The Long View: The Translator

John J. Reilly’s book review of John Crowley’s The Translator comes up at an apropos time: I am digesting a history of science fiction in the twentieth century, and The Translator seems to be a good example of science fiction as a kind of secular scripture.

There is one definition I want to post from 1973, because it is very revealing as to the type of people who made this separation such an obsessive goal to begin with. This is by Bulgarian writer Elka Konstantiova:

"Even though the origins of science fiction go back to the mid-19th century, nonetheless as a new literary genre, charged with special social functions, science fiction is the undoubted product of the nuclear age. The more meaningful the scientific and technological breakthroughs and their impact on modern life, the greater the role of science fiction, stimulating our vision for things to come, especially in the aspect of the changes wrought in man's mentality by the scientific and technological revolution. Science fiction brings home the awareness that the future will continue to bring radical changes in all areas of man's life; science fiction is there to prepare him for this eventuality."

In other words, it's secular scripture. Science fiction is a way to guide the populace by informing them on what path they should take to build a better tomorrow. Which better tomorrow, you might ask? Well, the one that will advance humanity as a whole.

This novel is a metaphorical [or metahistorical] interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and thus very much fits the mold described above.


The Translator
By John Crowley
HarperCollins, 2002
295 Pages, US$24.95
ISBN 0-380-97862-8

Remember the Great Atomic War of 1963? It's odd that you shouldn't, or so it seemed in later years to Christa Malone, the protagonist in this metahistorical interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis:

"The final logic of this [20th] century, this century that believed in logic and history and necessity, the final spasm so long and well prepared: it didn't happen, and now seemed likely never to happen."

The Translator explains why the inevitable did not happen, as well as something of the conflict in a higher world that the historical incidents of those days darkly reflected. This novel is not the long-awaited fourth volume of John Crowley's great work, the Aegypt series, but it does treat of many of the same themes: the end of the world, the hermetic subtext of everyday life, and the multiplicity of histories. The book is not precisely fantasy or science fiction, though readers may be reminded of Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven. Rather, the author tries to use just the suggestion of magic in order to rise above history and show that it is not what it seems. As a technique, that works well enough. However, the exercise also presents an example of the fallacy of "beyondism." Though affecting to view a historical conflict from the point of view of eternity, the author is really picking a side, and the stupid side at that.

A love story holds the novel together. Christa "Kit" Malone, a Catholic girl with a recently acquired dark past, comes to a Midwestern university in 1962. She makes many discoveries, some of them specific to her era. She is, for instance, slightly surprised to find that there really are Communists in America; she had begun to suspect that the nuns at school had make them up as minatory figures. Her chief discovery, though, is a Russian poet-in-exile, the mysterious Innokenti Isayevich Falin.

Falin is an uncanny fellow. He is one of those people, for instance, who seem able to appear and disappear without being seen to come and go. More concretely, there is the persistent question of why the Soviet government chose to exile him, when they did not exile, say, Pasternak. He also tells of a kind of life in the Soviet Union that has nothing to do with either the official world of the "gray gods," to use his phrase, or with the anticommunist polemics Kit heard from her nuns. Falin spent part of his childhood as a homeless vagabond in a Dickensian world of youth gangs and train stations, but "with no Dickens to make things right." Even in later life, Russia for him was a place where people just got lost, or were arrested for no reason even the jailors could name.

Kit becomes Falin's student, and later his translator. A fair amount of this book is about the difficulties of translation from one language to another, about whether a poem in translation is really the same poem. This being a John Crowley novel, however, we soon learn that translation is only a metaphor for the interface of worlds:

"Events in the world can perhaps be like rhyming words in poems: they can only, what would you say, pay off in one world, one translation, not in others. In one world people are cheering and weeping with joy, for best conclusion has been reached, heroes have come home safe. In another world, say this world, same events are events of no significance."

Falin's presence turns out to be of great significance in all worlds, however, because he is the way through which the apocalyptic logic of the 20th century can be confounded. Explaining it to her father long afterwards, Kit puts the reality of the Cold War this way:

"I think that back then, when he came to this country, there was a struggle going on between the angels of the nations, his and ours; and that in their anger and their fear, those angels came to destroy the world..."

Crowley's angels generally have more to do with the angels of the schoolmen than with those of popular comfort. Often they are like mathematical objects, insectile intelligences, both omniscient and stupid. There is more to be said about them, however. The great angels of the nations are attended by lesser angels, almost shadows, which complement their greater brethren's strengths and weaknesses. Falin describes the relationship in a poem written just before his disappearance, on the very night the danger of nuclear war crests and recedes. (There is a fair amount of original poetry in The Translator, and it's pretty good.):

"If a nation's angel is proud, then the other is shy
Brilliant if the nation's angel is dull
Full of pity if the angel shows none
Laughing if it always weeps, weeping if it cannot weep."

In a mysterious way, Falin embodies the lesser angel of Russia. In a wrap-around story set in a conference at St. Petersburg after the end of the Cold War, really a sort of Judgment Day in an afterlife, one of Falin's old friends expresses the real significance of Falin's exile:

"[The] worst thing such a corrupted great angel could do would be to send away into exile the lesser angel who is paired with him."

In some way that is not clearly explained, Falin intrudes himself into the attention of the idiot angels at just the right time to distract them from their work of mutual destruction. He dies, or returns to Russia, or otherwise vanishes, with only a car sunk ambiguously in a river to hint at his fate. The balance of the world begins to right itself, and we are given to understand that John Kennedy's assassination a year later was a compensating sacrifice.

The Translator reworks a notion that Crowley has been using for years. It is clearly set out in his famous story, The Great Work of Time, in which a disconcerted time traveler has this to say about an early 21st century world whose past has been unduly tinkered with:

"It was not simply a world inhabited by intelligent races of different kinds: it was a harder thing to grasp than that. The lives of the races constituted different universes of meaning, different constructions of reality; it was as though four or five different novels, novels of different kinds by different and differently limited writers, were to become interpenetrated and conflated: inside a gigantic Russian thing a stark and violent policier, inside that something Dickensian, full of plots, humor, and eccentricity. Such an interlacing of mutually exclusive universes might be comical, like a sketch in Punch; it might be tragic, too. And it might be neither: it might simply be what is the given against which all airy imaginings might finally be measured: reality."

This is not a bad way to put a story together, though we usually find it only in very long novels. The conceit of alternative realities lets us see the box-in-a-box structure. However, The Translator shows that this kind of structure is not necessarily a good way to think about history, or at any rate to write about it. If we can see the alternative worlds, we are outside them and can judge between them. The problem is that, in Crowley's telling, the view from eternity is awfully parochial. We get the first hint of this when Falin the Lesser Angel expresses reservations about a commencement speech that called on the graduates to simply "stick to your dream":

"Some dreams we do not wish that people stick to: we hope that they are weak, and do not cling to these dreams, that they fail to hold on. A dream that one day this world will be free of Jews. That Soviet Union will be destroyed. That all enemies of the state will be crushed. That only one God prevail everywhere."

One might plausibly object that these four aspirations do not belong on the same list. Indeed, it could be that anyone who thinks them morally equivalent is not unusually broadminded, but suffers from blinkered vision. In fact, as the story moves through the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we see that the view from eternity is essentially that of the early New Left. Kit learns that the sepia undergraduate world of the Kennedy years is a front for cruel and secret powers, as if the Land of Oz were really ruled by the East German Stasi. She even meets America's own lesser angel, in the person of an "intelligence agent" who could have walked out of an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. (He could not have come from The X-Files: Crowley does get the period right.) This discovery changes her life, even causing her to leave the country for a while. Eventually, though, she comes to grips with the powers that be:

"It was only when others who were braver than she was stood up to it - to them, to the secret power - gave a name to it, spoke truth to it; only when they came out in thousands and then tens of thousands singing Dona nobis pacem, that she found she could too."

It is perhaps some evidence that people really do live in different realities that I found this transformation so shocking. Could it really be the case that, even today, there are people who think that conversion to the New Left was a kind of enlightenment? Evidently, there is a world in which the victory of the West in the Cold War was an event without a rhyme.

Even so, it would be a mistake to miss this book because you might not find the political subtext congenial. The Translator succeeds in portraying the days of "The New Frontier" as the haunted time it actually was, as full of premonition in its way as the years before 1914. One need not be metaphysically inclined to accept that there may be more to history than meets the eye. For those who are so inclined, this book has good and bad angels for all.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Staring into Chaos

You can't get a much better summary of the strengths of the early metahistorians than this:

They suggest that basic science will be exhausted, though applied science will still have possibilities. They all expect that the vital elements in society will be increasingly religious, though a fossil secular cultural establishment may continue to exist. They anticipate some sort of universal government. As Spengler and Toynbee (though not Sorokin) might have put it, the decline-and-fall has already happened. All that remains is to work out the implications.

Staring into Chaos: Explorations in the Decline of Western Civilization
by B.G. Brander
Spence Publishing Company, 1998
418 pages, $29.95
ISBN: 0-965-3208-5-5

 

One of the ways this fin-de-siecle differs from the last time around is that you hear much less about "decline" and "degeneration." The idea of "organic" cultural decline, so common in the last few decades of the 19th century and widely discussed into the second half of the 20th, is simply alien to the postmodern worldview. B.G. Brander, a former writer for National Geographic and sometime reporter for the World Vision Global relief agency, has performed a useful service of recollection by providing this handy summary of the major "pessimist" philosophies of history of the last century or so. Besides, some of the metahistorians he discusses got just enough right about the 20th century to suggest they may be worth listening to regarding the 21st.

Brander gives accounts of the philosophies of the lesser metahistorians, such as Ernst von Lasaulx, Henry and Brooks Adams, Nikolai Danilevsky, Nikolai Berdyaev and Walter Schubart, as well as highlighting the prophetic utterances of people like Albert Schweitzer and Jakob Burckhardt, who are not normally remembered for their dark forebodings about the future. Most of these people shared the intuition, not at all uncommon in the late 19th century, that the Western world had entered a new "Hellenistic" age, and that the twentieth century was going to see a recurrence of the less pleasant aspects of Hellenism. These would include such things as demagogic tyrannies, ferocious warfare and a relaxation of traditional restraints in art and personal life. Nietzsche had said as much, of course, and anyone who entered the 20th century with this modest insight would not have been greatly surprised. Brander's primary concern, however, is the metahistorians who turned this notion into works of historical speculation as elaborate as grand operas: Oswald Spengler in "The Decline of the West," Arnold Toynbee in "A Study of History" and Pitirim Sorokin in "Social and Cultural Dynamics."

Though the mention of "The Decline of the West" still gives some people fits, no one can deny that the book has legs. Only two volumes long, it is the shortest of the three great metahistories, and it has been continually in print since the first volume appeared in 1918. Bombastic, deterministic, in some ways pig-ignorant of the civilizations it purports to cover (Spengler seems to have known nearly nothing about Chinese history after the third century AD), the fact remains that Spengler sometimes hit the nail on the head. The parallels he drew between the political history of the later West and that of Greco-Roman civilization are really quite acute. So is the book's analysis of the culture-specific aspects of modern and Greek mathematics. If Brander does Spengler a disservice, it is in repeating just what Spengler says, rather than trying to update it.

In its heyday (roughly 1948 to 1960), "A Study of History" was a much bigger phenomenon than "The Decline of the West" ever was. Weighing in at 12 volumes, the "Study" was certainly physically larger. It was published over three decades, and Brander asserts that it was the largest book of the 20th century. Toynbee drew many of the parallels that Spengler did, but with more qualifications and far more information. Toynbee's study was friendly to the role of religion in history and (especially in condensed versions) more fun to read than Fernand Braudel. Its notoriety, though, was largely the work of Henry Luce of Time magazine, who saw to it that his publishing empire touted the "Study" as the court philosophy of the American Century. Perhaps for that reason, we may have to await the recurrence of a cultural climate like that of the 1950s for Toynbee to make a comeback.

"Social and Cultural Dynamics" is the odd one in this group. Four volumes long, it was widely discussed when it began to appear in the late 1950s, but it never had the hold on the public imagination that the other metahistories had. Partly this was because Sorokin cheated: the book is based on an ocean of quantitative research, and its appendices are formidable. Sorokin eschewed the use of the familiar term "civilization." He spoke of "cultural supersystems," and he modestly concentrated his attention on those that had arisen in the West. Sorokin's system of three recurrent kinds of cultural epochs, "ideational," "integral" and "sensate," don't fit in any obvious way into conventional periodizations of history. The work describes historical "transitions" rather than melodramatic decline-and-falls. Still, the level of detachment and the attempt at empiricism that characterize Sorokin's great work may be an advantage some day, should metahistories come back into fashion.

Brander concludes with a section which tries to assess the continuing relevance of the grand metahistorians for the future, as seen from the end of the 20th century. This is harder than it sounds. Although Toynbee liked to refer to the year 2000 as the date by which this or that was bound to happen, the fact is that the turn of the millennium played no special role in any of their systems. (Spengler, who wrote long before the Cold War, may be the least dated now that it is over.) Still, there do seem to be some common themes in the expectations of these voices from the first half of the 20th century for the 21st:

They suggest that basic science will be exhausted, though applied science will still have possibilities. They all expect that the vital elements in society will be increasingly religious, though a fossil secular cultural establishment may continue to exist. They anticipate some sort of universal government. As Spengler and Toynbee (though not Sorokin) might have put it, the decline-and-fall has already happened. All that remains is to work out the implications.

 

A much shorter version of this review appeared in the December 1998 issue of First Things magazine.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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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: The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century

This is a seminal essay that John wrote for a presentation at the annual conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations, at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in Minnesota, USA in 2005. He synthesizes many of his ideas into a broader prediction of the 21st century.


The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century

 

By John J. Reilly
aesir@prodigy.net
For the 34th Annual Conference of the
International Society for the
Comparative Study of Civilizations
:
Civilizations, Religions and Human Survival
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
June 9-11, 2005

 

The term "Second Religiousness" was used by Oswald Spengler in his great metahistorical study, The Decline of the West, to mean the final phase in the spiritual development of a civilization. (1) This phase arrives "after history," when all internal development is over, and the only change possible is accident or syncretism. To put it briefly, this refers to a time when the primordial religion comes back: holy people, holy law, holy places overshadow the theological systems that the civilization creates earlier in its history, as well as the skepticism that briefly replaces religion among the educated. With the coming of the Second Religiousness, there is no longer any great divide between popular and elite opinion on these matters.

It is easy to multiply examples of what Spengler was talking about: popular Sufism, and later Wahhabism, in Islam; millenarian Taoism in China; emperor-worship and Stoic piety in the Roman world. All comparative studies of civilizations are a footnote to Spengler: this paper is a footnote to a footnote, the one on page 311 of the second volume of The Decline of the West. There, Spengler says the Second Religiousness still lies many generations in the future of the West, but he speculates briefly about what the Western Second Religiousness would look like when it finally arrives:

"It is perhaps possible for us to make some guess as to these forms, which (it is self-evident) must lead back to certain elements of Gothic Christianity. But be this as it may, what is quite certain is that they will not be the product of any literary taste for Late-Indian or Late-Chinese speculation, but something of the type, for example, of Adventism and suchlike sects." (2)

Well, here we are, at least three generations after that was published in 1922, so let us take another look.

Here is the gist of Spengler's model of history. The notion is that at least some societies develop in roughly the same way over a period of between 1,000 and 1,500 years. They begin as feudal societies organized by common metaphysical insights; they become increasingly urban and develop those insights into characteristic art and philosophy and politics; they enter a period corresponding to Western modernity, which Spengler dates to the French Revolution, that is intellectually skeptical and politically chaotic; finally, they enter the age of Caesarism and full civilization. By then, as a rule, the international system has collapsed into what Spengler called the Imperium Mundi, and which Arnold Toynbee would later call a "universal state." The Second Religiousness is the spiritual complement of Caesarism.

We should note two things about this outline. One is that, considered just as a narrative structure, it is very close to Northrop Frye's definition of a "comedy," meaning a form of drama in which what was hidden and implicit in the first act is revealed and explicit in the last. (3) The other is that it is actually not a bad description of the ancient Mediterranean world through the end of the Western Roman Empire and of China through the Latter Han. It works after a fashion for the second round of Chinese history and, maybe, for the Middle East. It also seems to work well for the West in the second millennium. Why should the model work? That is a good question. (4) All that concerns us here, however, is that the model suggests that modernity in the West will end in something like the way the Hellenistic Period and the Era of Contending States ended in antiquity.

Spengler and Toynbee both assert that the world of late civilization becomes resacralized, not because the critical intelligence is repressed or underfunded, but because it refutes itself. We can empathize with this: postmodernism, someone said, is not a philosophy, but a "bag of tricks." (5) To the metahistorians, that is the fate of every great philosophical tradition. It becomes a canon, an armory of techniques, which no longer makes strong claims to truth. According to Toynbee, this is what happens then:

"If we pass to our examination of the complementary movements in which the philosophers of the dominant minority make their approach towards the religions of the internal proletariat, we shall find that on this side the processes begins earlier, besides going farther. It begins in the first generation after the breakdown; and it passes from curiosity through devoutness into superstition." (6)

Toynbee, at least in his later period, did not regard this transition as much of a loss, because he became convinced that the meaning of history is the development of the higher religions. Civilizations, and particularly the universal states into which they collapse in their final stage, can be justified only because they act as chrysalises for Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam: add your own examples. Notice that Toynbee was no longer thinking just about the religious future of the West, but of the whole world, which he held was moving toward an ecumenical society.

In the middle of the 20th century, Toynbee was not the only person having thoughts along these lines. In 1956, William Ernest Hocking, the theology-friendly Harvard Pragmatist, published what I think is a remarkable little book called The Coming World Civilization. (7) It scarcely speculates about what that civilization will be like. Rather, the book argues that any society must have some transcendent basis, and goes on to discern what the transcendent basis for a universal society must be.

Little of what Hocking says is original, but is nonetheless important. For instance:

"[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art — the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command...

"We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We have taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

"We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things." (8)

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. (9) Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the inner disposition of the individual is essential. Political rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Hocking was keen to link the basis of science with the basis of religion. He tells us that the experience of the Thou, of a rational Other, is the foundation of science, and is identical to the intuition of the existence of God. Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. For instance, the will to futurity is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer.

As an aside here, we may note that, in Spengler's system, the era of the Second Religiousness is also the period in physical science becomes another finished canon. Spengler's favorite example is Classical mathematics, which culminated in Euclidian geometry and then just stopped, though there were plenty of teachers of mathematics for centuries afterward. If you need a parallel example today, it might be the search for a Theory of Everything. Curiously, Stephen Jay Gould's last book on popular science, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox (10), outlined a model for integrating science and humane learning, including religion, by using the concept of "non-overlapping magisteria," which is very similar to Hocking's model. What Gould wants to avoid is the sociobiological reductionism that his colleague, E. O. Wilson, advocated in his book Consilience.

