The Long View: The Years of Rice and Salt

N = 1

N = 1

This book review is the source of one of my favorite cocktail party theories: a number of seemingly well-established sciences are built upon an n of 1. In a grand sense, geology and biology fall into this category, since the big theories like plate tectonics and evolution depend on one big sequence of inter-related events. In a micro-sense, you can see if similar things happen in different times and places, but the overall development of life on earth, or the development of the earth itself, only happened once, and we lack the capacity to conduct meaningful experiments about such things. Of course, the universe itself, the subject of the grandest of all theories in science, also falls in this category. Perhaps that explains the need to invoke the multiverse.

I don't have any complaints about the way these sciences have been pursuing, it just strikes me as funny that some really big scientific ideas aren't actually amenable to experiment. We can conduct experimental programs that build up the foundations of such ideas, but we can't wind the universe back up and set it down and see what happens the second time, which is the foundation of all experimental philosophies of science. Maybe that is why I like alternative history and science fiction: this is how we try to acknowledge our weaknesses here.

The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Paperback 2003
(Hardcover 2002)
763 Pages, US$7.99


This review appeared in the
Spring 2006 issue of
Comparative Civilizations Review


Once upon a time, a course in science-fiction writing was offered at Rutgers University. The grade was based on stories written by the students, but the instructor offered an exam option as a joke. It included this memorable question: “Describe the influence of the papacy on medieval Europe.” The question posed by this novel is actually more ambitious: what was the effect of post-medieval Europe on world history; or more precisely, what would the world be like if there had never been a European modernity? In the course of answering this question, Kim Stanley Robinson has written what may be the finest example thus far of Alternative History: historiographically sophisticated, with plausible characters, the book is essentially world history made readable as a series of biographies. Best of all, at least from the prospective of an admiring reviewer, the book presents a model of history that is both demonstrably and instructively false.

The premise of the story is that the outbreaks of plague in 14th century Europe were far more deadly than they historically were. The whole continent, from Britain to Constantinople, and from Gibraltar to Moscovy, is wholly depopulated. The action starts around 1400, when a deserter from the horde of Timur the Lame gets an inkling of the disaster as he wanders through the deserted landscapes of Hungary and the Balkans. He is enslaved by Turks; he is sold to the treasure fleet of Zheng He, who happened to be in East Africa on one of his famous oceanic expeditions. Eventually, the deserter dies as an innocent bystander at a court intrigue of the early Ming Dynasty.

In the course of this man’s adventures we meet pretty much all the people we will be meeting for the next 700 years. The conceit that holds the book together is that people are reincarnated, in much the way contemplated by Tibetan Buddhism, and that they normally progress through time with the same companions. In “The Years of Rice and Salt,” the principal companions are the Revolutionary, the Pious Man, and the Scientist; the Idiot Sultan puts in several appearances, too. Some of the most interesting passages in the book are set in the bardo state, between incarnations. Depending on the period in which they most recently lived, the companions take these interludes more or less seriously. During one such incident, the Revolutionary becomes exasperated with the Pious Man’s spiritual and historical optimism: “We may be in a hallucination here, but that is no excuse for being delusional.”

Macrohistory in this scenario differs from that of the real world more in detail than in broad outline. The 15th century discovery of the Americas is cancelled, for obvious reasons. Less than a century later, however, a Chinese fleet sent out to establish a base in Japan discovers the Inca Empire. Not long thereafter, the oceanic explorers from Firanja, a Europe resettled from North Africa, discover the east coast of the western continents. These penetrations from Eurasia are slow enough, however, to allow the politically ingenious people around the northern continent’s great freshwater lakes to adapt to the new diseases and to organize defenses. In later years, their model of democratically representative federal government would become the best hope of mankind.

The parallels continue. In Samarqand, in what would have been the late 17th century if anyone were using that reckoning, an alchemist notes that different weights of the same material fall at the same speed; soon there is a mathematics to express acceleration. Move forward another century, and we see scholars in the fracture area between China and Islam trying to reconcile the intellectual traditions of the two. The result is the beginning of a secular, enlightened science of humanity. A noble passage from their work runs thus:

“History can be seen as a series of collisions of civilizations, and it is these collisions that create progress and new things. It may not happen at the actual point of contact, which is often wracked by disruption and war, but behind the lines of conflict, where the two cultures are most trying to define themselves and prevail, great progress is often made very swiftly, with works of permanent distinction in arts and technique. Ideas flourish as people try to cope, and over time the competition yields to the stronger ideas, the more flexible, more generous ideas. Thus Fulan, India, and Yinzhou are prospering in their disarray, while China grows weak from its monolithic nature, despite the enormous infusion of gold from across the Dahai. No single civilization could ever progress; it is always a matter of two or more colliding. Thus the waves on the shore never rise higher than when the backwash of some earlier wave falls back into the next one incoming, and a white line of water jets to a startling height. History may not resemble so much the seasons of the year, as waves in the sea, running this way and that, crossing, making patterns, sometimes to a triple peak, a very Diamond Mountain of cultural energy, for a time.”

The hopes of this period for universal reconciliation are shattered by power politics; the power in this case coming from the steam engines of the trains and warships of southern India, whose Hindu regions were the first to master mechanical industrialization. These techniques soon spread universally, however. In the earlier parts of the book, it sometimes seemed to the characters that China would take over the world. This fear performed the minor miracle of uniting the huge and fractious Islamic world, which in turn posed a threat to China and India. Thus, in the closing decades of the decrepit Qing Dynasty, the Long War began, which essentially pitted eastern and southern Asia against the Middle East, Firanja, and northern Africa. It went on for 67 years, killing perhaps a billion people all told. Even in the middle of what would have been the 21st century, the world had still not recovered from it psychologically, however much social and technological progress had occurred.

In some ways, the postwar parts of the book are the most fun. In western Firanja, disgruntled intellectuals chatter in cafes about the history of everyday life and the perennial oppression of women. A musician takes the name “Tristan” and becomes a sort of one-man Solesmes, resurrecting the plainchant of the vanished Franks. There is a subplot about how physicists collude to avoid building an atomic bomb. There are conferences of historians in which the author gets to critique his own devices. A panel on the nature of the plague that destroyed Europe comes no closer to explaining what happened, perhaps for the excellent reason that the real Black Death was probably the worst that could have happened. We get a discussion of reincarnation as a narrative device and, better still, of narrative structures in historical writing, particularly in narratives of historical progress.

The book ends peacefully, with an elderly historian, the Pious Man, settling into semi-retirement at a small college in a region that is not called California. In a way, he had achieved the era of perpetual Light that people like him had always hoped for, but the eschaton is more like that of Francis Fukuyama than of any of the great religions. There was really only one way that history could go, we are led to believe. In the closing sections, children in his campus village hunt for Easter eggs in springtime, but of course they don’t call them Easter eggs.

The speculation in "The Years of Rice and Salt” presents the same sort of issue that Stephen Jay Gould addressed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the latter work, Gould considered what would happen if biological history were begun again. Would it follow the course of the history we know, and arrive at something like our world? Gould answered “no.” His principal evidence, an interpretation of the Burgess Shales, collapsed a few years later when better preserved fossils from the same period were discovered. His larger contention is still open to debate; the matter can be decided only when we can compare the evolutionary history of Earth to that of another earth-like planet. At this point, it seems to me that Gould was probably wrong: evolution does tend toward certain solutions. I would say the same about human history, and so, apparently, would Kim Stanley Robinson. In this novel, however, the most remarkable effect of the deletion of the West is that there is no effect. This is almost surely wrong.

Consider a few of the notable figures in this alternative history: a Chinese Columbus, an Uzbek Newton, an Indian Florence Nightingale. They not only perform roughly the same historical functions as their real-world counterparts; except for the Columbus figure, they each do so at roughly the same time as each of their real-world counterparts. It is hard to see why this should be. The West did not decisively influence the internal affairs of the two greatest non-Western imperia, China and the Ottoman Empire, until well into the 19th century. There is no particular reason why sailors from Ming China could not have discovered America. For all we know, maybe a few did. Even if that discovery had become well-known, however, it would have made little difference. For internal reasons of cultural evolution, China was no longer looking for adventures. Similarly, there is no reason why the physics of Galileo and Newton could not have been discovered in Central Asia in the 17th century, if all that was necessary was cultural cross-fertilization and a frustrated interest in alchemy.

There are in fact good reasons for making India the site of an alternative industrial revolution. Its patchwork of states, so reminiscent of Baroque Europe, might well have offered both the intellectual sophistication and the political license to develop a machine economy. The problem is that no such thing seems to have been happening when the English acquired control over most of the subcontinent in the 18th century. There was considerable Indian industry, of course, but it was not progressive in the way that European industry was in the same period. It was not just a question of technique; industrial development requires financial sophistication and acceptable political risk quite as much as it requires engineering. India was kept from developing by the government of the Idiot Sultan, and he was wholly indigenous.

Toynbee defined civilization to be a class of society that affords an intelligible unit of historical study. The nations or other units that comprise a civilization could not be understood in isolation from each other; the larger ensembles to which a civilization might belong are accidental or not constant in their effects. Toynbee modified his ideas in later life, but this definition is helpful here.

We see even in the dates in this book that something literally does not compute. Most numerical dates are given in the Muslim reckoning; actually, it is easiest to find your way around if you keep a chronological list of Chinese emperors handy. Even though there is a very sketchy timeline at the beginning of the book, there are still occasions for confusion. Because of the difference between the lengths of the lunar and solar years, a Muslim century is (if memory serves) only about 97 Gregorian years. The omission of the Christian calendar, however necessary because of the book’s premise, makes the world history the book seeks to describe almost inconceivable.

There is a sense in which Columbus, and Newton, and Florence Nightingale were world-historical figures, but if we are to discuss them as a group, we must start with the fact they were all products, indeed characteristic products, of Western civilization. The line of development that led from one to the other (or from the social milieu that produced one to the social milieu that produced the other) was a process within Western civilization. There had, perhaps, been figures parallel to these great names during the pasts of other civilizations, but the parallels were not chronologically simultaneous.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as world history. Another of Toynbee’s notions is helpful: the idea that civilizations appear in generations. The most ancient civilizations, those of the river valleys, were local affairs, however widely their influence spread. The “classical” civilizations of the next generation, of Rome and the Han and the Gupta, were regional. The third generation, including the Islamic cultures, post-Tang China, and the West after the Dark Age, are all third generation, as indeed are other societies, notably Japan and Hindu India. What Islam, the West, and China, have in common is that they are all, in principle, universal. During their great ages, Islam and China both reached just shy of global influence before consolidating their activities to certain broad regions. The West finally did achieve global scale, in the 15th century, and so created the possibility of a genuinely ecumenical society.

This is the gospel according to Toynbee, and you can take it or leave it; as we have noted, “The Years of Rice and Salt” includes a quite sophisticated discussion of metahistory. Nonetheless, the incontestable fact is that, whatever malign influence you might want to ascribe to European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the other great civilizations during early modern times were simply not efflorescent in the way the West was. Without too much speculation, we can make a good estimate of the course of the world’s major civilizations in the absence of the West.

China was winding down from its Song climax; the Ming and Qing Dynasties would have followed much the same course with or without Western influence. The result would have been another minor dark age in the 20th century, as after the Latter Han in antiquity. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire, the greatest of Islamic states, was losing control of North Africa and the hinterland of the Middle East before the Europeans ever became a factor. The empire would probably have unraveled in pretty much the way it did in our timeline, perhaps with the exception that the caliphate might have survived as a venerable anachronism. As for India, it is a commonplace that the English stepped into a vacuum left by the decline of the Mughal Empire. Doubtless other forces would have stepped in if the English had not been available, but there is no particular reason to suppose that the new situation would have been discontinuous with earlier Indian history.

There would still have been dynamic societies in the world, of course. Japan’s social evolution has its own internal logic; Western contact in the mid-19th century was an opportunity that Japanese elites chose to exploit. During the same period, Burma was literate, mechanically ingenious, and of an imperial turn of mind; only annexation by the British Empire prevented what might have been a new Buddhist civilization from forming. Anything at all might have happened in the Americas, but for the time being, it would have been of only local significance. The “classical” generation of American civilizations would still have been in the future.

On the whole, Earth by the middle of the 20th century might have seemed like a planet with a great future behind it. However, there have been general breakdowns of civilization before, notably at the end of the Bronze Age. Even in the barbarous early Iron Age that followed, however, techniques and ideas spread from land to land. Similarly, in the third millennium, it would have been just a matter of time before one or more societies wove the new ideas into a civilization with universal potential.

That history would have taken another 500 to 1000 years to reach the state of things that we see from the college in the land that is not Calfornia. A book about it would have to be very good indeed to compare to “The Years of Rice and Salt.”

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson

The Long View: The Reformation

John reviews a fine one-volume history of the Reformation, marred by a jarring lapse into modern obsessions at the end.

