The Catastrophe — Part II

Cata 09

Daniel van Heil (1604 – 1664): Aeneas and Family Fly from Burning Troy

Introduction to Part II: In Part I of this essay, I began by reminding readers of the necessary complacency that accompanies civilized life.  Civilized people go about their lives in the assumption of institutional permanency and a continuity of custom.  The assumption that plans made today will see their fruition tomorrow belongs to the background of organized existence and motivates our purposive behavior.  The same assumption can lapse into complacency, however, so that, even as signs of trouble emerge on the horizon, a certain denial disarms a people from responding with sufficient clarity and swiftness to looming disruption.  People take civilization for granted and rarely contemplate that it might come tumbling down about their ears.  Insofar as the historical record has something important to teach ordinary people who are not specialists in the subject, it might well be the lesson that all known societies before the modern society have come to an end.  Some of them have come to an end abruptly and violently.  One such society, or civilization, was the Bronze Age civilization of the Twelfth Century B.C. in the Eastern Mediterranean.  The singular term civilization is appropriate even though the geographical-cultural region of the Eastern Mediterranean contained many separate peoples distinguished by their distinctive languages, religious beliefs, and customs.  These societies – Greek, Semitic, Anatolian, and Pelagic – were in commercial, diplomatic, and artistic communication with one another.  They together constituted a pattern of civilized life, whose individual element-nations had the same stake in maintaining the coherency of the whole. Note: I wrote this article twenty years ago or a bit more for John Harris’s quarterly print magazine Arcturus.

I. The preponderance of archeological and epigraphic evidence coupled with the testimony of legend and epic narrative would attribute the Catastrophe to a wave of barbarian depredation. This does not mean that other factors played no role. Competing theories about the Catastrophe, as summarized by Robert Drews in The End of the Bronze Age, postulate “Systemic Breakdown” and “Natural Disaster,” such as drought or earthquake, as accounting for the abrupt collapse of so many nations.  Drews discounts both as likely sole causes, but suggests that Systemic Breakdown in response to a crop-failure or an outbreak of disease might have eroded the stability of the existing societies.  The Bronze Age kingdoms were inflexibly organized, heavily ritualistic in their conception of life, and on occasion testily feudal in their relations with one another, as the episode of Paris and Helen makes clear.  Widespread drought leading to famine and disease (which the records of Hatti attest) might well have created a social crisis, with a cascading effect, with which administrative inflexibility could not cope, and which testy feudality exacerbated.  Yet as Drews emphasizes, despite their cumbersome nature, the Bronze Age kingdoms apparently functioned more or less as usual right up to the hour of their sudden demise.  Mycenae, for example, was in the midst of a large-scale rebuilding project.

Cata 07 Ruins of Hattusas

Ruins of Hattusas — The Lion Gate

Drews rejects the single-people version of the Migration Theory, still entertained by some, but he retains certain elements of the same general idea.  There is little practical difference, after all, between a monoglot swarm of predators and a polyglot congeries of swarming predatory peoples, all operating according to the same near-term opportunism.  Manuel Robbins stresses the importance of drought and famine in fueling the violence but like Drews sees the commotion of peoples, rather than the movement of one people, as essential to understanding the violence of the phenomenon.  Drews’ interpretation is interesting because it implies – even if it never explicitly states – that there was something mimetic or imitative in the rapidly successive separate chapters of the Catastrophe; his idea furthermore possesses the charm that literary echoes of the event, such as those in Homer and Hesiod, acquire added explanatory value in light of it.  If not in Drews or Robbins or other modern sources, then in observations by the archaic poets we might actually be able to discover the motivation of the Catastrophe.  The Catastrophe begins, as Drews sees it, with the descent of a people called the Dorians into Greece.  The Dorians, a culturally primitive Greek-speaking tribe (or congeries of tribes), lived in the mountainous North of the Helladic peninsula and in adjacent regions of the southern Balkans.  Greek legend speaks of the violent “Return of the Heraclidae” as following the conclusion of the Trojan War.  The “Return of the Heraclidae” – that is, the Dorians – plunged the heroic world into terminal chaos.