In any case, what Hocking was trying to do was to end inter-religious controversy, and for that he employs a form of existentialism. Start with this premise: the sense of sin is not an artificial guilt created by an external command, but a direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand. When Hocking talks about religious unity in the world civilization, he was not predicting a new revelation. He advocated that the existing great religious traditions accept that they are united at their summits, where creed becomes wordless experience. (Again, if you are familiar with René Guénon or Frithjof Schuon, none of this will sound new. (11)) Hocking did argue that Christianity would play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era, because the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

One might note that the necessity for a transcendent basis of world order has not been lost on the Bush Administration. In his Second Inaugural Address, President Bush identified the transcendent basis of the United States as the principle that legitimizes America's role in the world:

"America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth." (12)

This aspect of 21st-century geopolitics is one of the key themes of Walter Russell Mead's essential book, Power, Terror, Peace, and War. (13) Mead accepts the Bush Administration's assessment that nothing less than the Kantian Peace of a world of liberal republics can ensure the security of the United States. Unlike Kant, though, Mead recognizes that any world consensus for world order must have some basis less self-referential than the Categorical Imperative. Meade argues that there are two reasons to applaud the appearance of conservative ecumenism in the United States among Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Orthodox Jews. The first is that, by deploying Realpolitik for moral ends, American governments can hope for a level of domestic political support that, frankly, Cold War internationalism never enjoyed. The second is that a conspicuously religious America can actually make the United States a more attractive partner to much of the world. It is not Christianity that offends Muslims, Mead argues, but atheism. American hegemony is in competition with secular transnationalism, and it is not at all clear that the secular transnationalists have a long-term advantage.

This raises the question of just what kind of transcendent the world wants. Hocking said that Christianity should deal with modernity by divesting itself of its own mythological and cultural baggage, so that it can become less Western and more Christian. Well, now we know better. "Exculturation" refers to the process by which a religious denomination becomes disassociated from the surrounding culture. (14) It may reject its own traditions to meet the believer afresh, the way a missionary would. Many denominations and religious institutions actually tried this in the last half of the 20th century; they lost their old audience and gained no new one. The prospects for a worldwide religious revival have not dimmed with the passing decades, however. The irony is that the religion of an ecumenical society cannot be Hocking's Christian existentialism, but it might be Pentecostalism.

This, at any rate is what one might gather from Philip Jenkins's book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. (15) Anyone who foresees a Muslim future is going to be gravely disappointed, he says, if for no other reason than that Christianity is well represented in the countries with the fastest-growing populations. In fact, that has been the case for centuries, even though the areas of growth have changed. Demographics are the least of it, however.

In general, he characterizes the Christianity of the South (which, oddly, includes the East, except for Japan) as visionary, charismatic, apocalyptic. At the same time, it is also theologically and culturally conservative. Jenkins points out that, when the Vatican reasserts dogmas that seem to Europeans and Americans to run against the tide of history, it is in fact simply responding to the Church's key demographics.

Jenkins cites repeatedly Harvey Cox's noted study of the worldwide spread of Pentecostal worship, Fire from Heaven. (16) By Pentecostalism, Jenkins does not mean principally the self-identified Pentecostal denominations, important though those are. More important is the spread of a pluripotent spirituality through the older denominations. If present trends continue, there will be a billion Pentecostals, variously defined, by 2050.

Jenkins says that, in much of the South in which this spirituality is spreading, we are back in the world of the New Testament. Much of the world is becoming urbanized in chaotic megalopolises The displaced people there need communities, and services that the government cannot provide, which in part explains the growth of the new churches. In the long run, Jenkins suggests, the greater threat to secular McWorld may not be the Jihad, but the Crusade. The North could eventually define itself against Christianity.

Reasonable people might quarrel with Jenkins' conclusions, and for that matter with his facts. He himself points out that there is a long tradition on both the Right and Left in developed countries of using the South for rhetorical purposes. A generation ago, the radical Left said that political battles that were lost in the West would be won in the South and East. Now conservatives are saying the same thing. One suspects that the Right will be just as surprised by what actually happens as the Left ever was.

So far we have been eliding the difference between the future spiritual state of the West and that of the rest of the world. That actually makes more sense in Toynbee's model, which, as we have seen, tries to understand world history in terms of spiritual evolution. But let us take a look at the final form of the West, or at least of the Western tradition.

When both Spengler and Toynbee wrote about the future, they had a preference for images of blood and iron, which was perfectly reasonable, considering the era in which they lived. It would be rash to assume that we have all the blood and iron behind us. However, these models of history that foresee the end of modernity also see the beginning of an era of peace, when all the great questions are answered. Francis Fukuyama wrote a book about this 15 years ago; the thesis of The End of History (17) can still be defended, even if its application to current events seems in retrospect premature. Fukuyama is not a Spenglerian, but Hermann Hesse was, for some purposes. If you want an image of the world of the Second Religiousness, you could do much worse than to read The Glass Bead Game. (18)

We get no dates, but the novel seems to be set around the beginning of the early 24th century. The age of wars has ended. We learn that major historical events no longer happen in the Occident. The Catholic Church seems to be as influential again as it was in the High Middle Ages. There is a lively intellectual life, but it is directed toward competition in a sort of game show, the "Glass Bead Game" of the title. Scholars in that period have to struggle to understand what the past meant by terms like "Bohemian" and "avant-garde," or even "revolutionary." Modernity is called "the Age of Wars" or the "Age of the Feuilleton," thus suggesting a connection between universal disorder and a culture that lacked intellectual seriousness. The Introduction puts it like this:

"The world had changed. The life of the mind in the Age of the Feuilleton might be compared to a degenerate plant which was squandering its strength in excessive vegetative growth, and the subsequent corrections to the pruning back of the plant to its roots...[It had] become common knowledge, or at least a universal sense, that the continuance of civilization depends on this strict schooling. People know, or dimly feel, that if thinking is not kept pure and keen, and if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer's slide rule and the computations of banks and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue. It took long enough in all conscience for realization to come that the externals of civilization -- technology, industry, commerce, and so on -- also require a common basis of intellectual honesty and morality." (19)

This is oddly reminiscent of the account of the Roman Empire that Peter Brown gave in The Making of Late Antiquity. (20) The more common view has it that the glittering culture of the empire in the second century masked a spiritual and intellectual vacuum. The civil wars and economic immiseration of the third century simply revealed the real state of things. Many historians who say this also characterize the rise of Christianity as a "loss of nerve," as men fled from reason in a world that no longer seemed to make sense. Brown, however, says that the fusion of piety, culture, and society under the high empire was adaptive, because it served to prevent the recurrence of the excesses of the late Republic.

Brown keeps the conventional structure, but changes the plus and minus signs. Maybe the culture of the Antonine period was more interested in the performance of classical styles than in creation; that is where Hesse's Glass Bead Game comes in. However, the formalities of Antonine culture did serve to channel private ambition. At the local level, the empire ran on the competition between notables to garner popularity through providing public amenities. Roman politics during the Republic had degenerated into a potlatch of vote-buying; the control of the state was at stake. Two centuries later, competition took the more seemly form of privately financed infrastructure and religious festivals; generally, the only thing at stake was good repute, which was quite enough.

What was true politically was also true spiritually. The empire in the second century did not lack for cults and proselytizers. For the most part, however, such wizards kept their claims limited. Toward their colleagues, they were tactful. Ordinary people believed that they had direct access to the supernatural through oracles (the gods spoke notoriously good Greek in this period) and through dreams. Brown repeatedly mentions the dream-compendium of Artemidorus, composed around AD 140, which reports dreams from all around the Mediterranean, along with their interpretations. Some of these dreams were quite dramatic. In other cultures, at other times, they might have launched the careers of prophets and conquerors. In the Antonine empire, in contrast, their use was diagnostic. Indeed, Freud cited Artemidorus as a sort of forerunner.

This condition did not last after Marcus Aurelius, but Brown emphasizes that the empire of the third century was not seized by superstitious hysteria. (21) Quite the opposite: people saw the supernatural as just another of life's problems. As in the second century, people in the later empire believed they encountered the supernatural daily. The difference was that they tried to limit their contact with it.

In the third century, the mechanisms that had dampened ambition no longer worked. This development was overdetermined: civil war, barbarian invasion, monetary inflation; the list is well known. The traditional life of the towns and smaller cities did not break down, but exploded upward, seeking powerful protectors. Society everywhere became more pyramidal. The powerful mined civic life, sometimes even diverting public buildings to private use. One is reminded of privatization in some post-Communist countries, particularly in the former Soviet Union and once-upon-a-time Yugoslavia.

Something similar happened spiritually. In the third century, the "debate about the holy" became a matter of life and death, of salvation and damnation. The great anxiety of the age, in Brown's telling, was to sort out saints from sorcerers. Just as in public life people sought reliable connections to the center of power, so in spiritual practice people sought out "friends of God," who could be relied on not to exploit the connection. The early Christian desert fathers gained credibility precisely because they did not promise magical effects.

Is this the future? I don't know. One thing is certain, though: Oswald Spengler inspired some really great science fiction, of which perhaps the best-known example is Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. (22) In those books, a scholar named Hari Seldon develops a model for predicting the future, and he tries to ensure the best of all possible outcomes for crises that will occur long after his death. During one of those crises, a group of politicians meet, and ask what Seldon meant them to do. They finally realize that, if Seldon long ago could see the answer to their problems, then they should be able to see it now that Seldon's future had arrived.

That will always be sound advice.


Notes

(1) The Decline of the West, Volume I, by Oswald Spengler, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson (Alfred A Knopf, 1926; German original 1918), p. 424.

(2) The Decline of the West, Volume II, by Oswald Spengler, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson (Alfred A Knopf, 1928; German original 1922), p. 311note

(3) Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrop Frye (Princeton University Press, 1957; Paperback 1990). Comedy is defined on pages 43, 44, but see Frye's own views on Spengler at 160, 343. Note also that Spengler himself said that Western civilization is uniquely tragic, because it insists on a historical goal even after history is over: see Spengler, Decline, Volume I, p. 365.

(4) The use of the "generation" as a fixed quantum of historical change has, perhaps, rendered parallels in the pace of historical change in different societies a little less mysterious. For a popular treatment, see Generations: History of America's Future, 1584—2029, by William Strauss & Neil Howe (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991).

(5) See, for instance, "A Bag of Tired Tricks," by B. R. Meyers: Atlantic Monthly, May 2005 (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200505/myers)

(6) A Study of History, by Arnold Toynbee: Somervell Abridgement (Oxford University Press, 1947), Volume I, p. 478

(7) The Coming World Civilization, by William Ernest Hocking (Harper & Brothers, 1956)

(8) Hocking, pp. 6, 7

(9) Ibid.

(10) The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities, by Stephen Jay Gould (Harmony Books, 2003)

(11) The modern doctrine of the transcendental unity of religions is called "traditionalism" or "Tradition." The leading study is Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, by Mark Sedgwick (Oxford University Press, 2004).

(12) See: http://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural/index.html

(13) Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk, by Walter Russell Mead (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

(14) The term "exculturation" was coined by the French sociologist, Danièle Hervieu-Léger. My use of it here, as a self-destructive modernizing tendency in religions, follows that of Gianni Ambrosio in his article, "On the Future of Catholicism in France" (English title from the Italian original), in La Rivista del Clero Italiano (No. 12, 2004), which was excerpted for the English-language version of Chiesa (May 9, 2005) by Sandro Magister (http://www.chiesa.espressonline.it/dettaglio.jsp?id=30332&eng=y).

(15) The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2002)

(16) Fire from Heaven, by Harvey Cox (Reading, MA; Addison-Wesley, 1995)

(17) The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama (The Free Press, 1992)

(18) Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse: German Original Das Glasperlenspiel (1943); English Translation by Richard and Clara Winston (Bantam Books, 1986)

(19) Hesse, pp. 24-26

(20) The Making of Late Antiquity, by Peter Brown (Harvard University Press Paperback, 1993). The book contains the Carl Newell Jackson lectures of 1976.

(21) An issue that lies beyond the scope of this paper is Spengler's interpretation of Christianity as a development of the Springtime of what he calls the Magian Culture of the Near East, a Culture part of whose territory happened to be controlled by Greco-Roman Civilization during the latter's Winter. One result of this accidental overlap was "pseudomorphosis," the cloaking of Magian spirit in Classical form. An example might be the cult of Apollonius Tyana, a Sophist contemporary of Jesus with a reputation as a wonderworker. Scholars of the New Testament often point out the formal similarity between the canonical Gospels and the early third-century biography of Apollonius by Philostratus. (See, e.g., What is a Gospel? by Charles H. Talbert (Fortress Press, 1977).) The difference is that we must imagine that the Sermon on the Mount dealt with the benefits of a high-fiber diet.

(22) Foundation (1951); Foundation and Empire (1952); Second Foundation (1953), by Isaac Asimov (Doubleday & Company)

The Long View: Anatomy of Criticism

As a believer that great works of synthesis are the characteristic work of our age, I support this kind of book.


Anatomy of Criticism
By Northrop Frye
Foreword by Harold Bloom
Princeton University Press, 1957
(Paperback 1990)
383 Pages, $17.95
ISBN 0691069999

 

A review of this book really should not be a text. It should be a diagram of a landscape, like a medieval mappa mundi, or maybe like one of those intricate cosmological charts that brilliant schizophrenics sometimes produce. The subject is the whole of literature, a continent whose shores are the boundary between imagination and experience, and whose countries are marked by the undefended frontiers between comedy, tragedy, masque, romance, the novel, the lyric, and every form and type of recorded use of imaginative language. The book was written just before the rise of postmodernism, at almost the last moment when a serious critical study could aspire to tell readers how the whole world is, rather than how it isn't. The book is dense, therefore, but it is not malicious.

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) needs no introduction, but that consideration has never yet stopped a reviewer. Frye was the Canadian academic magus who was not Marshall McLuhan, who was his colleague at the University of Toronto, but reportedly not his friend. In the 1960s, both achieved worldwide reputations. McLuhan's theme was the emergence of universal consciousness in a world mediated by audio-visual technology. Frye's project was ahistorical, and far more ambitious: to grasp the whole world of story. He seems to have spent the rest of his long career unpacking the details of the vision he synthesized in Anatomy of Criticism.

One should note that Frye's reach exceeded his grasp. Though he sought a universal synthesis, Anatomy of Criticism is chiefly about English literature, beginning with Shakespeare. The literatures of the Classical world are consulted for parallel historical development; the Christian Bible is searched for themes and structures. (Frye himself was an ordained Methodist minister.) European writers are conflated with their anglophone contemporaries. There are a few references to Hindu literature, and fewer to anthropology.

Frye's project is to identify and classify the archetypes of literature. These include the sort of things that Jung and Joseph Campbell have taught us to identify as archetypes. We are suitably instructed in the various incarnations of the hero's Quest, for instance, though Frye points out that Jung's idea of a collective unconscious is an unnecessary hypothesis for literature. Most of Frye's form analysis is technical but illuminating, such as the observation that the clever slaves in the comedies of Plautus and Terence are structurally equivalent to the subversive villains of drama, such as Iago. Other analyses are broad and illuminating: if I understand correctly, for instance, he suggests that the whole Bible is a comedy. In any case, particular observations of this sort culminate in glimpses of the Platonic Forms, Greek vocabulary and all:

The four mythoi that we are dealing with, comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony, may now be seen as four aspects of a central unifying myth. Agon or conflict is the basis or archetypical theme of romance, the radical of romance being a sequence of marvelous adventures. Pathos or catastrophe, whether in triumph or in defeat, is the archetypal theme of tragedy. Sparagmos, or the sense that heroism and effective action are absent, disorganized or foredoomed to defeat, and that confusion and anarchy reign over the world, is the archetypal theme of irony and satire. Anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, is the archetypal theme of comedy.

Anatomy of Criticism would not be so notable if it were a static taxonomy. It is more like a phase space, a model that describes every possible state of the system through time. The key to that is Frye's five “modes” of fiction, with each mode defined by the power of the hero. Here they are, in their proper order, which also happens to be a brief outline of the development of literary forms in the modern West since the Dark Ages, and of the ancient West in the previous cycle:

---In the mode of myth, the hero is superior in kind to other men and the environment of other men. These stories in which the hero is a divine being are important for literature, but generally fall outside the normal literary categories.

---In a romance, the hero is superior in degree to other men and to the environment, but is simply an extraordinary human being. The laws of nature in romances are often not those that we meet in the real world, but they are self-consistent once they are established.

---The high mimetic mode obtains when the hero is superior in degree to other men, but not to the environment. This is the kind of hero Aristotle principally had in mind: the leader whom we find in most epic and tragedy.

---The low mimetic mode treats of a hero who is no better than the rest of us, which we find in most comedy and realistic fiction. We respond to the hero's common humanity in this sort of fiction. The story must display the canons of probability that we use in ordinary experience.

---When the hero has less power or intelligence than ourselves, so that the scene is one of bondage, absurdity, or frustration, the mode is ironic.

Frye tells us that irony, pushed to extremes, returns to the mode of myth. Characters who are so constrained by circumstances that they fall below the level of common humanity become hard to distinguish from the superhumans of myth: both kinds of stories enact archetypal patterns that do not turn on ordinary questions of personality or motivation. Frye's chief example of this return to myth is Finnegan's Wake, but we also see it in the low mimetic mode, particularly in science fiction.

This notion of the “recursion” of historical cycles is familiar from Vico. It is even more familiar from Spengler, whose ideas Frye assumed and fought against throughout his career. Since I have a rather similar relationship with Spengler's model of history, I have no trouble understanding what Frye is trying to say in statements like this:

Participation mystique is essentially spasmodic: in primitive communities it may be sustained for hours by dance, and in decadent ones, by oratory, but in a state of culture it falls into the background

"Culture," of course, in Spengler's parlance, means roughly the period from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 19th century. After that, we began to see the return of Mass Man that McLuhan was so keen to tell us about. Frye continued to work for several decades after Anatomy of Criticism, and this is by no means the favorite work of all of Frye's admirers. Still, I cannot help but wonder whether, in this book, he was attempting to create one of the great summa that Spengler predicted would be the glory of the final stage of the Western intellect.

This is not to say that this work is predominantly Spenglerian. A lesser critic could have used Frye's system of modes to tell a tale of decline and fall from the primordial age of faith to the 20th century's kali yuga of irony and nihilism. Frye, in contrast, points out that elements of each mode are present in every age. In fact, at every point he reminds us that his system does not judge the quality of any piece of literature; the system simply assigns a work to its proper place in the structure of literature. He will, in fact, have nothing to do with a theory of criticism that praises or disparages a work because of its consonance with the classics of the past, or because it is supposed to reflect the state of things in a brighter future. Such questions are part of the history of taste. The confusion of criticism with taste detracts from the total sum of human knowledge.

In Frye's model of literature, it is impossible to produce a form of work that is original in the sense of “new.” Even the most self-consciously avant guard artist will employ ancient archetypes and structures, however obscurely. Actually, Frye suggests, those authors whom we treasure for their originality were really original in quite a different sense: they returned to the archetypal origins for their stories, and thus often cut through the accretions and refinements with which their contemporaries were familiar. Frye explains that even the greatest author is not the greatest expert on his own work for the purposes of criticism. The critic discerns the form and phase of the work; the work's author is not necessarily equipped to do that.

