Cycles of History, Hiatuses of Civilization, and the Western Prospect

Introduction. A correspondent who has made a notable success in the financial world recently sent me two essays – of which he was the author – that revealed a keen sense of history, anthropology, and literature, as applied to the analysis large-scale economic trends.  Whereas my own extremely limited economic knowledge inclined me at first to trepidation, I soon found the writer’s insistence on the human character of markets and money refreshing.  I had recently taken over my department’s “Business in Literature” course, in the context of which, at the beginning of the semester, I asked the students to read The Gift (1925) by Marcel Mauss.  The Gift proposes, among other theses, that the modern market remains human only insofar as it preserves certain archaic customs related to gift giving.  Why does a restaurateur put bread on the table as soon as the guest sits down?  When the guest takes the bread, he has accepted a gift, and he must reciprocate the gift-giver somehow – say, by buying a meal.  No doubt in a “planned economy,” the planners would reject le pain à volonté as an inefficient allocation of resources, whereupon the transaction would become purely transactional and less-than-fully human.  The restaurateur’s gesture contributes, in its gentle way, to civilization.  The planner’s rational objection de-civilizes.  Indeed, the planner is likely a plunderer also, with a covetous redistributive interest in the guest’s domestic larder.

Like Mauss’s idea of archaic exchange, my correspondent’s idea of finance refused to isolate economics from other institutions including religion.  The human element will appear to efficiency experts as exiguous to the economic paradigm when in fact it is essential.  By a coincidence, I was also teaching my “Science Fiction” course during the same semester, where a number of the texts dealt with history on a large scale, using the actual historical knowledge as the basis of speculating about the future, near and far.  The same texts insisted that civilization tends to be a transient affair – canceled fairly regularly by catastrophes of various kinds, human and natural.  My correspondent in his writings indicated a similar intuition.  His vision of economic promise found its balance in his wisdom about political miscalculation, ideological perversity, and the unforeseen.  I wanted to respond to the writer’s two rich texts.  What follows, protecting the correspondent’s anonymity, is that response.  I tried to place my appreciation of the essay-writer’s vision in context of my own recent reading, with the emphasis on one or two new titles by the literary anthropologist René Girard, Emmet Scott’s re-consideration of Henri Pirenne’s claim that Classical civilization survived until about 650 AD, in Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012), and the works of two Edwardian futurists whom I particularly cherish, H. G. Wells and W. Olaf Stapledon.  I ask my readers to trust me.  The mixture is not as arbitrary as it sounds.

I. Dear “X”: I approach your two essays – in one way among others – by putting them in the context of my other current reading, to which belongs the inveterate re-reading of the “pillars” of my general understanding of things, such as René Girard and Eric Voegelin on the one hand and H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon on the other.  (With much in between.)  Yet in respect of your essay on Leo Strauss the most powerful resonance came neither from Girard nor Voegelin, nor Wells nor Stapledon, but rather from Emmet Scott and Henri Pirenne.  Scott has recently published a vindicating commentary on Pirenne, whose Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937) advanced the thesis that Classical civilization ended, not in the late Fifth Century, as the usual narrative insists, but rather in the first half of the Seventh Century.  Pirenne also argued that the cause of the collapse was not the incapacity of the Gothic aristocracy to sustain the Greco-Roman achievement, but the depredations of Islam and the blockading of trade in the Mediterranean.  If there were a “Dark Age,” so Pirenne asserted, it would come between 700 and 900, a radical adjustment of the accepted chronology.

Scott, applying eighty years of archeological and philological research to Pirenne’s argument, finds that the massive cumulus of scientific knowledge supports it.  Scott calls attention to a remarkable fact that other students of the Middle Ages find inconvenient to their theories: An almost complete lack of archeological remains in the three-hundred-year period beginning in the fourth decade of the Seventh Century.  As Scott writes, archeologists find the gap uncomfortable and look for ways to rationalize it away, while historians, in their embarrassment, prefer to ignore it entirely.  The gap does not fit in the postmodern, multiculturalist worldview.  Why should this be so?

Two characteristics of this gap beg attention.  The first is that the gap is universal – it obtains in Western Europe, North Africa, Egypt, Anatolia, and the Near East.  The second is that when recovery comes, it comes in the formerly least developed areas (Gaul, Germany, and Britain), suggesting that in the Seventh-Century collapse of orderly life, it was the most civilized regions that proved most vulnerable to the inimical cause.  Not to be coy: The cause was the violent intolerance and ceaseless, ideologically driven aggression of Islam – constant raiding for slaves and portable wealth and destruction for its own sake to punish the infidel.

