There’s a curious predictability in the comments I field in response to posts here that talk about the likely shape of the future. The conventional wisdom of our era insists that modern industrial society can’t possibly undergo the same life cycle of rise and fall as every other civilization in history; no, no, there’s got to be some unique future awaiting us—uniquely splendid or uniquely horrible, it doesn’t even seem to matter that much, so long as it’s unique. Since I reject that conventional wisdom, my dissent routinely fields pushback from those of my readers who embrace it.
That’s not surprising in the least, of course. What’s surprising is that the pushback doesn’t surface when the conventional wisdom seems to be producing accurate predictions, as it does now and then. Rather, it shows up like clockwork whenever the conventional wisdom fails.
The present situation is as good an example as any. The basis of my dissident views is the theory of cyclical history—the theory, first proposed in the early 18th century by the Italian historian Giambattista Vico and later refined and developed by such scholars as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, that civilizations rise and fall in a predictable life cycle, regardless of scale or technological level. That theory’s not just a vague generalization, either; each of the major writers on the subject set out specific stages that appear in order, showed that these have occurred in all past civilizations, and made detailed, falsifiable predictions about how those stages can be expected to occur in our civilization. Have those panned out? So far, a good deal more often than not.
In the final chapters of his second volume, for example, Spengler noted that civilizations in the stage ours was about to reach always end up racked by conflicts that pit established hierarchies against upstart demagogues who rally the disaffected and transform them into a power base. Looking at the trends visible in his own time, he sketched out the most likely form those conflicts would take in the Winter phase of our civilization. Modern representative democracy, he pointed out, has no effective defenses against corruption by wealth, and so could be expected to evolve into corporate-bureaucratic plutocracies that benefit the affluent at the expense of everyone else. Those left out in the cold by these transformations, in turn, end up backing what Spengler called Caesarism—the rise of charismatic demagogues who challenge and eventually overturn the corporate-bureaucratic order.
These demagogues needn’t come from within the excluded classes, by the way. Julius Caesar, the obvious example, came from an old upper-class Roman family and parlayed his family connections into a successful political career. Watchers of the current political scene may be interested to know that Caesar during his lifetime wasn’t the imposing figure he became in retrospect; he had a high shrill voice, his morals were remarkably flexible even by Roman standards—the scurrilous gossip of his time called him “every man’s wife and every woman’s husband”—and he spent much of his career piling up huge debts and then wriggling out from under them. Yet he became the political standardbearer for the plebeian classes, and his assassination by a conspiracy of rich Senators launched the era of civil wars that ended the rule of the old elite once and for all.
Thus those people watching the political scene last year who knew their way around Spengler, and noticed that a rich guy had suddenly broken with the corporate-bureaucratic consensus and called for changes that would benefit the excluded classes at the expense of the affluent, wouldn’t have had to wonder what was happening, or what the likely outcome would be. It was those who insisted on linear models of history—for example, the claim that the recent ascendancy of modern liberalism counted as the onward march of progress, and therefore was by definition irreversible—who found themselves flailing wildly as history took a turn they considered unthinkable.
The rise of Caesarism, by the way, has other features I haven’t mentioned. As Spengler sketches out the process, it also represents the exhaustion of ideology and its replacement by personality. Those of my readers who watched the political scene over the last few years may have noticed the way that the issues have been sidelined by sweeping claims about the supposed personal qualities of candidates. The practically content-free campaign that swept Barack Obama into the presidency in 2008—“Hope,” “Change,” and “Yes We Can” aren’t statements about issues, you know—was typical of this stage, as was the emergence of competing personality cults around the candidates in the 2016 election. In the ordinary way of things, we can expect even more of this in elections to come, with messianic hopes clustering around competing politicians until the point of absurdity is well past. These will then implode, and the political process collapse into a raw scramble for power at any cost.
There’s plenty more in Spengler’s characterization of the politics of the Winter phase, and all of it’s well represented in today’s headlines, but the rest can be left to those of my readers interested enough to turn the pages of The Decline of the West for themselves. What I’d like to discuss here is the nature of the pushback I tend to field when I point out that yet again, predictions offered by Spengler and other students of cyclic history turned out to be correct and those who dismissed them turned out to be smoking their shorts. The responses I field are as predictable as—well, the arrival of charismatic demagogues at a certain point in the Winter phase, for example—and they reveal some useful flimpses into the value, or lack of it, of our society’s thinking about the future in this turn of the wheel.
