The Future that Wasn’t, Part One:
“The Sunset-Drowning of the Evening Lands”
John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report
… The holiday season now lurching past is not a time I particularly enjoy. … And that, dear readers, is what sent me for refuge to Oswald Spengler. A mild depression can be treated with Ogden Nash poems and Shakespeare comedies, but when things get really grim it’s time for the hair of the dog; the same effect that leaves the soul feeling oddly lighter after taking in a Greek tragedy, or listening to an entire album of really blue blues, hits a history geek like myself after a chapter or two of Der Untergang des Abendlandes. [The Decline of the West]
… Spengler was not a scientist and never pretended to be one. He was a philosopher of history; in some ways, really, he was an artist who took the philosophy of history for his medium in place of paint or music.
… What interested him was the origin and fate of cultures, and he didn’t mean this term in the anthropological sense. In his view, a culture is a overall way of looking at the world with its own distinct expressions in religious, philosophical, artistic, and social terms. For him, all the societies of the “evening lands” – that is, all of western Europe from roughly 1000 CE on, and the nations of the European diaspora in the Americas and Australasia – comprise a single culture, which he terms the Faustian. Ancestral to the Faustian culture in one sense, and its polar opposite in another, is the Apollinian culture of the classic Mediterranean world, from Homeric Greece to the early Roman empire; ancestral to the Faustian culture in a different sense, and parallell to it in another, is the Magian culture, which had its origins in Zoroastrian Persia, absorbed the Roman Empire during its later phases, and survives to this day as the Muslim civilization of the Middle East. Other Spenglerian cultures are the Egyptian, the Chinese, the Mesopotamian, and the two great New World centers of civilization, the Mexican-Aztec and the Andean-Incan.
Talking about the rise and fall of a culture in Spengler’s sense, then, isn’t a matter of tracing shifts in political or economic arrangements. It’s about the birth, flowering, and death of a distinctive way of grasping the nature of human existence, and everything that unfolds from that – which, in human terms, is just about everything that matters. The Apollinian culture, for example, rose out of the chaotic aftermath of the Minoan-Mycenean collapse with a unique vision of humanity and the world rooted in the experience of the Greek polis, the independent self-governing community in which everything important was decided by social process. Greek theology envisioned a polis of gods, Greek physics a polis of fundamental elements, Greek ethics a polis of virtues, and so on down the list of cultural creations. Projected around the Mediterranean basin first by Greek colonialism, then by Alexander’s conquests, and finally by the expansion of Rome, it became the worldview and the cultural inspiration of one of the world’s great civilizations.
That, according to Spengler, was also its epitaph. A culture, any culture, embodies a particular range of human possibility, and like everything else, it suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Sooner or later, everything that can be done from within the worldview of a culture – everything religious, philosophical, intellectual, artistic, social, political, you name it – has basically been done, and the culture fossilizes into a civilization. Thereafter the same things get repeated over and over again in endless combinations; disaffected intellectuals no longer capable of creativity settle for mere novelty or, worse still, simple shock value; artistic and intellectual traditions from other cultures get imported to fill the widening void; technology progresses in a kind of mechanical forward lurch until the social structures capable of supporting it fall away from underneath it. Sooner or later, the civilization falls apart, basically, because nobody actually believes in it any more.
What made this prophecy a live issue in Spengler’s time was that he placed the twilight of Western culture and the beginning of its mummification into Western civilization in the decades right after 1800. Around then, he argued, the vitality of the cultural forms that took shape in western Europe around 1000 began trickling away in earnest. By then, in his view, the Western world’s religions had already begun to mummify into the empty repetition of older forms; its art, music, and literature lost their way in the decades that followed; its political forms launched into the fatal march toward gigantism that leads to empire and, in time, to empire’s fall; only its science and technology, like the sciences and technologies of previous cultures, continued blindly on its way, placing ever more gargantuan means in the service of ever more impoverished ends.
(26 December 2007)
The Future that Wasn’t, Part Two:
The Phantom of Empire
John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report
My regular readers will recall that last week I introduced the redoubtable Oswald Spengler, whose theory of the decline and fall of Western culture got so much attention between the two world wars and has been dismissed so patronizingly since that time. Spengler argued that the cultural possibilities of Western society reached the point of diminishing returns around the beginning of the nineteenth century and run out completely by the dawn of the twentieth. The future of the West, in his view, was the same fate that overtakes every great culture: the fossilization of cultural forms and the rise of a gargantuan empire propped up by brute force.