From these data innumerable corollaries arise.  For example – and taking them in no particular order: A long-enduring, sophisticated social order with a complex and differentiated economy and a standing military cannot effectively defend itself against fanatical, “asymmetrical” warfare waged by a convinced enemy, even when he is socially primitive compared to the defenders; barbarians who have decided for civilization but are not yet entirely civilized make better champions of civilization than do the bourgeoisie and elites of a settled, mercantile order (Romanized Spain does not stop the Islamic onslaught but Merovingian France does); the civilized media of data-storage are extraordinarily vulnerable to destruction (the cut-off of the papyrus trade beginning around 640 made the bureaucratic organization of the Late-Classical world in Western Europe impossible); and the disruption of any one key element of the civilized order invariably and swiftly affects every other element, leading to the precipitous disintegration of the whole.

There is one other, particular, corollary of the stratigraphically attestable, actual Dark Age to which Scott directs our interest, namely that, in being universal, this hiatus of organized life is as true in the Muslim-dominated areas of the Mediterranean world as it is in the holdout areas.  In other words, the immediate effect of the Jihad, whether in Spain or Anatolia, or in the original Islamic areas of conquest and the Islamic homeland itself, was the near-complete abolition of civilized existence, including the outright destruction of many cities and the two-century abandonment of others.

With that, what one can now only call the myth of the Islamic “Golden Age” bursts like a bubble, and along with it the canard that Islam “saved” Europe from or “tutored” it out of its recalcitrant barbarism.  The initial phase of Islam was the end of orderly life wherever the holy war extended itself in a perverse triumph of savagery over civilization.

All of this is fascinating on its own, but the implications run deeper than Islam and the West.  Perspicacity might discern, in the resemblance of the Seventh-Century Dark Age with another Dark Age, the strengthened plausibility of an alarmist view about our own contemporary prospects.  What is that other Dark Age?  The archeologists have named it “The Catastrophe” and they assign it to a relatively short period of about fifty years between 1200 and 1100 BC.  In sum, once “The Catastrophe” had run its course (beginning in the Greek Peninsula and working its way through Anatolia, the islands, and the Levant, coming to a halt only in Egypt and Assyria), every civic center of the Late Bronze Age had been reduced to burnt-out ruins, after which for three hundred years the cultural character of the archeological remains reverts to that of the Neolithic.  Among the poignant signs of “The Catastrophe” are Linear B tablets from Pylos in Greece that apparently record the last defensive orders issued by the king before the unnamed enemy sacked the palace and put it to fire and desperate diplomatic letters sent by the king of Ugarit to his Hittite ally begging military assistance against invaders.  Vainly, as it seems.  Absent from the evidence left by the Bronze Age “Catastrophe,” either archeological or philological, is any hint of the cultural or ethnic unity of the destructive agents or any explicit hint of ideological motivation.

Nevertheless, an ideological motivation or its equivalent can be inferred.  Once we have inferred it, we can speak of the unity-of-motive of the destroyers.  Here Girard’s anthropology offers itself as helpful.

II. Dear “X”: We know about the Late Bronze Age societies that they were prosperous and functional right up to the moment of their sudden violent dissolution.  If Pirenne and Scott were right (and their evidence is massively convincing), we would know the same facts about the Late Classical societies of the early Seventh Century.  They too were prosperous and functional right up to the moment of their sudden violent dissolution.  Indeed, in North Africa, Spain, Italy, and Gaul, population and wealth appears to have been increasing in the two centuries between 400 and 600, reversing a trend of falling population and declining affluence that characterizes the Roman Empire during its final pagan phase.  Justinian’s plague of 560s cut into populations all around the Mediterranean, but the recovery from it happened in short order.  By 600, agriculture had become increasingly productive; the introduction of the moldboard plow brought new formerly hardscrabble regions into arability.

Thus the historical record offers two occasions – in the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age and in the Mediterranean world as a whole around 700 AD – when a network of kingdoms forming a single large mercantile economy collapsed precipitously under attack, with the immediate prolonged sequel of depopulation, de-coinage, illiteracy, and the return of primitive barter before the belated arising of a new civilization, in the form either of the Polis-civilization or the Frankish Kingdom.

On both occasions, the agency of destruction was a large-scale commotion of savage peoples whose interest in plunder cannot be separated from their nihilistic ire against the communities that they sacked.  Whether it is the “Peoples of the Sea,” as indicated by Egyptian records, or “Arab Raiders,” as indicated by Byzantine and Spanish chroniclers, we confront a mobilized mass that forgoes the prospect of regular tribute or “protection money” for the sake of satisfying its urge for total punitive annihilation of the civilized “other.”  Even the Assyrians, who were the scourge of their day, attacked to acquire, not to destroy.  It is, to borrow Nietzsche’s word for it, ressentiment in action on a continental scale and in a holocaustic style.  The remains of the burnt-out cities are filled with the arrowheads of the attackers, a sign that those attackers slaughtered the people.  In Girardian terms, again whether it is the “Peoples of the Sea” or the Seventh-Century Muslims, the mentality of the destroyers can only be that the very existence of organization and wealth constitutes an affront to those who feel and believe their comparative inferiority to it.  The invidious mass, in a spasm of covetousness, wants the things that the urbanites possess (the urbanites having very likely committed the folly of flaunting their chattels), but it plans to seize them only once, while simultaneously obliterating the means of producing them in all its tangible and intangible aspects, along with the producers themselves.