The Reformation: A History
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Viking, 2004
800 Pages, US$35.95
ISBN: 0670032964


In the later volumes of A Study of HistoryArnold Toynbee came to the conclusion that world history was about the development of universal religions rather than the rise and decline of civilizations. Certainly Christianity has most often understood its core mission to be the salvation of souls, though it has rarely neglected to make the argument that this enterprise also tends to alleviate the secular human condition. The Reformation era was one of the great inflections in the development of Western civilization, however. In the history of civilization, the theological controversies of that era necessarily become history's factors rather than history's meaning. In this telling by a professor of church history at the University of Oxford, the story begins in the 15th century with a strange interplay between the theologians of England and Bohemia, well before the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, and reaches a conclusion around 1700 with the establishment of the first gay subcultures in Amsterdam and London. The book itself meanders to the end of the 20th century.

If we ask why the Reformation narrowly so called occurred, why the Lutherans and Calvinists (very roughly, the Evangelicals and the Reformed) seceded from the Church of Rome, there may be two fairly straightforward reasons.

First, the theology of the Catholic Church, particularly with regard to the Eucharist, had long been cast in terms of Thomas Aquinas's understanding of Aristotle. This understanding, called “moderate realism,” has it that universal concepts really exist, but are present in the sensual world as individual things that reflect the universals. This is a handy model in several contexts. In theology, it means that human ideas, human institutions, and even the material world participate in divine universals. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, moderate realism had fallen out of fashion in favor of nominalism, which holds that universals are just names attributed to individual things. Without moderate realism, God's knowledge became an entirely different thing from human knowledge, and the concept of natural law was undermined. Anyone with a motive for doing so could easily point out that it had become very difficult to maintain traditional doctrines in nominalist terms. Martin Luther was, of course, a nominalist.

The other straightforward cause, the author suggests, was that an economic bubble burst. The bubble in this case was the Purgatory Industry, the endowment of chantries and other institutions to pray for the souls of the dead. There is a case to be made for some commerce between the living and the dead as a corollary of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. However, by 1500 in northern Europe the institutional expression of this argument was clearly in a state of unsustainable hypertrophy. An amazing amount of capital and manpower was going into the repetitive performance of liturgies whose only visible benefit was the satisfaction of the descendents of the original donors. The Purgatory Industry was the kind of endowment that invites expropriation (let today's universities take note). It did not help that the most prominent purgatorial entrepreneurs were crooks.

Those are the straightforward reasons the author highlights for our consideration, but he does not claim they were the deep causes. This reviewer, at least, takes away two key points to remember about the Reformation era.

The first point is that reform occurred throughout Latin Christendom. Before the reform, the typical parish priest was likely to be a man with a rudimentary education; he could say the Mass in Latin and perform other liturgical functions, but he might not be able to do much else. The work of preaching and of spiritual counsel (which was closely connected with hearing Confession) was in the hands of the friars, and to a lesser extent of the older monastic orders. By the end of the seventeenth century, priests and ministers on either side of the new Catholic-Protestant divide were people of some education (in the case of England, of university degrees) who could deliver an exposition of doctrine and who acted as spiritual pastors to their congregations. The late medieval world has been called a “blocked society,” in the sense that there was a general consensus that many social and ecclesiastical abuses needed to be corrected but insufficient will to make the correction. By and by, the consensus of around 1500 about what needed reform was carried out everywhere. In some ways, the era of reformation started in Spain, with a great campaign against ecclesiastical featherbedding and a notable outburst of precise Biblical scholarship (the Inquisition was part of it, too: go figure). The Counter-Reformation associated with the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was, in its own understanding, a conservative enterprise, but it was the sort of conservatism that turned what had been options into principles. One could argue (though it is not clear that the author does) the process in Protestant Europe was different in degree rather than kind.

The second point was that the great drive for reform was moved from first to last by the manifest approach of the end of days. Savonarola's Florence in the 1490s was only slightly precocious in this regard. Spain was in the lead here, two, with a simultaneous outbreak of ecstatic millennialism among Christians and Jews and Muslims, each confession with its own eschatological agenda but all three in contact. The launching of Columbus's transatlantic voyages was closely connected with this social mood. (He hoped to find the resources in the Indies to take the Holy Land from the Turk and begin Joachim of Fiore's endtime scenario.)

As is so often the case, the expectation of an imminent apocalypse expressed a perfectly accurate intuition of the fact that the world was about to change. As is often also the case, the effort to prepare the world for the Second Coming was itself one of the chief causes of revolutionary change. Church and state needed to be rebuilt, and even gutted. The Antichrist's advent was expected hourly (and indeed he was already present, in the person of the Bishop of Rome), so that leagues had to be formed and state structures integrated to an unprecedented degree to oppose him.

The degree of apocalyptic fervor varied over time and from confession to confession throughout the 16th century, of course. Millenarian enthusiasm, indeed enthusiasms of any sort, was coolly discountenanced in Reformed Geneva. Millennial excitement broke out among commoners and elites in Catholic-controlled areas, but it was almost invariably denied support by even subordinate agencies of the Catholic Church. On the whole, the expectation of the end of history tended to morph into the expectation of the beginning of a new age, and then into the idea of historical progress.

The author has a great deal to say about the Rosicrucian Enlightenment of the beginning of the 17th century, with its technological optimism and its expectation of a Protestant world informed by the sound principles of modern alchemy. This was the ideology behind the Elector Palatine Frederick's bid to take the throne of Bohemia from the Habsburgs. This was, perhaps, intended to be the first step toward protestantizing the Holy Roman Empire. The failure of this adventure at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 famously turned a set of minor disputes into the Thirty Years War. On the whole, the Protestant confessions did badly in that conflict, and would do worse still as the 17th century progressed. However, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment's essentially hermetic interpretation of history as a story of social evolution became the distinguishing feature of the modern era.

The Reformation era was also the time when the states of the classic European international system crystallized. Again, this happened on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide, and in both cases the autonomy of ecclesiastical structures suffered. France, notoriously, was a world to itself in terms of state control over Church governance. However, though French governments until Louis XIV generally were more interested in social peace than in religious conformity, Protestantism was eventually suppressed, and the author has some fascinating things to say about the continuities in French history that this process reveals.

Unkind persons (Englishmen, probably) have sometimes said that the real constitution of France is bureaucracy mitigated by riots. The riots started with the refusal by the Catholic populace of French municipalities to accept the terms of royal measures of toleration, of which the most important was the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The mob discovered that they could face down edicts of the government, and they did not forget. Similarly, the royal government tended increasingly to act unconstitutionally in part because France's dense and recalcitrant system of local government often refused to take steps to protect Protestants. One does not usually think of Louis XVI as having been beheaded by the remote effects of his ancestors' good intentions, but there you have it.

Speaking of Englishmen, the author often delicately refers to “the Atlantic Isles” rather than to England, and for the most part resists the temptation to make the history of Europe in this period simply a colorful background to the evolution of the Anglican Church. Nonetheless, one cannot help sensing a note of satisfaction when he observes that the English tended to think of the Reformation as something that was done far away by, well, foreigners, and that did not bear directly on important domestic concerns.

One of the what-ifs often mentioned in connection with the Reformation is the conjecture about what would have happened if Luther had become pope. A much more plausible alternative would be the election of the English Cardinal Reginald Pole, who actually came within one vote of becoming pope in 1549. As the author points out, the cardinals had been rereading Augustine, too, and at least some of them saw the point of the Protestant theories of faith and works. Cardinal Carafa, who became Paul IV a few years later, considered Pole a heretic (not much of a distinction, frankly: Paul IV had similar thoughts about Ignatius Loyola). Pole was preserved from a heresy trial by the fact he had become Archbishop of Canterbury and was presiding over, if not quite conducting, the anti-Anglican persecution of Queen Mary. Very few of the prominent actors of the early modern era are entirely sympathetic to late modern eyes.

The author, in what might be taken to be typical Anglican fashion, tends to split the difference regarding the various theories about the relationship of Protestantism to capitalism and democracy. He suggests that Max Weber's hypothesis of a Protestant Work Ethic was really just a projection of the state of Switzerland in Weber's own time onto the 16th and 17th centuries. He also is not much impressed by the “stripping of the altars” model of Protestantism as elite vandalism of popular religious practice. On the other hand, he says that Protestantism often meant a loss of local control; what actually happened in late medieval parishes had usually been decided by the local guilds, which paid the clergy salaries and maintained the buildings. Most of that local autonomy went away, in both Catholic and Protestant countries.

In Reformed Protestant areas, whose presbyterian form of governance often overlapped with civil government, control was of course extremely local. Such churches were oligarchies of the Saints rather than democracies, perhaps, but public affairs were managed openly and decisions were made by a relatively broad base. We should note that this style of government used the actual consent of the governed to justify a remarkable constriction of liberty. The same principle applies to condominiums and homeowners associations today.

Finally, let us address what the author suggests to be the conclusion of the Reformation. The process worked out the implications of nominalism. The relationship of God to the world was no longer part of the great chain of being that extended to the relationship of the king to the kingdom and the father to the family. Even as late as the beginning of the 17th century, for instance, the Holy Roman Empire seemed to be part of the furniture of the universe. By the end of the Thirty Years War, it was just a confederation. The important point was not a change in power but in ontological status. The author argues that the same happened to every human relationship. Everything became subject to renegotiation.

The great bulk of this commendably bulky book is solid, careful, political and intellectual history, illuminated by social studies, and all of it adhering to the ordinary standards of historiography. The final section, however, is given over to the late 20th-century scholarship of gender and of sexual identity. It is oddly incoherent with the rest of the book. Suddenly, a book that had been notable for crisp facts becomes sodden with theory. The switch is a little disorienting. If patriarchy was so important for understanding the later 17th century, then why does it rarely come up when the author has sola scriptura and the millenarian tyranny of the Munster Commune to talk about? Towards the end, the author suggests that the great issue facing Christianity today is the need to adjust its views on sexual morality. Of course, it is notoriously difficult to bring a broad-scope history down to the present without overestimating the significance of the issues of one's own time. In the long run, it may well become apparent that the questions that dominate the book's end were cultural epiphenomena incident to a lapse in demographic morale rather than a latter day extension of the Whig Tradition. Be that as it may, the book's treatment of these issues does not diminish the interest or importance of the earlier sections.

Copyright © 2011 by John J. Reilly

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The Reformation: A History
By Diarmaid MacCulloch

The Long View: Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years

The consequences of population expansion due to the Industrial Revolution

The consequences of population expansion due to the Industrial Revolution

Prior to 1500, the idea that Northwestern Europe and its disapora would come to dominate the world would have seemed pretty strange. One can make a case that this is a temporary state of affairs. All of the ancient seats of civilization were in other places, and had been for a very long time.

I appreciate this book because it takes a genuinely worldwide look at history for the last thousand years, without attempting to boost the accomplishments of the author's favorite peoples, or minimize those of his hereditary enemies.

As an aside, I note that underdevelopment economics regarding Indian textiles don't seem to have changed much in the last twenty years.

A History of the Last Thousand Years
by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995
$35.00, 816 pp.
ISBN: 0-684-80361-5

This book is what multiculturalism would be like if multiculturalism were not a fraud. The author is an Oxford don and, apparently, a serious Catholic who undertook the appalling labor of trying to discern the large trends in the history of the world over the last thousand years. The authors of universal histories usually conclude them with some speculation about the future, so Fernandez-Armesto does too, glumly anticipating that reviewers will use up more space critiquing the final few pages of prediction than in assessing the hundreds of pages of history. He was certainly right, at least as far as this reviewer is concerned. However, even where one might think his analysis is flawed, still the whole of the book is a rare, non-tendentious attempt to make sense of it all.

According to the author, a world history only really became possible in the past thousand years, because the second Christian millennium was the time when the major regional civilizations of the world achieved substantial and continuous contact. Though the author gives considerable attention to events in Africa and the Americas, he is, for good reason, something of a Eurasian chauvinist. For most practical purposes, the history of the world since the year 1000 A.D. can be understood as the joint and several life stories of just four great cultures: China, Christendom, India and Islam. Fernandez-Armesto seems never to have heard of the solemn debate that took place forty years ago about whether the United States constituted a civilization distinct from Europe. In his scheme of things, the Americas and Western Europe are obviously part of something he calls "Atlantic Civilization." One of the recurrent themes of the book is that the era of the hegemony of this civilization does not go back as far as you might think, and that already it is probably about to be supplanted by a civilization of the Pacific, anchored on the East Asian shore.