The Dorians staged the murderous, incendiary assault on Pylos.  Their rapacious kinsmen had already pillaged and burned the palace-citadels at Gla, Mycenae, Orchomenos, Sparta, Thebes, Tiryns, and dozens of other sites, big and small.  Some of these, like Mycenae, were heavily fortified, suggesting that the attackers were numerous and ferocious.  When Hellas emerged from the four centuries of its Dark Age, the Hellenes remained culturally divided between the descendants of the Mycenaeans and the descendants of their destroyers.  The Attic-Ionian civilization, literate, political, and mercantile stood against Doric culture, exemplified by the Spartans, who remained locked in the warrior-society ruthlessness that had made their barbaric ancestors such formidable final enemies of the Achaean Greeks.  As Drews mentions, the Peloponnesian Wars in many ways merely resumed an old conflict in the Greek world going back to the end of the Bronze Age.  The holocaust in the Peloponnese made prodigious mayhem but at last fell shy of the absolute.  Pockets of resistance put up a fight, forcing the invaders to bypass them.  This happened in Iolkos in Thessaly and more importantly in Attica.  The Athenians always maintained that their history on the site was undisrupted from heroic times.  So it seems, on the material as well as on the folkloric evidence.  So also does it seem that refugees from the turmoil elsewhere in Greece saw Attica as an initial destination for displaced persons.  One Attic legend speaks of Nelius, a refugee from Pylos, no less, who organized resistance against brigands.  From Attica, displaced persons embarked for Cyprus, Rhodes, and the coastal areas of Anatolia after the violence had worked itself through.

The Ionians gradually resettled in parts of Greece beyond Attica, extending their sense of enlightened order well beyond their home base – in particular to the coastal areas of what is today Turkey.  The Ionians, unlike the Dorians, discarded many of the institutions of the Bronze Age, most especially kingship, but also the habit of the fortified city.  Where kingship remained in the Ionic world, it persisted only as a ritualistic vestige.  The new dispensation in Ionia inclined to the democratic.  Doric institutions, as at Sparta or in Crete, remained tribal and hidebound.  Spartan hegemony in Laconia gives some idea of the original Doric attitude to the conquered – utter dominating bigotry and, in practice, enslavement or Helotism.  Originally it would have been contempt sprung from envy: the envy of the savage who sees across the marches into the ease and luxury of a more highly developed way of life and schemes how he might profit by the labor of others. Homer’s suitors, despite the poet’s presentation of them as natives of Ithaca, exhibit just this resentful attitude.  The pampered sons of aristocracy, they can boast no accomplishments of their own.  They produce nothing while they consume the produce of others.  Resenting Telemachus, the heir apparent in Ithaca, they see cynically in Penelope the chance for dynastic marriage and wealth-by-dowry.  The name of their leader, Antinous, means “He who defies Reason” or more simply “The Disordered Mind.”  It is possible that the Greek chapter of the Catastrophe combined external encroachment by treasure-hungry savages with internal political divisions and treachery in the feudal kingdoms.  One can imagine Mycenaean betrayers offering their expertise in organization to the restless Dorians or trading simple access for the privilege of participating in the sack and so either way exacerbating the troubles.  “For a share of the takings and safe passage, a certain gate will be left unguarded.”  It would have been something like that.