Now the Late Bronze Age “Catastrophe” has been known for a long time and the hiatus of civilization commencing in the Seventh Century AD has gradually been coming to light via its glaring archeological deficit for fifty years, but little cognizance of either event has entered into the journalistic discussion of history.  Popular humanities discourse remains dominated by the liberal ideas of continuous “progress,” of an equation between early Christian Europe and cultural benightedness, and, as the Strauss essay puts it, of a vapid and yet fiercely dogmatic non-anthropology, deriving from the Enlightenment, that selectively refuses to locate an innate propensity for perverse or evil activities in human nature.  The adjective “selective” is necessary because the ideologues of political correctness are quick to see evil in Christianity and the West, just as they are quick to treat Islam like a pet, whitewashing its intolerance and brutality.  Reviews of Scott’s book – and the attitude of humanities faculties to Girard – show indeed a high level of emotional hostility against notions that violate the existing intellectual consensus, which in many instances is nothing less than a case of epistemological nihilism.

The same attitudes show up in foreign policy in the inability of the USA to name its enemy or even to admit that it actually has an enemy.  But it is actually worse than that.  The establishment moves to penalize and quash those who insist that there is an enemy, and who are willing to name names.

[The correspondent had quoted Tennyson in the epigraph to one of his essays.]  The quotation from Locksley Hall indeed summarizes the utopian purblindness of the contemporary West, not only in its positive aversion to anthropological, but also in its allergy to actual historical knowledge – to the facts about its own past, and to those facts especially about the struggles with inimical powers by which the West defined itself.  Matthew Arnold had a clearer, starker view of the human prospect: No “Parliament of Man,” in Tennyson’s phrase, but only “ignorant armies” that “clash by night,” in Arnold’s.  That is what the future heralded.  And Arnold could give the cause: The withdrawal of faith, and not only “faith” in the sense of commitment to Christian doctrine, but faith in the meaning and value of civilization, whose internal enemies of the last century, all of whom seem to be driven by resentment, have been at least as pernicious as any external enemy.  Then again the notion of a “withdrawal of faith” subtly misses the point.  It might pay to think like Girard (and to a certain extent like Voegelin): There is never really a vacuum of faith, but rather one thing always shoves aside another.  According to the idea of “progress” the thing shoved aside must, in some Darwinian sense, be inferior to that which does the shoving.  Such a view is a delusion, especially where it concerns Christianity and its relation to the earlier religious dispensations.

A writer recently put it this way: “When a society disavows the Gospel and goes boldly to its Post-Christian phase, it must find another morality than the Christian one to guide its organization.  The only other morality being the Pre-Biblical, the sacrificial morality, the ‘new’ principle will in fact be the old one of responding to crises by fomenting mobs and expelling or immolating scapegoat-victims.  Contemporary mobs tell us precisely who they are – echoing the exculpatory claim of those who joined together to murder Jesus – when they boast of representing, or indeed of being, the ‘ninety-nine per cent,’ whose utopia will appear when the scandal of the wicked, well-poisoning one per cent at last goes into liquidation.  Voegelin rightly argues that the ideologies, including liberalism, resemble the ancient religions.  Girard rightly argues that the ancient religions were invariably sacrificial.”

III. Dear “X”: The theme of religious dispensation is bound up with the theme of gaps in the history of civilization.  In Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited, Scott writes: “That so many of the Roman cities in the Near East and North Africa were abandoned is striking and in complete contrast to what happened in Europe.  In the latter region the Roman towns were continuously occupied throughout the fifth and sixth centuries and into the Middle Ages…  The Roman centers of the Middle East and North Africa, by contrast, were, with a handful of exceptions, completely abandoned and the surrounding countryside was transformed into an arid or semi-arid wasteland.”  It is not plunder, but destruction.  Again, beginning in the Seventh Century, “Muslim pirates based in North Africa made large parts of the Mediterranean shore-line uninhabitable.”  Those who lived in coastal areas moved, by exigency, into fortifications.  (There is a word for this in Italian that refers to the event: Encastellamente.)  Life could thrive only inland, away from the harassment of the razzias.  “A state of perpetual conflict,” Scott writes, “exists between Islam and the rest of the world.”  A similar conflict must have existed between the civilized peoples and their destroyers in 1100 or 1050 BC.