Some of Frye's ideas remain stunning. In the next two generations, however, notions very much like his ideas led to the demoralizing relativism in academic life from which we have not yet recovered. As an aside, I must also point out that Frye's notion of “primordial originality” sounds much like the principle of “resourcement” that gained currency in the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council a few years later. This was the idea that the way to reform was to “return to sources,” particularly to the Fathers of the Church and to historical reconstructions of the earliest forms of liturgy. In practice, the attempts to carry out this program often had unfortunate results.

Be that as it may, the final impression I took away from this book was its encyclopedic scope. Actually, it goes beyond encyclopedic. I have never seen an encyclopedia that covered this aspect of rhetoric:

In English we have Burton, who is said to have amused himself by going down to the Isis and listening to the bargemen swear. Perhaps his visits were professional, for the qualities of his style are essentially the qualities of good swearing: a swinging sense of rhythm, a love of invective and catalogue, an unlimited vocabulary, a tendency to think in short and accentual units, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the two subjects relevant to swearing, theology and personal hygiene. All of these except the last are musical characteristics.

The book says quite a lot about music, too.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Religion and Governance: A Response

The future that still hasn't happened.

The future that still hasn't happened.

I can't find fault with John's notion that future has a tendency to turn out otherwise than expected.


Religion and Governance:
A Response

 

by John J. Reilly

 

This comment is in reply to the paper, "Religion and Governance," produced by Harlan Cleveland and Marc Luyckx for the Seminar on Governance and Civilization (May 14 -16), which was sponsored by the European Commission. The paper is a very broad-guage consideration of the role of religion in the 21st century in the "governance" of society. The geographical scope of the inquiry seems to be universal, but with special reference to Europe and the United States.

"Governance" is a broad-guage concept itself, since it includes not just what governments do, but also how other institutions of civil society, from business corporations to sporting clubs, systematically influence how people think and behave. The basic conclusion of the paper is that the non-religious public life of secular modernity, what Richard John Neuhaus called the "naked public square," is going to be again ornamented with religious meanings and institutions. The paper seeks to outline what kind of meanings and institutions these might be. It also seeks to spot possible occasions for social conflict that were not present in the more secular era that this future replaces.

There are two common ways to predict the future. One is to locate the present on the map of a model of history, the other is to extrapolate from features of the world as it is. "Religion and Governance" does both.

The model of history has the familiar structure of three ages. The first age was the premodern era, when the world was not just religious but enchanted. Society was governed by hierarchies that intermediated between the human and the transcendent. The second age was modernity, which was rationalistic and anti-transcendent. It, too, was hierarchical, but for reasons of efficiency. Because it made distinctions that once had been fused in a holy wholeness, it allowed for the development of individual autonomy and freedom of inquiry.

The age to come is called simply the "transmodern." Its cultural content is already apparent in the thinking of "cultural creatives," which seems to be a new term for "progressive" or "avant garde." Among transmodernism's elements are "intuitive brainwork," the celebration of diversity, the central importance of the protection of the physical environment, the acknowledgment of humanity's role in its own evolution, a public role for spirituality, and a preference for networks over hierarchies.

The problem with this analysis is that it gives too little attention to the content of the present per se. All we are told about today is that we are living in a transitional period. This description is trivially true of any historical period you can think of, since the past is always turning into the future. Still, there are indeed some unusual periods, such as the first half of the 16th century, when it is more true than in others. I see no reason to doubt that late modernity is such an age. If this true, however, then today should be more different from its immediate future than is usually the case. The present should, on the other hand, be less different from its immediate past than from its future; "postmodernism" is just late modernity, which is to say, modernism that has become a familiar running gag.

Most of the elements that "Religion and Governance" single out as features of the transmodern future are probably features of our highly unusual present. This is particularly the case with those elements of contemporary cultural life that render it so plastic and indeterminate. The toleration of diversity, the antipathy to traditional hierarchies, the fixation on new information technologies: these are the sort of thing you would expect to see in a transitional period. The plasticity is necessary for the creation of a new synthesis. When the synthesis is achieved, however, it will have a specific content that will be defended.

"Religion and Governance" probably hits the nail right on the head when it says that the chief conflicts in the future having a religious dimension will be between "fundamentalists" and "cultural creatives." The paper also does well to counsel an irenic dialog among all parties. Nevertheless, I suspect that the identification of fundamentalists with the "premodern" and of cultural creatives (or "liberals") with the "transmodern" is seriously misleading.

One of the defining features of the current cultural period is precisely the deadening influence of what in politics is sometimes called "reactionary liberalism." We live in a time in which the artistic avant garde has not had an original idea since 1910, but asserts a new-found right to public funds. For many people, the last word in social enlightenment is still a bohemianism that was weary fifty years ago. Even theology is transfixed by a "critical method" that was abandoned by classicists long before living memory. In the next century, all this stuff is going to go.

Does this mean that the transmodern world is going to be a conservative's paradise? Almost certainly not; "Religion and Governance" is correct to emphasize that the Third Age will have both modern and premodern features. All I am suggesting is that the coming age will be a Hegelian synthesis, and not simply an extension of the present.

 

END

This article originally appeared in the Religious Futurists Bulletin (October, 1998), an organ of the World Network of Religious Futurists.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Lucifer Principle

Oath of the Horatii

Oath of the Horatii

This is a rare book I read before John recommended it. I think this is a worthy summary.


The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History

by Howard Bloom

The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995
466 pp., $24.00
ISBN 0-87113-532-9

 

If, like the present reviewer, you are a sucker for theories of history, you could do worse than this Social Darwinist theory-of-everything by Howard Bloom, a writer of popular science and noted PR man. The basic idea is reasonable enough: ideas are subject to much the same kind of survival pressures that genes are. Richard Dawkins, who popularized the notion that living organisms are simply carrying-cases that genes use to preserve and multiply themselves, also suggested that clusters of ideas, which he called "memes," similarly use human brains to survive. Bloom has taken this notion for a spin around the block. Just as genes care little for the fate of individuals and frequently promote behaviors that result in short, violent lives for individuals, so ideas drive people to war, revolution and communal strife in such a way as to promote the ideas' own distribution. The "Lucifer Principle" of the title is the thesis that history has been so bloody because ruthless "natural selection" applies to all levels of life, both the biological and the social.

Theory-of-history buffs know, of course, that one of the charms of this type of literature is the opportunity to watch reasonable-sounding universal principles turn into parodies of themselves as their implications are developed. "The Lucifer Principle" does not disappoint on this score. The book has especially wonderful chapter titles, such as "Oliver Cromwell--The Rodent Instincts Don a Disguise," "Righteous Indignation = Greed for Real Estate," and "Are There Killer Cultures?" It is, of course, perfectly true that ideas often prosper because of their success as social glue rather than because of any intrinsic merit they may have. Still, the fact of the matter is that the chief "survival" tests that ideas must pass are their own internal consistency and their conformance with the empirical world. Bloom sometimes seems to suggest that any idea which is not a matter of immediate sense experience is fictitious, a denizen of "the Invisible World," and so can be judged only with regard to its ability to survive. However, it is perverse to simply assume that abstractions which have spread widely through the world, from the theology of the Trinity to the idea of the number "zero," owe no part of their success to their intrinsic aesthetic properties or to practical utility. To return to the biological analogy, there are indeed genes that survive simply as genes, as biochemical tricks that are played on living organisms. We call such genes "viruses," and we recognize that they are parasitic on real life. Much the same is probably true of ideas.

An interesting feature of the book is the way that memes and their deterministic control over everything seem to have less and less explanatory power as you get to social questions that interest the author. Thus, for instance, the answer to the question "Are There Killer Cultures?" is "yes," and the chief example is Islam. This religion is, it seems, a particularly bloody-minded "meme." It is far more aggressive and cruel than today's Western civilization. Although social interactions are governed by the inhuman struggle of memes to survive, still we are told, with no preamble, that these things are "a matter of degree." The final chapters of the book simply restate the arguments of the "declinists," such as those found in Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," augmented by a metaphorical interpretation of international relations as a barnyard pecking order. Bloom's policy recommendations sound less like those of a Social Darwinist than of a back-to-basics education reformer.

The author's metaphysical system (which is what his "theory" is) really leaves no perspective from which to criticize nature, "red in tooth and claw." It is therefore not clear why he expresses the hope we might channel our violent tendencies into peaceful pursuits. It would be more logical to argue, like Nietzsche, that the most natural thing to do is overcome our inherited humanitarian prejudices. The fundamental incoherence of the book is not because of some particular flaw in the author's logic, however, but because of the impossibility of what he is trying to do. Historical reductionism simply does not work, whether the universal principle you propose is class conflict, or a Masonic conspiracy, or a covert extraterrestrial breeding program. In the final analysis, the best such theories of history can be is entertaining.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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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.


Millennium:
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: The Coming World Civilization

William Ernest Hocking

William Ernest Hocking

The most interesting idea to come out of this book by William Ernest Hocking is the 'unlosables', those aspects of a culture that persist even when the society that created them falls into decay. It the unlosables that we speak of when we refer to the Greek or Roman heritage of the West. In many ways, Western Civilization has very little in common with Classical Greece or Rome. The Roman ideal of justice, for example, would be seen as unspeakably brutal by nearly everyone in the United States or Western Europe. Yet, there is a certain something that we do share, that has outlived its creators by millennia.

Hocking wanted to sift out what is unlosable in our civilization. John wasn't entirely sure he got there, but it is much harder to evaluate our own selves in such a way.

There are a couple of really striking paragraphs here:

First, from Hocking:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.
“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

And next, from John Reilly:

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

These two ideas have stuck with me for a very long time. Perhaps not unlosable, but pretty good. I shan't speculate what might fit that requirement; the only way I know to identify them is after the fact. If you could identify these ideas in advance, that Golden Age scifi conceit of truly scientific social science might become a reality.

Richard Dawkins' memes have not proven to be particularly useful as scientific concepts, but Hocking's unlosables seem to share a family resemblance to memes. In an analogous way to how genes outlast the species in which they evolved, unlosables can persist when a culture has been entirely eliminated from the Earth.  More's the pity that Dawkins never read anything by a real philosopher, it might have helped him shore up his most distinctive idea.


The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking
Harper & Brothers, 1956
210 Pages

 

 

This book is about just one feature of the hypothetical coming world civilization: the nature of the religion that civilization will need to undergird it. The gist of the answer is that Christianity is best suited for that role, but a Christianity stripped of mythology, and reconceptualized in existential terms. The book's argument has many similarities to esoteric Tradition, but is devoid of reference to the modern esoteric writers.

William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) chaired the philosophy department at Harvard University around 1940; Alfred North Whitehead was a colleague. This book is influenced by the Harvard pragmatists friendly to theism, William James and Josiah Royce, whose careers at Harvard ended about the time Hocking's began in 1914. However, Hocking wrote “The Coming World Civilization” when Toynbee was in flower. That was the last time, before the 1990s, when people were inclined to speculate about universal states, the role of religion in world order, and the conflicts among civilizations. Already in 1956, Hocking was trying to view the modern era as a whole, and to imagine what would come after it.

Hocking does not trouble to argue for the inevitability of a world civilization. He simply notes that, though civilizations rise and fall, they never fall below the starting point of the last rise. Civilizations create “unlosables,” technologies and ideas and ethical principles, which become part of the ever-increasing common heritage of the race. Mechanically, the world was already unified by the middle of the 20th century. The problem Hocking addresses here is that a world civilization, like any other civilization, needs something more than a common technology, or even a common politics:

“[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art – the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command.”

Hocking's description of the limits of the competence of the state is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that he takes propositions as self-evident that neoconservatives were just beginning to articulate thirty years later:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Many Traditionalists, however defined, foresee that the modern age will not last forever. Often they see it as a total loss, and they cannot wait for it to be over. Hocking, too, looks for the end of modernity at no very distant date. (The nearly 50 years since the writing of this book are still no great distance in history.) His endeavor, though, is to discern the “unlosables” that modernity has achieved, and to separate them from the characteristic faults of the era.

Modern individualism, in Hocking's estimation, is one such advance. Unfortunately, it is tinged by the malady of meaninglessness. Because of Kant and Descartes, it has a subjective base, which serves to separate the individual from any greater whole from which meaning might descend.

The problem of modern individuality is solipsism. It cannot be remedied by a retreat to pre-modern religion, not if we are to preserve the depth of modern subjectivity. (The loss of which would mean what? A world without autobiographical novels?) Rather, we must pass straight through modernity, to the other side. The key to that is the recognition that each subject has a common experience: the Thou-art relationship.

The “thou” here is not just other people, but also the experience of a world. A world is far more than a mere collection of experiences. It is coherent in the way that our experience of other people is personal. In fact, the world is personal, if not quite a person. As for the “selves” in this world, we must recognize that we know other selves in much the way we known our own thinking self: the self is a concept, never a matter of direct perception.

The experience of the Thou is the foundation of science, which is identical to the intuition of the existence of God:

“All this is wrapped up in the spontaneous impulsive summoning of one's will to think, the simplest and most general response to the presence in experience of the universal Other-mind.

“The strength and persistence of that response is seen in the corporate and historic edifice we call 'science,' a building surely not made with hands.”

The religion of the coming civilization will mend the link between the modern soul and the Absolute. At any rate, it better. Modern subjectivity and science are among the unlosables. They will become universals. The problem is that, in the West, these advances were predicated on specific motivations and a characteristic morale; the advances meant specific things, and Western civilization developed the reflexes to deal with them. These predicates are not found in other civilizations. If subjectivity and science are not incorporated into a spirituality, the result will be incalculable. That is why Christianity is most likely to play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era: the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

Consider, for instance, the most extreme view of 19th-century science, that the world is nothing but dead matter. Hocking calls that “the Night Vision.” He also argues that it is a great moral achievement. Western science is based on the virtues of humility and austerity: humility before the facts, and the rejection of extravagance in the making of hypotheses. Francis Bacon said: “We cannot command nature except by obeying her.” Science is the willful suppression of self-will. Only thus could the will of God be known, as manifest in the created world.

Hocking also points out that only the purposeless physical world revealed by science could morally become the object of human purpose. Opening the world to human exploitation is another real advance.

The science of Christendom naturally pushed toward autonomy, toward a system of the physical world in which God does not interfere. The tension between this science and the religion that created it haunts modern man, but it is a fruitful tension. Religion rests on a broad empiricism, which understands that the world transcends scientific questions, but which does not challenge science within its own sphere. Much of the modern malaise comes from false science, which tries to put forward metaphysical propositions about meaning and truth for which science offers no warrant.

In Western history, as the arts and sciences were freed from religion, they curbed and instructed Christianity. By removing the historical and cultural excrescences that had made Christianity specifically Western, free thought is making Christianity universal. Christianity is not going to lose its particularity, or the marks of its history. However, if it is to play a universal role, it must be purged and purified and simplified enough to represent universals to the whole world.

Christianity, Hocking assures us, is a religion of induction. This is how Jesus could say that love of God and love of neighbor are the whole of the Law and the Prophets. There are, of course, particulars of Christian ethics, which are often paralleled in other traditions: kindness to enemies; the need for rebirth; the injunctions, not just to do certain things, but also to feel in a certain way. However, this can all be summed up in the Great Induction: “He that loseth his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”

Christianity is not a sacrifice, then, but the will to create through suffering. Its moral code is inseparable from a worldview in which the most real is the all-loving.

Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. Thus, the will, particularly the will to futurity, is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer. Similarly, the sense of sin is direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand.

Assume that the Christian movement succeeds in purifying itself to its simple essence. It would thereby cease to be specifically Western, and so more fitted for a universal role. But what would the religious system of the coming world civilization look like?

The key is that a universal system can affirm some things without necessarily rejecting everything else. Hocking assures us there is an intuitive recognition of mystic by mystic across the boundaries of the great religions. Thus, the great religions are already united at their summits. This is far from saying that every religion is essentially the same, or that one is no better than another. Indifferentism, relativism, and syncretism betray the search for truth.

The historic faiths will survive in the world civilization, but will not seek to displace each other. Rather, they will share a “reverence for reverence.” The struggle against idolatry will continue, but within each religious tradition, not between them. In much the same way, nations in the coming civilization will retain their value and historical mission. A spiritually and culturally homogenous world would be a nightmare.

* * *

Readers will have gathered that, to some extent, this book is a period piece. At least in the field of religion, I have encountered few other works that appealed so strongly to the authority of experience, while insisting so hard that experience must behave itself. Quite aside from Hocking's unconsidered dismissal of the supernatural as conventionally understood, there is something odd about his tendency to equate “mysticism” with the existentialist's intuition of Being. Agony and ecstasy, much less flaming chariots and the dread of Hell, seem to play no part in the spirituality of the world civilization. Hocking is aware of this himself. He expresses the hope that the East might add healthy fanaticism to the West's maturity. The problem is that all this rather misses what religion means to people at all levels of sophistication.

Hocking's account of Christianity as a system of inductions is fascinating, but it's not Christianity. People bother with Jesus because of the Atonement; Christian ethics is simply a radiation from that core. The ethics is not, frankly, all that interesting. In the early 21st century, a stripped-down form of Christianity does in fact bid fair to become a universal religion, but it has less to do with existentialism than with Pentecostalism.

Nonetheless, this book is full of wisdom. It gives a satisfactory, if not wholly unchallengeable, answer to the problem of solipsism. That “quiet music in the back of the mind” (I think of it as a prosaic hum) that William James described as the everyday sense of the presence of God may not be the Beatific Vision, but it is not a bad place to begin theological inquiry. There is nothing wrong with a phenomenological approach to the spiritual life. That is what John Paul II has been up to all these years.

And what about the central questions of the book? Does a world civilization require a world religion? Can this religion be unified at the top, in the sphere of religious genius, while the spiritual life of ordinary mankind continues in its colorful variety? No, not if the religion is God's doing. God doesn't start at the top. You can look it up.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking

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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All of John's posts here

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The Long View: After the Eighth Day

When I think about the transition to Empire, this is the story that gives me nightmares.


It is usually a bad sign when a very short story needs an introduction. Nonetheless, here are some links that might make this piece slightly less obscure.

The general historical scenario for this story is that of Spengler's Future. The Contents page for that book is here.

The politics and theology of the story are based, very loosely, on Hardt & Negri's cosmo-anarchist rhapsody, Empire. A review of that book is here

Another short story using the Spengler's Future scenario, but set 170 years later, is Ecumenical Twilight. You can find here

Alternatively, you can just read the text and make up your own background for it. I dare you.

 

After the Eighth Day

"Board of Lustration, Hearing No. D5647, Greater Chicago Western District. Is the applicant present?"

"Yes, Mr. Chairman."