Cata 05 Sea People

Sea Peoples

II. Beyond this theorizing lies another, perhaps more important point.  The Bronze-Age kingdoms constituted an ecumene: All of them communicated with one another regularly, all traded with one another, and all exchanged intelligence along with goods via the trade-routes.  A coherent world, this network of mercantile polities permitted and encouraged the dissemination of intelligence.  With the channels still open news of the disaster in Greece would have crossed the Bosporus in short order.  It would have filtered from the cities into the hinterlands.  It would have provided an example, a set of cues: The cities are vulnerable; a mass of skirmishers can defeat the chariot brigades.  The victorious horde can take what it wants from the defenseless settlement – food, wine, plate, and women.  Rumors of the Dorian success might well have emboldened the Gasga to descend on Hattusas.  Soon, all sorts of marginal people would have reached the decision to strike now and take their chances.  No one had a plan.  The motive everywhere was invidious, concupiscent, and bestially myopic.  It stemmed from long-festering differences and capacities.

The Catastrophe amounted to vast spontaneous Jacquerie, whose sole aim consisted in satisfying the short-term lusts that motivate brawny clan-warriors. The pirates built nothing; they merely destroyed. Once their orgy had expended its zeal, the authors of it faded into the chaotic background that their violence had generated.  Laconia and Crete lapsed into Doric stasis.  The Philistines, influenced by a formative segment of displaced Mycenaean aristos, imposed a gaudy conquistador order in the Levant, shortly to be challenged by the Israelites, whose exodus from Egypt and arrival in Canaan is probably an episode of the same general disruption.  A Levantine exodus established Carthage – literally, “The New City” on the Tunisian coast; and evidence for Levantine activity in Sardinia and Sicily also exists for this time.  A nucleus of Hittite elites left the burnt-out citadels and migrated into the Anatolian littoral.  Here “Neo-Hittite” polities came into existence in the archaic period.  The ruling class, like the Midas dynasty in Phrygia, became Hellenized on the Ionian pattern.  Passages in Livy on The Roman Republic and elements of the Aeneas story which is older by far than Virgil together suggest that Mycenaean and Hittite refugees reached Italy and actively fostered novel polities in the early Iron Age of the peninsula.  The later Hellenic settlement of Magna Grecia, as Southern Italy was called, had its prequel at the end of the Bronze Age.

Hesiod’s thematic insistence on “Envy,” “Strife,” or Eris (to give it its Greek name) in Works and Days fits what one could call Post-Catastrophic Ethics quite aptly.  It is the poet’s initial topic.  Two Erites exist, Hesiod opines: “One fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves; but perforce, through the will of the deathless gods, men pay harsh Strife her honour due.  But the other… stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with is neighbour as he hurries after wealth.”  Drews, writing in The End of the Bronze Age, can say moderately contradictory things about the Catastrophe.  He narrates the destruction vividly, to be sure.  He address the energetic dilapidation, however, in slightly misplaced teleological language: “In the long retrospect… the episode marked a beginning rather than an end, the ‘dawn of time’ in which people in Israel, Greece, and even Rome sought their origins.”  Drews has some grounds for his assertion because, as he says, with the recovery after four hundred years came not only “alphabetic writing” but also “nationalism” and “republican political forms” along with “monotheism” and the life of the mind.  The Catastrophe and the belated recovery, while not entirely separable, nevertheless consist of distinguishable events buffered from one another by an impressive block of four centuries.  The moral lies in the annihilation.  Robbins, more sanguine in his view than Drews, describes post-Catastrophic Greece as “so impoverished, so lacking in material possessions… that archeologists have found little which would illuminate those times.”  Drews remarks that: “Great buildings were not built, and houses were of the simplest sort, hardly more than huts.”