In Battling to the End (2009), his study of Clausewitz, Girard writes: “Mimetic theory… obliges us to see history on a larger scale and as involving very long alternations.”  He also writes that: “Humans are… immersed in order and disorder, in war and peace [simultaneously].  It is becoming more and more difficult to draw a line between the two realities that, until the French Revolution, were codified and ritualized.”  Girard remarks that, “there are no differences anymore” and “reciprocal action is so amplified by globalization, the planetary reciprocity in which the slightest event can have repercussions on the other side of the globe, that violence is always a length ahead of our movements.”

Girard warns against the trend of enemies in the new violent world to become doubles in a general breakdown of differences.  Scott argues that this has already happened once, although he makes no reference to Girard.  Scott devotes an Epilogue to the Western reaction to Islam in the latter’s first five centuries.  He sees in theocracy, which distinguishes the Middle Ages as such from the precursor classical civilization, a curious Western reflection of the Caliphate.  One should mention that somewhere in The Decline of the West, Spengler tosses off a line to the effect that Charlemagne acted more or less like the “Caliph of Frankistan.”  So Scott is not the only one to have noted the resemblance.  Scott goes beyond Spengler’s figure of speech, however, in noticing that two of the features of medieval life, namely the Inquisition and the idea of Holy War, also mimic Islam.  The Inquisition began in Spain, just after the Reconquista.   The Crusades were, to switch to Girardian terms, a mimetic response to three centuries of Jihad.  The accelerated metamorphosis of liberalism after 9/11 into a rigid orthodoxy of political correctness, often explicitly siding with Islam in Islam’s diatribes against the West, is a similar mimetic phenomenon.

Both the Strauss essay and the globalization essay call attention to the fact that the Western crisis has been deepening for a hundred years at least.  Both also suggest further deepening of the same crisis: “The twentieth century was great and terrible, and the twenty-first century promises to be far greater and more terrible.”  Of course, “for the rationalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as for those who consider themselves cosmopolitan today, this sort of hysterical talk about the end of the world was deemed to be the exclusive province of people who were either stupid or wicked or insane (although mostly just stupid.”  Battling to the End contains the following exchange between Girard and his interlocutor:

Benoit Chantre.   You have often said that Christianity freed us from our sacrificial crutches, but at the same time it made us responsible for our destiny.  Were not the “crutches” that we lost the only way to meet the danger?  In other words, is not one of the consequences of Christian revelation that we no longer believe in catastrophe, even though it is scientifically predictable?

René Girard.  Quite right.

Girard speculates this way in Battling to the End on the concept of reciprocity: “Some definitions give it a cosmic turn: It would refer to the action of the moon on the tides.”  Girard asks: “What if our little everyday wars were in line with natural laws?”  His answer is: “If they were, then it would suffice for them to go uncontrolled long enough for there to be worldwide consequences.”  And they do go uncontrolled because they go unnoticed.  And they go unnoticed because it is forbidden to think about human nature, about religious ideas, and about the possibility that a liberal-positivistic optimism might be a type of arrogant folly.

The West thus finds itself in the current nightmarish pickle.  Islam, which is in a perpetual sacrificial crisis wherever it extends itself, immolates internal scapegoats by the tens of thousands every year – but in the main Islam is obsessed with external scapegoats (infidels); the West, having disavowed the Gospel, is also in a crisis that increasingly resembles a sacrificial crisis, but it focuses almost exclusively on internal scapegoats (politically incorrect dissenters from the dominant liberal orthodoxy).  Islam is totalitarian; the West is increasingly totalitarian.  Islam has always been mobilized; the West has experienced bouts of increasing mobilization since the French Revolution, and these bouts have been ideologically driven.  All of this omits to take into account China, which is involved in another mimetic rivalry with the West of which the West seems mostly oblivious.  In his meditation on Clausewitz, Girard emphasizes the continuity and intermingling of war as such and trade.  It is all reciprocity, and “as soon as the rhythm of exchange accelerates, reciprocity appears as what it is: consistent with the law of the duel.”

The early twentieth Century futurists – like Wells and Stapledon – exercise fascination on an open mind of the present because they thought accurately as far out as a century in the future.  They could and did think apocalyptically and they were fascinated by the patterns of economic disruption and social breakdown.  Wells and Stapledon could see, for example, that entire nations could be locked in a catastrophic relation of rival-doubles and that in their mimesis they could escalate swiftly to mutually assured destruction.  Wells wrote The World Set Free, a story of nuclear warfare, in 1913, which the globalization essay identifies as “the previous peak year” to a recent peak year of globalization, and he published it just prior to the breaking-out of war in 1914.

Foreseeing that control of atomic fission would represent a magnitude of increase in available power, Wells describes the result in these terms: “If there was a vast development of production there was also a huge destruction of values. These glaring factories working night and day, these glittering new vehicles swinging noiselessly along the roads, these flights of dragon-flies that swooped and soared and circled in the air, were indeed no more than the brightnesses of lamps and fires that gleam out when the world sinks towards twilight and the night.”  When the economic disruptions eventuate in an escalation from trade-wars and embargoes to actual war, and technicians adapt atomic fission to bellicose purposes, the situation spirals precipitously out of control.  The Central Powers destroy Paris.  In a vignette, Wells narrates the preparations on a French airfield for retaliation.  “We’ll give them tit-for-tat,” the French aviator says; “we’ll give them tit-for-tat.”  “Tit-for-tat” leaves nine out of ten European cities in smoking ruins.

