Friday, February 12, 2016

The View from History

Apart from brief respites here and there (usually not extending beyond the boundaries of a city-state), the history of the world is at best  tragic --  at the frequent worst, not rising to that Sophoclean-Shakespearian dignity, since merely mad.

Americans at present harbor the impression   that we live in uniquely querulous/perilous  times.   A glance at the record  will disabuse you.  Throughout almost all of our national history, matters have been much worse (save, again, here and there -- Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia;  the Boston/Cambridge/Concord of the Transcendentalists).  The reason we nonetheless nurse this misimpression  is that  those of us in the Baby Boom (or their parents, remembering raising them)  grew up in exceptionably untroubled times (be it only on the surface, which was all we kids perceived) -- and this, not merely in this hamlet or that, but pretty much across the land.  There was so much hope -- much of it rewarded.   True, there were threats then, graver than even those now, as of an obliterating nuclear war (that might be triggered, moreover, by misunderstanding or accident).  Yet somehow such matters  receded beind the horizon of consciousness, so pleased were we  with all the babies, milkshakes, the G.I. bill, tailfins -- so much that was suddenly  new.

That might sound like Pollyanna’s comfort -- “It might be worse”.  But actually it is the flipside of that bright twinkling coin, that casts its shadow.  For the clear statistical implication is that our recent state is no more than a blessed bubble, metastable, which a pinprick might annihilate, and history revert to form.


A remarkable, very readable essay of historical pessimism, is Lord Raglan’s How Came Civilization (1939).   His answer:   It came via discoveries that happened once, and then diffused.   Most societies never invent anything, and, left to their own devices, degenerate, forgetting even the skills they once had, unless these come to be re-imported.  The candle, once snuffed, does not relight itself.

A much more widely held theory  is that nations, like individuals, have their day.  When that is done, and when they have made every contribution to progress that they are capable of making, then the mysterious force which controls the universe  sweeps them away  to make room for younger and more vigorious races, which will begin again  where the old ones left off …
When, however, we examine this theory, we find that it will not fit the facts.  The builders of Babylon and Borobudur, of Uxmal and Zimbabwe, and of many another great city of the past, were succeeded, not by people who could revive and carry forward their civilization, but by the savage, the jungle, or the desert.
--p. 25

(Here he is speaking of ancient Zimbabwe;  but indeed, in the post-Colonial nation of the same name, the devolution is repeating itself.)

The exhausted cultural autocides of Europe, resigned before the prospect of le grand remplacement, or even welcoming its hordes with teddy-bears,  may hope, consciously or not, for such renewal -- but alas:

There is nothing in the history of Europe, or any other part of the world, to support the view that an occasional barbarian invasion  supplies civilization with a necessary tonic, a view which would involve our keeping enough barbarians in being  to sack London and Paris every few centuries, whenever it might be considered that we had reached the appropriate degree of senility.
-- p. 27

Of barbarians (fortunately for that Weltanschauung) the world now has a plentiful supply.

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