Cata 08

Sea Peoples

III. Antiquity’s greatest philosopher, Plato, seems to have been aware of the Catastrophe, echoes of which appear in the adjacent dialogues Timaeus and Critias, where we find the Atlantis story, and again in The Laws, with its story of the Cosmic Reversals.  The pedigree of the Atlantis story interested Plato almost as much as the story itself.  In Timaeus, Critias, the teller of the tale, says that he heard it from his grandfather, also called Critias, who heard it from Solon, who had cast it in the form of a short epic poem; but Solon had a source prior to himself – certain Egyptian priests in a temple complex on the island of Saïs in the Nile Delta, where he had gone on a diplomatic and intelligence gathering mission as an envoy of the Athenian state.  Wanting to impress the priests with his knowledge of the past, Solon began retailing stories about ancient events of his own nation, beginning with the story of the Deluge of Deucalion and Pyrrha.  His priestly interlocutor interrupted him, saying, in Desmond Lee’s translation, “Oh Solon, Solon, you Greeks are all children, and there’s no such thing as an old Greek.”  The priest adds that Greeks like Solon “have no belief rooted in old tradition and no knowledge hoary with age.”  Solon registers wordless surprise.  The priest continues: “There have been and will be many different calamities to destroy mankind, the greatest of them by fire and water, lesser ones by countless other means…  There is at long intervals… widespread destruction by fire of things on earth…  When on the other hand the gods purge the earth with a deluge, the herdsmen and those living in the mountains escape, but those living in the cities in your part of the world are swept… into the sea.”

Later the priest comments on one invariant effect of the periodic calamities: “Writing and the other necessities of civilization have only just been developed when the periodic scourge of the deluge descends, and spares none but the unlettered and uncultured, so that you have to begin again like children.”  Given the tendency of ancient discourse to confuse social and natural calamities or to let natural metaphors refer to sociological events, this prologue to the Atlantis story and the story itself make sense as remote recollections of the human upheavals of the Catastrophe.  “Deluge” can mean a human as well as a hydrological event.  (“Après moi le deluge!”)  The priest was right in his knowledge that the civilization that Solon represented was new and that it was largely unaware of the background to its own emergence.  He was also right that the destruction of civilization, by whatever cause, entails the destruction also of literacy, therefore of record keeping, and therefore of archival and learned memory.  He was right finally in his ascription of survival to those who live or who take refuge in the high country, as happened in Attica and in Cyprus.  In The Laws, the Stranger tells Socrates, represented as a young man, about the periodic bouleversements that afflict the cosmos.  The cosmos has a rhythm of two phases.  In one phase, God infuses the order of his Logos into things and sends the world careening away from him.  At the inception of this phase, life conforms to a Golden Age, rather like Hesiod’s Cronian Age, when the first men lived happily under the tutelage of the chief Titan god.  As the cosmos spins farther away from God, social conditions deteriorate until, in a calamitous moment, the direction of things reverses and the world starts its journey back towards God.  At the instant of bouleversement, the second phase begins.  The influence of God ceases; things fall apart, men are reduced to savagery, and they must struggle to rebuild orderly life all on their own.  Nothing human goes on forever.

Consider the fragility and vulnerability of the existing Western civilization represented by North America and Europe (along with Australia and New Zealand) and to a degree by Japan and South Korea.  People of this civilized dispensation necessarily awake each morning with the assumption that things will go on as they have, that the order remains stable, and that they may presume it as the background to their pursuit of happiness.  Civilized order demands a measure of blitheness, hardly distinguishable from an attenuated faith, for its maintenance.  The common man disdains prophets because he finds it difficult to differentiate prognosticators of doom from advocates of dissolution, who, as the prophets seem to do, call for changes in custom and attitude that strike ordinary people as themselves corrosive of normality.  Cassandra knows that Troy totters on the brink of fire and bloodshed but no one pays her the slightest attention.  Suspicion of disaster as a possibility sometimes succeeds in breaking through the outer shell of social complacency, but in curious self-disarming ways.  The acute concern at the recent turn of the century over the “Y2K” computer-programming problem offers a case in point.  All sorts of panic-stricken predictions hung on the belief that on 1 January 2000 every computer in the world would shut down causing the infrastructure of the industrial nations to grind to a halt.  The “Global Warming” hysteria has something of the same character, with its predictions of a rising ocean inundating Florida and millions of people dying from heat stroke, as even the temperate zones become uninhabitable.