Probably the most common response I get can best be characterized as simple incantation: that is to say, the repetition of some brief summary of the conventional wisdom, usually without a shred of evidence or argument backing it up, as though the mere utterance is enough to disprove all other ideas. It’s a rare week when I don’t get at least one comment along these lines, and they divide up roughly evenly between those that insist that progress will inevitably triumph over all its obstacles, on the one hand, and those that insist that modern industrial civilization will inevitably crash to ruin in a sudden cataclysmic downfall on the other. I tend to think of this as a sort of futurological fundamentalism along the lines of “pop culture said it, I believe it, that settles it,” and it’s no more useful, or for that matter interesting, than fundamentalism of any other sort.
A little less common and a little more interesting are a second class of arguments, which insist that I can’t dismiss the possibility that something might pop up out of the blue to make things different this time around. As I pointed out very early on in the history of this blog, these are examples of the classic logical fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam, the argument from ignorance. They bring in some factor whose existence and relevance is unknown, and use that claim to insist that since the conventional wisdom can’t be disproved, it must be true.
Arguments from ignorance are astonishingly common these days. My readers may have noticed, for example, that every few years some new version of nuclear power gets trotted out as the answer to our species’ energy needs. From thorium fission plants to Bussard fusion reactors to helium-3 from the Moon, they all have one thing in common: nobody’s actually built a working example, and so it’s possible for their proponents to insist that their pet technology will lack the galaxy of technical and economic problems that have made every existing form of nuclear power uneconomical without gargantuan government subsidies. That’s an argument from ignorance: since we haven’t built one yet, it’s impossible to be absolutely certain that they’ll have the usual cascading cost overruns and the rest of it, and therefore their proponents can insist that those won’t happen this time. Prove them wrong!
More generally, it’s impressive how many people can look at the landscape of dysfunctional technology and failed promises that surrounds us today and still insist that the future won’t be like that. Most of us have learned already that upgrades on average have fewer benefits and more bugs than the programs they replace, and that products labeled “new and improved” may be new but they’re rarely improved; it’s starting to sink in that most new technologies are simply more complicated and less satisfactory ways of doing things that older technologies did at least as well at a lower cost. Try suggesting this as a general principle, though, and I promise you that plenty of people will twist themselves mentally into pretzel shapes trying to avoid the implication that progress has passed its pull date.
Even so, there’s a very simple answer to all such arguments, though in the nature of such things it’s an answer that only speaks to those who aren’t too obsessively wedded to the conventional wisdom. None of the arguments from ignorance I’ve mentioned are new; all of them have been tested repeatedly by events, and they’ve failed. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been told, for example, that the economic crisis du jour could lead to the sudden collapse of the global economy, or that the fashionable energy technology du jour could lead to a new era of abundant energy. No doubt they could, at least in theory, but the fact remains that they don’t.
It so happens that there are good reasons why they don’t, varying from case to case, but that’s actually beside the point I want to make here. This particular version of the argument from ignorance is also an example of the fallacy the old logicians called petitio principii, better known as “begging the question.” Imagine, by way of counterexample, that someone were to post a comment saying, “Nobody knows what the future will be like, so the future you’ve predicted is as likely as any other.” That would be open to debate, since there’s some reason to think we can in fact predict some things about the future, but at least it would follow logically from the premise. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone make that claim. Nor have I ever seen anybody claim that since nobody knows what the future will be like, say, we can’t assume that progress is going to continue.
In practice, rather, the argument from ignorance is applied to discussions of the future in a distinctly one-sided manner. Predictions based on any point of view other than the conventional wisdom of modern popular culture are dismissed with claims that it might possibly be different this time, while predictions based on the conventional wisdom of modern popular culture are spared that treatment. That’s begging the question: covertly assuming that one side of an argument must be true unless it’s disproved, and that the other side can’t be true unless it’s proved.
Now in fact, a case can be made that we can in fact know quite a bit about the shape of the future, at least in its broad outlines. The heart of that case, as already noted, is the fact that certain theories about the future do in fact make accurate predictions, while others don’t. This in itself shows that history isn’t random—that there’s some structure to the flow of historical events that can be figured out by learning from the past, and that similar causes at work in similar situations will have similar outcomes. Apply that reasoning to any other set of phenomena, and you’ve got the ordinary, uncontroversial basis for the sciences. It’s only when it’s applied to the future that people balk, because it doesn’t promise them the kind of future they want.
The argument by incantation and the argument from ignorance make up most of the pushback I get. I’m pleased to say, though, that every so often I get an argument that’s considerably more original than these. One of those came in last week—tip of the archdruidical hat to DoubtingThomas—and it’s interesting enough that it deserves a detailed discussion.