IV. Dear “X”: In the earlier War in the Air (1906), Wells foresees an arms race that assimilates all nations in a contest of global rivalry.  When rivalry tips into open hostility, the economic consequence is pronounced: “Once the war began there was no stopping it. The flimsy fabric of credit that had grown with no man foreseeing, and that had held those hundreds of millions in an economic interdependence that no man clearly understood, dissolved in panic.”  The terrible logic of the war is Clausewitizian and Girardian:

It was impossible to end a war by any of the established methods. A, having outnumbered and overwhelmed B, hovers, a thousand airships strong, over his capital, threatening to bombard it unless B submits. B replies by wireless telegraphy that he is now in the act of bombarding the chief manufacturing city of A by means of three raider airships. A denounces B’s raiders as pirates and so forth, bombards B’s capital, and sets off to hunt down B’s airships, while B, in a state of passionate emotion and heroic unconquerableness, sets to work amidst his ruins, making fresh airships and explosives for the benefit of A. The war became perforce a universal guerrilla war, a war inextricably involving civilians and homes and all the apparatus of social life.

In Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930), the testy balance between America and China polarizes the world of the mid-Twenty-First century.  Having averted a war through negotiation, the conflict nevertheless continues as one of cultural and economic competition:

China, owing to her relative weakness and irritation caused by the tentacles of American industry within her, was at this time more nationalistic than her rival, America. Indeed, America professed to have outgrown nationalism, and to stand for political and cultural world unity. But she conceived this unity as a Unity under American organization; and by culture she meant Americanism. This kind of cosmopolitanism was regarded by Asia and Africa without sympathy. In China a concerted effort had been made to purge the foreign element from her culture. Its success, however, was only superficial…  [The] manner of life of the average man remained American. Not only did he use American cutlery, shoes, gramophones, domestic labor-saving devices, but also his alphabet was European, his vocabulary was permeated by American slang, his newspapers and radio were American in manner, though anti-American in politics.

Stapledon writes: “Just as Western states had been all too often organized under the will for military prestige, so the new China was organized under the will for prestige of culture.”  When rivalry heightens and conflict threatens, “the cause was both economic and sentimental,” and “the economic cause was the demand for fuel.”  One could easily multiply the details, some of which are closer to the mark than others.  It is the general picture – the late-Twenty-First Century “doubling” of America and China – that vindicates Stapledon as a prophet.  China might not have alphabetized, but American consumerism has “Sinified,” as a trip to any Wal-Mart will witness.

Many diseases afflict the contemporary world, not least the disease of complacency, which cannot imagine a change in the status quo.  Ominously, the historical record tells us that at least twice since 1000 BC, high civilization has succumbed to a surprising onslaught, which then opens out on a radically impoverished dark age that lasts for three, four, or five hundred years.  No doubt a survey of Asian civilizations would reveal similar, civilizational “extinction events.”  The world is littered with the remains of dead civilizations.  Myth tells of many more.  The probable agent of the Seventh-Century Catastrophe, Islam, is still active, still in rivalry with the descendent-world of the world that it destroyed, and it is already in possession (Pakistan) of nuclear weapons (soon to be joined by Iran).

Meanwhile the West is itself in a spiral of disintegration, spinning towards class-warfare, violent ideological conflict, and ugly racially motivated skirmishes.

The West’s survival, now in doubt, depends on the West’s conscious recuperation of its own origins.  At the very beginning of Last and First Men, perhaps the most audacious of all scientific romances, the far-futural narrator tells a man of the mid-Twentieth Century that, “The first, and some would say the greatest, achievement of your own ‘Western’ culture was the conceiving of two ideals of conduct, both essential to the spirit’s well-being.”  The narrator then names the names: “Jesus, delighting in the actual human persons around him, and in that flavour of divinity which, for him, pervaded the world, stood for unselfish love of neighbours and of God”; and “Socrates, delighting in the truth for its own sake and not merely for practical ends, glorified unbiased thinking, honesty of mind and speech.”  Restoring the West to spiritual vigor will require the revitalization of those two ideals.

14 thoughts on “Cycles of History, Hiatuses of Civilization, and the Western Prospect

  1. Wow. I hate when people do this, but I will digest this and comment further later, because I don’t want to miss the discussion between now and then.

