like “democracy”, “revolution”, and “empire”. They mean a great many things, and are used in a great many ways by a great many individuals.

What I have here been calling cosmopolitanism could as well be called imperialism, or even cultural imperialism. Certainly the Roman Empire practiced imperialism. This imperialism had consequences both good and bad, both intended and unintended. There was the Pax Romana, of course, and there was the establishment of Christianity that I mentioned in the first paragraph above. I let the reader decide which of these development was good or bad, but obviously the first was intended and the second unintended. What exactly is the idea of imperialism, and how does it differ from cosmopolitanism?

Is the cosmopolitanism of today imperialism? Is there an American Empire? If so, in what sense is there an American Empire? In what ways does an American Empire resemble, and in what sense does it not resemble, the Roman Empire? This is, in a way, a fun question to ask for the images that it allows us to entertain. For example, US military missions do not end in a triumphal procession in Washington DC. Maybe they should. This would be a perfect example of what I have called symbolic efficacy. Imagine David Patraeus in a chariot (with a slave whispering in his ear, “Remember, thou art mortal too”) leading a spectacular procession through the wide boulevards of Washington DC, past the White House and the Congress, past the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, leading tens of thousands of marching soldiers and, after them, thousands of prisoners and booty brought back from his campaign.

The lesson from today’s considerations? The past furnishes a vision at least as often as the future. Perhaps the past gives us a vision more often than does the future. The past has the advantage of being concrete. The Roman Empire is with us still because, like the coliseum itself in Rome, the Roman Empire itself dominates Western history, and because of its position astride the commanding heights of Western history, it has served as a vision, and it will continue to serve as a vision, of what a state can aspire to. We feel its loss still.

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