As recently as the fifteen century, all of the major civilizations of Eurasia were expanding, with the exception of India. In the early 1400s, the newly-established Ming dynasty mounted a series of naval expeditions into the Indian Ocean as far as the coast of East Africa, involving ships far larger than anything to be found in Europe and forces of nearly 30,000 men. Russia was at the beginning of the expansion that would win it the most durable of all European empires. (It still possesses Siberia.) Christendom East and West, however, was losing territory to the Ottoman Empire. The adventures of a few Western explorers on the coasts of Africa and, later, in the Americas, did not seem to matter much in the grand scheme of things at the time. Fernandez-Armesto suggests that the contemporary perception may have been correct. Although Western expansion in the Age of Exploration certainly laid the foundations for the temporary ascendancy over the rest of the world that occurred in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth centuries, the fact is that for most of this millennium the preponderant civilization in the world has been China. China had the "initiative" before, say, 1750, and is likely to regain it in the twenty-first century.

The author has a point. Before the mid-eighteenth century, for instance, most of the world's printed books were in Chinese, and that country's iron industry was by far the world's largest until well into England's Industrial Revolution. While the era of scientifically informed technological progress begun in the West has done an amazing job of standardizing ordinary human life all over the planet, we should remember that the most dramatic effects have only been felt for about two long lifetimes. For centuries before that, Chinese inventions such as gunpowder, paper money, magnetic compasses, civil service tests, printing and the abacus had been making more or less of an impact throughout Eurasia and Africa (with which China once had quite a lot of indirect trade). The point is not that the Western inventions were less important than the Chinese ones, but that China has demonstrated a greater ability to affect the rest of the world over long periods of time.

The great Western empires were, of course, the largest political units that have ever existed, but they did not last long and they impinged on other Eurasian civilizations only fairly recently. European nations began to dominate other societies of roughly their own size and complexity only in the mid-eighteenth century, when British East India Company took possession of the already-disintegrating Mughal Empire in India. (As was the case with the Spanish in Mexico, the conquest was really a revolt of native powers led by small European armies, who did not do most of the fighting.) Even at that time, China was the largest it has ever been and was perfectly successful in its own neo-Confucian mold. It became vulnerable to Western pressure only when the Opium Wars began in the 1840s, when the Qing dynasty was in a state of decay. The Ottoman Empire was in slow retreat, but quite capable of defeating Western and Russian armies until quite late into the nineteenth century. In Africa, the great European empires began to be built only around 1870 and were almost all gone by about 1960. With a little luck and ingenuity, an African born in the last third of the nineteenth century could have lived through the whole thing. This flash of expansion and retreat looks to the author less like the inevitable "Rise of the West" (the title of William McNeill's 1950s universal history) than the sort of fleeting hegemony established by the Mongols in the twelfth century. In two hundred years, that was pretty much all gone, too.

"Millennium" is not a multicultural diatribe against the West. The author early on in the book declares his support for the traditional liberal arts curriculum. More important, he makes some effort to try to understand what other cultures actually think, rather than to use them as convenient screens for the projection of progressive opinion. Still, in his effort to view the world from other than a Western perspective, he does tend to wash out the real differences that exist between civilizations at any given point in time. The West has always had certain peculiarities which really do go far go explain its great relative successes of the past two or three or five hundred years.

In an aside perhaps intended to emphasize the equivalence of civilized societies before the 18th century, Fernandez-Armesto notes that both Japan and Spain considered invading China in the sixteenth century. The Japanese actually made a start on the project with an unsuccessful attack on Korea, while the Spanish wisely abandoned the idea for logistical reasons. While this coincidence does illustrate that blue-water navies and expansionist intentions could be found on both sides of Eurasia at the same time, it seems to me at least that there is a certain asymmetry here. Spain was an underpopulated, intrinsically poor country that yet could seriously contemplate creating an empire on the other side of the planet (as indeed it did at roughly this time, in the Philippines). The Japanese, on the other hand, never to my knowledge gave any thought to making raids against the countries of Atlantic Europe, despite the fact the Japanese had been in vigorous contact with them for some time and had a predilection in that era for piratical adventure.

The West, meaning the civilization that arose in Atlantic and central Europe after the Dark Ages, really does seem to have a peculiar case of "applied curiosity." This goes beyond mere scientific knowledge. Many societies have known or guessed that the world is a sphere, for instance. The idea of sailing around it, however, does not seem to be natural, in the sense that it does not occur to intelligent people in every culture. Even Saint Augustine, at the end of Classical civilization, is on record as recoiling at the thought that there might be people in the antipodes, with their feet pointing towards his through the center of the sphere. Yet Fernandez-Armesto remarks on a Genoese sailing fleet that, as early as the thirteenth century, tried to do what did what Columbus tried to do two centuries later. The fleet was never heard of again, for the good reason that the enterprise was suicidal with existing technology, but it was a peculiarly Western thing to do. Even the great Indian Ocean expeditions led by the Ming admiral Cheng Ho in the fifteenth century were not missions of exploration. Chinese oceanic trade had long been familiar to the regions he visited. The expeditions came to known locations to establish tribute relations, something the Ming dynasty was also attempting to do at the same time across central and southern Asia as part of its program to establish its position in the world.

"Millennium" is blessedly free of models of history, whether Marxist, Spenglerian or Darwinist, yet the price the author pays for freedom from theory is a blindness to the long phases that civilizations do undoubtedly go through. Not everything is possible to every culture at every phase of its life, even if the people have the knowledge, the resources, and the incentive to do it. For instance, Fernandez-Armesto echoes the "underdevelopment" school of economic history when he notes, accurately, that the English dismantled the Indian textile industry when they took over the country, despite the fact it was at least as efficient as the early mechanical textile industry to be found in England at the same time. This act of imperial preference, the underdevelopment economists say, is why the Industrial Revolution did not occur in India and why India is still so poor. This conclusion (which the author does not push), is obvious nonsense. Why the industrial and scientific revolutions occurred when and where they did is likely to remain something of a mystery, but it is at least clear that Mughal India did not have the physics, or the system of commercial law, or the practical engineering to do what Georgian England was doing. India was simply not about to embark on an Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, either with or without the interference of the East India Company.

This same point can be made about China, where it relates directly to Fernandez- Armesto's anticipations of a coming civilization centered around the "world ocean" of the Pacific. As John King Fairbank notes in his magisterial study, "China: A New History," Chinese civilization in the eighteenth century was ending an adventure that had begun 700 years before, in the Sung Dynasty. The first two or three centuries of the second millennium, including the Mongol interlude, was the time when China made most of the technological and commercial advances that so affected the rest of the civilized world. (Fernandez-Armesto perceptively points out that those centuries were also a time when Chinese civilization encompassed several competitive states.) More than one historian has noted the similarity of this era to Western modernity itself, both in its creativity and its character as a long civilizational "civil war." However, modernity ended when the Ming reunited China in the fourteenth century. That dynasty and the Manchu (or Qing) dynasty that followed were an era of cultural consolidation, measured territorial expansion, and a gradual loss of imagination.

The China that Lord Macartney met in 1793 on his unsuccessful mission to open diplomatic relations between China and Great Britain was incomparably mighty and wealthy by any standard, including its own history. However, it was a civilization that had exhausted its own cultural potential. Its decline in the next century was at first slow, and then catastrophic: by far the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century was the T'ai P'ing millenarian revolt of the 1850s and 60s. Since then, the country has seen many ups and downs. The empire ended in 1911 and was replaced by a series of regimes, each less satisfactory than the one before. Today, of course, the world economic system is transfixed by China's economic potential. The problem for China is that economic potential is not always the kind of potential that counts.

The author's remarks about the future of the West are perhaps more interesting than his ideas about the future of the East. While not himself a multiculturalist or deconstructionist, he seems to have absorbed a lot of the commonplaces that infest the academy these days. He believes, wholly inaccurately, that twentieth century science has been forced to abandon the search for objective truth. On the other hand, he does rightly note that the belief that objective certainty is no longer possible, either in science or in morality, has an enervating effect on the effectiveness of Western governments. While hardly a British chauvinist, he argues persuasively that the British Empire was done in by a loss of nerve at home, one that had less to do with Britain's relative decline in the world in the first half of the twentieth century than with a kind of auto-hypnosis. It took a fairish amount of moral self-confidence to bluff the Indians into submission, he suggests. When the English could no longer be certain of the inherent superiority of their civilization, they were no longer willing to maintain the bluff, and the empire dissolved.

Just as the nineteenth century empires evaporated in the harsh light of mid-twentieth century skepticism, so did the personal lives of many of the people who live in the former metropolitan countries. To some extent, this process was expedited by the social welfare policies of the Western states themselves. However, the author expects a revival of traditional family life in the future, for the simple reason that the state will be unwilling or unable to continue to provide the kind of social services that had been intended to replace family structures. Unfortunately, since the academy will be unable to articulate any common moral vision for western societies, public morality will become more and more incoherent. The author praises the Roman Catholic Church for providing the last system of moral certitude in the world (he is against abortion and capital punishment), but expresses doubt that the Church will be able to exercise this function for long. While allowing that John Paul II has so constituted the College of Cardinals that one may expect his successor to be orthodox, the author expects the Church to relax many of its positions in papacies to come.

Since skepticism and doubt cannot be maintained indefinitely, Fernandez-Armesto believes that we are living in a period of transition to new certainties. He rather expects that these will be terrible certainties, characterized by the "passionate conviction" that Yeats in "The Second Coming" ascribes to the worst kind of people. He predicts a bright future for fascism (he was raised in Franco's Spain, apparently), and like many people he believes that the death of communism has been exaggerated. For myself, it seems to me that he errs in looking forward to a sharp distinction between today's era of "liberal irony" and a totalitarian future. Radical ecology and the new forms of racism simply illustrate that when people are denied the possibility of certainty on the level of the spirit, they will seek it in the body, in biological and social history. Without a transcendent to appeal to, there is no answer to Heidegger.

One the whole, though, the future he anticipates is not a catastrophic one. The population crisis, for instance, he believes to be something of a chimera, as is the increasing hysteria in developed countries about their new demographic disadvantage with respect to the south. Experience shows that population growth rates tend to level off after a while, quite without government interference. The author anticipates, indeed seems to hope, that the Pacific will play a role in the history of the third millennium like that played by the Mediterranean in Western antiquity. Again, this does not seem to me to be altogether plausible, but if the new Mediterranean turns out to be a theater for a history as rich as that enacted in the old one, then maybe we will not have much to complain of.

The author does not look forward to universal peace, or a universal state, or to the collapse of civilization as we know it. In other words, the future is likely to turn out to be a little like life. One may hope that freedom will persist in such a world, without necessarily expecting the next millennium to be THE millennium. As the author puts it: "One of the drawbacks of freedom is that free choices are regularly made for the worst, ever since the setting of an unfortunate precedent in Eden. To expect people to improve under its influence is to demand unrealistic standards from freedom, and, ultimately, to undermine its appeal."

This article originally appeared in the December 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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Linkfest 2017-02-17

A Big Little Idea Called Legibility

A fine analysis of how utopian ideals fail.

John Horton Slaughter

John Horton Slaughter, Lawman

Last August, I read It Happened in Arizona, a series of short chapters on Arizona history. After reading that book, I realized that a lot of early settlers in Arizona were likely Southerners, specifically Scotch-Irish border reivers and hillbillies. The early feuds and gunfights were pretty typical of what went on in the Appalachians 25-50 years before. John Horton Slaughter is true to type.

Donald Henderson, destroyer of smallpox

Donald Henderson deserves to be better known.

Meditations on Monsters

With the spectre of political violence looming, this blog post captures a lot of the same things I have been thinking. I do think David Hines' is a good counterpoint, because at this point any political violence would be the work of small cadres, so the rightward lean of the combat arms or the gun ownership Left-Right disproportion probably wouldn't matter. Yet.

Remembering Frank Rizzo

Frank Rizzo reminds me a lot of Joe Arpaio. Both were law and order populists who ultimately became drunk on their own power.

No Thug Left Behind

The baleful consequences of insisting that human equality means everyone, everywhere, acts the same.

Trump's Theofascist

Damon Linker writes an interesting piece on the thought of Steve Bannon. As I said to Linker on Twitter, I think the title is ridiculous, but the content is very good. Linker used to edit First Things, and so knows many of the theological and political conservatives that have common ground with Bannon. Rumors of a grander Catholic conspiracy involving Bannon and Cardinal Burke are ridiculous, but there is actually something of interest here.

Cycles of War and Empire

Robin Hanson offers a friendly critique of Peter Turchin's work.

The Submission of Ross Douthat

Much like Steve Sailer and Greg Cochran, Douthat needs better enemies. There is a lot of truth in this piece, but I think the big picture it paints is entirely wrong. Douthat probably picks his words very carefully, because of where he works and who his primary audience is, but he is also smart enough to sneak in the truth. This is an undeappreciated art.

Secondhand Smoke Isn't as Bad as We Thought

I thought the original study was crap in 2003. I'm glad to see that medical journals have finally caught up.

Considerations on Cost Disease

Probably worthy of a blog-post length response of my own. Don't miss the best of comments followup post.

