As I have noted before one of the most interesting aspects of ancient Greek history is that in many ways the socio-political identities and outlook of the Hellenic people before and after the Bronze Age were probably as distinct as that between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. That is, the citadel culture of the Mycenaeans was constructed out of recognizable elements. Take one dollop Near Eastern autocracy, add a dash of semi-civilized barbarian warlord, and finish off with the tincture of brutalist post-Minoan aesthetic, and you have the pirate kings of Achaea, who so plagued the kings of the Hittites and later transformed themselves into the “Sea Peoples.”
The story of what happened after the end of the Bronze Age is somewhat well known to us, because the roots of our civilizations are clear in the ideas which emerged in the period between 1000 BCE and 0 CE. The basis of the institutional religions which we see around us date to the Axial Age. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and arguably Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, either arose or ripened in the one thousand years after the birth of Christ, but from a naturalistic perspective the bases of these traditions are present in the early Iron Age. To be concrete about what I’m getting at, Judaism over its history truly takes shape in the centuries leading up to, and subsequent to, the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud. But the disparate threads of Rabbinical Judaism were already there in the centuries before Christ; they were simply synthesized and extended later on.
Much the same can be said about science. On the one hand, a narrow view of science is that it is the cultural product of a group of individuals who began collectively exploring aspects of the natural world in the 17th century. Eventually this contingent cultural enterprise spread across the whole world. But the roots of the scientific enterprise can also be seen in the Pre-Socratic philosophies. It was already there 2,500 years ago. But the victory of Platonism, and later the rise of Hellenistic ethical systems, and finally the ideological uniformity imposed by Christianity, dampened the efflorescence of heterodox speculations which flourished for the few centuries around 450 BCE. The steam went out of the scientific enterprise, and it never truly became science as we understand it in the modern world. But pieces of it that came together later on were familiar to us of old.
And then there are the political innovations. The Greeks gave us all their different varieties; democracy, oligarchy, the mixed monarchy-oligarchy of Sparta. The Romans had their republic, and even during the imperial period rejected the institution of ‘kinship,’ though all the powers of a king were eventually accrued to the emperors.
But political debate existed outside of Greece and Rome. In China political and ethical philosophy were intertwined, the tension between Legalism and Confucianism would continue down through the ages after the official ascendancy of the latter during the Former Han. In India there was a variety of forms of governance characterized by differing levels of centrality before the conquest of the Mauryas set the horizons and template for much of the rest of South Asian history.
Democracy and republics faded. Republican governments eventually made periodic revivals. During the period of the American Revolution many were skeptical of the idea of such a geographically expansive state such as the United States being able to maintain a republican form of governance. The shift toward a more democratic self-identity in the early 19th century with the rise of Jacksonian populism was even more shocking, because for much of history democracy was seen as a failed Greek experiment which often devolved into illiberal mob rule.
I recall 15 years ago Steven Pinker observing that one reason philosophy has made little progress is that what one could not make progress in was consigned to philosophy, while the natural and social sciences waxed in their ability to model and explain the world around us. This is uncharitable to philosophy in many ways, but it gets at something real: we haven’t pushed much further beyond the Greeks on foundational questions. Similarly, Islam is the last major religion to have emerged, and the theology of Christian churches and the metaphysics of Buddhism and Hinduism are all one to two thousand years old. Instead of progress we’ve seen shifts back and forth in fashion. Reworking of templates, not the creation of new things.
Over the past few centuries we have witnessed something different than this. The birth of the modern. The explosion of democracy and liberalism, and economic well being through massive gains to welfare and well being to the non-elites. Between 1800 and 1970 the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled in Western societies shrank. Seen from the first half of the 1960s the future was shiny, infectious disease was going to be unknown, and robots would allow us a life of leisure.
Though we do have iPhones and other shiny devices, and nerds like me can consume lots information on the web, things have not quite worked out in exactly the way predicted. Yes, China and much of the developing world has improved in terms of vital statistics. And it looks like space commerce may finally arrive in the next decade. But we do not have a Mars colony in 2017, let alone a Moon colony.