Cata 10 Ugarit

Ruins of Ugarit

IV. Men build civilization and men tear it down. They build it by intention, exertion, and discipline, under an image of order. They tear it down by acts of casual omission as much as by acts of concupiscent aggression and destruction.  Omission and aggression can operate in synchronization to destroy a society.  Civilization indeed carries with it many of the causes of its own gradual declension.  In the achievement of widespread and sustained security, for example, the likelihood that the beneficiary generation will fail to appreciate the formative insights of the benefactor generation runs high.  Complacency results.  The beneficiary generation then fails in the obligation to maintain the basis of security, institutional, economic, military or otherwise.  It can embrace novel “theories” that titillate through being exotic in their vocabulary and counterintuitive in their implications and which, being incompatible with received lore, undermine that lore and weaken the cultural health.  The society is too busy “having fun” to reflect on its situation.  In the succession of the beneficiary generation, once again, an oedipal contempt for the benefactor generation can develop, which seriously distorts the concept of reality of the beneficiaries.

A delusory independence from ancestral exertion invariably expresses itself in the spurious rebuke of received authority.  In Odyssey, Homer sharply contrasts Odysseus’ hard-won capacity for self-restraint with the suitors’ concupiscent impulsiveness – their mindless enthrallment to their own grossest appetites.  The same difference marks Odysseus off from his crewmates, all of whom succumb to their lack of any appetitive brakes leaving the king to return to his kingdom alone.  The suitors, who are a beneficiary generation par excellence, treat law and custom with disdain.  In a speech, Telemachus makes the prediction that, unless checked, the suitors’ arrogance will spread through all of Ithaca and wreck the society.  It lies in the logic of Homer’s story, that, had Odysseus not returned home and had one of the suitors indeed become the technical husband of Penelope and therefore the nominal king in Ithaca – the exegesis would nevertheless not have found its terminus.  The remaining disappointed suitors would have besieged the lucky victor and done away with him, and so on, not quite ad infinitum.  One human trait that restraint restrains, after all, is envy, resentment, or what Hesiod calls destructive Strife, and which he sees as the perpetual corruptor of social order.

In its complacent self-absorption, a beneficiary generation can become flagrant in the ostentation of its affluence.  It can come to regard itself as naturally endowed with permanence in its status and as possessing a kind of invulnerability to threat rather than as having direct responsibility for the maintenance of its own welfare.  Such ostentation provokes renewed resentment – first among the internal proletariat that exists in every society and second among the various external proletariats that gaze into affluence from the impoverished yonder side of the frontier.  This is not a matter of justification, but of imitation, as inflamed desire transforms itself into a practical if thoughtless intention to acquire by any means what others flaunt as their entitled portion of enjoyment.  In a legal sense, the inheritors of wealth have an absolute right to it whereas the bandits who scheme to take it for their own have absolutely none.  Should the constabulary catch the bandits in actu, then the bandits can only expect to be shut away, sent to forced labor, or strung up in the town square.  This will all be entirely correct, as the French say, and not simply from the civic perspective.  A mass of bandits will, however, exceed the ability of the constabulary to respond.  “Behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities (?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country,” wrote the Ugaritic king.

If the affluent society should begin to federate members of the external proletariat for unskilled labor or military service, as the Bronze Age kingdoms seem to have done with the Shardana and the Shekelesh and as the Roman Empire did with the Gothic barbarians, then the internal and external proletariats can arrive at a sense of a common grudge and, however dimly perceived, of a common cause.  The avarice of the proletariat can grow stronger than the commitment of the civic classes to their own preservation.  As one fits aspects of Homeric and Hesiodic sociology into what is known historically and archeologically about the Catastrophe one sees that something like this process must have occurred in a great boiling-over three thousand years ago in the region comprising Greece, Anatolia, the islands, and the Levant.  The Catastrophe, says Drews, was worse than the fall of the Western Empire.  So that there might be order in the polity, Plato constantly argued, there must first be order in the individual soul.  Restraint and askesis play essential roles in the orderliness of the soul – hence also in civic arrangements.  Restraint acknowledges the sacredness of persons and property and askesis honors the wisdom not to flaunt affluence – not because one is not entitled to it either as the fruits of personal productivity or as inheritance, but because it is anthropologically foolhardy to do so.  Ours is an age of fantastically inflated, pathologically ostentatious economies; quite without cosmic calamities it is also an age rapidly losing its historical memory and even its literacy.  Our electronification, our material flagrancy, and our sense of rightful endowment likely render us more, not less, vulnerable than ancient peoples to sudden unforeseen catastrophes whose occasion might simply lie in a power failure but whose form (or rather formlessness) will be greed and rapine at their rawest and whose story will be one of the precipitous collapse of those institutions that, despite our delinquency or our contempt, formerly protected us from “evil things.”