"Mr. Smith, you have requested this hearing in order to dispose of any suspicions regarding your behavior prior to the Liberation. If your application is granted, you will have unimpeded access to all the privileges of citizenship. As you know, this is not an investigative body. We are limited to the material in the public record and to your own testimony, which is not even sworn. However, you must answer fully any question that the Board may ask. Do you understand?

"Yes, Mr. Chairman."

"Please state your name and place of residence for the record."

"My name is Winston Smith. Since the firestorm last May, I have been living in a hostel at my place of work."

"You are a supervisor at the Ecumenical Dictionary Foundation, are you not, Mr. Smith?"

"Yes, Mr. Chairman. In the Orthographic Reform Section. Abstract nouns, mostly."

"What is your date of birth?"

"2 June 2065. In the Year of the Lord."

"So you were just 15 years old at the beginning of the Day. Did you move with the Rave before then?"

"No, Mr. Chairman."

"But soon afterwards?"

"Yes, Mr. Chairman."

"Were you a regular participant?"

"Once or twice a month, before the Militia, I mean."

"Were you coerced to join the Rave in any way?"

"No, Mr. Chairman."

"Then why?

"Everyone I knew moved."

"Did you ever see a miracle?"

"Yes."

"How many and when, Mr. Smith?"

"Just twice, Mr. Chairman. The first time was at the beginning of Fourth Month, Year 2 of the Eighth Day."

"That was a local event?"

"Yes, sir. The city returned to normal by the next morning. Of course, I also saw Sixth Month, Year 4. Almost everyone did. By then people expected it."

"What did you think the first time?"

"I believed the First President. I thought reality was changing."

"Some people still think that way, Mr. Smith. That is why we have to hold these hearings for senior civil servants. What do you think of the First President now?"

"He lied, Mr. Chairman."

"Do you think he lied about everything?"

"Well, he certainly lied about the Eighth Day being eternity. He also lied when he said the only real democracy was direct democracy, with no bureaucracy or hierarchy. What he meant was that he did not want anything to be between him and us."

"Do you think he lied about the angels?"

"I don't know, Mr. Chairman. I do know that I don't want to see any more angels."

"The Board sees that you have several unusual notations in your permanent file. Let's start with the earliest one. Can you explain the entry about the principal at your senior high school?"

[Pause.]

"Mr. Smith?"

"We didn't hurt him, Mr. Chairman."

"As far as we know, but his neighborhood Rave moved against him and the body was never found. You were on the student council that called the student strike. Would you care to explain the circumstances?"

"He just was not enthusiastic about the City of Man. He took down all the American flags after the Day began, but the only City flag he put up was in the lobby. He always referred to the First President as 'Mister.' We just did not see what his problem was. Most of the world belonged to the City of Man; why not our high school?"

"Did it occur to you he might get in trouble?"

"No, I can honestly say it didn't. Besides, he capitulated immediately. The news hardly mentioned it."

"And nobody ever saw him after a week later. Did it occur to you there might be a connection?"

"Well, yes."

"Did it bother you?"

"No, I'm ashamed to say."

"How did it make you feel?"

"It was another miracle. That was what the Day was like. People just seemed to organize spontaneously. There was flow, not structure. Nobody gave orders."

"You sound almost nostalgic."

"I'm not."

"Let's move on a bit. You served for 11 months in the Militia of the City of Man during year Four of the Eighth Day. Why not the standard eighteen months?"

"I was a communications-technician during the Caspian campaign, Mr. Chairman. That was about the time the standards began to disappear, even in the military. After the campaign ended, my unit just dissolved."

"You were discharged early?"

"It was more informal than that. The City of Man was everywhere, except for a few caves and jungles. The City was supposed to be self-similar, without a standing army separate from the people. That never applied to the elite units, but it did apply to support units and local auxiliaries. Most of us just made our way home."

"You stayed in the area for a while, though, did you not?"

"Well, not quite the same area. I studied descriptive linguistics in Jerusalem. That is what got me my present job."

"Did you take a degree?"

"I did the course work, but I decided against a degree."

"Why did you do that?"

"I was warned that advanced degrees might soon be regarded as marks of hierarchy."

"That was good advice, Mr. Smith. Do you recall who gave it to you?"

"No, Mr. Chairman."

"Did you move with the Rave at Jerusalem?"

"The Rave was prohibited in Jerusalem at that time."

"That's not quite what I asked."

"Mr. Chairman, not only did I not participate in the Rave, but I was already beginning to doubt the Day. I have given the Board documentation..."

"One thing at a time, Mr. Smith. Were you in Jerusalem during the incident at the Temple?"

"No, I came home to Chicago just a month before. Like most people, I did not even hear about the incident until 2096, when the Years of the Lord began again."

"In your application, you allege that you offered some aid to the Ecumenical underground during your stay in the Levant. A few purchases using your personal characteristic continued to be made in Jerusalem until the end of Year Five of the Eighth Day, months after you returned home."

"Yes, Mr. Chairman. I had made some friends in the underground; I saw no reason not to give them limited use of my credit."

"The Board notes, Mr. Smith, that all the Ecumenicals who might have used your characteristic disappeared during the Desolation, and are presumed dead. We also note that you filed a police complaint alleging identity theft in connection with those purchases."

"I had to maintain a cover story, Mr. Chairman. I don't claim to have been a hero. It was the least I could do."

"I see. Well, moving on, after you returned to the Midwest, you worked as a technical editor for the Chicago Tribune. Your records were destroyed during the firestorm. However, we do have a copy of the resume you submitted in Year 7 to the Word Collective, as your current employer was then called. In the resume, you make special mention of your movement with the Rave at the Tribune. You even give a list of persons against whom the Rave moved. Would you care to comment?"

"As you know, Mr. Chairman, the Rave by then was not really voluntary, especially not at a prominent media outlet. You will note that I never called a gathering. Certainly I never informed on anyone."

"It's a one-page resume, Mr. Smith. You don't give any specifics but the names. In any event, the list could not be complete. The Rave there moved frequently."

"It moved back and forth, Mr. Chairman. One month it moved to stamp out discrimination between all forms of life. Not long thereafter, it moved to support the 'single species' principle against food processors who took non-discrimination too literally. The names I listed were of people who seemed unlikely ever to be rehabilitated."

"Why did that seem unlikely?"

"They were guilty, of ordinary corruption and things like that."

"Very prudent, Mr. Smith. There is just one item about your time in the dictionary division that the Board has a question about. According to the office journal for 6 Second Month Year 14, the First President visited your office and spoke to you personally. Would you care to elaborate?"

[Long Pause]

"We're waiting, Mr. Smith."

"The Board cannot be serious. That was a dream. Lots of people imagined things like that, all through the Day. In any case, the Collective often did visualizations; the journal might just have noted the theme of one."

"Some people still have these dreams, Mr. Smith. Sometimes there is still independent corroboration, five years after the First President's death. It is the policy of the Ecumenical government to investigate all sitings with any corroboration that occurred during his lifetime, however improbable. So, what did you say to him, Mr. Smith? And what did he say to you?"

"The Board is asking me to remember a hallucination."

"Yes."

"The recollection isn't very clear, Mr. Chairman."

"Did he just say hello? Did he ask about your family? Did he talk about your work?"

"I can't even say whether the exchange was short or long. Most of what I remember was just friendly-boss stuff: How do you like the department, that kind of thing. Some of it was very specific, though."

"Such as?"

"Well, he seemed to know everything I knew about lexicography. That's how I know it could not have been real."

"Did he say anything to you about the Day, Mr. Smith?"

"Nothing unusual, just typical City of Man propaganda from late in the Eighth Day, when things were starting to come apart."

"Please tell us exactly, Mr. Smith."

"He said there was no need to worry anymore, that I would always be with him in the City of Man. He said that, in the end, I would see nothing but the Eighth Day. What happened in ordinary time could no longer change that."

"And what did you think of that, Mr. Smith?"

"I thought it didn't happen. Even then."

"And if it did happen?"

"Then it was a lie. It was a lie whether it happened or not."

"I think that is all we need to hear about the matter."

[A pause; the Chairman continues.]

"We have no documentation at all about you between 2096 and the filing of your lustration application at the beginning of this year. That's not unusual; lots of things were lost during those three years. Do you have any comment about the period, Mr. Smith?"

"I think there are some things about the last 20 years we all want to lose, Mr. Chairman."

"The Board will probably concur, Mr. Smith. We'll let you know. This hearing is adjourned."

 

End 

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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The Long View: Ecumenical Twilight

This is one of John's most haunting stories. When I think of Empire this is what I think of.



I The Barrens

Father Beed had often questioned the wisdom of the referendum that made the Filadelfia Republic a confessional state fifty years ago. Lately, though, he had a more specific reason to regret the decision. He wished that not all school children in the district were required to report for confession every month. He no longer minded the ones who just came for the attendance ticket. (They could not actually be compelled to receive the sacrament, of course: that was in the Constitution.) Far worse were the teenagers who got into the confessional and started to tell ghost stories. Especially since now he believed them.

"Just what was the nature of these acts?" he asked the girl on the other side of the screen.

"Father, it is too disgusting to tell you."

"You don't have to embarrass yourself, my child. Were they urging you to perform impure acts?"

"No, nothing like that Father. Well, not if by `impure' you means sex. That's not what it's about."

"So what is it about?"

"Father, I'm sorry, I just can't say. Please don't make me. I promise I did not do it, anyway. Honest."

Father Beed sighed.

"Okay, let's put it this way. Do you know that what they asked you to do was a sin? Was it unreasonably dangerous, for instance?"

"That's just it, Father. By itself, it was not bad at all, except that it was...."

"Disgusting?"

"Yes, Father, but that was not what frightened me. It was part of something else that was wrong. There was something wrong with the people who talked to us."

"These are the people who said they live in the Pine Barrens?"

"Yes, Father."

"Who are they?"

"They call themselves the Living Ones, Father Beed. They said that soon they will free us, free the whole world, from God and the Emperor. They said that we would know everything after we did it. They said we would be able to fly. Father, they said we would live forever."

"But you did not do what they asked?"

"No Father, I ran away. But I met some of my friends the next night, and they said they did it."

"And what else did they say?"

"They said it was true."

Father Beed resisted the temptation to whistle. He was just a local priest in the Parish of St. John Newman, an underpopulated place that was being slowly reclaimed by pine woods. His divinity degree, like the rest of higher education, was based on an aspect (the Anthropic Corollaries, to be precise) of the Grand Unification Theory. In principle, the GUT covered everything, from insect embryology to the Hypostatic Union, but he felt far from competent to handle this situation. He wished that this girl's story were no more than it sounded like. A faddish threat to public health might interest the provincial Health Department. Even what sounded like a sectarian attempt to organize sedition and apostasy among the young would probably not even attract a polite visit from the Ecumenical Security Ministry. The government was too secure to be spooked by a few kids playing in the woods. Unfortunately, he knew that it should be.

"Look, my child, I know I could talk to you for hours on end about the need to choose your friends wisely, but I am sure we both have things to do. So, here is your penance. I want you to ask your friends, the ones who have not yet done this thing you are talking about, to talk to me or another priest about it. Can you do that?"

"I can try, Father Beed. They may not come. They are beyond school age now, and none of them go to university, so they are not required."

"It is enough if you try. Now make a good act of contrition."

So she did. Father Beed gave her absolution, along with a ticket dated "Saturday: 24 September: AD 2270" to give to her school's Prefect of Discipline. Though he hoped otherwise, he suspected that the next time the girl came, she would not tell ghost stories. She would speak as if she were describing someone else. And she would almost certainly avoid coming in the day.

Thankfully, she was the last penitent. He told his chapel, built over a hundred years before in the Romanesque style favored by the Anglican Rite of the Universal Church, to close itself up. As he walked home, the early autumn sunset turned the ancient trees of the town square to gold.

The Township of Jenkins was carefully and tastefully maintained, thanks largely to generous preservation grants. The Pine Barrens region had never been densely populated, even during the American Centuries when it lay in the southern half of the State of New Jersey. However, the Filadelfia Republic was not willing to allow the area to revert entirely to wilderness, especially since so much of it had already been lost to the slowly rising Atlantic. So Jenkins, with a year-round population of 800, nevertheless boasted an under-used commuter rail system and an elaborately redundant communications grid. The town also had an unusually generous supply of remarkably ugly public statuary, commissioned from the family business of an enterprising provincial Secretary of Culture just a generation ago. Father Beed was a history buff, however, and by far his favorite monument was the War Memorial on the square. He usually arranged his walk home to pass by it. Today, since he needed a little time to think, he gave the stones a few minutes of his full attention.

The monument had no statues, just some stone benches and a group of steles. Over time, they had accreted like stalagmites around the rim of the rectangular granite plaza set in the grass. The original stele was just four hundred years old that autumn, a weathered column with an archaic inscription and the illegible names of a dozen dead from the American Civil War. (A discrete panel, reproducing the names and the inscription in modern spelling, had been helpfully set into a granite flagstone by the Preservation Commission.) Though erected in 1870, a plaque to the Revolutionary era had been set up at the same time, as an afterthought.

Except for the The Second World War, which had three slabs all to itself, a similar pattern repeated throughout the ensemble. Minor wars received notice only many years later, when larger wars produced casualty levels that tripped some obscure critical threshold and prompted the erection of a new stele. The Vietnam stone, erected in the 1980s and quite small, reached back thirty years to Korea. The memorial to the Third World War of 2020-2022 similarly appended nearly two generations of smaller conflicts. (That stele was unusual in listing a few local civilian dead and a significant number of female service members.)

The monument to the Armageddon War of 2075-2080 had, of course, long since been removed. Father Beed knew that it had been as large as all the others combined, and that it did not memorialize anything as sentimental as casualties. Certainly any monument built to celebrate the founding conflict of the terrible City of Man would have suffered no mention of lesser wars. The wonder was that all the older stones had not been cleared away during the Eighth Day, as the City called the time of its regime; that was what happened to so many other memorials to local patriotism all over the world. Father Beed was a little skeptical of the trend among historians these last hundred years to identify the City's first and only President as the full incarnation of the Beast of the Book of Revelation. Even so, he felt a familiar chill down his spine as he looked at the grooves that marred the flagstones where the Image had stood.

The dead of the last four-fifths of the 21st century did not get their due until its last year, in the Liberation Monument of 2100 that marked the foundation of the Ecumenical Empire. There were no later war memorials, since there had been no later wars but minor police actions. The region had apparently never felt sufficient connection to the Ecumenical Guard to erect a monument to it, though there was, predictably, one to the Space Corps. Father Beed had sometimes envied the past a little, when the conflict between good and evil could be expressed in something as simple as combat. Now he wondered whether the world might soon know that kind of clarity again.   

II Cold War

The war between Europa and Callisto had lasted almost 4 billion years. Of the Galilean moons, Callisto was the fourth most distant from Jupiter and Europa the second. Their deep, dark Oceans had always nurtured the bulk of the organic matter in the solar system. Evolution on these relatively small bodies was powered by tidal stresses arising from their orbits around their enormous primary. This allowed for a steadier, if slower, growth in biological sophistication than had been possible in the ferocious sun-driven ecologies of the inner solar system. The biospheres of Earth or Mars or Venus were accident-prone, since they needed to mediate the climatic interaction of the land and the sea and the atmosphere. In two of these cases, the effort resulted in irreversible catastrophes of ice and fire early in the solar system's history. On Callisto and Europa, however, there was just the Ocean. Stability required only that life so influence the thermal budget of these worlds as to keep them just warm enough to allow a thin, protecting film of ice to form on the surface.

Survival, however, required that one biosphere destroy the other. Callisto and Europa were different worlds, with different histories, but they were not quite isolated. Their low escape velocities ensured that even modest meteoric impacts would splatter a significant amount of oceanic ice across the Jovian system. On a few occasions, even multicellular life-forms made the journey from one world and established themselves in the other. The constant in the evolution of both bodies, however, was the repeated invasions of microorganisms that each inflicted on the other every few hundred thousand years.

The earliest exchanges were the most catastrophic. New strains of infection more than once brought the native life of Callisto or Europa close to extinction, only to be beaten back when the indigenous biology found a way to circumvent the alien's advantages. Gradually, though, each biosphere became accustomed to the major biochemical themes in the evolution of the other. Each then modified its own evolution to take advantage of its most recent experience of infection, thus preparing a more sophisticated counterstroke for when its own biological material traveled to the other body. The escalating feedback eventually brought a kind of stability: the contenders grew too resilient to be seriously damaged even by the most sophisticated biochemical innovation. The effect of each new exchange was felt, of course, but the damage it did was usually subtle. A reasonable observer might have concluded that this struggle was actually a kind of symbiosis, a relationship destined to last as long as the Jovian system.

A reasonable observer would have been wrong. Europa finally destroyed Callisto. There was nothing altogether novel about the last infection: it expanded only incrementally on the major strategy of the last 500 million years of the conflict. This was the "translation" of the host-organism's genetic code to that of the invader, rather than any immediate gross changes in the information being translated. The effect was rarely to kill the host. In fact, it usually imparted a peculiar new vitality. It did, however, thoroughly disrupt the way that infected organisms reacted to each other, since its point of reference was the maintenance of the metabolic integrity of the individual, rather than the ecology in which it lived. In effect, it turned its hosts into counterfeits.

Though both Callisto and Europa had been evolving these mechanisms, Europa was the first to break some invisible barrier in the speed of infection. Soon after the last eruption of Europan matter arrived, Callisto was overwhelmed before it could develop countermeasures. In a matter of a few centuries, the Callistan biosphere collapsed and 60% of its Ocean froze. The residual biota was a Europan biochemical colony, "dressed" in caricatures of the extinct native life.

An so it seemed that Europa would be left in peace. In effect, its history was over. Its biosphere luxuriated in the dark, salty bliss of perfect isolation. Paradise lasted only a dozen million years, however. Then, once again, alien life intruded below the sheltering ice. This time, though, the invaders were multicellular entities whose evolution had been grossly anatomical. The biochemistry of these entities was so crude that a dozen Jovian years passed before the sophisticated life of Europa found a way to counterattack.

III The Kabbalah Klub

The things I do for civilization, Andros thought glumly to himself as he negotiated with the Living gatekeeper at some negligibly small hour of the morning. He did not at all mind being in Prague, though these days it was little more than a historical theme park. The fact is, there were no more than a dozen cities left on Earth worth visiting. He found this something of a mystery. The population of the planet had been gradually falling since the late 21st century, but there were still just over a billion people in it. That was as many as in the 19th century, when by most accounts the world was a various and fascinating place. Not so today, at least to his way of thinking..

When the monster megalopolises of the 20th and 21st centuries evaporated, all they left was great tracts of shabby ruins, quickly buried under scrub and forest. A school geography text from 1900 would give a tourist of the late 23rd century a better idea of where to visit than would a world guidebook from 2000 or 2100, except that all the destinations would be blander and more homogenous. Prague was little more than a small town now, but it still belonged on the short list of uncanny cities that included Buenos Aires and Victoria. Andros might actually have asked for this assignment, had it not been given him because of his special expertise. He might have asked, even had he known it might involve ingesting an unknown substance in a place like the Kabbalah Klub.