Economic productivity combined with a demographic transition mean that extreme deprivation is slowly being strangled. But inequality flourishes, and the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled began to increase after 1970 in the developed world. Whereas at one point the Whiggish perception that history was progressive, and that it would end in some quasi-utopian terminus, was self-evident, today many are not as certain. The unipolar geopolitics of the 1990s has given way to a new farcical world of the “Great Game,” while secular Arab nationalism has faded to irrelevance in the face of a resurgence Islamic identity.
History does not move in cycles where the future reenacts the past. But much of the modular furniture of existence seems to be 2,000 years old. The Salafi movements the world over are fundamentally products of modernity, or the reaction to various elements of European modernity. Their roots pre-date the 20th century, and go back to revivals in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century which parallel a reconstruction of self conscious orthodox Islam in India as the Mughal order was collapsing. But ultimately they are refurbishing the furniture put together by Ibn Hanbal in the 9th century, who himself might have been comfortable among Judaean Zealots. The Taliban are simply the Maccabees of our age.
From an American perspective the reality, the necessity, of the spread of democracy and the expansion of liberalism seem self-evident. Inevitable. Along with technology and science, it all seemed to hang together. In the 1990s the future was arriving as scheduled.
In 2017 the Russian experiment with Western democratic forms has not turned out how we wanted. Though China is economically liberal, it is not democratic. The global capitalist elite were as surprised as everyone else by 2008, and in the wake of that shock they have persuaded themselves that there is no need for a fundamental rethink of the institutions that they’ve developed over the past 70 years since the Bretton Woods Agreement.
As the Western economic elite continues to persist in denial, the cultural elite has been making a broad push to sweep post-1960s social liberalism throughout the world. This, all the while that Western societies have been demographically stagnant, and Western economic power has been declining in relative terms.
We are in the late stages of the long 20th century. The institutions and mores of the post-World War II are still with us, like Zeitgeist zombies. But the combination of global capitalism, individualism, democratic values always constrained by oligarchic preferences, and the universal acid of Critical Theory infused identity politics, does not hang together in a robust fashion. In most of the world if people have to pick between their ‘sexual identity’ and their ‘religious identity’, I think it will be the latter (assuming they concede that a sexual identity is a thing). In the early 20th century Marxists had to confront the fact that internationalism was not capable of overcoming nationalism. In the 21st century the identity politics of individual self-actualization and self-definition will likely confront 2,000 year old identities.
Ideologues dream of final victories. Of ideologies sweep through the world, from sea to sea. Global Communism. A world-wide capitalist order defined by free trade and free movement of peoples. China and India converting to Christianity and finally ending the civilizational conflict between Christendom and Islam, as Muslim MENA is constricted between Christian Europe, Africa, and Asia.
But pluralism has defined the last few thousand years. The final victory has been elusive. The old ideologies and religions do not die, they evolve, they reinvent, they repurpose. The stories are different in each age, but they live in a shared universe of characters who also repeat similar plot elements.
The second century BC was a strange time for the Roman republic. It was an empire in all but name. The ancient enemy Carthage was no more. But destitution was also coming to some of the Roman people. This resulted in reformers attempting to right the ship of state. The brothers Gracchi attempted to help the plight of the Roman poor with redistribution. Marcus Livius Drusus expanded the franchise to non-Roman Italians. Political redistribution if you will. Gaius Marius began as a necessary general, but ended as a chaotic autocrat. The social cohesion of the Roman republic was breaking down. Faction began to dominate all of public life.
Into situation stepped Sulla. Sulla is not a contingent man. Sulla is a type. A reaction, usually a vain and futile attempt to hold the past together, and push it into the future, by brutal means. Sulla arises when social elites lose faith in the present, and attempt to recreate institutions from an idealized past.
Sulla is efficient. Cruel, but certain in his rightness. Sulla is not a clown. He is not narcissistic, for Sulla does have ideals, even if you hold that those ideals are cruel or callous. Sulla is a piece of furniture, found in many places at many times. The United States of America has not seen Sulla yet. I believe it will.