He was far from the only thinker to envision the future in those terms. Not all of the others put the same negative spin on it, and one of those who saw the upside of empire had far more influence than Spengler ever did. This was Arnold Toynbee, whose ideas have appeared on this blog more than once already. Toynbee was by no means a mindless fan of empire, and much of his sprawling A Study of History focuses on the ways that empires inevitably destroy themselves. Still, like Spengler, he argued that societies go through predictable stages in their life cycle; like Spengler, he saw the rise of a Universal State as the next stage in the history of the Western world; unlike Spengler, he was in a position to help that stage come about.
Toynbee spent most of his working life at the helm of the Royal Institute for International Affairs (RIIA), and published A Study of History under its auspices. The RIIA is the British counterpart of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an influential association of prominent politicians and businessmen that has been a bugbear of the American conspiracy scene for decades now. The two organizations emerged right after the First World War out of the same network of business interests, and Toynbee was in some sense the pet historical theorist of both; in the early days of the Second World War, for example, all the notes and drafts for the not-yet-written volumes of A Study of History were stored for safekeeping at CFR headquarters in New York City.
What makes this relevant is that Toynbee’s work has been a template for public policy in Britain and America since the 1920s. Point for point, the mainstream in both countries has embraced all the things Toynbee considered good for empires and rejected those he labeled bad.
…In Toynbee’s vision of history, every civilization is born when a people facing a serious challenge responds to it by achieving a new level of integration as a society, and develops exactly as long as its leadership can meet new challenges with responses that inspire the respect and loyalty of the rest of the population. Once the leadership starts trying to force new problems to fit old solutions, its power to inspire breaks down, and the civilization enters a time of troubles from which only the rise of a universal state can save it. In Toynbee’s eyes, the time of troubles for Western civilization arrived in 1914, and the rise of an American empire was the only thing that could prevent Europe from sliding further down a death spiral of internecine war.
Behind this interpretation of history, and its equivalents in Spengler and many other thinkers of the same time, lay a belief that Western history was locked into a parallel with a specific period of the past. Every schoolchild in Spengler’s Germany and Toynbee’s Britain learned about the quarreling city-states of ancient Greece, which created most of classical culture and then nearly destroyed it and themselves in an age of fratricidal warfare. In the wake of 1914, people across Europe decided that their own society had reached the equivalent of 431 BCE, the beginning of the Peloponnesian War and ancient Greece’s time of troubles. To many of them, the comparison between Greece and Europe made a comparison between Rome and America inescapable, and no small number came to hope for an American equivalent of Augustus Caesar – someone who would reign in the unruly nation-states and impose peace on the world.
What neither Spengler nor Toynbee realized, though, was that the American ascendancy in the twentieth century rested on foundations far more fleeting than Rome’s. The basis of American power was geological, rooted in the accidents of paleoecology that left immense deposits of crude oil in half a dozen American states, and can be measured by the fact that in 1950 the United States produced more crude oil than the rest of the world put together. Winston Churchill famously remarked that the Allies had floated to victory in the First World War on an ocean of American oil, and the Second depended even more dramatically on oil production, with oil-poor Germany and Japan overwhelmed by the tanks, ships, and planes of oil-rich America and Russia.
By the first wave of energy crises in the 1970s, however, the geological basis for American ascendancy no longer existed, because most of it had been pumped out of the ground and burnt. I’ve argued elsewhere that the American political class in the Seventies faced a difficult choice between a transition to sustainability and a high-tech, high risk nuclear society, and ended up choosing neither because the costs on both sides were too high. Since then, political and economic gimmicks and a willingness to burn through our remaining resources with reckless abandon have papered over the hard reality of American decline.
It’s in this context, I’ve suggested, that the neoconservative adventures of the last decade needs to be interpreted. By the end of the 1990s, it was very likely clear even to the most recalcitrant members of America’s political class that trusting the free market to find a long-term solution to America’s energy dependence had failed. It’s a matter of public knowledge that investment banker Matthew Simmons, one of the first voices to raise an alarm over peak oil in the 1990s, was brought in as a consultant to Vice President Cheney immediately after the 2000 election. The march to war that followed can best be understood as a desperate attempt to keep the dream of empire from collapsing completely by giving America control over Iraqi oil reserves.
It was a bad plan, pragmatically as well as ethically, and the incompetence with which it was put into effect has not exactly helped the situation. Still, I’m far from sure that those Americans who talk about their eagerness to see the troops come home from the Middle East have quite grasped what they are asking for. For the last sixty years the American way of life has depended on wildly unequal international relationships that guarantee the 5% of the human race that lives in the United States access to more than 30% of the world’s energy and other resources. The collapse of American empire, when it occurs, will see that state of affairs come to an end. It remains to be seen how enthusiastic the critics of empire will be when their own standard of living drops to one-sixth of its current level.