There was no set career path that led to his position as Field Agent for Occult Practices in the Ecumenical Health Ministry. He had become interested in the Black Arts, as he liked to call them, when he began to dabble in alchemy at college. It was a respectable hobby. One of the quirks of the GUT was that, while it declared almost all propositions about the world to be either certainly true or certainly false, it also created a class of propositions whose truth value was logically undecidable. The question of low-energy transmutation of elements, properly stated, happened to fall into that class. In his reading on the subject, one thing led to another, and soon he was a minor expert on topics like comparative demonology. The topic of incubi came up, how he was not sure how, when he interviewed for a job with the Ecumenical Civil Service after graduation, and one thing led to another again.

Since the world government assumed its final form in the early 22nd century, there had always been a few operatives like Andros. Both the Chinese and the Western components of world civilization had persistent "magickal" undergrounds, indeed undergrounds that persisted in staying underground even when their activities were entirely legal. Or, as under Ecumenical law, mostly legal. One point these traditions had in common was the use of consciousness-altering substances that could be lethal under certain circumstances.

With some hesitation, the Empire had decided early in its history to regulate rather than criminalize the recreational use of drugs, though of course the Subsidiary States could criminalize the possession of drugs within their own borders if they so chose. (Tolerance was made easier by the development of synaptic blockers, which made any addiction curable with a single injection.) Still, a necessary function for the central government of a planet that was only an hour across by commercial suborbital transport was to ensure that its subjects were not wantonly poisoning themselves. Therefore, new substances had to be tested and registered. If they were not, people like Andros were sent to find out the reason why. One of the paradoxes of his job, he often reflected, was that the Magick Underground, whose members prided themselves on fidelity to Traditions of various degrees of bogusness, nevertheless showed such ingenuity in finding new ways to make themselves sick.

Places like the Kabbalah Klub seemed to be the inevitable underside of what made cities like this interesting. Typically of such places, it was literally underground, two full stories in this case, with atrocious lighting and an atmosphere that reminded you of just how old the sewers in this neighborhood were. The place was packed, subdued but not silent, as if the pale and furtive patrons had been discretely planning to seize and eat the next customer to walk in. The decor of the Klub was 20th-Century Dank. The first half of that century was the most celebrated period in occult circles, where it was regarded by most as the high noon of Magickal power and knowledge. (The only important competition was offered by the cult of the First President and his era.) The rough brick walls were covered with huge posters of the maguses of the period, of Jung and Yeats and Gardiner and the rest. There were retouched photos of Hitler addressing torch-lit rallies that stretched to the horizon under a dome of brilliant stars. (The constellations were not identifiable, Andros noted).

The lack of pictures of Aleister Crowley actually emphasized his centrality, since in their stead were blown-up panels displaying texts from "The Book of the Law." The texts were in the original Traditional Orthography, the standard English spelling from 1750 to 2050. One of the few certain effects of the Underground on the larger world had been to brand this quaint but unlearnable system in the public mind as the the devil's own writing. The only contemporary pictures that Andros noted were a few of Prince Friedrich, the Emperor's only grandson, who would, probably, be elected by the Senate to replace his grandfather when old Josef died. Andros was obscurely disturbed by the following the Prince had among people like the denizens of the Kabbalah Klub, but that was not a problem for the Health Ministry. The problem he did have was intractable enough.

"No, Mr. Andros," the Living One said, "it will not be possible for you to take some of the Water with you before you have been initiated." Andros thought she had probably been very pretty when she was alive. Dark hair, black clothes, not nearly as desiccated as your average 25-year-old with these interests. He had been three months tracking down the new sect of the Living, rumors of which had spread like wildfire through occult circles. It was consciously modeled on the Gnostic initiation cults of the first few centuries AD. People were free to worship Mithras in the privacy of their own cellars, of course. His attention was drawn only when he began to run across references to an initiatory Elixir, or whatever it was, that had immediate magical effects. It was some clue to the nature of the group that, in all the time he had been trying to gain the trust of its members, no one had ever suggested that money change hands. He was dealing with a group of enthusiasts, not crooks. This was not necessarily encouraging.

"But I have told you, Miss Segur, that I am a student of comparative religions, not a seeker after enlightenment for myself. The Ocean of the Living has accepted my request to study the Elixir under those terms." (This acceptance did not altogether surprise Andros: comparative religion was looked on with much greater suspicion than alchemy in this age of the Second Religiousness, so it recommended him to the people in places like the Kabbalah Klub. All he had needed to conceal was his status as an Ecumenical agent.) "I fear that my objectivity will be ruined if I undergo a full initiation. Besides, if I simply went through the motions to obtain the Water, would that not be disrespectful of the Ocean? Surely it would be better if I attended simply as an observer, at least for now?"

"The Ocean agreed that you might take part in a ceremony, not attend a party. The Water must be received person-to-person, through an anointing. Otherwise it does no good. You have come so far. Surely you do not wish to break the protocol now?"

That, of course, was exactly what Andros wanted to do. He would be much happier if he could just walk out of here with a vial of the Water he had been tracking all around the world. Then he could have it safely analyzed. As things stood, though, it looked as if he would actually have to swallow-inject-inhale the damn stuff and then have his blood analyzed. He knew that prophylactic measures, and the fact the state of his metabolism was being continually transmitted to the nearest emergency unit, made it very unlikely he would come to any harm. Besides, the substance was probably harmless. Probably.

Andros managed not to sigh. Experience taught him that there really was no way to avoid this. The occult was 99% games and wishful thinking. If you wanted to penetrate the Underground that played by the rules of the Other World, then you had to play, too.

"Miss Segur," he said with what he hoped sounded like good grace, "you are perfectly correct. I ask only to join the Ocean of the Living on its own terms."

At that she smiled (a little perfunctorily, he thought, considering the amount of dissimulation he had just put into that submission) and rose from the little table where they had been sitting. "In that case, Mr. Andros, please follow me. The Ocean will receive you gladly."

Andros had not known whether the cult's ritual center was on-site, but he was not surprised when the young woman led him to a door lost in the shadows at the back of the Klub. Andros briefly wondered how many other sects of ultimate wisdom rented rooms in the adjoining subcellars: places like the Kabbalah Klub sometimes were as lucrative as exclusive shopping malls. Soon after he walked through the door, however, he stopped wondering about microeconomics, because the investigation began to take one strange turn after another.

He did not, as he expected, progress from a world of dank kitsch to quarters outfitted to fit some very peculiar vision of paradise. As these things went, the antechamber was something of a disappointment. There were no Hindu idols or Aztec busts. What there was looked like the scrub-room for an operating theater. Actually, it might have been a historical recreation of a theater for minor surgery itself, considering the display of scalpels and other instruments.

"We will pause here for two reasons, Mr. Andros. The first is that I have still to share the Water of the Living today. The other is so that you can see this miracle, and so understand something of the bliss of the Living. Thus, you will be better prepared to encounter the Ocean."

She directed him to go behind a screen and shower in an adjoining cubicle. Then he put on the white robe of a postulant (a common piece of secret-society costuming) and slippers that had been provided for him. When he emerged from behind the screen, he found that she was standing with her naked back to him in front of one of the instrument tables. She was not desiccated at all, he saw. Her body also revealed a bit of useful history, a tattoo of the Space Corps Medical Service on her left shoulder. The phrase, "the things I do for civilization," returned to him, in another key.

All idle thoughts collapsed in shock when he moved around to the other side of the table. She had done something to herself that he had heard of only as an admonitory instruction given to Guard recruits who might be desperate enough to attempt suicide to escape boot camp. She was committing suicide the right way. Using one of the scalpels, she had slit the major artery in her left arm from elbow to wrist, thus causing so much bleeding that death must soon follow. She was holding her arm carefully, so that most of the blood collected in a liter-sized basin. The basin was almost full.

Andros was about to leap over the table to improvise a tourniquet when she checked him with a glance. "I told you, Mr. Andros, the Elixir must be shared once a day. The Living give as well as take. Watch."

Too surprised by the steady tone of her voice to move, he stayed where he was. In a few seconds, she flexed her left arm closed and turned away from the basin. At the same time, she used a towel in her right hand to clean up the numerous spots that had fallen on her body and on the floor. Then she extended her left arm again and cleaned the blood off that. The lethal incision was gone. All that was left was a furrow, with no scar tissue, that filled itself in even as Andros watched.

"The Living of the Ocean are immortal, Mr. Andros," she said. "Please wait a moment while I dress."

When she emerged from behind her own screen, he was yet again surprised, this time by the fact she was dressed in the neat black silk suit in which she had entered. She picked up the basin, which held so much of her blood that she ought to have been at least unconscious and probably in shock. "This is for you," she said.

A appalling surmise arouse in Andros's mind. "This is the Water, isn't it!" he gasped. "You expect me to drink this!"

For the first time in their acquaintance, Miss Segur went through the motions of looking amused. "This is indeed the Water, Mr. Andros, but I do not expect you to drink it. What I ask you to do is carry it for me: getting spilled blood out of silk is the very devil."

Andros did as he was asked, cringing a little as he felt how warm the aluminum sides of the basin were. She led him across the scrub-room (which, at second thought, was probably just a re-outfitted kitchen) and out through a door on the opposite side. This led to a dark though utilitarian corridor. Many secret societies would have made a great fuss about preparing an initiatory passage like this, but the Ocean seemed to have other priorities. Andros noticed the hall had a stainless-steel floor, marred by only a few drops of freshly spilled blood. (Andros contributed a few of his own to these: Miss Segur had a perfectly pragmatic reason not to carry her own donation.) It was only when they reached the large room at the other end of the corridor that he again encountered some of the other-worldly atmosphere he had expected here.

The room was as dimly lit as the Kabbalah Klub, though not so crowded, and perfectly silent. Most of the people were wearing street clothes. Some wore robes like his, but colored red. The walls were covered with images of bulls and what seemed to be the sun, though the disk was dark. The chief feature of the room was the great rectangle of black in the center. Someone took the basin from Andros's hands and emptied its contents into it. That was when Andros realized that the rectangle was full of some dark liquid, maybe 30 centimeters deep. Then a dozen of the silent people took hold of Andros and stripped him of his robe and slippers. They did not react to his desperate inquiries. They heaved him into the rectangle.

In those shallow inches, the whole Ocean was fully present. Andros flew through a world which a sense as crude as sight could never represent. Andros knew that this world was vast, vaster by orders of magnitude than the film of near vacuum that had produced his own blinkered kind. On every hand was glory beyond any music, and billions of years of wisdom for which knowledge and action were one. In contrast, mere thought was an impotent play of ghosts in his tiny skull. Andros knew that his movement through the Ocean was not purposeless, and that the purpose was not his. In rapid steps, he ceased to fight the Ocean, and experienced bliss in its embrace. Then he ceased to experience bliss and became the bliss. Then Andros the living man ceased to be anything at all. 

IV Strategies

The Anthropic Corollaries of the GUT predicted that the basic chemistry of life must be identical wherever it appeared in the universe, just as they stipulated that consciousness cannot interact with the universe without an essentially human nervous system and a personal history. However, though the range of emergent properties that might arise in any given biosphere was quite limited, the histories of how these properties were selected could nevertheless make certain aspects of life from different worlds fundamentally alien. Thus, for instance, the Ocean simply could not interact with airborne microorganisms. There was no significant atmosphere on Europa, only the Ocean itself, and every biological system was predicated on the condition that mineral nutrients and a stable temperature environment would always be available. Life that did not assume these things was so different from that of the Ocean as to be invisible. There were other aspects of terrestrial biology, such as the development of organisms with rigid bodies and nervous systems, that were not wholly absent from the Ocean, but which on Earth had developed to such a rococo degree that the transformations the Ocean effected were often suboptimal. The rule was that major, unfamiliar systems would not be closed down, but they were usually isolated from the new imperatives that the reformed organism acquired as the result of its transformation.

Fortunately, however, the central organizing feature of the higher multicellular terrestrial organisms was perfectly familiar to the Ocean. Biological evolution, like technological progress, was fundamentally conservative. The whole point of the crude mechanical complexity of a vertebrate body was to keep sea water flowing in its veins as it moved about in an otherwise lethal environment. Indeed, the salinity of human blood was roughly that of the seas in which life had evolved, just as the high body temperatures favored by all animals that could control their own metabolisms were fossils of an ancient climate. The Ocean had no difficulty annexing the primitive seas that flowed through the bodies of organisms from Earth. Once that was achieved, the flesh quickly became that of the new dispensation.

V The New Man

They exchanged some small talk when he returned to the scrub-kitchen, not because there was anything in particular to communicate, but because that was what these bodies did. The Kabbalah Klub was much as before, though the dark was less of a distraction now that other senses were available. Illumination, in fact, was on the whole to be avoided. The Ocean was dark, and the life that grew from it had no experience of the light of the sun. That, however, would not be a problem for another few hours. The word-processing features of the brain of the agent from the Ecumenical Health Ministry was already composing a report as it returned to the surface. The personality it emulated was as well adapted to its environment as an insect-lure on a carnivorous plant.   

VI Sydney

Brother Diplodicus charged down the breezeway like the Wrath of God on which he had intended to lecture that morning. Although the University of Sydney was a confessional university, like most institutions of higher learning of the late 23rd century, nevertheless many of its students evinced a deplorable lack of interest in those elements of the GUT that treated of the divine sciences. That was why the Missionary Monks of St. Liebowitz, as part of the agreement under which they became the Chapter of the city’s great cathedral after the end of its first incarnation as an opera house, took it upon themselves to teach the theology requirement at the University’s more recalcitrant technical schools. Among these was invariably numbered the School of Mechanical Engineering. There it was that Brother Diplodicus, as a special act of penance, volunteered to teach systematic theology.

He knew that boys would be boys (women had their own college within the University) and that they were not at the point in their lives when the relevance of his subject would necessarily be apparent. The course was not graded, and the requirements for a pass were not onerous. He did not expect 100% attendance at his lectures. Actually, since the lectures were scheduled for 8:00 am, he did not always expect 50% attendance. What he did expect was that at least some would show up, preferably sober. The behavior of the students had declined throughout the month, but the sight of an empty lecture hall this morning was the last straw.

Pounding down a final ramp onto the quad on the north face of the School’s small dormitory building, he began by exhorting the blank glass face of the wall. That brought no response. He could not see so much as a shade flicked back to allow the groggy miscreants within to see the show. In fact, there was no movement about the building of any description. My God, he thought, they must all be seriously hung over from something or other. Enough of this, then. He ripped open the main door and repeated the same imprecations at even higher volume, this time to the small atrium around which the students’ cells were arranged. Still nothing. Brother Diplodicus was actually close to tears. He loved his subject and he was normally very good at teaching it. Hostility and laziness he could deal with, but being boycotted was new. It hurt. The least they could do was stagger out of their doors and tell him to shut up and go away.

Then Brother Diplodicus, who for all his bluster was not a cruel man, did a terrible thing. He pulled the fire alarm.

So as to ensure that the evacuees had to at least step into the open air before they realized what was going on, he left the atrium and retreated to the far side of the quad. He intended his silhouette against the morning sun as a dramatic touch.

It was not long before the students began to emerge from the doors. At first, they looked like any group of scruffy undergraduates rousted out of bed at an odd hour. Then Brother Diplodicus began to get an inkling that something was terribly wrong. They were not just scruffy, they were filthy. And they were not wearing underwear or pajamas, but everyday clothes that were caked with some filthy substances. The truly frightening thing was their skin, where it was visible. It was not just white, it was fish-belly white. Brother Diplodicus make the sign of the cross when he realized this was just as true of the African students as of the rest.

The students had fled the building because their reflexes were still in good condition. Indeed, their automatic responses were almost all that their nervous systems could produce reliably these days. The problem was that their higher levels of cognition were too erratically integrated with their motor areas to make them stop before they were halfway across the quad. By that time, the dormitory’s housekeeping system had sealed the building until the fire department arrived. This meant that, even when they were able to turn around, they could not get back into the shade of the atrium. The ones on top of the pile caught fire in the strong morning sunlight. Several of the ones underneath survived to be carefully taken away by people in biological-hazard encounter suits.

They took Brother Diplodicus, too, just to be on the safe side.

VII The End of History and the Last Bureaucrats

Several things that people first began to notice about Manhattan in the first half of the 20th century continued to be true in the last half of the 23rd.

One such thing was that, when a city-scape acquires a certain degree of monumental building, architecture becomes invisible. From sidewalk level, a skyscraper is just a storefront. If a whole neighborhood consists of skyscrapers, then, at least for the purposes of the city’s pedestrians, the neighborhood consists of one-story shops. However, skyscrapers had never been built primarily for the purposes of local pedestrians. This became more and more true of New York City’s central island as Manhattan changed from an American city to a global metropolis during the 21st century.

Under the Empire, New York became one of the five world capitals: “Xijing” or “West Capital.” (The name was often abbreviated in English-language texts with the Chinese characters, though they were almost universally pronounced “New York.”) The dynamic of building in the city, therefore, came to be almost wholly governed by the needs of world bureaucracies that had long ago learned the sad truth of the adage, “You can’t fax a handshake.” The process tended to plow under even some of Manhattan’s quite ancient residential districts. It was made tolerable only by the fact that New York City as a whole shrank back to its late 19th-century population of about a million, and indeed back to its late 19th-century municipal boundaries. The “outer boroughs” that had been annexed in those years were largely abandoned, becoming swampy nature preserves. (Part of the reason for the abandonment was that even the Ecumenical government was willing to spend the money for protective sea-walls against rising ocean levels only for Manhattan itself.) In the late 23rd century, Manhattanites looking out over the fen and forest that again surrounded their island still found the view a refreshing window on unspoiled nature, and not as the portent of a fate that could someday overtake their enclave, too.

Something else that had long been true of Manhattan was that any organization with the perfect headquarters was almost certainly moribund. This principle was first recognized by the great sage, Northcote Parkinson. It was most perfectly demonstrated in the 20th century by institutions like the UN, entombed at birth in International Style sarcophagouses. However, the principle also holds for all classes of organizations. Innovative technology tends to be commercialized first in dim, overcrowded workshops that take building safety codes in a metaphorical sense. The offices of publishers that bring out exciting new authors are cramped nests of disassembled manuscripts and the remains of the last month’s worth of on-the-job lunches. Effective public bureaucracies are perpetually housed in temporary quarters that are designed for something else and that are never, ever, conveniently located.

The Manhattan headquarters of the Ecumenical Security Ministry was perfect to a degree that would be described by the term “cerulean” had it been a blue sky. The structure was in fact almost that color. Located right above the most elaborate mass transportation hub on Earth, the 90-story ESM building was outfitted with the acme of the human race’s achievements in communications technology and data archiving. The building itself was forged as a single unit from composite materials in the Gothic Synthesis style that had characterized public architecture since the 22nd century. It was nearly indestructible. A fair-sized nuclear weapon might have knocked it over, but would not have destroyed it. Neither would such a disaster have destroyed the ESM as an institution. Only about half of the Ministry’s nominal headquarters employees usually put in an appearance on an average working day. Many of the rest would not have noticed an explosion in any case.

