A shock is a surprise because it’s a shock

Reading Thomas Childer’s The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany reminds me a lot of reading The Red Flag: A History of Communism. These strange and extreme ideological systems seem likely to be eternally marginalized…until they aren’t. The dream of revolution is a fantasy until it isn’t. The rot within these societies, their anomie and disharmony, could be papered over and suppressed for a time. But the revolution took root in rich soil fertilized by the decay and necrosis of the old order.

Human social and cultural systems go through the evolutionary process in a gradual fashion. But quite often they don’t. In fact, compared to biological systems I’d say cultural evolutionary processes are more nonlinear and protean. We may attribute this to exogenous shocks, but with hindsight, we often see that there were endogenous parameters setting the system up to collapse with the first “push” from the outside or an unexpected variable.

And one of the curiosities of humans is our tendency to maintain public fictions all the while knowing that private realities are different. With the chaos of the 1st century B.C., social unrest, the rise of successive strongmen, it was clear to observers of the time that the Roman Republic was sick. The final victory of Augustus and the end of the “republican” chaos is often depicted as a relief for most Romans and their subjects, with the exception of a few aristocrats who were pushed into a purely servile and ceremonial role.

Still, the public fiction continued. Augustus famously was the “first citizen,” princeps. The term imperator became more ubiquitous with the reign of Vespasian a century later, as the Roman Empire recovered from the fall of its first royal dynasty. Nevertheless, the forms of the Republic were maintained despite the reality that Rome had become an autocracy. Only around 300 AD did princeps fall into disuse. Diocletian began to exclusively use the term dominus. Lord.

Other public fictions persisted even then. The office of consuls, which date to Roman prehistory, was maintained down to the 6th century A.D., the reign of the Justinian. The last of the Roman Emperors coincidentally who grew up as a native Latin speaker.

Obviously, the tendency toward public fictions is not an artifact of Rome. To a great extent, Constitutional Monarchies are public fictions. When around 200 A.D. the emperor Septimius Severus did away with the fiction that the laws enacted were derived from the will of the Senate of Rome, he did away with a practice that had maintained a republican facade for centuries. The shocks and violence of the 3rd century, when the Roman system almost collapsed, was the coup de grace. Though Diocletian and the military emperors which came after him were never self-styled kings, due to the taboo around the term in Roman society, their forms and manners were inherited by the monarchs of medieval Europe. The radiant crown that Westerners perceive to be prototypical of the form is a Roman inheritance was popularized by the sun-worshipping emperors of the late 3rd century. Julian the Apostate, a reactionary who abhorred the new, did away with many of the imperial accretions added by his recent predecessors, with all the pomp, ceremony and glamor that that entailed (though his reign was an aberration in more ways than that as a beared pagan convert). The Romans never had kings, but showed kings how to be kings in substance and style.

In the pre-modern world, these fictions were quite resilient. The Zhou dynasty persisted centuries after it no longer had any power to speak of. The Abbassid Caliphs were kept as puppets in Mamluk Egypt for 250 years before the Ottoman conquest. The Merovingian dynasty’s last 100 years was to be as symbolic puppets for the lords of the Franks. The last Mughals lived over a century after the power of the dynasty, if not its glamor, had faded from memory.

The moral of the story is that public fictions can last quite a bit longer than the reality from which they are spun. With hindsight, the chaos and disrepute ushered in by the reign of Commodus clearly signals the end of the old Roman Empire with its republican fictions. But that was not clear then. The frog continued to boil, until from the outside barbarians threw in a dash of scalding water. Only then did the skin peel. But the frog had long been dead.

5 thoughts on “A shock is a surprise because it’s a shock

  1. Whither Bobby Kennedy: grok n’ groan.

    The Gracchi are always greener on the downward slide.

  2. I wonder about Anatolia after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, and Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. Both those countries in that time period underwent massive language and cultural shifts. I wonder if what you’re talking about with endogenous factors might have something to do with those shifts.

  3. the argument would apply more to post-roman britain. the arg. being that it was a helpless society/culture without its roman scaffold after centuries of sub-roman deracination.

    the manzikert case is different. the turks have a pattern of interleaving themselves with and assimilating local peoples. that’s what happened there. the uniform turkicness of anatolia today is partly an artifact of the 1920s great exchanges.

  4. I think I would dispute the difference in dynamics between biological and cultural evolution. We do see rapid major collapses of ecosystems, and the subsequent catch up evolution that results in, and the bulk of cultural, as well as biological, evolution is gradual enough. There is no qualitative difference between “gradual” and “rapid” as these qualifiers are set based on the background rate, and one major confusion between cultural and biological evolution has been the inappropriate absolutising of rates of change in one domain applied to the other.

    Cultural evolution is generally faster than the evolution of, say, complex multicellular organisms, except for karyotype evolution, especially polyploidy, in plants and the occasional animal (Resende, Kátia Ferreira Marques de. 2017. “Karyotype Evolution: Concepts and Applications.” In Chromosome Structure and Aberrations, edited by Tariq Ahmad Bhat and Aijaz Ahmad Wani, 181–200. New Delhi: Springer India. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-81-322-3673-3_9.)

    Cultural evolution occasionally drives biological evolution, as you know.

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