It’s hard to ignore the likelihood that some such discontinuity waits in America’s near future. Our political class, chasing after the phantom of empire, has followed it right over the edge of a cliff. Exactly how the results will play out is anybody’s guess right now. Equally uncertain is how the political classes in America and elsewhere will respond when a vision that has guided public policy for most of a century turns out to be as insubstantial as air. One way or another, though, we are likely in for a wild ride.
(2 January 2008)
I stopped cheering for the Romans
James O’Donnell, The Edge: World Question Center
Sometimes the later Roman empire seems very long ago and far away, but at other times, when we explore Edward Gibbon’s famous claim to have described the triumph of “barbarism and religion”, it can seem as fresh as next week. And we always know that we’re supposed root for the Romans. When I began my career as historian thirty years ago, I was all in favor of those who were fighting to preserve the old order.
… But a career as a historian means growth, development, and change…I’ve been back and forth over a range of about four centuries of late Roman history many times now, looking at events, people, ideas, and evidence in different lights and moods.
What I have found is that the closer historical examination comes to the lived moment of the past, the harder it is to take sides with anybody. And it is a real fact that the ancient past (I’m talking now about the period from 300-700 CE) draws closer and closer to us all the time.
… When you do that, you find that the past is more a tissue of choices and chances than we had imagined, that fifty or a hundred years of bad times can happen – and can end and be replaced by the united work of people with heads and hearts that makes society peaceful and prosperous again; or the opportunity can be kicked away.
And we should remember that when we root for the Romans, there are contradictory impulses at work. Rome brought the ancient world a secure environment (Pompey cleaning up the pirates in the Mediterranean was a real service), a standard currency, and a huge free trade zone. Its taxes were heavy, but the wealth it taxed so immense that it could support a huge bureaucracy for a long time without damaging local prosperity. Fine: but it was an empire by conquest, ruled as a military dictatorship, fundamentally dependent on a slave economy, and with no clue whatever about the realities of economic development and management. A prosperous emperor was one who managed by conquest or taxation to bring a flood of wealth into the capital city and squander it as ostentatiously as possible. …Much of the worst damage to Rome was done by Roman emperors and armies thrashing about, thinking they were preserving what they were in fact destroying.
Classicist; Cultural Historian; Provost, Georgetown University; Author, Augustine: A New Biography
Only one post among many on a fascinating site, in which scholars, scientists and writers answer the question: “What have you changed your mind about?”.
A Question of Blame When Societies Fall
George Johnson, New York Times
… Dragoon is also home to an archaeological research center, the Amerind Foundation, where a group of archaeologists, cultural anthropologists and historians converged in the fall for a seminar, “Choices and Fates of Human Societies.”
What the scientists held in common was a suspicion that in writing his two best-selling sagas of civilization – the other is “Guns, Germs and Steel” – Dr. Diamond washed over the details that make cultures unique to assemble a grand unified theory of history.
“A big-picture man,” one participant called him. For anthropologists, who spend their lives reveling in minutiae – the specifics and contradictions of human culture – the words are not necessarily a compliment.
“Everybody knows that the beauty of Diamond is that it’s simple,” said Patricia A. McAnany, an archaeologist at Boston University who organized the meeting with her colleague Norman Yoffee of the University of Michigan. “It’s accessible intellectually without having to really turn the wattage up too much.”
Dr. Diamond’s many admirers would disagree. “Guns, Germs and Steel” won a Pulitzer Prize, and Dr. Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, has received, among many honors, a National Medal of Science. It is his ability as a synthesizer and storyteller that makes his work so compelling.
(25 December 2007)
Noble or savage?
The era of the hunter-gatherer was not the social and environmental Eden that some suggest
HUMAN beings have spent most of their time on the planet as hunter-gatherers. From at least 85,000 years ago to the birth of agriculture around 73,000 years later, they combined hunted meat with gathered veg. Some people, such as those on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea, still do. The Sentinelese are the only hunter-gatherers who still resist contact with the outside world. Fine-looking specimens-strong, slim, fit, black and stark naked except for a small plant-fibre belt round the waist-they are the very model of the noble savage. Genetics suggests that indigenous Andaman islanders have been isolated since the very first expansion out of Africa more than 60,000 years ago.
About 12,000 years ago people embarked on an experiment called agriculture and some say that they, and their planet, have never recovered. Farming brought a population explosion, protein and vitamin deficiency, new diseases and deforestation. Human height actually shrank by nearly six inches after the first adoption of crops in the Near East. So was agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”, as Jared Diamond, evolutionary biologist and professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, once called it?
(19 December 2007)