The Long View: Spirit Wars

John Crowley

John Crowley

Now nearly twenty years old, this book review is a pretty good primer of the cultural movements in America that made the Da Vinci Code a best-seller.

So far, the biggest religious revival of the early twenty-first century has been an increasing lack of religious affiliation at all. The Second Religiousness may yet come, but it isn't here yet.

Spirit Wars: Pagan Renewal in Christian America
by Peter Jones
WinePress Publishing, 1997
$18.95, 331 pages
ISBN: 1-883893-74-7


A Preview of the Great Apostasy?


"Where was it ...said...that in the religious history of the West the old gods are always turning into devils, cast from their thrones into dark undergrounds, to be lords over the dead and the wicked? It had happened to..the Northern gods...who became horned devils for Christians to fear...And now look, the wheel turns, Jehovah becomes the devil. Old Nobadaddy, liver-spotted greasy-bearded jealous God, spread over his hoard of blessings like the Dragon, surrounded by his sycophants singing praises, never enough though...
(John Crowley, "Love & Sleep," pages 499-500)


It's a rare American church-goer who has not noticed that at least some of the leaders of his denomination have been talking funny in recent years. The use of gender-neutral language does not prove much, since this is becoming a standard professional-class dialect (failure to use which is in some cases actionable at law). Nevertheless, even the most trusting parishioner has to wonder whether new formulas like "Creator, Savior, Comforter" really mean the same as the old "Father, Son, Holy Spirit." Perhaps more incomprehensible to the folks in the pews has been the dogmatization of ecology, which might seem to some people to be the paradigm case of a prudential issue.

Paradoxically, it is only in the most extreme situations, where pastors speak openly of the Earth as the goddess Gaia and churches invite practicing witches to lead Bible study groups on Halloween, that it really becomes clear what is going on. The bald truth is that a large slice of the American theological establishment has abandoned Christianity as expressed in its traditional creedal formulations and adopted a species of gnosticism. "Spirit Wars," a new book by Peter Jones, currently Professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, is a guide to this new religion, showing how it fits into the intellectual landscape of late twentieth century America and describing in detail its many close links with the classical gnostic heresies of the first few centuries A.D.

Professor Jones writes from an evangelical perspective, though not without reference to the state of Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church. (Regarding the latter, he quotes frequently from Donna Steichen's "Ungodly Rage.") With a masters degree from the Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate from the Princeton Theological Seminary, he is certainly in a position to describe the progressive paganization of the leadership of the mainline churches in America. Though British-born, he seems to have made his way through the great educational institutions of the United States just before the Long March of `60s ideology began. Unlike many of his younger colleagues today, he is therefore still able to be shocked.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book is the connections it makes between the resurgence of gnosticism and other trends in the academy and politics. The literary technique known as deconstruction, for instance, helped to create the intellectual universe in which the transcendental monotheism of orthodox Christianity became quite literally unthinkable to many people with expensive educations. I might add that, most recently, deconstruction (which turned out to have been founded by Nazis) has been superseded in some institutions by some form of "historicism." As practiced by many prominent theologians, this approach essentially consists of recasting biblical history to fit an ideological perspective. The metaphysical anti-monotheism inculcated by deconstruction still remains, of course, but there has been added to it a profound dishonesty in the use of historical sources.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is Jones's assertion that American gnosticism has begun to serve as the theological underpinning of cultural and even political liberalism. For two centuries, the chief alternative to orthodox Christianity was atheist humanism, or agnostic scientism, or at any rate some way of looking at the world that categorically excluded the supernatural. This is no longer the case. Increasingly, people who oppose traditional ethics and who seek to collapse the human race into the natural world are claiming some sort of supernatural sanction. This trend has entered the mainstream to an appalling degree, as even a cursory familiarity with Vice President Al Gore's preachy eco-feminist tract, "Earth in the Balance," will confirm. In some ways, the people who control the key institutions of American society are more pious than their predecessors were a century ago. The problem is that this piety is directed toward objects that have less and less in common with the religion of the people these institutions are supposed to serve and represent.

The origins of gnosticism are disputed, as is the precise time of its appearance, but it is clear that in the first few centuries after Jesus there was a variety of sects, other than the orthodox church, that claimed to be Christian, indeed to be the true and esoteric Christianity. They changed and multiplied, as their adherents followed after one charismatic adept after another, but a few themes and names stand out. Marcion, for instance, who lived in the second century, essentially threw out the whole Old Testament as the work of the devil and kept only fragments of the New. Others, such Valentinus, tended to keep the scriptures but modified their meaning. As a rule, though, in gnostic speculation the God of the Jews was denounced as a tyrant who had created the inferior world in which we live. His law is folly and his promises are lies. The universe over which he rules is a multi-layered prison in which human beings are confined in ignorance of their origin and destiny. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was seeking to liberate mankind, and Eve was its prophet.

In most gnostic systems, there is indeed a god worthy of worship, but one wholly alien to this world. This god is neither male nor female, neither good nor evil, but beyond all categories even by analogy. The Christ is his agent, but understood primarily as a psychological function. The Jesus of history, to the extent the gnostics were interested in him at all, was an exemplar rather than a redeemer. Human beings contain the "sparks" of the alien god. After many incarnations, these captive souls may hope to attain the "knowledge," the "gnosis" (the words are cognate, by the way) that will allow them to return to their origin.

How did the sparks get there? They are trapped, through "love and sleep," in the mass of the world, into which a fragment of the complex divine reality called the "pleroma" has fallen. This final emanation of the divine is called Sophia, "wisdom." She is conceived of as a goddess whose fear and terror and grief at her separation from the pleroma gave birth to the Demiurge, the false god of our creation. There is a "higher" or unfallen aspect of Sophia who works to undo the enslavement of the divine to matter and to rescue the human race from the world of birth, death and division.

Now, all of this sounds like pretty esoteric stuff, something that only scholars or would-be magicians might be expected to run across. Until a few years ago, that was largely true. Today, in contrast, expressions of gnosticism turn up in the most unexpected places. Consider, for instance, the following autobiographical description of a vision experienced by the author of a recent book that dealt largely with the state of current progress toward a unified field theory in physics:

"...I became convinced...that I was the only conscious being in the universe. There was no future, no past, no present other than what I imagined them to be. I was filled, initially, with a sense of limitless joy and power. Then, abruptly, I became convinced that if I abandoned myself further to ecstasy, it might consume me...With this realization, my bliss turned into horror...As I fell I dissolved into what seemed to be an infinity of selves."
(John Horgan, "The End of Science," page 261)

The interesting point here is that the writer of this passage had apparently never heard of the gnostic doctrine that the world had been created through God's own fear. He mulled over this experience for many years and eventually wrote "The End of Science" to work through the possibility of a downside to omniscience. However, most people do get their ideas about gnosticism from books rather than personal experience. With certain adaptations, all of the themes described above as elements of ancient gnosticism now have modern analogues, expounded in prestigious schools of divinity and, in many cases, preached to actual congregations.

Some things have needed translation, of course. Classical gnostics loathed matter and the structures of this world because they thought there was an immeasurably better world elsewhere. However, though this better reality was absolutely transcendent, they believed the way to find it was by looking within. In modern gnosticism, in contrast, the transcendent is a more muted theme; any appeal to the "beyond" is likely to be denounced as an ideology. The search within continues, however. Instead of seeking union with the alien god, modern gnostics seek their authentic selves. The techniques for this search are therefore more likely to be considered therapy than magic, though in fact rather a lot of traditional hocus-pocus has become fashionable in progressive religious circles.

In any event, today the opposition to the "structures of this world" is at least as fierce as it was in the religious underground of second-century Alexandria. To take the most colorful example: if the God of Genesis said to be fruitful and multiply but otherwise to behave yourself, then obviously the way to subvert his law is to engage in any form of sex that does not result in children. There has always been a real horror of reproduction in gnostics of all ages. This sentiment was well expressed by Jack Kerouac in his declining years, when he regretted that he had fathered a daughter and thereby had added to the "meat-wheel" of the world system. Similarly, both in modern and in ancient times, there has been a strong gnostic tendency to regard homosexuality as metaphysically superior, since it moves beyond the division of gender roles established by the Demiurge.

Modern gnosticism is predominantly feminist, and indeed to the extent that feminism seeks an ontological justification, gnosticism is probably it. However, we should keep in mind that consciously gnostic feminism has as little to do with the actual needs and concerns of most women as Leninism does with those of industrial workers. I, at least, am increasingly convinced that the role of feminism in the critique of the Western tradition is in any case largely instrumental. Notions like "patriarchy" are essentially a form of class analysis, with the genders substituted for economic classes. It is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Like the term "bourgeois," it is a cuss-word rather than a description of anything. When the whole of art and science and politics are denounced as part of a system of patriarchal oppression, the point is not to draw attention to unjust gender-relationships, the point is to get rid of the art and the science and the politics. Again, the impulse here is fundamentally gnostic, a studied loathing of ordinary life not because it is evil, but because it exists.

A novel aspect of modern gnosticism is its millenarian streak. Ancient gnostics anticipated that the corrupt world system created by the incompetent Demiurge would come crashing down one day, but they did not normally anticipate it happening anytime soon. They were wholly uninterested in transforming the world or in becoming a universal faith. In today's gnosticism, in contrast, there is a strong dispensationalist sentiment. The Age of Christianity (or of Jehovah) is over, they say, and the New Age is about to begin. Among feminist gnostics, the motto "women will destroy god" is frequently met with. There is a high end and a low end to this sentiment. The low end is represented by "witches" who conduct gothic ceremonies in honor of the return of the Goddess Sophia. The high end is represented by people like Joseph Campbell, who held that the global society of the third millennium requires a new global myth, one consonant with modern science and social practice. There is no lack of perfectly respectable people, again notably including Al Gore, who have suggested that the myth of the Goddess Gaia, of the Earth as organism, might serve this function. Thus, modern gnosticism has plans not only for destruction, but for the reconstruction to follow.

On a less global level, vandalism is a good enough description for what has been happening in the Protestant mainline churches and elements of the Catholic Church for the past quarter century. (Actually, in the case of Catholic parish churches, "vandalism" is not a mere metaphor, considering the ghastly effect that modernizing liturgists have had on the ornamentation and design of church buildings.) Church-goers who have been paying any attention at all have had little trouble following the irresponsible mutations that have occurred in the treatment of scripture and liturgy.

Peter Jones is particularly exercised by the proliferation of tendentious Bible translations in recent years. Perhaps the most dishonest exercise so far has been "The Five Gospels," a heavily-marketed translation of the four canonical gospels, plus the "Gospel of Thomas," a work that came to light among the gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The "Gospel of Thomas" is simply not a "gospel," both because it is of later composition and quite different in form, a mere collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. Nevertheless, this is precisely the kind of distinction that many modern theologians have been systematically subverting.

The progressive line now is that the gnostics had as much right to be considered Christians as did the orthodox Church. The victory of one faction over the other was a matter of pure chance, the outcome of a power struggle. How Christian orthodoxy, an outlawed religion for three centuries, could have won a power struggle against anybody is hard to see. Syncretistic religions that included elements of Christianity were not illegal; a statue of Jesus stood in the pantheon of the third century emperor Alexander Severus. Nevertheless, in the interests of inclusiveness, "Gnostic Bibles" containing apocryphal literature from Nag Hammadi and other sources have already begun to appear. They find increasing acceptance in seminaries where the whole idea of a biblical canon is under question.

The situation is only exacerbated by enterprises like the "Jesus Seminar," whose participants vote periodically on which elements of the New Testament should be given what level of credence, and particularly on which sayings attributed to Jesus were really his. The sayings they endorse are those that suggest Jesus was mostly interested in finding the inner self and subverting gender roles. The Seminar is, as Jones notes, essentially a hoax perpetrated by people with impeccable credentials. However, it has the backing of Time Magazine, which gives choice bits of its "discoveries" wide publicity every Christmas and Easter.

Just thinking about this subject is enough to invite cosmic paranoia (which is a good definition for gnosticism in the first place). And then, of course, sometimes merely odd stuff happens. As I mentioned, Peter Jones is English, and he hails from Liverpool. In fact, he was a good friend of John Lennon in high school. They parted company when Lennon went to vocational school for the arts while Jones took a college track. Jones pronounces himself mystified as to how, despite this divergence in education, Lennon was incorporating gnostic themes into his later work that Jones knew about only because he had studied patristics. I mention this because, a few hours before starting to read this book, I was poking about on the Web and I came across a site whose author purported to be no less a person than Antichrist himself. Of course, sites purportedly maintained by Abraham Lincoln are probably no less numerous than those maintained by Antichrist. This particular Antichrist, however, had an eschatology that incorporated John Lennon as the final incarnation of Christ, so that Lennon's death marked the beginning of the end of the Christian era. I hate it when this kind of thing happens.