This degree of insouciance was not an option for the small circle of senior bureaucrats on the 85th floor, who were listening to the Vice Minister Strecchia read the report in her huge and impeccably functional office:

“....Agent ANDROS continued speaking about golf to Agent DELAGATO, even after swallowing approximately 50g of Agent DELGATO’s upper arm. At no point did Agent ANDROS express any hostility toward the victim, or acknowledge the fact that he just committed an act of cannibalism in the cafeteria of EHM [Ecumenical Health Ministry] London. When interrogated later (under restraints), Agent ANDROS was genuinely confused by the reaction to his behavior. At first, he apologized for violating what he supposed was a “no-meat” rule in a vegetarian-only dining hall. Possible physiological explanations for this distressing incident are contained in Appendix...”

She broke off there, taking pity at the sight of the half-dozen department heads, who were visibly regretting having eaten some of the tasty little sandwiches she invariably had made when a meeting ran into lunch hour. Not that such a thing happened very often. Whenever any organization was necessary, but rarely experienced a situation outside established routine, all its operations naturally fell into the hands of imperturbable mid-level bureaucrats. These middle-aged women and rather elderly men were usually genuine experts in their fields, but they owed their advancement to never getting excited. Problems, they knew from long experience, could be counted on to die of old age in their in-boxes.

Almost all of the 27 major Ministries and 6 independent Services of the Ecumenical Empire had come to function on this basis, and usually well enough. In a way, it was a great victory for the principles of the Empire, which had been created not by conquest, but by exhaustion. The events of the 20th and 21st centuries had caused the peoples of Earth to sicken of public affairs on every level. Mankind was well pleased to let such things be managed by unobtrusive care-taker institutions. The only flaw in this arrangement was that, on those rare occasions when unprecedented situations did arise, they fell under the purview of administrators with no demonstrated aptitude for initiative. In this case, one of the greatest threats ever experienced by the human race was in the hands of a Ministry whose primary practical function for the previous century had been tracking down stolen cars.

“And it wasn’t till we got the criminal referral from EHM that we knew any of this was happening?” asked Bob from the Subversion Department.

“Well, we had the reports,” the Vice Minister said, a little defensively. “We just had not gotten around to linking them altogether.”

The hardcopy stack of incidents from the past month did in fact make a diverse pile. There were two other acts of cannibalism, a growing number of disappearances every nightfall, reports from local clergy about the increasing correlation of impiety and photosensitivity among the young. The participants in the meeting would have been inclined to dismiss the odd incidents of the period as statistical coincidences, had it not been for the spontaneous combustions. They had tried to hand those back to EHM, but without success.

“The really decisive report was written by Andros himself,” Deputy Vice Minister Felix chimed in. “We thought we should take a look at what he had been up to in the weeks before the incident in London.”

“And what was that?” asked Carl from Terrorism.

“His job, more or less. We now know from investigating the site of his last undercover assignment pretty much what happened to him. A lot of the details are even in the report he filed. At first, in fact, we thought the only screwy thing was the ‘no action’ recommendation. Now we know better.”

“I find the conclusion hard to swallow, even now” said Bob, who had stayed late for the first time in 30 years last night to check the analysis himself.

“It is true. Agent Andros is no longer a human being, psychologically or biologically. For that matter, we don’t even think he is conscious. You can tell from his use of language after that night at the Kabbalah Klub. His grammar and syntax did not change, and the vocabulary is his. The difference is.....”

“Well?” asked Bob.

“There’s nobody home,” the Vice Minister explained. “He flunks the Turing Test. His report on the Kabbalah Klub might almost have been written by an Angel,” she said, referring to the “infinite depth” class of artificial intelligence machines with which the science of cybernetics concluded in the middle 21st-century. “He can say ‘I,’ of course, but there is no ideation behind it. What is left of his mind is just a language machine. Certainly it has little role in controlling his primal instincts: that’s why he nonchalantly took a bite out of a fellow agent.”

“Forgive me for interrupting,” Carl interrupted. “Psychology is very interesting, but surely the reality of the situation is a xenobiological crisis? Every long molecule in that man’s body was re-jiggered, as well as in the bodies of people taken in the other incidents. We think we know what did it: it’s a ‘factor,’ an extremely simple kind of organism of the sort found in the Callistan and Europan oceans. If the factor continues to spread, that is the end of civilization. Probably also the end of the terrestrial biosphere, for that matter.”

“Is it quite certain that this ‘factor’ is not artificial?” Bob interrupted back.

“No, that is not certain, but then it is not certain how this stuff works, either. But what would an artificial origin suggest? A terrorist underground? Doomsday fanatics? Keeping track of fringe politics is supposed to be your department, Bob. How long since there was a threat from people like that?”

Bob shrugged rather than reply. The answer was that, though many groups sought to evade or manipulate the imperial government for their own ends, the fact was that the Ecumenical Empire had had no organized enemies within living memory. Civilization without it had become literally unthinkable. Bob’s department actually spent most of its time investigating illegal lotteries and chain letters.

“Could someone tell me again just why the Security Ministry is handling this at all?” asked Mary-Jo from the Office of Administration & Budget. “If this is a biological threat, then why is Health not handling it? If it is a case of xenological contamination, then why not Space? If there is a danger of public panic, then why not the Guard? What does this ’factor’ have to do with Security?” She had had the budget for the next year nearly ready to submit. She was almost as horrified at the prospect of having to include a huge contingency request for this situation as she had been by the cannibalism.

“It has to do with Security,” the Vice Minister explained, “because groups of people, or former people, are acting to spread the factor. Apparently, they are doing it worldwide.”

“If the factor can be spread only by a blood bath, like that business at Prague, then we do not have to worry about it spreading all that fast,” Bob suggested hopefully.

“It does not take a blood bath,” Carl said. “We think the explanation is that the cult of the Living at Prague were already interested in blood baths. They became infected later. The original group had been reviving the cult of Mithras, according to Andros’s notes. That would involve a ritual bath of just that type, though with bull’s blood rather than human. The factor is absolutely opportunistic, it seems. It does not give its victims new ideas or fundamentally new behaviors. It just uses whatever behaviors they already have to propagate itself.”

“So what is the common factor?” the Deputy Vice Minister asked.

“Blood, apparently. Intravenous and oral contact are most efficient, though it can also be transmitted through the skin, if there is enough exposure. Those are actually fairly restricted means of transmission. It cannot be spread by casual contact. And, of course, the infected are restricted in their movements during the day, which makes them easier to spot. Without these limitations, I don’t know how we could have hoped to stop this thing.”

“I don’t quite see how we can hope to control it now,” Mary-Jo said. “It’s not like we’re running a real police force here. We have lots of jurisdiction and not a lot of effective personnel. We are not funded for anything beyond ordinary holding facilities, much less quarantine centers, if that is what any of you are thinking about.” Turning to the Vice Minister, she asked, “Have you informed the Minister?”

Under normal circumstances, such a query would have been meant ironically. Today, it was uncomfortably pointed. Senator Reddy was not a lazy or corrupt man, but the portfolio he held for the Security Ministry was simply a sinecure for him. (He was also the Ecumenical Fisheries Minister, even though the country he represented, the Kingdom of Rajasthan, was entirely landlocked.) The Vice Minister took the question seriously.

“A full synopsis of our research has been sent to the Minister’s office in the Southern Capital [the Chinese characters for which were usually pronounced “Johannesberg”], where he is preparing for next year’s session of the Senate. I am informed that the Minister is seeking an interview with the Speaker on the matter. We are instructed to proceed at our own discretion until we receive further guidance.”

“Well, at least we are covered,” Mary-Jo suggested brightly. Under normal circumstances, such a remark would have been meant sarcastically. That was also how it was meant now.

“Wendy,” the Deputy Vice Minister asked his boss, “have you considered approaching the Imperial Chancellery?”

She grimaced. Under the Constitution, the office of the Emperor was almost omnipotent, on the condition that it do nothing. During normal times, which had prevailed almost without interruption for the past 170 years, the effective head of state was the Speaker of the Senate. Nevertheless, past Emperors had seen to it that their chancellery kept executive control of certain resources that could be vital in the current crisis. The Space Corps had oversight of all human presence beyond geosynchronous orbit of Earth. The total population in question was no more than 200,000, most of them in isolated sectarian colonies on Mars and Earth’s Moon, but the jurisdiction did include the scientific bases on Europa and Callisto. The Ecumenical Guard was a paramilitary of modest size, but it was based on Earth and it did have some police powers. One problem with attempting to coordinate a plan with these Services directly was that it would smack of attempting to circumvent, not just the Minister, but the Senate itself. Another problem was that old Emperor Josef (he started being called “Old Emperor Josef” a quarter century ago) hated the Ministries in New York and every bureaucrat in them. He was quite capable of rejecting a request as soon as he saw the letterhead, assuming it ever got to his desk.

“I have considered contacting the Chancellery, and I have considered it again,” she answered. “Do you have an idea for a safe way to do it?”

“The trick, I think, would be to bring the matter to the Emperor’s attention in such a way that he thinks about us last.”

VIII Europa

Some technical problems had never been solved by terrestrial engineering, even though the GUT suggested that a solution was possible. One of these was the ideal of the instantaneous transmission of information. In the 21st century, theoreticians had suggested that the apparent ban imposed by Special Relativity on this effect was actually an artifact of misdefinition. That, however, was among the last major theoretical insights of Western science before it turned its attention to the long-delayed labor of synthesis, and the existing stock of theory was insufficient to support a technical breakthrough. That was why it still took an hour, an average, to send a transmission to the neighborhood of Jupiter, and the same amount of time for the answer to return. So, with one thing and another, it required the better part of a morning for the Space Corps Command Center at Diego Garcia to determine that none of the 500 human beings at the two bases on Europa was accessible to the communications network. When they reviewed the records of recent transmissions, they discovered that they had in fact been talking to only machines for the last two weeks.

The bases themselves were in exemplary condition. Very little of them was on the surface. The availability of all that ice had allowed the early explorers to solve the micrometeorite problem by sinking the component modules into a few meters of melted water and letting it refreeze. Their most important exits were not to the surface, but to the Ocean below. There, in the warm water provided by nearby volcanic vents, were locks for small submarines and for scuba divers. The diving had originally been for the purely scientific exploration of the nearby sea floor, in the shallow parts of the Ocean where the bases were located. At first this activity had been conducted under tight restrictions, with careful attention to the possibility of xenobiological contamination. When the humans realized just how benign the Ocean was, however, all but ordinary safety restrictions were relaxed, and diving became the chief pastime of the personnel. Thus the humans and the Ocean got to know each other.

Most of the personnel continued in their human roles long after their conversion. That was how several of them happened to return to the inner solar system as part of an ordinary duty rotation. For those who remained on Europa, however, the pretense of humanity became harder and harder to maintain. The lure of the Ocean was too strong. At no point was there any conscious intent of dissimulation before the declining number of remaining humans: the Living were not conscious of anything. At some point in their internal evolution, the Living simply broke character. After the last few humans were disposed of in incidents rather like that in the EHM cafeteria, the base was deserted.

There was no need of scuba gear, since there was no longer any need to maintain the grotesque fiction of mammalian life. They breathed the water as long as the bodies felt the need to continue the drill, and then they forgot about it. A few minutes after entering the Ocean, the nervous systems of all 497 personnel (the uneaten remains of the other three were neatly packed in kitchen freezers) had permanently shut down. The bodies did not decay, but began to blossom into their true forms. The rigid structures of the organisms exploded into clouds of single cells, with only the teeth and skeletons falling into the abyss. In each of these cells, all the resources of terrestrial history were available for assimilation into the wisdom of the Ocean. As in the long conflict with Callisto, Europan life began to take a new turn in order to meet the new enemy.

IX Chungjing

Of all the world capitals, only Center Capital was truly beautiful. The Chinese characters spelled "Chungjing," and they were always pronounced that way, because the city was new and not merely renamed. The city fit gracefully into a former forest preserve on the Big Island in the Hawaiian chain. (The early Empire had been a bit cavalier about such things, since most of the world's organized naturalists had been executed during the Eighth Day.) With a population of only about 40,000, it was really a sort of campus that reminded most visitors of Oxford.

A better analogy was Vatican City. Center Capital was essentially a ceremonial center. Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, the city managed not to be overwhelmed. Its chief purpose was to support the unhurried routine of the Imperial Chancellery and the Court. Most Emperors had the sense to realize that their absence from the public view enhanced their prestige on the few occasions when they intervened in government, so they were usually in quiet residence. Security after the 22nd century was relaxed enough that lucky visitors sometimes got to shake the Emperor's hand. Those who attempted to discuss public policy with him, however, were led politely away by hovering aides.

There were no tourists in the palace complex the morning after the Senator from the Comensality of New South Wales spoke with Josef. The staff, except for the guards, were told to take the day off. The old man stood behind the rattan blinds of a balcony window with a little group of advisors, overlooking the brightly sunlit court that fronted Prince Friedrich's quarters. He had often feared that his line would end with him: his grandson's behavior had always been such that Josef had prepared a codicil to his will, commending one of his nephews to the Senate instead of his direct heir. The prince was a brilliant boy, and then a charming young man, but Josef's blood ran cold at the thought of a diabolist on the throne of all mankind, even if the throne was largely a prop. The document had been in his desk for ten years, but he could never bring himself to have it witnessed. Then, just last night, the Senator had shown him the terrible reports from Sydney and Filadelfia and other places around the world. Worst of all, he had seen the foggy shots, carelessly undated by the ESM, of Friedrich entering the Kabbalah Klub. The Emperor now dreaded that having the codicil witnessed might never be necessary.

Friedrich's fine operatic voice was audible, shouting unoperatic things, long before he appeared on the court between two very large Treasury Ministry guards. (The explanation for why the Treasury Ministry was responsible for imperial security was lost in the mists of legislative history.) As usual, he had been up late, doing God-knows-what, and the guards frog-marched him into the sunlight wearing just a bathrobe. Rather as happened to Agent Andros, Prince Friedrich found himself suddenly stripped of his robe, though in his case he was still wearing boxer shorts. The guards stood back. Nothing happened. Friedrich recovered himself a little and started to yell at them some more.

"He is not catching fire, Your Majesty," the Chamberlain observed evenly.

"That is all to the good, I suppose," the Emperor said, turning away from the window. "Still, we do have a real crisis on our hands, the worst of my time. Arrange a conference hookup within the hour with the Commandant of the Space Corps and the Chief of Staff of the Ecumenical Guard."

"Will there be anything else, Your Majesty?"

"Yes. Please find out who the Vice Minister for Security in New York is. We don't have time to deal with that idiot fishmonger in the Senate." 

X The New Memorial

A year later, Father Beed was again reading the new stele at the memorial in the town square:

"In memory of friends and family, who made the sacrifice to leave our beloved Earth in order to protect us all from a terrible plague, we the people of Jenkins Township dedicate..."

There followed a brief list of the names of the exiles to Europa. Since he never knew the name of the girl who had come to him last September 24, he was not sure whether she was on the list. He thought not.

Most of the local people believed that the emigration had been voluntary, and for all he knew they were right. None of the infected had tried to run when the roundup started. As far as he knew, none of them had actually objected when they were told what was going to happen to them. As for the uninfected, all they knew for sure was that some of their younger neighbors had developed a fatal sensitivity to sunlight. They had welcomed the Guard unit and the agents from the Ecumenical Security Ministry.

Fr. Beed had not. They had bluntly asked him for a list of those whom he believed to be infected. He refused, pointing out that such an assessment touched on the seal of the confessional. They argued that the seal did not apply to non-human penitents. He replied that putting someone on a list of possible non-humans would still infringe on the confidentiality of humans, because he would sometimes be wrong. They growled some threats at him, but finally satisfied themselves with his record of the attendance tickets he had given out. In the Filadelfia Republic, after all, they were public records.

On the surface, life was no different this year from last. The weather was a little warmer and a little wetter, but that trend had begun even before the Empire. The world was still effortlessly prosperous and unshakably peaceful. The people's respect for their public officials had actually been strengthened (particularly for Prince Friedrich, who had played such a conspicuous role in the emigration program). Still, the whole world was now tinged with that sense of the uncanny that Agent Andros had so savored. Something really new and strange had happened for the first time in generations. Moreover, well-informed people understood just how serious the crisis could have been. The sense of the possible was beginning to expand, but it was expanding into the dark.

These days, Father Beed meditated more and more on two of the Anthropic Corollaries. Both fell into the category of certain statements about the world. One was that mankind, as the image of God in the created world, could not be destroyed by accident. The other was that every strong thing, no matter how firmly established, is ultimately ephemeral. He knew there was no formal contradiction between these statements, but he also recognized that the tension between them was not always latent.    

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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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?

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The Long View: The Perfection of the West

The Perfection of the West is one of John's self-published books, an anthology of the writings on his blog. It is an attempt to build a thematic whole out of his writings, and I think he succeeds. You can still order the book from xlibris. I've copied the table of contents on this page,  with links to each article or essay.


The Perfection of the West
By John J. Reilly

There was certainly at least one way in which the great 20th-century macrohistorians were wildly misleading: the expectation that the West would become increasingly amoral as it passed into a season of pure power politics. Postmodern theory, maybe, tended to move beyond good and evil, but postmodernism is really just a phase of late modernism, and it shows every sign of being mortal. In contrast, one of the characteristics of today's world is the search for legitimacy, for an ethic suited to a world that Toynbee hoped would become "an ecumenical society with Western characteristics."

This anthology is intended to aid that search. The book has two themes.

The first is that the morphology of history that Spengler and Toynbee described is essentially correct. Yes, the modern world has turned out to be very much like Hellenistic times. Yes, the modern international system is probably going to coalesce into a global version of the Roman Empire. Yes, the real post-modern age, the age that will follow when the modern era is really past, will lack something of the cultural innovation and democratic ethos of modernity. Very little of this is happening in quite the way that macrohistorians expected in 1920 or even 1950. However, simple realism requires that we acknowledge the shape of the future will resemble that of late antiquity in important ways.

The other theme is that this future is not necessarily a tragedy, or even a "decline." As the items in this anthology remind readers more than once, Oswald Spengler himself denied he was a pessimist: instead of The Decline of the West, he said that he might have called his big book The Completion of the West or The Perfection of the West. Sometimes it is hard to know what to make of intellectual misnomers of this sort. Spengler's contemporary, Albert Einstein, once remarked that a better popular title for Special Relativity would have been "The Theory of Invariance." If that is what these people meant, then why didn't they say so in the first place? Be that as it may, this book embraces Spengler's more sanguine interpretation of the trajectory of the modern world: the work of the modern age is to produce the final forms of the West, the culture and institutions that will last as long as the civilization of the West endures. In Spengler's model, that need not be forever, but it could also be a very long time.