  2. I hope there is a discussion because this is fascinating, but how many people are informed enough about the Greek Dark Ages to comment? For better informed people:

    1) Are we sure the “Sea People” are the main culprit behind the Bronze Age collapse? 2) Couldn’t there have been an “overfishing” problem that led to raiding and destruction rather than continuous extortion? Maybe the Sea People State collapsed and they all went Ronin at the same time. The whole parallel between this and Islam sounds pretty speculative to someone completely ignorant of the subject.

  3. Thank you, Josh. “The Peoples of the Sea” is an Egyptian designation of the mob that overwhelmed the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age. That mob was not ethnically unified. It was a congeries of peoples. A “Sea People State” is a dubious proposition. The main facts are the destruction followed by the “Dark Age.” Insofar as Pirenne and Scott are right, a similar destruction, followed by a similar “Dark Age,” was wrought by the original Jihad. The two- or three-century blank slate after 640 completely contradicts everything that we hear about Islam. That is food for thought. My foremost point is the fragility of civilization. It seems to me that civilizations invite their own death through license and decadence. I would welcome discussion.

  4. Tom: for your course on Business in Literature, I can hardly think of a better book than Frederick Turner’s Shakespeare’s 21st Century Economics: the Morality of Love & Money. One doesn’t think of Shakespeare as being concerned with economics or money – that’s why the book leapt off the shelf at me – but, oh, he is. Turner is one of these guys who sees the connections between widely disparate domains of discourse. The whole book is a flash of lightning. The human character of markets and money? Turner is all over that.

    E.g., the analogy between the marital bond, the molecular bond, the financial bond. If there was no human character to markets and money, why would humans care about them so much, and invest them – so to speak – with so much significance?

    Bottom line is that economics is the dismal science only to dismal minds. I would be very interested to read your correspondent’s essays.

  5. Tom: Glad to see you liked the Emmet Smith book. I found it absolutely shattering. As in, it shattered what was left of my schoolboy’s understanding of post-classical history, and put the pieces back together again in a much more intelligible, near-fetched, parsimonious way.

    Coincidentally, I have just finished a terribly written but amazingly informative book on the Minoans, whose geopolitical heirs were the Mycenaeans, the Phoenicians, and most of the other important Bronze Age cultures. The main argument is that a far more sophisticated, powerful and extensive Minoan maritime culture than we had ever suspected might have existed was essentially wiped out by the eruption on Thera circa 1450 BC, which created an immense tsunami that destroyed their crops and settlements on Crete and throughout the Aegean – and their whole fleet – at a single blow. This cataclysm gave rise to the legend of Atlantis, so called because the Minoan trading empire apparently stretched from Kerala in India to beyond the Atlas mountains in Morocco (“Atlantic” being named for that titan) to Portugal, Britain, the Baltic – and Lake Superior. It sounds wild, but there are these stubborn facts, many of which have only come to light in the last 30 years. There has apparently been a revolution in certain circles of archeology regarding the antiquity of human seafaring, with some scholars arguing that Homo Erectus was involved in blue ocean sailing 800,000 years ago. Transoceanic trade has been going on for a long, long time.

    The Minoans apparently knew how to fix longitude using ephemeris tables, which they compiled for each region of the globe that they visited by building or modifying observatories like Stonehenge. Stone circles have been discovered on an island in Lake Michigan. Such local observatories were used to calibrate local ephemera with the detailed ephemeris tables compiled over millennia at Babylon.

    The Egyptian mummies all show evidence of use of cocaine and tobacco. An American tobacco beetle was found buried in the volcanic ashes of Thera. Wisconsin copper – tons of it – has been found in a Minoan wreck off the southern coast of Turkey. Meanwhile, Bronze Age copper mines in Wisconsin were emptied of millions of tons of copper, which disappeared from North America.

    Who knew?

    The book is Gavin Menzies’ Lost Empire of Atlantis. Fair warning, it is so badly written that I often wished I could throw it out the window. And I would have, were it not for the amazing series of facts Menzies adduces and assembles in a pattern that – well, it makes sense, sounds plausible.

    Menzies only touches on the Sea Peoples and the history of the Late Bronze Age, but my impression is that the Mycenaeans and Phoenicians/Canaanites, and of course the Egyptians, Babylonians and Anatolians, were all involved in commerce and an economical and cultural community with the Minoans, who were at its core and pinnacle, rather as we are to the rest of the capitalist world today. It was, in other words, like the West, a civilization that involved many peoples and nations in shared forms of interaction (as Japan and China are involved with the West today, and dress for formal occasions in English hunting suits). When the Minoans were wiped out overnight, then, it was for their trading partners around the Med as it would be for our trading partners today if America were to suddenly disappear overnight, utterly destroyed. There would be chaos, with the more powerful trading partners struggling to maintain order (viz., the Mycenaeans versus the Trojans – essentially a police action in support of good international order, and contra piracy and kidnapping). But the disappearance of the core culture of the mature international economy would open up huge economic niches, making the whole system brittle and vulnerable. Nature hates a vacuum; my guess is that the Sea Peoples were the mariners of the Black Sea and the Volga, backed up on land by Scythians from the Caucasus and the steppes, who saw the riches of the Aegean and the Near East as ripe for plunder. With the Minoan navy gone, there would have been a huge uptick in piracy, which would have had the same effect on international trade in the Med as the later Muslim piracy. And this would have impoverished and discoordinated the land-based powers who had depended on Pax Minoana, destroying their tax bases, and thus their ability to pay armies. So the Scythians could then sweep down overland, and destroy everything in their path. That was the Catastrophe, when the scattered remnants of the old High Bronze Age civilization centered on Crete and Thera could no longer stand against the onslaught from the North, and it was every king for himself.