Spirit Wars is in fact fairly free of paranoia and quite devoid of conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, towards the end of the book, Jones does permit himself this observation:

"As she covers her anemic body with a fake robe of Christ, Sophia begins to look more and more like the harlot of the Apocalypse, that startling image of an apostate Church, fornicating with the kings of the earth, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs of Jesus. On the threshold of the third millennium, the `Spirit Wars' have begun in dead earnest, though at present we have only seen the initial skirmishes. Sophia is only at the beginning of her reign."
(Spirit Wars, page 257)

Well, maybe. On the other hand, there are some other points to consider. The big one is the size of gnosticism's actual audience. Peter Jones cites dozens of conferences, books and papers that propound a gnostic point of view (the book has 60 pages of notes; I just wish it had a better index). I am quite ready to believe, as Jones suggests, that gnosticism is now the orthodoxy of many of America's major seminaries. Still, he does overlook one key point about the power of gnosticism: it empties churches faster than stink bombs. The mainline Protestant churches with which Jones is primarily concerned have been bleeding membership for thirty years. They adopted fad after fad in theology and liturgy, so that when gnosticism and feminism came along they had no living tradition of resistance. The result was that soon many such churches also had no members.

On the Catholic side, of course, the saddest case has been what happened to American nuns. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, some few orders made only the modest reforms suggested by the Council, and at this writing they look like they will survive. Most, however, followed essentially the same gnosticizing trend as, say, the Episcopal Church in America. The result is that the scariest academic conferences Jones discusses, in which the God of the Bible is denounced as an idol and goddesses are openly worshipped, are largely populated by Catholic nuns. They are, however, for the most part aging nuns. Their orders do not attract new members. They can solicit contributions from ordinary Catholics successfully only by appealing to old memories of parochial school graduates. Their fate is as clear an indication as one could wish that liberal Christianity has no future.

The churches that are growing in the United States are for the most part those that make some effort to remain theologically conservative, though one might wish that they could combine this endeavor with a higher level of theological sophistication. Some of the mainline churches, notably the Presbyterians, have recoiled from the abyss at the insistence of their local memberships and started firing liberal staff in their central organizations. The Catholic Church in this decade has produced a thoroughly orthodox Catechism that has reached a wide popular audience despite the efforts of liberal ecclesiastical bureaucrats to suppress it. While these developments hardly constitute rollback (a fine old Cold War expression), they do suggest that Sophia is not having things all her own way.

Finally, there is one other point to consider in assessing the prospects of modern gnosticism. The religious future of the West cannot be discussed without reference to the future of the West as a whole. Peter Jones notes the analogies between the religious climate of the early Christian centuries and that of today. Cyclical historians have given this matter a great deal of thought. Jones cites Toynbee on the subject, who says that the twentieth century will be remembered as the time when the "Higher Religion" of the third millennium appeared. You may pick your own favorite historical tea-leaf reader, but mine is Oswald Spengler. Writing seventy years ago, he used the term "Second Religiousness" to describe the cultural state of old civilizations, after their "modern" eras have ended. According to him, it is precisely in this final phase that "fancy-religions" like Theosophy and the cult of Isis lose their appeal. Civilizations return to the forms of their springtimes, which in the case of the West means a form of conservative Christianity. It is not wholly clear that time is on the gnostics' side.

This article originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-03-29: Unexpected Storms

Richard Clarke comes in again for more aspersions from John. I'm not Clarke deserved this, but I suppose it doesn't matter much now, even though it would seem that Clarke was probably more in the right.

Of vastly more interest [to me] is John's reference to Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning. John was interested in models of history, as am I, and this work comes up again and again. I find John's review of the book endlessly fascinating, even as subsequent experience demonstrates that Strauss and Howe's generational model is far from perfect. Yet, for all that, it really does seem like they are on to something. [if recent events distress you, Strauss and Howe's model suggests the Crisis will not be fully resolved until 2025, so buckle up. We have another decade of this.]

It is easy to think of this as a really bad week, with racial unrest in the US from the killing first of blacks by police, and then the killing of police by blacks, followed by vehicular terrorism in Nice and a coup in Turkey. Probably it just is the way in which social media has only amplified and exaggerated the process by which rumors and bad news now spread. For example, look at this data collected by Gallup on American blacks' perceptions of police:

I honestly would have expected a bigger difference, with the focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, but this data highlights for me the way in which it is easy to exaggerate trends based on the news. More American blacks feel the police treat them unfairly than American whites, but there hasn't been a huge shift in that feeling in the last year. The linked Gallup article also contains a longer term data set, which does show a recent short term improvement in perceived fairness of police interactions with blacks, but also shows that American blacks are pretty dissatisfied with how the police treat them. If you hadn't already noticed that.

It is always worth looking at the data[and also worth making sure you know enough to interpret the data], which is why I follow an increasing number of quantitative social scientists on Twitter. There are parts of science suffering a replication crisis, and there are also parts that are not. I haven't yet delved into Peter Turchin's more quantitative take on models of history, but I think this is about the perfect time to start looking. 

Unexpected Storms

I have less and less patience with the Richard Clark[e] campaign against the Bush Administration. What we have here is a man who rose to national prominence overnight by accusing the Bush people, and Bush himself, of neglect of duty and even personal intimidation, but who now complains that the White House is trying to deflect attention from policy issues by attempting to assassinate his character. Clarke defines character assassination as comparing statements that he made in different forums. So does the Kerry campaign, which probably isn't a coincidence.

Nonetheless, one can still sympathize with Clarke's stint as a counterterrorism expert in the Clinton and Bush Administrations, both of which came into office with a pledge to think about foreign affairs as little as possible. That does not change the fact there is something terribly wrongheaded about what Clarke now represents. Barbara Amiel, writing in The Daily Telegraph, put it this way in a piece called Those Who Predicted Jihad Run Against the Wind:

If 9/11 can be reduced to being Washington's fault, the irrational hate and destruction becomes almost manageable. Change administrations, and the Islamists will go away. Such a seductive, comforting thought echoes in most political battles and elections today. The wind from the east blows gritty grains of fear and delusion into the West's eyes. One wonders apprehensively, which way the zeitgeist of this new millennium will turn. Worse, one fears the calamity that will really turn it hasn't happened yet.

That last point dovetails nicely with the argument recently made on Angst Dei, that Strauss & Howe's "Fourth Turning" has not even begun yet. That argument is, of course, a heretical departure from the one, true, interpretation of the Two Witnesses, but it is true that the will to self-delusion is no less strong today than it was on September 10, 2001. There really are people, lots of them, who think that the fundamental problem is the existence of criminal terrorist networks, rather than the ideological and political milieu from which they arise. Yes, you have to swat the mosquitoes, but there will be no peace until the swamp is drained.

* * *

That is not to say that the swamp is confined to the Middle East. Far from it, if you believe what Reuel Marc Gerecht had to say in the March 29 issue of The Weekly Standard, in the article "Holy War in Europe":

These young men are part of what the Iranian-French scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar has called the "neo-umma guerriere -- "the new holy-war community of believers" that recognizes neither national nor ethnic identity nor traditional Islamic values. Their Islam is "a new type of Nietzscheanism" where suicide and murder become sacred acts of an elite, a self-made race of believers who want to bring on a purifying Apocalypse.

At the risk of repeating myself yet again, this mix of ideas parallels point for point the ideology that Julius Evola put forward in Men Among the Ruins.

* * *

Speaking of the purifying apocalypse, fans of the Y2K bug will remember Gary North, a proponent of what is variously called Theonomy, Dominion Theology, or Reconstructionism. These models of history hold that the the world will be converted and reformed during the Millennium, at the end of which the Second Coming will occur. As with other forms of postmillennialism, North held that the millennial age will be more continuous than not with the current age. There may be disruptive events, but not necessarily "apocalypse" in the colloquial sense. North argued that there would be massive, but survivable, social disruption around the world because of the Y2K bug, which would be just the ticket to get the Millennium proper under way.

After the beginning of the new century, we heard rather less of Gary North. Now he's back, however, with a quickie ebook about the reception and social implications of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion. If you hurry, you can download The War Against Mel Gibson for yourself. Here's a bit of the Preface:

The Passion of the Christ is the most important recent event in the history of the American culture war. The Left went after Gibson and the movie early, but their efforts have backfired. The extent of that backfire is huge. It is possible – I believe highly probable – that this movie will mark a turning point in the culture war...Is The Passion the first step in a systematic, comprehensive counter-attack by Christians in a cultural war that Christians have been losing for almost a century? I think this is the case. So does Hollywood and Hollywood's cheerleaders in the media. This is why they are horrified.

I suspect that The Passion could be an important film, too, both culturally and religiously. It is, however, not the beginning of the Millennium. Trust me on this; I know these things.

* * *

As another example of misplaced enthusiasm, consider another article that appeared in the March 29 Weekly Standard, Maggie Gallagher's "Latter Day Federalists (Why we need a national definition of marriage)." In that piece, she argues that the definition of marriage was federalized long ago, particularly in connection with the campaign against polygamy in the Utah Territory, which was settled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Utah began petitioning for statehood as early as 1859, but Congress would have none of it until the Territory put its family law in order. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which criminalized bigamy in Utah. Harsher federal acts continued until 1890, when the Church relented on the polygamy question. The Utah Territory was admitted as a state six years later.

Readers of this site will know that I support a federal, constitutional definition of marriage. Nonetheless, I must point out that this particular argument won't fly. Congress has almost plenary power over the territories in the US that have not been admitted to the Union. The same is true of Congress's power over the District of Columbia. Congress generally does not exercise that power, once a local government has been established, but there is no constitutional novelty in Congress doing so.

There really will be some novelty in a federal definition of marriage. The question is whether there will be a novel judicial extension of Griswald (yes, that is where all this comes from) to create gay marriage, or a bit of honest new text to exclude it.

* * *

Did you know that hurricanes were supposed to occur only in the northern half of the Atlantic? Well, if you did, you are due for an update. It seems that Something Strange Is Happening:

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Florida estimated the storm was a full-fledged, Category I hurricane with central winds of between 75 and 80 mph, making it the first hurricane ever spotted in the South Atlantic. AccuWeather, Inc., a private forecasting company, said it also considered the storm a hurricane.

Brazilian scientists disagreed, saying the storm had top winds of 50 to 56 mph, far below the 75 mph threshold of a hurricane...

All sides said they were basing their estimates on satellite data, since the United States has no hurricane hunter airplanes in the area and Brazil doesn't own any.

When the storm struck land in Brazil over the weekend, it did considerable property damage. Last I heard, though, the Brazilian weather-people were sticking to their guns about the nature of the storm. This could be embarrassing. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

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LinkFest 2016-03-26

Holy Saturday Edition


Ruby Slippers

Gabriel Rossman makes a persuasive case that social construction is real, but the concept is mostly used by people who don't understand it, and have no sense of proportion.

How Does America "Reshore" Skills that have Disappeared?

The first couple of paragraphs of this article accurately describe what it is like to deal with offshore manufacturing in China, in my experience. The article is mostly about training workers to fill new "reshored" jobs, but the beginning of the article is my favorite.

The Author of the Martian Wrote Ready Player One Fan-Fiction, and now it's Canon

Yeah, this happened.

RIP Andy Grove

In 2010 I linked to an op-ed by Andy Grove on American manufacturing. I still think it is relevant. Requiescat in pace Andy.

Book Review: The Art of the Deal

Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex offers up an absolutely brilliant analysis of Donald Trump's book. Go read it, right now. As something of an odd duck, Alexander sees a certain similarity in Trump also being something an odd duck. 

Trumpism after Trump

Ross Douthat sees dark years ahead for the Republican party after Trump. I'm still curious to see what happens when Bernie loses the nomination to Hillary Clinton. Some Bernie supporters seem to hate HRC only a little less than Trump. In October, I pondered whether Trump and Bernie would both end up doing third-party runs, which would put us in the same kind of four-way race that elected Woodrow Wilson. Now that I think about it, that could actually be the worst possible outcome.

Easter, Early Christians and Cliodynamics

Peter Turchin points to data for the Christianization of the Roman world that fits a logistic model.

The Long View 2003-07-01: The Crisis Builds

In his book review on William Strauss and Neil Howe's The Fourth Turning, John noted that the generational model of that book predicted a crisis in America in about 2005 that would usher in two decades of chaos.

We certainly seem to have gotten the chaos. Strauss and Howe's model also predicted the subsequent course of the twenty-first century would depend on how well we handled the crisis. This is probably a little harder to assess. For one, what precisely, is the crisis? 9/11? The Iraq War? The refugee wave in Europe? Out of control American gun violence?

It is a little easier to predict that something will go awry than to correct identify what will go wrong. It is even harder to identify the correct solution in the moment. I suppose we will just have to wait and see.