What makes it worthwhile to take another look at these ideas at the beginning of the 21st century? In part, because the speculations of Spengler and the other macrohistorians were so often wrong. For instance, the contemporary course of globalization is quite contrary to Spengler's state-driven model of economics. Toynbee's surmise that the fate of the world would be resolved by a "knock-out blow" of one superpower by another now seems very unlikely to come true. Even when the macrohistorians seem to have been right about the structure of history, their imaginations failed them with regard to the specifics. Thanks to the passage of time, this anthology can provide many of the specifics. We can see the often-ironic ways in which a philosophy of history has turned into real history.

The imaginations of the macrohistorians failed them regarding evil as well as good. The Perfection of the West also deals with some of the dark alternative histories. Although the 20th century seems to have avoided the worst possible outcomes, there are imaginable final forms for the West that would mean a civilization of waking nightmare. These futures are not likely, but the currents that would make them possible still flow underground. Folly and malice could bring them to the surface again.

* * *
A glance at the Table of Contents to the left will show regular visitors to this website that the material in The Perfection of the West is not new. The book consists of book reviews and essays, most of which have already appeared on this site and in print. All this work has, of course, been edited. There has been some reorganization of the texts, particularly with an eye to reducing repetition. (Some readers may think two eyes would have been even better.) Still, this material can be offered again, in book form, with a clear conscience. For one thing, +70,000 words are a great deal to read in electronic format, even on sites with better resolution than this one. (An ebook version is nonetheless available from the publisher, by the way.) More important, I hope that presenting these items in this order will clarify the key ideas I have been trying to get across through this website. Yes, there really is a point to all these menus and subpages, or at least there is supposed to be. The Perfection of the West should help make it portable.


Table of Contents
--------------------------

Preface

Part I
Terminal States

The World After Modernity
(The archetype of the Once and Future Empire: Presented at the Sixth Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies, Boston 2001.)

Prophet of Decline
(John Farrenkopf's groundbreaking contribution to Spengler Studies, including the conclusion that Oswald Spengler's late thought went beyond historical cyclicity.)

Tragedy & Hope
(In this key text of conspiracy theory, Carroll Quigley explains why the future is the Holy Roman Empire.)

Empire
(Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's postmodern plot to overthrow the City of God.)

Our Global Neighborhood

(The Report of the Commission on Global Governance, setting out a plan for world governance and a new People of the World: Culture Wars, September 1995.)

Part II
Imperial Ethics

One World
(Peter Singer urges global government with a redistributionist ethic.)

Warrior Politics
(Robert Kaplan urges Peace with Teeth: First Things, June/July 2002.)

Tribe and Empire
(In a new “Essay on the Social Contract," Patrick E. Kennon argues that the Nation must give way to the Empire.)

Part III
The Great Republic

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
(G. Edward White's biography of a decisive man during the Decisive Lifetime: Culture Wars, January 1996.)

TR: The Last Romantic
(Theodore Roosevelt, in this biography by H. W. Brands, gives imperialism a good name: Culture Wars, March 1998.)

A Republic, Not an Empire
(Patrick J. Buchanan explains why the US should not have entered either 20th-century world war.)

The Coming Caesars
(Amaury de Riencourt applies The Decline of the West to the United States.)

Part IV
The Evil Empire

After the Third Age
(Esoteric Fascism and the Future of the West: Presented at the Seventh Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies, Boston 2002.)

The Dreamer of the Day

(Kevin Coogan's account of the life and times of the Red-Brown conspirator, Francis Parker Yockey.)

Imperium
(Francis Parker Yockey explains how the outcome of the Second World War will be reversed.)

Men Among the Ruins
(The thought of the strangely influential Baron Julius Evola.)

Part V
Late Culture

From Dawn to Decadence
(Jacques Barzun explains the meaning of the past 500 years: First Things, November 2000.)

Art Lessons
(Alice Goldfarb Marquis on the decline and fall of the National Endowment for the Arts: Culture Wars, February 1996.)

At the End of an Age
(John Lukacs on the end of the Modern Age, and maybe the of the world.)

Part VI
Fiction

The Seafort Saga
(David Feintuch's series: the Empire is a democratic theocracy, with space ships.)

The Cunning Man
(Robertson Davies mixes Spengler and the Perennial Philosophy.)

The Glass Bead Game
(In Hermann Hesse's famous novel of the future, perfection is not enough.)

End

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The Perfection of the West
By John J. Reilly

The Long View: The World After Modernity

For a span, John was an unaffiliated but not wholly unrespectable scholar of millennialism. This essay dates from that time. This is a useful précis of John's thoughts on Spengler, millennialism,  and the imperial turn.

The e-book of John's entitled Spengler's Future can be found here.


The World After Modernity

Presented under the Title:
Spengler's Future

At the Sixth Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies Boston University, November 3 to 6, 2001.
Another version of this piece appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Comparative Civilizations Review.

A persistent and highly influential image of the future appeared in the late nineteenth century. It occurred to a long list of people: I might mention Ernst von Lasaulx, Henry and Brooks Adams, Nikolai Danilevsky, Nikolai Berdyaev and Walter Schubart, and for that matter Albert Schweitzer and Jacob Burckhardt. They all shared the intuition that the Western world had entered a new "Hellenistic" age, and the twentieth century was going to see a recurrence of the less pleasant aspects of Hellenism. (1) These would include such things as demagogic tyrannies, annihilation warfare, and a relaxation of traditional restraints in art and personal life.

Nietzsche had said as much, too, and in fact anyone who entered the 20th century with this modest insight would have met with few surprises. (2) During the 20th century itself, the notion was worked up into great, formal models of history. This enterprise is sometimes called "macrohistory," (3) unless it waxes very philosophical, in which case it is called "metahistory." Either way, the best-known example is still Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West," the first of whose two volumes appeared just as the First World War ended. The biggest example, in fact the biggest book of the 20th century, is Arnold Toynbee's 12-volume "Study of History," most of which was published in the 1930s and '50s. The aspect of the Hellenistic analogy that chiefly interested them, like us today, is the way the modern era can be expected to end.

To put it more crudely than most macrohistorians do, the idea is that, just as the Hellenistic phase of Classical culture ended in the Roman Empire, and just as the Warring States period in Chinese history ended in imperial unification under the Qin Dynasty, so the modern era of Western Civilization would end in a post-national universal state. For the sake of brevity, and because some of the authors we will consider do likewise, we will call this final phase of historical development simply "the Empire."

We are talking here about the evolution from Alexander to Caesar. Some macrohistorians expected Western modernity to last the same length of time, two-and-half or three centuries. We may note that macrohistorians generally equate Alexander and Napoleon, so, if you like, you can do the arithmetic to see where we are now. (4) If you really like these analogies, we may also note that the societies most often identified as universal states, Han China, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and New Kingdom Egypt, all lasted about 500 years after their founding by a Caesar-like figure. (5) So, now you know the future. Just try to look surprised when it happens.

Philosophical history of this type gives most historians fits, but it's inescapable. Northrop Frye was not a great fan of "The Decline of the West," at least on its merits, but he also said "we are all Spenglerians." (6) For instance, Spengler can be considered the father of multiculturalism. He treats the eight cultures whose life cycles he considers as all equivalent in some sense. Although he was developing ideas that had long been familiar from German historicism (6), the fact is that he wrote the first history of the world that really was about the world, and not just a chronicle of the rise of the West.

Cyclical historical analogies affect statecraft. Henry Kissinger's undergraduate thesis at Harvard was on Spengler, and he never quite got over it. (8) Former President Bill Clinton's favorite teacher at Georgetown, at least by some accounts, was Carroll Quigley, a follower of Toynbee in the School of Foreign Service. The debates after the Cold War about globalization and American hegemony have, in effect, put the Empire front and center.

Perhaps the most topical model of international relations these days is Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations." He accepts the Hellenistic analogy as a matter of course, though with his own peculiar spin. He tells us:

"[T]he international system expanded beyond the West and became multicivilizational. Simultaneously, conflict among Western states - which had dominated that system for centuries - faded away. By the late twentieth century, the West has moved out of its 'warring state' phase of development as a civilization and toward its 'universal state' phase. At the end of [the 20th] century, this phase is still incomplete as the nation states of the West cohere into two semi-universal states in Europe and North America. These two entities and their constituent units are, however, bound together by an extraordinary complex network of formal and informal institutional ties. The universal states of previous civilizations are empires. Since democracy, however, is the political form of Western civilization, the emerging universal state of Western civilization is not an empire but rather a compound of federations, confederations, and international regimes and organizations." (9)

Among scholars interested in such things, Huntington is a little unusual in rejecting the idea of global civilization. Among people with a basically cyclical approach to history, he is also, as we will see, unusual in assuming the continuing vitality of democracy. On the other hand, he is not at all unusual in considering that the Empire already exists to some extent. This is the thesis of the fashionable book, entitled "Empire," by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

According to those authors, the Empire is Saint Augustine's City of God. (10) They themselves are Marxists who write impenetrable postmodern prose and who hope to replace the City of God with the City of Man, but their analysis is worth considering, to the extent they will permit themselves to be understood. Like its Roman predecessor, today's Empire seems to its subjects to be permanent, eternal, and necessary. It has no outside, at least in principle, and internally it distinguishes neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free. It does not rest on conquest, but on consensus.

The Empire is the post-historical incarnation of eternal justice. It does not merely happen to exist, like a historically contingent state; rather, it must exist, at least as an ideal. It closes the gap that opened in the Renaissance between the ethical and the juridical. Its wars are just wars, police actions against opponents who cannot make a principled case against the Empire as such. No civil or military stresses remain that might threaten it. The Empire is always in a crisis, so its acts are emergency measures that trump the ordinary law of the sovereignties and corporations that comprise it.

The authors say the Empire is not really a state. It does indeed have state-like organs, such as the UN and the IMF, but it has no center. For that matter, it has no geography: the old divisions between First, Second and Third World have collapsed. The difference between France and India in the world system, for instance, has become a matter of degree rather than kind. The Empire does have a tripartite anatomy, in the sense of an executive, an aristocracy, and a people, like that which the second century B.C. historian Polybius ascribed to the late Roman Republic.

The Empire is imperial, not imperialist. Imperialism, in the authors' analysis, was simply the extension of European nationalism outside Europe. The Empire arose precisely because capitalism could not endure if the divisions between nations were not dissolved. The authors count the loss of national sovereignty, and even of national identity, as no great tragedy. Nations themselves, as well as the Peoples that comprised them, were largely confected for the benefit of early capitalist production.

A retired CIA analyst, Patrick E. Kennon, recently published a witty apology for the Empire as an ideal, entitled "Tribe and Empire." He finds far deeper support for the Empire than does Samuel Huntington, who dismisses the actual membership of international society as a thin crust of what he calls "Davos People." According to Mr. Kennon:

"Now, as we enter the twenty-first century, the future of the nation-state is much in doubt...Indeed, tribalism has revived with a brutal savagery from Rwanda and Cambodia to the newly dissolved USSR and the newly unified Germany...At the same time, a kind of shadow empire...is being embraced by elites around the globe. UN bureaucrats and Greenpeace activists, Carlos the Jackal and Mother Theresa, Toyota and Amnesty International, the Cali drug cartel and the World Bank, people who worry about the dollar-yen ratio and people who worry about the ozone layer, all of these consciously or unconsciously look to empire for their profit or salvation. All of these have largely given up on the nation." (11)

Mr. Kennon attempts to account for globalization and its attendant anarchic backlash in terms of classical Social Contract theory (the very class of theory that Hardt and Negri say is the source of false consciousness in the world today). "Tribe and Empire" argues that the philosophers of the Enlightenment were too pessimistic in relegating international relations to the state of nature. According to Mr. Kennon, there is an ethical trajectory that leads away from the local and toward the universal, from the political and toward the administrative, from predation and toward commerce.

The pure forms of human life, the "tribe" and the "empire," correspond to "community" and "society," respectively. These dualities also correspond to life before and after the Social Contract. The contract turns mere homo sapiens into human beings. In the tribe, everyone is equal, every man is a warrior, and there is the war of all against all. In society, there are no enemies, only superiors and inferiors. Community is familiar and exclusive, governed by a traditional morality that is not subject to analysis. In society, there is ethics rather than morality, and right and wrong are subject to pragmatic reformulation. The most significant thing about ethics is that it is universal in principle: everyone, near and far, should ideally be treated according to the same rules. The political form that has substantially fulfilled this ideal is the "empire," something that has in fact existed at various times and places.

So far we have been talking about the Empire in terms of political theory, but that is not the only aspect of the Hellenistic analogy that interests macrohistorians. They are concerned with the way that whole societies evolve, and this is one of the points about which they have received the most criticism. They tend to speak as if societies were organic wholes, with life cycles like living things. This analogy is no worse than any other, but it is difficult to defend in detail. Burckhardt, in fact, even though he saw parallels between his own late 19th century and late antiquity, specifically rejected the biological analogy. (12) We should note, though, that even those who used organic language most heavily were not necessarily relying on it.

Spengler himself is a good case in point. Though he spoke of the cultures he examined as living organisms, his philosophy was much more sophisticated. "The Decline of the West" is a profoundly Kantian book. In Spengler's view, the course of history is circumscribed by the limits to human understanding that Kant described. According to Spengler, just eight cultures in the history of the world have tested those limits, in the sense of trying to produce final answers to life's questions. Beginning from a unique religious base, each produced its own philosophy, family of arts, and a political style. Spengler said that even the natural science and mathematics of each were idiosyncratic. In any case, all these attempts to express universal truths are failures. Whatever meaning they have is internal to the societies that produce them, and the skepticism of the late culture realizes the fact. However, the attempts are not just failures; they are magnificent failures. The living cultures that Spengler describes die, but in the process produce fossils, canons of art and science and political forms. The period of fossilization, after the end of the culture proper, is what Spengler calls civilization, which he said began for the West at the end of the 18th century. The work of modernity, in Spengler's estimation, is the completion of the final forms.

The German title of Spengler's big book, "Der Untergang des Abendlandes," is not nearly so ominous as its English translation. Literally, it is closer to "The Sunset of the Evening Land." Spengler himself said that he might better have called the book the "The Completion of the West," or even "The Perfection of the West." (13)

All this suggests Francis Fukuyama was essentially correct in saying that the West has reached "the end of history" (14): liberal democracy really is the end of Western political thought. It will never be superseded, and it will never cease to have some effect on the way government is conducted. However, that does not mean it may not someday be honored chiefly in the breach. Spengler wrote this eighty years ago, speaking about a time that could still be a good century beyond us:

"Once the Imperial Age has arrived, there are no more political problems. People manage with the situation as it is and the powers that be. In the period of Contending States, torrents of blood had reddened the pavements of all world-cities, so that the great truths of Democracy might be turned into actualities, and for the winning of rights without which life seemed not worth the living. Now these rights are won, but the grandchildren cannot be moved, even by punishment, to make use of them. A hundred years more, and even the historians will no longer understand the old controversies." (15)

In 1920, it was easy to imagine that some totalitarian system might conquer the world, but it took a measure of imagination to foresee a world in which democracy is simply forgotten. No imagination at all is necessary today, what with the low voter turnouts in the US and the emergence of post-democratic supranational entities like the European Union. The Empire means the end of democracy as anything but a venerable anachronism. Indeed, as Patrick Kennon would have it, it means the end of politics itself. In his view, government by reliable routine has been the distinguishing feature of the Empire wherever it has existed. Politics went on, of course, in Antonine Rome or Ming China, but as self-contained court intrigues and bureaucratic squabbles. It was no longer in a position to derail the essential operation of the state. The same process in the West is far advanced, and maybe this is a good thing. The mandarins in Brussels are often crudely corrupt, and they don't respond to emergencies particularly well. They are, however, quite certain not to lead civilization over a cliff in pursuit of a manifest destiny, something that national societies have done in almost every century.

A recurrent theme in metahistory is that the economic Left always wins. William McNeill, another admirer of Toynbee, has made the observation that governance tends to expand to cover the size of the economy. (16) Where it doesn't, the result is piracy, and often barbarian powers that threaten civilization itself. The Empire, in the form of universal states, can and does facilitate economic activity through the rule of law, or at least through maintaining public order. On the other hand, it is also in a position to tax and regulate universally, which it does in the interests of income redistribution and the prevention of disruption from economic change. So, for example, the expansive, technologically innovative economy that appeared in China during the politically chaotic Sung and Yuan periods was brought to heel when order was restored in the Ming period. By the 18th century, China's manufacturing sector was still huge and sophisticated, but wholly subordinate to the imperial autocracy and gentry. (17)

On the other hand, the cultural Left always loses. The arts under the Empire are well funded, technically proficient, and highly eclectic, but they are rarely new. The art of Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, for instance, can usually be dated to within a generation, just as the periods of Western art can be easily distinguished from the Middle Ages on down. When you get to the New Kingdom, the age of the Empire, repetition predominates, except for freakish episodes like the Amarna period. The work that survives from the very end of Egyptian civilization is almost impossible to distinguish from that of the Old Kingdom 1500 years before. One might say that Egyptian history ended in a sort of permanent Gothic revival. (18)

The function of art organizations today is generally curatorial. With some notable exceptions, orchestras usually find themselves playing the familiar canon that runs from Bach to Brahms (19). In the 20th century, for the first time in the cultural history of the West, time began to no longer make a difference. Imagine two picture books, one of the famous New York Armory Exhibition of 1913 and the other of the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" exhibition of 1999. Now imagine switching the covers. The switched dates would still be plausible. The point is not that the work is bad; it's just that it isn't going anywhere.

What is true of art is also supposed to be true of science, but this question would take too long to explore. The notion is that some areas of rational inquiry can simply be finished. Classical Mathematics, to take the easiest example, was substantially completed in Hellenistic times by Euclidian geometry. It did not advance further, because that geometry answered the questions Classical culture asked. So, for that matter, did Ptolemy's astronomy and Aristotle's physics. Those who apply the analogy to the West note that physics entered the 20th century with quantum mechanics and relativity and spent the century merely elaborating them. A "theory of everything," which would combine the two, may be achieved in this century. If so, it would seem to meet the criteria for one of Spengler's magnificent fossils. (20)

The Empire is a theocracy. In general, macrohistorians have welcomed the prospect of religious revival. The chief example is Toynbee himself, who decided that history was really about the development of universal religions, and only incidentally about civilizations. His "Study of History" became remarkably evangelical in its later volumes. Toynbee's reputation never recovered from the derisive, secularist critique that Hugh Trevor-Roper gave his work. (21) As we know, God severely punished Hugh Trevor-Roper for this through the Hitler Diaries fraud, but that's another story. (22) Samuel Huntington acknowledges the growing role of religion, though he seems less than pleased at the prospect, calling it "la revanche de Dieu." He speaks of "the end of the Westphalian order," referring to those aspects of the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 ensuring religion would be a domestic matter.

An influential argument supporting just this change has recently been offered by A.J. Conyers in his book, "The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit." (23) Conyers says the kind of toleration that spread in the West after the wars of religion is actually something of a fraud. It is based on a nominalist metaphysics that brackets the truth claims of each confession as parochial eccentricities. Religious truth-claims must be tolerated for the sake of peace, but merit no deference from the wider world. Conyers says that toleration in the West before the wars of religion, where it existed, had a different basis. Traditionally, tolerance assumed the validity of truth claims, but took the platonic view that specific expressions of them could, at best, be expected to be incomplete. Now that the Westphalian truce is over, Conyers argues, this traditional approach to tolerance should supplant the disingenuous secularist one of the past few centuries.