DoubtingThomas began with the standard argument from ignorance, claiming that it’s always possible that something might possibly happen to disrupt the cyclic patterns of history in any given case, and therefore the cyclic theory should be dismissed no matter how many accurate predictions it scored. As we’ve already seen, this is handwaving, but let’s move on. He went on from there to argue that much of the shape of history is defined by the actions of unique individuals such as Isaac Newton, whose work sends the world careening along entirely new and unpredicted paths. Such individuals have appeared over and over again in history, he pointed out, and was kind enough to suggest that my activities here on The Archdruid Report were, in a small way, another example of the influence of an individual on history. Given that reality, he insisted, a theory of history that didn’t take the actions of unique individuals into account was invalid.
Fair enough; let’s consider that argument. Does the cyclic theory of history fail to take the actions of unique individuals into account?
Here again, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West is the go-to source, because he’s dealt with the sciences and arts to a much greater extent than other researchers into historical cycles. What he shows, with a wealth of examples drawn from the rise and fall of many different civilizations, is that the phenomenon DoubtingThomas describes is a predictable part of the cycles of history. In every generation, in effect, a certain number of geniuses will be born, but their upbringing, the problems that confront them, and the resources they will have available to solve those problems, are not theirs to choose. All these things are produced by the labors of other creative minds of the past and present, and are profoundly influenced by the cycles of history.
Let’s take Isaac Newton as an example. He happened to be born just as the scientific revolution was beginning to hit its stride, but before it had found its paradigm, the set of accomplishments on which all future scientific efforts would be directly or indirectly modeled. His impressive mathematical and scientific gifts thus fastened onto the biggest unsolved problem of the time—the relationship between the physics of moving bodies sketched out by Galileo and the laws of planetary motion discovered by Kepler—and resulted in the Principia Mathematica, which became the paradigm for the next three hundred years or so of scientific endeavor.
Had he been born a hundred years earlier, none of those preparations would have been in place, and the Principia Mathematica wouldn’t have been possible. Given the different cultural attitudes of the century before Newton’s time, in fact, he would almost certainly become a theologian rather than a mathematician and physicist—as it was, he spent much of his career engaged in theology, a detail usually left out by the more hagiographical of his biographers—and he would be remembered today only by students of theological history. Had he been born a century later, equally, some other great scientific achievement would have provided the paradigm for emerging science—my guess is that it would have been Edmund Halley’s successful prediction of the return of the comet that bears his name—and Newton would have had the same sort of reputation that Karl Friedrich Gauss has today: famous in his field, sure, but a household name? Not a chance.
What makes the point even more precise is that every other civilization from which adequate records survive had its own paradigmatic thinker, the figure whose achievements provided a model for the dawning age of reason and for whatever form of rational thought became that age’s principal cultural expression. In the classical world, for example, it was Pythagoras, who invented the word “philosophy” and whose mathematical discoveries gave classical rationalism its central theme, the idea of an ideal mathematical order to which the hurly-burly of the world of appearances must somehow be reduced. (Like Newton, by the way, Pythagoras was more than half a theologian; it’s a common feature of figures who fill that role.)
To take the same argument to a far more modest level, what about DoubtingThomas’ claim that The Archdruid Report represents the act of a unique individual influencing the course of history? Here again, a glance at history shows otherwise. I’m a figure of an easily recognizable type, which shows up reliably as each civilization’s Age of Reason wanes and it begins moving toward what Spengler called the Second Religiosity, the resurgence of religion that inevitably happens in the wake of rationalism’s failure to deliver on its promises. At such times you get intellectuals who can communicate fluently on both sides of the chasm between rationalism and religion, and who put together syntheses of various kinds that reframe the legacies of the Age of Reason so that they can be taken up by emergent religious movements and preserved for the future.
In the classical world, for example, you got Iamblichus of Chalcis, who stepped into the gap between Greek philosophical rationalism and the burgeoning Second Religiosity of late classical times, and figured out how to make philosophy, logic, and mathematics appealing to the increasingly religious temper of his time. He was one of many such figures, and it was largely because of their efforts that the religious traditions that ended up taking over the classical world—Christianity to the north of the Mediterranean, and Islam to the south—got over their early anti-intellectual streak so readily and ended up preserving so much of the intellectual heritage of the past.
That sort of thing is a worthwhile task, and if I can contribute to it I’ll consider this life well spent. That said, there’s nothing unique about it. What’s more, it’s only possible and meaningful because I happen to be perched on this particular arc of the wheel of time, when our civilization’s Age of Reason is visibly crumbling and the Second Religiosity is only beginning to build up a head of steam. A century earlier or a century later, I’d have faced some different tasks.
All of this presupposes a relationship between the individual and human society that fits very poorly with the unthinking prejudices of our time. That’s something that Spengler grappled with in his book, too; it’s going to take a long sojourn in some very unfamiliar realms of thought to make sense of what he had to say, but that can’t be helped.
We really are going to have to talk about philosophy, aren’t we? We’ll begin that stunningly unfashionable discussion next week.