The Crisis Builds

The argument that we recently entered an era of crisis like that of 1929-1945 (what Strauss & Howe call a Fourth Turning] continues to strengthen. The international situation is deteriorating, in a way reminiscent of the 1930s. The WMD threats from Iran and North Korea are just months away from the point where something radical will have to be done. Europe continues to refuse to face reality in any form, whether about demographics, economics (much the same questions, really), or its strategic vulnerability. More immediately, Iraq and Afghanistan have shown limited powers of self-organization, to put it politely. Reporters in Iraq keep talking about rumors of a general uprising. Actually, there is no reason to suppose that the Baathists would be any better at organizing an uprising than they are at organizing anything else. Their strategy of daily assassinations of US and British forces has served to keep the Coalition from relaxing and becoming more vulnerable. Still, the Baathists could, finally, produce the huge civilian casualties they have been hoping for, with all that would mean in terms of reaction in the US and internationally. The Year Zero of the last crisis was 1933. The early 21st-century analogue could still lie before us.

* * *

In the 1930s, while the world was going to hell in a handbasket, the US was preoccupied with gridlock between its legal and economic systems. Though New Deal economic policy was never very coherent, some policy is better than no policy. Nonetheless, the US Supreme Court took it upon itself to insist that the federal government, and indeed the state governments, had very little authority to regulate the economy. The Court struck down legislation about wages and prices, about working conditions and the hours of labor, generally without any warrant from the Constitution itself. The Court eventually repudiated the reasoning behind those decisions, but not its authority to make them.

This time around, the Court (and, to be fair, most of the law-school establishment) has a bee in its bonnet about sexual identity and gender. The theory under which it operates is even bolder, however. The New York Times put it fairly enough this morning:


[T]he most significant aspect of the term, Professor [Paul] Gewirtz [of Yale School] said in an interview, was the court's role in "consolidating cultural developments," legitimizing them and translating them into "binding legal principle."

The point of constitutional government is that some law should be beyond the power of the ordinary legislature to alter. The new doctrine is that the content of the constitution can change in response to opinion polls. That is pretty much what Justice Kennedy said in Lawrence v. Texas, the recent decision finding that the liberty interests implicit in the Constitution now include sodomy. Or that's what I think he meant; it's hard to tell. Of course, this principle is probably disingenuous. Opinion polls have been turning against the unrestricted right to abortion for years, but it is hard to imagine the present Court agreeing to reconsider the Casey decision on that basis.


* * *

The Lawrence decision is not the Dred Scot case. That was when the Supreme Court held that Congress had no power to restrict the spread of slavery, a holding that led quickly to the Civil War. Rather, Lawrence is like Griswald v. Connecticut, the opinion from the 1960s that created a constitutional right to buy and use contraceptives. In that case, too, the statute the Court struck down was unenforceable and had no defenders. Nobody much cared that the opinion made no sense. However, the holding was the basis for Roe v. Wade. (This was despite the claims by the proponents of Griswald that they sought to prevent abortion by promoting contraception.) Griswald is itself the ultimate basis of Lawrence, but Lawrence will be used to move the law in two other directions.

The obvious next step for Lawrence is to denormalize marriage. There are in fact gay people who believe that homosexual partnerships would have the same social prestige as marriage, if the same or closely analogous laws governed both. This is cargo-cult thinking. (Cargo cults, as you recall, were practiced in Melanesia; natives built models of runways and cargo planes in forest clearings, in the hope that their ancestors would send trade goods.) In reality, if the law were forbidden to take notice of the genders of couples seeking to be married, then the anthropological institution of marriage would simply decouple from the legal institution of the same name. One way and other, that would have grave consequences: one of the few bits of sociology we are clear about is that no institution does more than the nuclear family to promote health and prosperity.

Even more interesting, however, will be the revival of the campaign for a right to suicide. Two federal circuit courts found such a right in the 1990s, using essentially the same reasoning as Lawrence. The danger that the Supreme Court might extend the law in that direction caused otherwise well-behaved moderates (such as myself) to talk about the political structure of the United States as an alien "regime," one that might soon have to be opposed by civil disobedience. First Things even ran a symposium on the incident, called The End of Democracy?. The Supreme Court backed off in 1997, in Quill v. Vacco and State of Washington v. Glucksberg. However, as is increasingly its custom in these matters, it spoke in tongues. The flurry of separate opinions by the individual justices had no common rationale. Taken together, however, they made clear that, on different facts, in the fullness of time, given a shift in the cultural consensus, there was no reason to suppose that someday the Court would not hold otherwise.


* * *

The time is nearly full, one suspects. Much of the impetus in the 1990s for assisted suicide came from gay organizations; that was before palliatives for AIDS were discovered. We are, however, almost at the point were medicalized suicide will be economically attractive for a wider public. As the babyboomers age, they will find that the resources to fund their medical care will be in relatively short supply, since the working-age cohorts behind them are much smaller. It is easy to imagine HMOs waxing enthusiastic about euthanasia to the growing percentage of their patients with disabilities or chronic pain. Where assisted suicide is legal now, the early assurances that it would be available only to the terminally ill have proven chimerical. The stress on the Social Security and Medicare systems might finally be relieved by a judicial expansion of civil liberties.

This was much the state of things in the wonderful 1973 science fiction film, Soylent Green. That's the one in which Charlton Heston plays a detective in the year 2022. He investigates the murder of a public official, who knows what Soylent Green is really made of. (The movie stuck in my mind, perhaps, because we are told that character was born in the same year I was. I even went to the same law school he did, though not for that reason.) Edward G. Robertson played the detective's elderly research assistant. Despairing of his threadbare existence, he walks into a government suicide parlor and has himself euthanized. He asks for classical music to be played during the process: light classical, as I recall.

Since the film is set in 2022, it is premature to make fun of the future it posits. The story supposes an extreme greenhouse effect, with 90-degree Fahrenheit days in New York City in December. That is unlikely, but let us have patience. Something fragrantly off the mark, however, is the film's demographic premise, which was that birth rates would continue at the level of the 1950s and '60s. Euthanasia was encouraged as an antidote to overpopulation.

Here is irony for you. Already in Europe, and maybe soon in the US, euthanasia will be advocated because birthrates have been too low.

As Hegel used to say: history is a bitch.


* * *

Are these imaginary horribles really going to materialize? I think not, but there will be a test of strength that will break the judiciary. It could come about in connection with attempts by the Supreme Court to constitutionalize the status of homosexuals or women in the military; certainly there will be fireworks if conscription is ever reintroduced. Like its 1930s predecessor, the Court could strike down popular social legislation, this time legislation that specifically aimed at promoting the nuclear family. The most intriguing possibility, though, is that the Court will try to ignore a textual amendment to the Constitution.

Senator Frist, I see, is likely to introduce an amendment that would define marriage in heterosexual terms. I dislike very specific constitutional amendments, and this is not really the sort of thing the federal government should be dealing with anyway. In this case, however, the political branches have no choice, since the Supreme Court has already federalized the issue.

The point to keep in mind is that amendment may not be enough. There are arguments in the law schools to the effect that some aspects of constitutional law cannot be changed, even if the text of the constitution is amended to say otherwise. That is, courts would be within their rights to ignore certain new amendments, such as one that tried to limit Roe v. Wade. It is hard to imagine that the Court would simply ignore a marriage amendment, but it might well try to construe it so narrowly that it would not mean anything. Then, I think, something would snap.


* * *

Brain imaging shows that speaking Mandarin uses more areas of the brain than does English, according to a recent report. I do not purport to read or speak Mandarin, but I do study the language occasionally, at least to the extent of trying to learn some new characters now and again. A couple of things about the story are worth mentioning.

Chinese is the only foreign language I ever encountered that presented no conceptual challenges. The grammar is transparent for an English-speaker. You can express tense and number and mood if you are so inclined, but you do it through syntax. The language itself does not require those distinctions. So what was the brain-scan report all about? Perception. Spoken Chinese uses tones phonemically: the same syllable pronounced in a different tone is a different word. It takes an awfully long time to learn to hear those distinctions. You have to use the part of the brain that you normally use only to hear music. I never attempted to learn spoken Chinese; I just want to be able to read a newspaper.

As for Chinese characters, they take a long time to learn, too, but there's a surprise if you persevere. They are easier to read than alphabetic script. It's the different between "674" and "six hundred and seventy-four."

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View: Spengler's Future

When I did the site upgrade, John's online book, Spengler's Future, got jumbled up because I had it hosted on separate pages. I rolled everything up into one page, and added it to the navigation bar.

Spengler's Future was an interesting exercise, a book written around a very simple BASIC program, one that correlated contemporary events to the history of four civilizations that exhibited Spenglerian cycles by simply adding a fixed number of years to the date on which any given event occurred:

If E$ = "China" then let H = F + 2300
If E$ = "Egypt" then let H = F + 3547
If E$ = "Rome" then let H = F + 2127
If E$ = "Islam" then let H = F + 626

For so simple an attempt, this actually worked pretty well. This approach is a quick and dirty way to see the kind of parallels in history that have inspired the many attempts to make cyclical models of history. Go check it out, it is worth a read.

The Long View: Spengler's Future

John wrote this book in 1992, based on the output of a program he wrote in BASIC to simulate repeated cycles of history. It is based on the work of both Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. John had a good sense of humor about the enterprise; he always took himself lightly. John knew that any attempt to pigeonhole history would be an oversimplification at best. Nonetheless, while history doesn't exactly repeat, it does seem to rhyme.

Spengler's Future

Table of Contents


This is a report on the output of a computer program. The program was written to predict the future of the world, from a Western perspective, into the twenty-seventh century A.D. The program does not purport to predict specific events that will occur in time to come. Rather, it seeks to suggest events from many times and places in the past which could be analogous to what will be happening at designated points in the future. This is accomplished by using a simple cyclical model of the development of civilizations. The title of the report alludes to the fact that the model in question is an adaptation of the theory of history created by the German philosopher, Oswald Spengler, particularly as expressed in his great work, The Decline of the West.

Readers should note that Spengler never tried to "predict" the future in anything like the detail attempted here. The "future" outlined in this study can be said to really be Spengler's, in fact, only to the extent that some of it was implicit in his ideas. He can hardly be held responsible for most of what you will read here, since his philosophy was "adapted" for the program by being reduced to four lines of algorithms.

Although the program contains hundreds of data lines from various points in the histories of four civilizations, the output is no more self-explanatory than the hexagrams of the I Ching or a laying of tarot cards. To note that a battle occurred on such and such a date in a given civilization tells you almost nothing; you must know what part it played in the history of the culture in question for it to make any sense. Therefore, most of the text, like a good fortuneteller's patter, consists of the author's own interpretation of what the Delphic echoes from the past produced by the computer might someday represent. The method throughout, with the one exception described immediately below, is to look for harmonies and dissonances among the events from the past described in the output lines. The output lines themselves are given for each segment of the future to which they refer. The length of each segment was suggested to the author by apparent "themes" in consecutive groups of lines. (The temptation to edit them to make them fit better into their segments has been largely resisted.) Readers may therefore construct their own futures by seeing what these lines suggest to them.

An amusing feature of the output is that it attempts to "predict" the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (along with a cursory look at the last half of the eighteenth). The accompanying commentary attempts, with perhaps limited success, to treat these output lines in almost the same fashion as the lines dealing with the distant future are treated. However, it was not quite possible to avoid alluding to events in actual Western history which occurred during these centuries. Since the pattern has been established of using Western events as points of comparison, the commentary for future segments continues the procedure by mentioning imaginary future events of the author's devising. These are deliberately conservative suggestions, inserted for stylistic reasons. They should not be taken seriously.

As a matter of fact, these invented events do not closely resemble the future which the author himself anticipates. That future has far more in common with the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin (or at least Teilhard in his more Augustinian moments) than with those of Oswald Spengler. This book, indeed, can be taken as an attempt to exorcise a private ni.htmlare. At least in the author's mind, this is what will happen if Teilhard and similar optimists turn out to be wrong. Despite its fantastic elements, you will be looking at a "realist" version of the future, the one we will get if the future is like the past.

In the Introduction which follows, Spengler's system is discussed in more detail than the program uses. We also consider the more general question of whether a cyclical view of history can be seriously defended. Readers who are not much interested in this kind of question may confine themselves to reading just the highlighted passages in the Introduction, which simply reproduce the somewhat whimsical Instruction section of the program. Following the Introduction are the Antechronicles themselves (that is, chronicles written before the events they describe). As you will see, these are no more than fiction cobbled together from some historical analogies. They can be "right" only to the extent of being apt metaphors.

Finally, it should be understood that the program in question is a very crude piece of work (written in BASIC!) which really only saved the author a bit of simple arithmetic. It has no nifty graphics and will not be in the stores any time soon.

--John J. Reilly
      August 1992

The Long View: Millennials Rising

Strauss and Howe took a slightly different approach in this book from their previous works. This book focuses on one generation, the Millennials, born after 1982. This book in particular gives us an opportunity to revist Strauss and Howe's predictions nearly 15 years later. Pew Research has a report on the tendencies of Millennials in Adulthood that proves interesting.