    Very much the same dynamic was at work circa 640 AD.

    Note re the latter that the difference between the Muslims and the Germans, Huns, Goths, and Vandals who repeatedly invaded the Roman Empire, East and West, and who more and more took it over, is that the latter were Christians who wanted to join Christian classical civilization, whereas the former were anti-Christians who wanted to destroy Christian civilization and supplant it with something different. As they then did, and do. Likewise, in the Bronze Age, the Mycenaeans were not interested in destroying the wider Mediterranean civilization, but in joining it.

    Finally, note that, while the Greeks were no slouches at maritime trading and war, of all the cultures that succeeded the Minoans, it was first and foremost the Phoenicians who inherited their maritime trading empire, at least in the Med and the near Atlantic, and down the coasts of Africa. They were named after the Phoenix, who rises from the ashes.

  6. Loved your essay and the diagnosis of the fragility of civilization. I also agree that resentiment (max Scheler is a better guide to resentiment than Nietsche) was a driving force behind the attack on classical civilization and I agree that islam was far more responsible for that attack than the germanic tribes or Christians. I do not agree that the sea peoples were motivated by resentiment. Mary Settegast’s ‘Plato the Prehistorian’ has a fascinating account of the bronze age. Skipping ahead to the 1200s AD were the Mongels motivated by resentiment? Despite the sack of all the major civilized centers in the west and east by the ‘hordes’ none of the civilizations that came under sttack collapsed. Genhiz Khan and his hordes were the very definition of ‘attack in order to destroy not to acquire’–yet none of the civilizations so attacked crumbled -not the west, not China and not islam. So your theory of the fragility of civilizations is not adequate. I think the major flaw is that you take Girard’s work seriously. Girard is right to emphasize sacrifice as central to social life and civilization but de Maistre is a far better guide to sacrifice than Girard.

  7. Thank you, Kristor, for the bibliographical reference. Forty years ago and more the late Cyrus Gordon, a scholar of ancient Near-Eastern languages, published Before Columbus, in which he argued for the presence (often the blatant presence) of monumental and epigraphic traces of Bronze-Age visits to the New World. The navigators would mostly have been Phoenicians, but Gordon’s hypothesis, supposing that I remember it accurately, did not exclude the Minoans and Mycenaeans.

    Chronology is important. When I was a teenager and read articles by A. V. Galanopoulos on the Thera-Atlantis connection, the Thera eruption was dated around 1450 BC. Since then, more accurate dating methods have pushed the date of the eruption back to around 1600 BC. Given either date, however, the Thera eruption cannot be connected with the “Catastrophe” of the eleventh century. What the volcanic cataclysm does perhaps explain is the decline of the Minoan “Thalassocracy” (your “Pax Minoa”) and the shift of power in the Aegean from Crete to Mainland Greece. Before 1450, the administrative language of Crete is Minoan; after 1450, it is Achaean or Greek.

    A natural event brought Minoan power to its end, but it did not destroy civilization. By the time the Achaeans ascended to power, they had adopted the civilization of their cultural elders and they continued it for four or five centuries. A human event brought Bronze Age civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean and Anatolia to its end. The civilizational hiatus after 650 AD resembles the latter rather than the former. A natural event might destroy civilization at any time (the asteroid that no one saw coming, or the swiftly developing super volcano). Just now, and in respect of the West, a destructive human event – a kind of global orgy of plunder and murder – seems the more predictable of the two likelihoods (à la Raspail’s Camp of the Saints).

    The Girardian theme in my farrago of an essay needs emphasis. The West is threatened by a totalitarian theocratic ideology. But the West’s response under liberalism is to make itself as totalitarian and theocratic as its enemy, which it refuses to name as its enemy. (I take both liberalism and Islam for archaic religions.) In the rivalry, there is a doubling and what Girard calls undifferentiation, in which the rivals become indistinguishable from one another.