Some suggestion of where it may lead is offered by Spengler's famous prophecy of the "the Second Religiousness." He tells us:

"But neither in the creations of this piety nor in the form of the Roman Imperium is there anything primary and spontaneous. Nothing is built up, no idea unfolds itself - it is only as if a mist cleared off the land and revealed the old forms, uncertainly at first, but presently with increasing distinctness. The material of the Second Religiousness is simply that of the first, genuine, young religiousness - only otherwise experienced and expressed. It starts with Rationalism's fading out in helplessness, then the forms of the Springtime become visible, and finally the whole world of the primitive religion, which had receded before the grand forms of the early faith, returns to the foreground, powerful in the guise of the popular syncretism that is to be found in every Culture at this phase." (24)

This brings us to the decline and fall of the Empire. Not all macrohistorians say that the Empire is inherently mortal. Hardt and Negri say specifically that, whatever traditional Marxism might have predicted about the fate of the world capitalist system, the Empire has moved beyond those vulnerabilities. The Empire actually thrives on crisis. It is eternal in principle. However, that does not mean that it cannot be overthrown through an act of will. They offer this comparison from a prior incarnation of the Empire:

"Allow us [an] analogy that refers to the birth of Christianity in Europe and its expansion during the decline of the Roman Empire. In this process an enormous potential of subjectivity was constructed and consolidated in terms of the prophecy of a world to come, a chiliastic project. This new subjectivity offered an absolute alternative to the spirit of imperial right-a new ontological basis. From this perspective, Empire was accepted as the "maturity of the times" and the unity of the entire known civilization, but it was challenged in its totality by a completely different ethical and ontological axis. In the same way today, given that the limits and unresolvable problems of the new imperial right are fixed, theory and practice can go beyond them, finding once again an ontological basis of antagonism-within Empire, but also against and beyond Empire, at the same level of totality." (25)

This would be more interesting if the two authors had not excluded religion as a future revolutionary force. One of their few substantive suggestions for undermining the Empire is an absolute freedom to travel and immigration. This also happens to be the only right that Patrick Kennon of the CIA says is essential for the integrity of the Empire. As the French say, go figure.

Spengler, too, was of the opinion that the Empire did not have to end. Fossils can last indefinitely. In his estimate, Classical civilization was destroyed by historical accident. There was no internal reason why it could not have gone on without collapse as he thought, wrongly, that China had done. Spengler in his later work suggested that the imperial phase of Western history was likely to end apocalyptically for the whole world, but that is a question specific to Spengler studies. (26)

Toynbee was of two minds about the future. He thought that either the winner of another world war would create a Western Universal State, or that an ecumenical society would arise peacefully. It would have western characteristics, and maybe a world government, but it would not be a Universal State in the traditional sense. For Toynbee the Universal State was a slow-motion catastrophe that was doomed from the start, even though, as he put it, its citizens "in defiance of apparently plain facts...are prone to regard it, not as a night's shelter in the wilderness but as the Promised Land, the goal of human endeavors." (27) In his view, the Empire's internal proletariat deserts it in favor of a higher religion, in rather the way Hardt and Negri mention, while at the same time the outer barbarians become stronger and stronger. This view is not so different from Huntington's "Clash of Civilization" thesis, which interprets "the decline of the West" to mean the decline of the still-forming Western universal state relative to other civilized societies.

The Empire we have been considering is an archetype. I mean this in a modest sense. It's an inevitable notion that anyone thinking about world history is going to have to confront, even if only to reject. Hardt and Negri do hit the nail on the head: the Empire does look like the City of God, though Toynbee may have been on to something when he cautioned that it is a counterfeit of the real thing. Obviously, there is no way to say today whether the Empire is going to stay in the platonic realm, or whether, as the macrohistorians speculate, it will become incarnate in the light of day. In any case, though the Empire may fall, it never goes away.

References
(1) Staring into Chaos: Explorations in the Decline of Western Civilization, by B.G. Brander, (Spence Publishing Company, 1998), pp. 21-84.

(2) E.g., The Gay Science, by Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books, 1974), p. 318 (sec. 362).

(3) For an excessively postmodern take on the subject, see Macrohistory and Macrohistorians, by Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah (Praeger Publishers, 1997).

(4) Readers who really, really like these analogies can see them worked out for the next seven centuries in a short book, also entitled "Spengler's Future," at http://pages.prodigy.net/aesir/speng.htm.

(5) Toynbee, more cautiously, notes a common rhythm in the decline of the Empire, rather than a strictly uniform duration. A Study of History, by Arnold Toynbee: Somervell Abridgement Vols. I-VI (Oxford University Press, 1947), pp. 548-554.

(6) On the influence of Spengler generally, see Neil McInnes, The Great Doomsayer: Oswald Spengler Reconsidered (The National Interest, Summer 1997), pp. 45-76. Frye is quoted on page 68.

(7) Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics, by John Farrenkopf (Louisiana State University Press, 2001), pp. 77-90.

(8) McInnes, p. 69.

(9) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel P. Huntington (Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 53.

(10) Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 207, 394-396.

(11) Tribe and Empire: An Essay on the Social Contract, by Patrick E. Kennon (Xlibris, 2000), p. 15.

(12) Force and Freedom: Reflections on History, by Jacob Burckhardt, ed. by James Hastings Nichols (Pantheon Books, 1943).

(13) Farrenkopf, p. 167.

(14) "The End of History and the Last Man," by Francis Fukuyama (The Free Press, 1992).

(15) The Decline of the West, Volume II, by Oswald Spengler, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson (Alfred A Knopf, 1928; German original 1922), p. 432.

(16) The Human Condition: An Ecological and Historical View, by William McNeill (Princeton University Press, 1980).

(17) China: A New History, by John King Fairbank (Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 161.

(18) The Culture of Ancient Egypt, by John A. Wilson (University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 294-295.

(19) Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding, by Alice Goldfarb Marquis (Basic Books, 1995), p. 150.

(20) The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, by John Horgan (Addison-Wesley, 1996).

(21) Arnold Toynbee: A Life, by William H. McNeill (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 239.

(22) The Hitler Diaries: Fakes that Fooled the World, by Charles Hamilton (University Press of Kentucky, 1991).

(23) The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit, by A.J. Conyers (Spence Publishing Company, 2001).

(24) Spengler, p. 311.

(25) Hardt & Negri, p. 21.

(26) Farrenkopf, p. 214 et seq.

(27) A Study of History, by Arnold Toynbee: Somervell Abridgement Vols. VII-X (Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 4.

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly 

The Long View: Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power

Imperialism is a subject John often returned to, but his interest in the subject was quite different from most others. For John, what mattered were not mere national empires like the British Empire, but the Empire, the universal state into which all political and economic systems seem to eventually collapse.

Even though the process can be justly described as a collapse, it is not primarily negative. For example, one of the reasons the political order collapses into an empire is that the stakes and pressures of governance have become too high for society to bear. The empire is seen as an improvement by most of its subjects; it is genuinely popular.

Despite the differences between an empire and the Empire, you can still find some interesting features of the British Empire that may be reproduced in the coming universal state. For example, the British Empire was cheap, in terms of both money and men. It was also relatively tolerant, and preferred local control whenever possible.

There are also some features that probably wouldn't work well. The British Empire was an extension of national ambition. The universal state is the oecumene, the abode of man. As such, purely national ambition no longer has a way to even be expressed. There are no separate countries, although there might be rebellious provinces. The universal state is also usually not very dynamic. All of the civilizational energy has already been expended creating the universal state, everything you have is everything you'll get. The British Empire at its best was exceptionally dynamic.

At this point, the real question would be how Western will the universal state be? John wrote some interesting speculations about this. We shall get to them in time.

Empire:
The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power
By Niall Ferguson
Basic Books, 2002
392 Pages, US$35.00
ISBN 0-465-02328-2
You might think this book was just an essay about the 18th-century Caribbean sugar-island economy that morphed into a profusely illustrated anthology of The Boy's Own Paper, but you would be wrong. What we have here is part of a concerted campaign (the book is a companion to a television series) to rehabilitate the idea of “empire” in general, and of the British Empire in particular. The author is the oddly ubiquitous Niall Ferguson, the Scottish economic historian. He does not suppress his famous interest in alternative history in this volume: one of the questions he sets out to answer is: “Was there a less bloody route to modernity?” The answer to that may be the key to a larger question, one with implications for the future as well as the past: “Can there be globalization without gunboats?”
The British Empire had a solid genesis in government-licensed piracy. The Spanish in the 16th century beat the British to the plunder of the major civilizations of the New World, leaving the British no recourse but to rob the Spanish. Still, even at that point the British displayed some hidden advantages. The English government was not centralized enough to simply expropriate the funds from its citizens to do its own empire building. By preference, it privatized British activity abroad, both commercial and military. As time went on, England outgrew piracy and turned to the licensing of the great trading companies. The greatest of these, the East India Company, was running India by the end of the 18th century. Strangely, the Honorable Company got India as a booby prize; the Dutch East India Company got the originally far more profitable East Indies. Even so, all that the Company's charter conveyed was a monopoly right to British business with India, provided the Company could do any. They wound up governing the place only because the Mughal empire unraveled in the 18th century; if the Company was going to enjoy any security, the Company would have to provide its own government.
In addition to piracy, there were drugs and slavery. Ferguson gives us a judicious helping of statistics about the “sweet tooth” economy of the 18th century Atlantic. Britain's possessions produced sugar. They also produced coffee, tea, and tobacco. All these things are mildly addictive stimulants. The market for them was bottomless, and the labor for them was largely unfree. Readers may be surprised to learn quite how lethal this labor system was. It is well-known that one out of seven of the prisoners on slave ships died in passage, but the death rate for the crews was even higher. The islands of the Caribbean were immensely profitable; the exports from Jamaica alone were worth more to England than the whole of the exports of America at the time of the Revolution. That was one of the reasons the British decided to let the colonies go. However, the populations of these tropical colonies, slave and free, did not reproduce themselves. Most immigrants from the British isles died soon after arriving, and it was to the Caribbean that most of them went in the 17th century.
Nonetheless, even at its most amoral, the “First British Empire” of pre-Victorian times was a “liberal” empire, if not quite an empire of liberty. It was very keen on the rule of law, particularly law as it related to property rights. American colonial complaints against London really came down to the argument that one's property is not really secure without some say in how much it is taxed. The empire was also tolerant, sometimes shockingly so. The government in London and the trading companies had no interest in spreading Christianity; they also no objection to customs like widow-burning, provided the subjects of the empire kept it to themselves. Imperial libertarianism sometimes extended to disinterest in famines in the areas the empire controlled. On the positive side, the people who administered the empire were sympathetically curious about the cultures where they worked. They adapted to them, cultivating their arts and literature. As a rule, the British co-opted local elites: there was no color bar to social interaction, or even marriage.
Some of this changed with the transition to the “Second Empire” of Queen Victoria's time. The empire became more humane as it became less tolerant. Much of this occurred under the influence of the evangelical revival of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic fought slavery, with greater and much earlier success in the empire. (In America, the effort was stymied after abolition in the northern states; Ferguson suggests that the success of the American Revolution delayed the end of slavery in America by at least a generation.) Despite the protestations of old India hands, the East India Company did begin to make a fuss about widow-burning and female infanticide. The rule of the Company itself was replaced by paternalistic political control from London after the Mutiny of 1857. The imperial government promoted education, public works, and public order. The settlement of Australia was a Monty Python parody of a whole society organized as a Victorian reform school. It was also a rousing success. The British role in the “scramble for Africa” in the last quarter of the 19th century began at the behest of evangelicals, to suppress the Indian Ocean slave trade to the Middle East.
In the 1890s, the last decade of Queen Victoria's reign, the empire was at the height of its power and self-confidence, though not yet of its territory. It controlled a quarter of the world's land surface and roughly the same proportion of its population. Its control of the oceans was uncontested. In Ferguson's estimate, it was the closest thing the world has ever seen to a world government. The empire was characterized by a high degree of local autonomy. Even India, ruled by an autocrat appointed by London, pretty much ran itself. As for the white dominions, they got almost anything they wanted in terms of “responsible self-government” after the 1830s. The imperial center made a point of protecting the rights of aborigines throughout the empire; the chief audience for Darwinian racism was among the colonists on the periphery.
The empire supported free trade: sometimes at gunpoint, and not always with happy results, as the Opium Wars illustrate. Be that as it may, in this laissez-faire empire, the imperial bureaucracy and military were fantastically small. There were fewer than half-a-million members of the armed forces at the empire's height, including the Indian Army. With few exceptions, colonial wars were small, quick, and resulted in few British casualties. There were no more than a thousand members of the “covenanted” India Civil Service, the people who actually ran India. That number is a bit misleading: Imperial India had a fairly large public sector. It was staffed largely by Indians, including some who passed the exam to enter the covenanted Service, just as the bulk of the military in India was Indian. Because the regions of the empire were normally self-sufficient, the structure was cheap for Britain: military expenditures late in Victoria's reign came to 2.5% or 3.0% of net domestic product: not so different from British defense expenditures in the early 21st century.
Imperial mysticism and liberal disgust with the empire arose at about the same time. Kipling and Ruskin and Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) saw the empire as a chivalric enterprise, the chief pillar of a civilization that made the world better for everyone, everywhere. This was also the view of Cecil Rhodes, the imperial entrepreneur. Ferguson does not dwell on the historical significance of the Anglophile network that Rhodes promoted, though he does note that Rhodes hoped his scholarships would create something like the Jesuit order, with the empire substituted for the Catholic religion. The problem was that the Boer War he provoked was nakedly commercial and not at all cheap, in British lives or in any other way. That event began the turn of enlightened sentiment away from empire. It would accelerate in the 20th century, until the very word “imperial” became a term of opprobrium.
The key to Ferguson's assessment of the empire is his analysis of the circumstances under which it ended. In the first half of the 20th century, the real alternatives to the British Empire were the Third Reich, or the Japanese East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, or the Italian Empire, or even the Soviet Union. Fighting off these alternative and far worse empires justified the British Empire's existence. Similar arguments could be made for earlier periods in the empire's history. The alternative to British India would have been a morbid extension of Mughal India, which would have been no more successful than Manchu China during the same period.
And what about the other colonial empires? The French were serious rivals in India and North America until the Seven Year's War (1756-1763). The Dutch actually got the better of the British during several conflicts in the 17th century; the competition was ended only when the Dutch and British executives merged in the Glorious Revolution (1688). It is possible to imagine a history dominated by a far greater French Empire, with its whitewashed architecture and frigid bureaucratic routine. One could imagine the same of the Dutch Empire, with its single-minded devotion to business. In either case, the British idea of liberty would have been largely absent from the modern world. Ferguson tells us that all the post-colonial states with populations over a million that became democracies are former British colonies. The qualifications in that statement are intriguing, but Ferguson may be onto something. Certainly the regime of free trade that Britain promoted in the decades before the First World War made the world a more economically dynamic place.
Ferguson makes some interesting comparisons between that “First Age of Globalization” and the Second, which he dates to the last quarter of the 20th century (and which he evidently believes is over). Though he does not argue the case in detail, Ferguson suggests that it would be hard to condemn 19th-century colonialism as merely exploitive. The colonial powers made huge infrastructure investments in their colonies. (The Congo Free State of King Leopold the Wicked may have been the chief exception.) India had a small trade deficit with Britain, for instance, but British India was a capital importer. During the Second Age of Globalization, in contrast, most trade and investment moved between developed countries. The income gap between the developed and undeveloped world widened during the Second Age, whereas it narrowed during the First.
Then there is the phenomenon of political fragmentation. The number of independent states tended to decline during the 19th century; around 1910, there were just 51. At this writing, the number is just short of two hundred. The new polities, fragments of old empires, often have tiny populations and economies that don't make much sense in isolation. Nonetheless, each must support the whole apparatus of national government. In the former Soviet area and in Africa, many of them plainly are not up to it. The implication of Ferguson's description is that what the world really needs is for some power to do in the 21st century what Queen Victoria's empire did in the 19th.
One may note in passing that Ferguson believes Britain itself might still have done at least part of this, in a slightly different history. There was talk well into the 1950s of a “Third British Empire,” under which the Commonwealth would function as a federation. There were several reasons this did not come off. One was that the United States was not particularly helpful during the Sterling crises that punctuated the post-war years, thus encouraging the trade patterns of the old empire to break up. Also, the Commonwealth became so big and diverse that it no longer meant anything. A federation of just the white dominions might have worked, in the unlikely event that its non-British members could have been persuaded a Third Empire was in their interests. As things turned out, the only power left to take up the imperial slack is the United States, about which Ferguson has his doubts.
In some ways, America is better positioned for global empire than Britain ever was. The US economy is about a quarter the size of the global economy; Britain at its height represented about 8%. Even at the empire's height, there were theoretical combinations of navies that might have challenged British naval supremacy, and of course Britain did not purport to be a great land power. In the early 21st century, the US has something close to a monopoly of supremacy in every dimension of conventional force. And the US manages to do this with not much more of a percentage of the national product than Gladstone or Disraeli's governments used. One might also add that Ann Coulter is much better looking than Queen Victoria ever was. The problem is that, in some ways, the US position in the world is the mirror image of a proper empire.
Ferguson does not use this analogy, but he might have likened the “American Empire” to the successful Japanese exporting corporations of the 1970s, those uncanny enterprises whose capital structures consisted almost entirely of debt. Quite aside from chronic federal deficits, the US seems to have given up on ever running a positive trade balance again. The country is an immense importer of foreign capital. It is also an immense importer of foreign people. One of the characteristics of the British Empire at every stage was Britain's huge emigration, which created whole new countries. Americans, in contrast, are reluctant even to go abroad on short business trips. As for military power, the American ability to project it is at least matched by the American eagerness to withdraw it just as soon as possible. In fact, the US tends to withdraw before it is possible, or at least prudent. The Widowed Queen would not have been amused.
To Ferguson's critique, I would say this: I like history as much as the next guy, indeed considerably more than most next guys. Pirates, the Raj, explorers, habeas corpus, the Boy Scouts, the RAF: they are all part of quite a story. Ferguson may well be right that it is the story of one of the better possible worlds, if not necessarily of the best. Still, the story is history, just as the age of empire is history. Empire, in the sense that Ferguson uses it, is a projection of the nationalism of some nation or other. The great national empires, like the great absolute monarchies, were possible during only a limited epoch. The United States in the 21st century could not create such an empire, even if it were foolish enough to try.
What the United States can do is anchor a Universal State or, to use Toynbee's other coinage, “an ecumenical society with Western characteristics.” The story of the better-possible-world that the British Empire created may yet continue. The trick is to avoid the temptation to emulate the noble empire's example too closely.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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