Strauss and Howe accurately predicted that school performance will improve due to increased focus on mastery of facts, in part due to the bad experiences of Boomer and GenX parents in schools that taught "how to think" without providing anything to think about. They also predicted that economic mismanagment could turn Millennials again the free market, which the Housing Bubble and subsequent recession demonstrated. They also predicted crime would fall. All of these things have indeed happened.

Some not-so-accurate predictions included that church attendance would rise. Strauss and Howe's model suggest that Millennials are especially likely to join institutions, but also that they are especially harsh judges of authority figures that break the rules. The rise of the Nones and a tendency to resist affiliation with either major American political party suggest that either Strauss and Howe were wrong about the supposed acceptance of the legitimacy of the major institutions of the world by Millennials, or that the major institutions of the world fall short in their eyes. There were some darker intimations in the book, pondering how the Millennial generation could be warped by a confluence of terrible events. The prior example Strauss and Howe cite is the Civil War, which should have produced something like a golden age after the successful resolution of the slavery and seccession crisis, but instead turned into a bloody war of brother against brother that left everyone worse off. We can only hope that 9-11 plus a major recession did not have a similar effect now.

Something we can only see the glimmerings at present, but that matches not only Strauss and Howe's model, but Spengler's and Toynbee's as well, is that compromise is becoming impossible in politics. Now, it is relatively harmless, but in the late Republican period of history, losing an election can mean losing your life. This will be worse if the Millennials turn decisively against the institutions that uphold public order. It was much easier to be an optimist in 2000 than 2014.

Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation
by Neil Howe and William Strauss
Vintage Books, 2000
415 Pages, US$14.00
ISBN 0-375-70719-0

Imagine that Hegel had written a baby-book for doting parents, and you will have the formula for this book. William Strauss and Neil Howe, a political scientist turned theatrical impresario and an economic historian respectively, have been promoting a cyclical model of American history since the appearance in 1991 of their first joint book, "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069." "Millennials Rising" is rather different from that work and from their heavily theoretical "Fourth Turning." Both those books were characterized by complicated graphs and tables, covering all of American history and then some. Graphs and tables are present in great numbers in this book, too, but this time the information is mostly about a specific generation, the "Millennials," whom the authors say began to be born about 1982 and who should continue to appear for another few years. (There are also original cartoons, some of them quite witty.) According to the authors' system, this generation will be positioned to play a role like that of their grandparents, whom the authors call the GI Generation. In this year when the oldest Millennials turned 18, "Millennials Rising" is intended as a national family snapshot of this generation just as it begins its career as a historical actor.

Strauss and Howe are in a somewhat unusual position for long-term prophets: their predictions tend to be right. They were not, perhaps, the only social critics who forecast a decade ago that crime rates would fall and scholastic performance would rise, but few if any others had a general theory to explain these trends. The same theory made predictions for the cultural climate that are harder to verify but which seem consistent with current developments. (There is a two-frame cartoon in the book which illustrates what the authors call the "Culture Wars" phase of the current 90-year cycle. In the first frame, a hairy young baby-boomer writes "Unconditional Amnesty" on a blackboard in 1968. In the second, his balding older self writes "Zero Tolerance" in 1998. As a younger Boomer myself, I find this deeply embarrassing.) Oddly enough, they have performed least well in the area of economic forecasting, precisely because they have hewn closer to conventional wisdom. The intimations scattered throughout their books that the 1990s and early 2000s will be like the 1920s have not proven helpful. The current economic situation, based on the initial application of novel technologies, is probably much more like that following the Second World War.



The Long View: The Fourth Turning

There was something magical and terrible about the end of the nineteenth century. The term coined to describe it, fin de siècle, itself accelerated the process already underway. Apocalyptic expectations can become feedback loops in certain situations. You might call it self-fulfilling prophecy, but in English this term carries a connation of self-deception. What I am describing is far more real. Sometimes, when you expect the world to end, it obliges you.

In John's book, The Perennial Apocalypse, he describes several civilizations that expected the end so fervently that they imploded when a reasonably close facsimile came along. The destruction of the Aztec Empire is a good example of this. What, you really thought 300 Spaniards conquered a highly militarized nation of millions of people?

The Fourth Turning is the book that predicted an American crisis sometime in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Hopefully the authors got better speaking fees afterward. They really got a double-whammy with 9-11 and the Housing Bubble together. John predicted it would start with an international issue, and end with a domestic one. Remember, this was written in 1997. However, it is also too soon to expect resolution. A turning lasts 20-25 years. We are only 13 years in, and 9-11 came a little early. Furthermore, we should expect something of a golden age of peace and prosperity to come after the successful revolution of the Crisis. Clearly, no one feels like that now.

John wanted to give this book another review in 2020. He is no longer with us, but I think it will make for an interesting retrospective in another 5-10 years.

The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy
by William Strauss and Neil Howe
Broadway Books, 1997
$27.50, 382 pages
ISBN 0-553-06682-X

The Next Scheduled Performance of the Book of Revelation is in 2020.

The sense of impending wonder and catastrophe that began to percolate through western civilization toward the end of the nineteenth century did not come to an end when the century year arrived. Rather, in the decade and a half that followed the turn of the century, these intuitions evolved from fantasies in the minds of philosophers and millenarians to become concrete threats visible in broad daylight. When the First World War did break out, almost everyone was surprised by the actual sequence of events. Nevertheless, many people, from Hermann Hesse to H.G. Wells to the Jehovah's Witnesses, immediately knew that this was what they had been waiting for. If the evolution of apocalyptic expectation after the turn of the millennium follows the same pattern, this book could go down as one of the influences that made the sense of impending apocalypse reasonable.

The major reason it could do this is that the authors' theory of history really is reasonable, at least as theories of history go. "The Fourth Turning" expands on the cyclical interpretation of American history which the authors proposed in their 1991 book, "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069." (Before the publication of that book, William Strauss was best known as a cofounder and director The Capitol Steps cabaret group. Neil Howe is an economist and senior advisor to the Concord Coalition. Now, of course, they are both best known as the authors of "Generations.") It has never been a secret that American history does show some striking periodicities. Most notable is the fact that the major "crises" of American history are all the same distance apart. That is, the Depression/World War II era occurred about as long after the Civil War as the Civil War did after the War of Independence, which in turn occurred about as long after the era of colonial disorders incident to King Philip's War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Similarly, there is a somewhat looser regularity to the peculiar episodes of spiritual and cultural ferment that characterize America history. The best known on these was "The Great Awakening" of the 1720s and 1730s. A similar or at least analogous era occurred just about a century later, in the "Second Great Awakening" or "Transcendentalist" period. This episode saw not just outbreaks of millenarian fervor, but the beginnings of such hardy perennials as the abolition and women's suffrage movements. Somewhat anomalously, another such period occurred in the final years of the nineteenth century, leaving as its permanent monuments the Fundamentalism of the Bible Belt and the Bohemianism of Greenwich Village. The last such episode was the period colloquially known as "The '60s," most of which, of course, actually happened in the 1970s.


The Long View: Constitution of the Ecumenical Empire

John was very interested in the form the future might take. He wrote a book that was his attempt to limn the future by means of a program he wrote in BASIC and the ideas of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. Like myself, John felt that the idea of cycles in history does not preclude free will or moral agency. We might hope, tentatively and with great humility, to influence things for the better. Following William Ernest Hocking, John posited the idea of "unlosables", technologies and ideas and ethical principles, which become part of the ever-increasing common heritage of the race. This entry is intended to illustrate some of those ideas in political philosophy.

As a lawyer, John was well-positioned to draft a constitution. He knew that the failure of most modern constitutions was due to their complexity. The most successful modern constitutions, the American, and the Swiss [which is based on the American] are relatively brief. This is his attempt at a constitution for the Ecumenical Empire, his term for the universal state into which the world is likely to collapse sometime in this century.

This document was originally posted to an Alternative History newsgroup. It may not be a proper "what-if," but it is likely to interest alternative history buffs.

Every so often, I come across a model "world constitution" by groups or individuals who are interested in the question. These proposals are all non-starters. They are too legalistic, too complicated, and most of all too long. The draft constitution here is supposed to be more realistic. I imagine it coming into effect late in the next century, when the traditional international system has collapsed because of war and progressive economic integration. Like the Roman Empire, it is essentially a police measure. Feel free to propose amendments.

JR -----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Constitution of the Ecumenical Empire

This Constitution describes the structure of the Ecumenical Empire. 
The Ecumenical Empire is the final stage of human political evolution.
This Constitution is unchangeable.
The Empire's operations and functions must be further defined by legislation.

The Empire
The Ecumenical Empire possesses every power which a human government may possess.
The jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Empire is universal in space.
The Ecumenical Empire may permit Subsidiary States to exist.

The Emperor

The Emperor may hear all final appeals in judicial matters from whatever source.
The Emperor is the Commander in Chief of the Ecumenical Army.
The Emperor is the Director of the Ecumenical Civil Service.
The Emperor serves for life, subject to deposition or abdication.
The Emperor may veto acts of the Senate.
The Emperor may nominate his successor from among the Senators, subject to the approval of the Senate.
The Emperor is an Imperial Citizen for life.

The Senate
The Senate may have up to one thousand Senators.
The Senate may enact laws of universal or local application.
The Senate may tax Imperial Citizens directly.
The Senate may tax trade between Subsidiary States.
The Senate may issue and revoke charters for the existence of Subsidiary States.
The Senate elects the Emperor.
The Senate may depose the Emperor by a vote of three-quarters of the Senators.
The Senate may expel a Senator by a vote of three-quarters of the Senators.
Every Subsidiary State provides one Senator, selected by any means and for whatever term the Subsidiary State chooses.
All Senators not provided by a Subsidiary State are appointed by the Emperor for life, subject to expulsion or retirement.
Senators are Imperial Citizens at least for their term in office.

The Ecumenical Army
The Ecumenical Army includes all the armed forces of the Ecumenical Empire.
Only the Ecumenical Army may possess weapons of mass destruction.
Weapons of mass destruction may not be used against civilian populations without thirty days' warning.
Subsidiary States have no authority to tax members of the Ecumenical Army directly.
All members of the Ecumenical Army enjoy extraterritoriality from Subsidiary States.
All members of the Ecumenical Army serving for at least ten years are Imperial Citizens for life.

The Ecumenical Civil Service
The Ecumenical Civil Service collects the taxes of the Ecumenical Empire and administers imperial law.
The courts of the Ecumenical Empire are a branch of the Ecumenical Civil Service.
Regions not under the jurisdiction of a Subsidiary State are ruled directly by the Ecumenical Civil Service.
Subsidiary States have no authority to tax members of the Ecumenical Civil Service directly.
All members of the Ecumenical Civil Service enjoy extraterritoriality from Subsidiary States.
All members of the Ecumenical Civil Service serving for at least ten years are Imperial Citizens for life.

Subsidiary States
No Subsidiary State may exist without the charter of the Senate.
Charters for Subsidiary States are issued for perpetuity and are subject to revocation.
Subsidiary States may choose their own form of government.
Subsidiary States may exercise primary jurisdiction over their citizens and residents.
Subsidiary States may not maintain armed forces beyond those necessary for internal police.
Laws of Subsidiary States that are incompatible with imperial law are voidable by the Ecumenical Civil Service.
Particular acts by Subsidiary States may be prohibited by the Emperor.
The governments of Subsidiary States are subject to suspension by the Emperor.

Imperial Subjects
All human beings are Imperial Subjects.
Imperial Subjects may not be enslaved. Imperial Subjects may not be coerced by law to perform acts of worship.
Imperial Subjects may be imprisoned or executed only after a trial.
Acquittals in criminal trials are not appealable.
Imperial Subjects not citizens of a Subsidiary State are subject to the immediate jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Civil Service.

Imperial Citizens
Any Imperial Subject may be created by the Emperor to be an Imperial Citizen for life or for a term of years.
The spouse and children of all Imperial Citizens for life are also Imperial Citizens for life.
Imperial Citizens have the option to be citizens of Subsidiary States.
Imperial Citizens have the option to make themselves liable to the taxes and judicial process of a Subsidiary State.
Imperial Citizens are subject to the immediate jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Civil Service.
Imperial Citizens are subject to direct taxes of the Ecumenical Empire.
Imperial Citizens may not be deprived of goods, money or land without a trial.
Imperial Citizens may say or publish anything that does not appear likely to cause immediate public disorder.

Prior Law
Any provision of international or domestic law contrary to this Constitution is nullified.
Fully sovereign states existing at the time of the proclamation of this Constitution may apply within one year for a charter from the Senate to become Subsidiary States.
Fully sovereign states that fail to apply within that time are abolished.