  8. Girard’s ideas are vital to understanding how we have come to such dire straits despite our embarrassing advantage in temporal power. Though it is hinted at, I don’t think the essay does enough to emphasize the degree to which this present darkness is self-inflicted by the people of the West, and the degree to which Western elites are the true enemies and destroyers of civilization. This includes Islamic civilization, such as it is. I think you exaggerate the degree to which Islam’s aggression in the West has been indulged. When that happens it is only to shove it in the face of Christians. If the Muslims do conquer Europe through demographic dominance, it will be a transformation, not the destruction, of civilization. Certainly a regression from a better time, but not, I think, from the present (depressingly, I think Islamic dominance would greatly improve Great Britain culturally).

    As misguided as Freud was in many ways, he had much insight into the human condition and I believe he was largely right about the death drive. Whose actions are more dominated by the death drive, Islam’s or the West’s? Our current predicament proves the point. There is a part of human nature that desires destruction, no question. There is no other compelling reason for our descent into barbarism. No civilization in history has had more ability to control its environment, and here we are.

    The revision of the timeline of the Dark Ages is fascinating. I went to see if Razib Khan (he’s godless and a little arrogant, but he is fair minded and has an impressively broad grasp of history) has anything on Pirenne or Scott, and didn’t turn anything up, but based on this review it seems he wouldn’t find the idea unbelievable:

    Minoans extracting copper from Wisconsin 3 and a half millenia ago? At this point I wouldn’t be shocked if they found Stargate buried in the jungles of the Amazon.

  9. Thank you, Gabe. While de Maistre is important to the developing theory of sacrifice, Girard indeed has de Maistre himself and the intervening two centuries to his advantage. Girard is a genuine successor to de Maistre, with Baudelaire and Balzac as intermediaries. In Battling to the End, Girard begins to construct a mimetic history of the last few centuries of Western Civilization, as he does also in the final chapter of Evolution and Conversion. My immediate project for the beginning of summer is an essay on Girard.

    On Plato as the source of the Atlantis story. I accept the idea that the Atlantis story in Critias and Timaeus represents a slightly garbled memory of the Thera eruption and the devastation that it brought about in Crete and all over the Eastern Mediterranean littoral. What should not go overlooked in Plato’s Atlantis story is the framework concerning the transmission of the story. In brief, Plato says that Critias had it from his great grandfather, who had it from Solon, who had it from Egyptian priests on the island of Sais in the Nile Delta. What the priests tell Solon is noteworthy: Namely that because civilizations are regularly subject to destruction, the prevailing idea of history at any time is inadequate. History, the priests tell Solon, is much larger than the comfortable image of it would suggest.

    So then, although it is not my central topic, I welcome the discussion of the revised historical chronology.

    ADDED A BIT LATER: The essays that spurred me to write my essay contended (among other things) that the West is currently lamed by its ignorance of its own history and by its failure or refusal to formulate an anthropology. The two lapses are connected, since human nature emerges as history. Girard, in Battling to the End, is insistent that an adequate idea of human nature will entail thinking about history on the largest possible scale.

  10. Dr Bertonneau,

    I read most of your post before I thought to look up at the author’s name.
    I should have known it was you.

    I ran across the idea of the first Dark Age from Jerry Pournelle.
    Years before in Will Durant I found the fall of the Mycenaean
    cities attributed to the ‘Dorians’, or, poetically, ‘the return of the sons
    of Hercules’.

    Is there an historical concensus that this was tied in with the incursions of the 
    Peoples of the Sea?

    • The Greeks had quite specific legends that spring from “The Catastrophe,” including one about refugees from Pylos, fleeing the “Sons of Hercules,” who seek asylum in Athens. The whole of Homer’s”Odyssey” strikes me as a memory of the “Dark Age.” Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the action of “The Odyssey” takes place in the phase of disintegration that produced the “Dark Age.” “The Catastrophe” involved many people. In Greece it would have been the Dorians or “Sons of Hercules.” In Anatolia it was the “Kaska,” tribes from Thrace known to the Hittites. Probably no few “civilized” adventurers offered their expertise to the looters or simply joined in the orgy of murder and opportunism. The “Suitors” who squat in Odysseus’ palace, have had a civilized upbringing, but they have abandoned the rules of civilized behavior to pursue a kind of “land piracy.” Chaos is complicated. We can say that about the end of the Bronze Age and about our own situation.

      • Dr Bertonneau,

        Thank you for the response. I ‘ve been looking up the Pylos 
        refugee legend on the Net; all I find so far is the legend of Hercules
        fighting with Nestor’s father. It seems there were two places called 
        Pylos; one in the Morea and an island in the Aegean.

        Menzies is apparently a retired Navy Captain and enthusiastic 
        amateur historian which may account for his awful prose. 

        I see that Charles Pellegrino, polymath scientist and SF writer, has also
        written a book on Thera/Atlantis. I am a sometime Pellegrino fan and will certainly have to look up both books. The subject has fascinated me since I read Sprauge de Camp’s Lost Continents at age 12.

  11. You’ve made some really good points there. I looked on the internet for additional information about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this web site.


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