Wiener Dog

5 thoughts on “The Catastrophe — Part II

  1. Rioting appears to be largely mimetic and the Collapse sounds like vast contagious riot. The digital age has given us countless hours of videos of rioters at work, and I can’t overcome the feeling that many of the rioters were “swept up” in the spirit of the riot. This is something like the spirit of a mob, with the difference that the object is selfish looting rather than selfless destruction. I don’t entirely excuse the rioters who are “swept up” in the spirit of the riot, since there must be some prior spiritual decay that permits the spirit of the riot to take possession of the soul. This certainly includes the self-restraint that you mention, but must also include a loss of faith in the durability of the society being pillaged. “Every man for himself” must exist in the mind before it is actualized in rape and pillage–potential treason must exist before actual treason.

    I was unwittingly present at, although not swept up in, a large riot after Syracuse University won some important basketball game. I went to the student bar district with the foolish idea that I would find people rejoicing. What I found were hundreds of wild men tearing the place to pieces, each of these wild men having been, only hours before, mild upper middle class college students. I fled because the mayhem was localized, but I can see how universal mayhem would stimulate a what-the-hell-I’ll-get-mine attitude.

    This suggests that once it looks like the barbarians are going to win, almost everyone becomes a barbarian. This may explain why the Collapse started slowly and then happened all at once. Lots of superficially civilized people becoming spiritual Dorians.

  2. The academic mind has a difficult time coming to terms with the Catastrophe. Despite the evidence for its human agency, people want to explain it away. Nevertheless, every time someone digs down to the layer denoting 1100 BC, further evidence emerges. The archaeologists unearth skeletons lying in the street, with weapon marks and amidst scores of arrowheads and a layer of ash. Indeed, “Collapse” is now the preferred word for the Catastrophe because it tends to submerge the idea of human agency. (But I am not criticizing you for using the word — let me make that clear.) Evidence recovered sixty years ago, like the tablets from Pylos and the diplomatic letters from Ugarit make an unanswerable case, however, for human agency.

    I learned from Rene Girard that the most imitable state of mind is resentment or covetousness and that the most imitable action is any kind of violence. That the Tenth Commandment, which enjoins covetousness, is the most discursive makes it conspicuous and maybe the most important. Where do making false accusations and murder come from?

    For thirty years at least our public institutions have been gnawing away at the enjoinment of covetousness. From this comes the violent looting that we saw in hundreds if not thousands of video files during the summer of 2020.

    Your last paragraph is quite on the mark. Students of the Catastrophe suggest that as the human wave swept from Greece across the Bosporus to Anatolia and down the coast towards the Levant, survivors of the burn-out joined the perpetrators.

  3. This is but a comment on your opening paragraph. (You may address this later, but…) Civilization is the taming of animal chaos by human means under divine ideation. Complacency is an agreement to abdicate human authority in the spirit of divine intention for animal pleasure. Will read the rest of your essay interest.

    • The two parts of “The Catastrophe,” the two essays on Burroughs, the essay on Robert E, Howard, and the one “Clark Ashton’s Smith’s Representation of Evil” go together.

      It is possible that complacency and divertissement are related.


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