We the leaders of the Cabinet of the Final Alliance proclaim this Constitution on our own authority. We designate our chairman to be the first Emperor. The Emperor designates us to be the first Senators. [Signatures] [Date (circa 2080)]

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-01-21 Crusaders

One of the reasons I wanted to look back over John's writings 12 years later, is I'm curious how well his predictions turned out. One of John's intellectual interests was what he called macrohistory or metahistory, the study of models of history. In the twentieth century, the most famous writers on this subject were Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, and in the nineteenth [and maybe the twentieth too] the most famous was Karl Marx.

A writer with this interest could hardly complain about such an endeavour, so here we are. To read the rest of John's original post, click the link below.


I'm reading an interesting but tendentious book by James Reston, Jr.: Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. The author has embraced the Palestinian position in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His description of the downfall of the Crusader states in the Levant in the 12th and 13th centuries is couched more or less as an allegory of what is going to happen to Israel, which is still younger than the Kingdom of Jerusalem was when Saladin overcame it.

This implicit prophecy came to mind when a friend brought to my attention an article by Daniel Pipes that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 18, entitled "Arabs Still Want to Destroy Israel." Quoting the rhetoric of a Palestinian sheikh, the Pipes notes that militant Islam in general has never considered Israel to be anything other than a temporary phenomenon. He argues that concessions made by Israel in the 1990s were regarded by the jihadists as signs of a loss of nerve. Rather, he argues, the 1990s were a time "when Israel should have pushed its advantage, to get, once and for all, recognition of its right to exist."

Various objections are possible to this thesis, but consider this one. As David Pryce-Jones observes in his book, The Closed Circle, all Arab states have a legitimacy problem, as do all Islamic states to a greater or lesser degree. In his view, the only basis for government that can really be entirely satisfactory from an Islamic perspective is the Caliphate, the rule over the whole of the community of the faithful by the Follower of the Prophet. The Caliphate ended when the Ottoman Empire did after the end of the First World War, and the Middle East has yet to find a new basis for legitimate government.


At least on this first post, I feel like John nailed it. While the Arab Spring was initially hailed as a great force for democracy in the Middle East, by which most Westerners mean "becoming more like us", it has actually been an opportunity for the most reactionary elements of Libya, Egypt, and now Syria to seize power.


The increasing importance in Islamic societies of purely reactionary movements like Wahhabism does suggest that Israel is not facing a living culture, one capable of the innovation and resilience that Islamic societies displayed in Saladin's day. Rather, post-Ottoman Islamic culture is increasingly fossilized. It can reassert what it became in the past, but it cannot become something new.

Fossils have a certain strength, but they also tend to be brittle. The problem for Israel may not be gaining recognition of its right to exist from its neighbors, but avoiding the debris when they shatter.

Has Intelligence Declined in the Modern Era?

I mentioned this subject a couple of times before.

Simple reaction time data from Woodley et al.Bruce Charlton is the first person I know of to discuss the implications of the change in simple reaction time data in the paper by Woodley et al.  Charlton claims the data shows a 1 standard deviation reduction in IQ based on the correlation [r = .3] between simple reaction time and IQ or the g factor. I remain unconvinced that that intelligence has declined in the last 100 years. For one, that is a terrible fit [see scatterplot]. For another, with that kind of correlation, I need better evidence that the model is correct. Charlton's best arguments focus on the way in which intellectual inquiry in general still seems to be dominated by the same famous men of the last century.

My late friend John Reilly used to sum it up thus:

How do we know that the 500 or so years of the Modern Age are at last drawing to a close? Lukacs's answer to this, and it's a good one, is to draw attention to the remarkable intellectual barrenness of the 20th century. In 1914, when the century began to manifest its characteristic features, the guiding spirits of the time were Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein. In 1989, when in a political sense the 20th century was already over, the guiding spirits of the time were Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein. There was no other century of modern times that produced so little new intellectual history. Indeed, all but the earliest part of the Middle Ages was livelier.

In a general sense, I agree with Charlton that the rate of the big gosh-wow discoveries in science seems to have slowed remarkably. I've come to the same conclusion myself. Where I differ is the cause. It is not apparent that the problem is our minds have gotten weaker. Rather, I think we [we meaning the West] have chosen to focus on other things. The problem is cultural.

What I lack here is any sort of quantitative data. My sense is that the tasks to which we apply ourselves have if anything, gotten harder. We just are getting less output partly because our best minds think about other things, and partly because the easy scientific discoveries have already been made. Now if only I could prove it.

There is a cracking good discussion of the technical details of the SRT paper over at Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending's blog, West Hunter, that makes some of the same points I want to make here. However, I am more interested in the cultural aspect than the scientific aspect at present.

I think we don't make big scientific discoveries anymore because we don't want to. This seems strange, this sort of thing is frequently in the news and a subject of discussion. However, if you look at our priorities as a civilization, we have decided to do other things. You might also say that our civilization is decadent. I use this in the technical sense proposed by Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present 1st (first) edition, a decadent society is one that wills the ends, but not the means. We say we want big science, but we have a remarkably inefficient way of doing it.

So what are we interested in? I think the things we are interested in are actually very good things, but they don't produce good headlines. For example, one thing the Victorians were terrible at was industrial hygiene and product safety. A fad for green dye made with arsenic in Victorian England lead to thousands of deaths. The manufacturing process for safety matches produced a condition known as phossy jaw, which could actually make your bones glow in the dark before it killed you. The discovery of radium by Marie Curie lead to the incorporation of radium into a wide variety of products, contaminating much of Paris. It is not very hard to multiply examples like this ad infinitum. The Victorians discovered lots of new things, but they left a lot of collateral damage in their wake in the form of dead and maimed factory workers and widespread environmental pollution.

There are now systems in place to verify that products are safe before they enter the market. Designing nearly any product is vastly more complicated now than 100 years ago, not only because science and engineering have progressed and we are pushing the limits of our knowledge, but because you have to make certain every material and manufacturing process you use is safe not only for consumers, but for the workforce that creates it. The big scientific discoveries made life better for everyone on average, and the systems and techniques and regulations we have developed help make sure each individual is able to benefit from that knowledge personally. We have chosen to spend our effort on mitigating the clear downsides of progress, rather than plowing ahead with new discoveries.

This dynamic is illustrated by the development policy the Chinese seem to be following: explicitly trading pollution and worker safety for faster progress in order to catch up with the West. A brutal policy, but in fairness to them, didn't we do the same thing, with perhaps a little less self-awareness? The current Western policy is far more boring, even though it probably has greater benefits for the common man. For example, who knows the name of the man who invented the plastic barrels that sit at exit ramps and highway abutments? That man has saved thousands, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of lives. Preventing something from happening will always be less interesting than making something happen, no matter how useful it is. Yet, our culture happens to promote this. Is that really a bad thing?

The Peshawar Lancers Book Review

By KennyOMG - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By KennyOMG - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

by S. M. Stirling

$7.99; 483 pages

I picked up this book because Stirling co-authored several of the books collected in The Prince with Jerry Pournelle. I hadn't ever read a solo work by Stirling, so I was curious. I have had mixed success with Pournelle's co-authors. I tried reading a book by Niven, and while I liked it, I only liked it, I didn't love it. I picked up a work from Michael Flynn on the same day I bought this one, and I couldn't even finish it. I like Flynn enough to read his blog, but so far I've started but not finished two of his novels.

This book I loved. I'm going to go get more of Stirling's work, because this is everything I look for in a book: adventure, psychological insight, and a love of history and place. I also want to live in the world of the book. Not really, since most of the population of the Earth starved to death or was eaten after a comet hit in 1878, but Stirling has created a world where the Victorian age lasted an extra 150 years in the technological and cultural stasis the comet wrought.

You can always tell you have entered an alternate history when the airships show up. We see hydrogen dirigibles, difference engines, and an England with all the power and self-confidence of the Victorians, that never endured the morale-sapping Great War or de-colonization. Except without England, since they de-camped for the colonies once it became clear that winter wasn't going to end anytime soon after the comet hit.

I get a very Kipling vibe from The Peshawar Lancers, the love of a foreign place, adopted wholeheartedly as one's home. I wanted again and again to turn to a map of India, or to look up the history of place, or a caste, or a god. Like bored little boys everywhere, I learn history and geography better if you spice it up with a battle here or there. I think I like alternative history and historical fiction so much because the real world is so much more interesting than fictional ones, unless you are Tolkien. Stirling has all the color and pageantry of India to work with, and he does it well. He only had to make up one religion for this book, and it is really just an old religion with a new name. I never could find the religions in so many science fiction and fantasy books sociologically plausible. For example, in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series, you have a whole world that is just like ours, except without the religions that gave it shape. You have the chivalry of Westeros, who somehow act just like Christian knights, without the Christianity. There have been polytheistic mounted cavalry, they just act different.

Stirling doesn't have that problem, because he can just describe Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians as they are (or were), and let all that history give him as much backstory has he could ever need. Throw in some science, some history, some philology, some intrigue, and you have a hell of an adventure. Highly recommended.

My other book reviews

The Peshawar Lancers
By S. M. Stirling

Different Books at Different Times

One of my favorite things about books is how the same book can seem completely different at different times in your life. The best books can be profitably read again and again, with new insights each time. There have been a few books I tried to read, but I found that I had no enthusiam for them. For example Farmer Giles of Ham, by J. R. R. Tolkien. I found the short story rather boring the first time I read it, but I came back to it a few years later, and I greatly enjoyed it. Conversely, there have been books I really liked the first time I read them, like The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson, that I had to put down unfinished on a second reading. I hope it means my taste is getting better, but there really is no telling.

After recently finishing Burning Tower, I moved back to the Seafort Saga, by David Feintuch. I started these books two years ago on the recommendation of my late friend John J. Reilly. John's website, now defunct [but available on the Wayback Machine], had a review of the 5 of 7 books in the series that were available in 1996.

Who says they don’t write space-opera like they used to? I do. The Seafort Saga is a good example of how science fiction bears the imprint of the period in which it was written.

In some ways, this series might have been written in the early 1950s. Certainly the author makes assumptions that science fiction writers have been making for fifty years. Thus, a way has been found to travel faster than light and the United Nations has become a world government. More generally, certain aspects of life in the future closely resemble life in the author’s favorite area of the past, which in this case seems to be Queen Victoria’s navy.

John was my intellectual mentor on the internet, so I see things through lenses I got from him. I got into this series because I am interested in the cycles of history, and Feintuch created a world where the Second Religiousness took the form of a unified Christianity with a distinctly Anglican flavor. In fact, the whole world has a very English flavor, the United Nations Navy in space is an imitation of the Victorian Navy, and the social mores of the world have an early Victorian flair to them.

The first time I read this book, I was struck by the character of the eponymous Nicholas Seafort. I think he seems a lot like me, in a bad way. Whereas Colonel John Falkenberg is the man I wish I were, Nicholas Seafort is the man I am afraid I am. Perfectionistic and self-critical to a fault, alternating between decisive action and the brink of despair, awkward with the men under his command, apt to legal literalism, and quite lucky. I found the series a bit too depressing, and I had to put the book down.

The second time through, now I am struck by the kinds of choices Seafort makes in command, comparing and constrasting them with other novels about command that I like (cf. Pournelle corpus), and my own actions as the leader of an engineering team. I'm just enough older to feel more comfortable in my own skin, even though I still see in Seafort something of myself. I also see the strictness of the neo-Victorian navy's regulations in a different light. The regs are interpreted with an eye to the long term stability of the entire system, rather than looking primarily to see that justice be done here and now.

Geographic History

An idea formerly popular but now largely ignored is the influence of geography on history. However, like macrohistory or cliodynamics, there are a few hardy souls attempting to reinvigorate the concept. George Friedman gives a pretty good exposition at Stratfor:

The American geography is an impressive one. The Greater Mississippi Basin together with the Intracoastal Waterway has more kilometers of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined. The American Midwest is both overlaid by this waterway and is the world's largest contiguous piece of farmland. The U.S. Atlantic Coast possesses more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere combined. Two vast oceans insulated the United States from Asian and European powers, deserts separate the United States from Mexico to the south, while lakes and forests separate the population centers in Canada from those in the United States. The United States has capital, food surpluses and physical insulation in excess of every other country in the world by an exceedingly large margin. So like the Turks, the Americans are not important because of who they are, but because of where they live.

Read more: The Geopolitics of the United States, Part 1: The Inevitable Empire | Stratfor 

Adam Gropnik has a good review in the New Yorker of a number of recent books on the subject. This really is an interesting subject, especially if one can remember that culture and ideas matter too, and that all these things affect each other.


Right on Cue

Nature has an article on the attempt to fit cyclical models to history

CliologyI was about to say that interest in this subject waxes and wanes, but that is going too far. We do tend to forget the real attraction to Marxism in the early twentieth century was its promise to predict the future. These new mathematical models of history have never quite caught on in the same way [damn you mathematics!], but perhaps their time has not yet come.