Two Views Of History: Part II

The first part of this column examined what is currently by far the most widespread and prevalent view of history in the world, the Whig View of History. Let us now consider the other major historical view, the Cyclical View of History.

The Cyclical View of History rejects entirely the central idea of the Whig View of History – what Spengler referred to as the “Idea of Progress”; the view of human history as a constant, inexorable march towards a perfected state of human affairs – as childish nonsense and hubristic wishful thinking. Instead, the Cyclical View sees each human civilization as being essentially a self-contained entity, that rises, reaches a peak, declines, collapses, and dies in a manner that parallels the life cycle of an organic being. This collapse returns mankind to its default state of normalcy – life lived in a landscape of rural farms and small villages dotted by occasional moderately-sized city-states, all ruled by small-time kings under a feudalist system wherein most power is local, and united by bonds of shared culture, ethnicity, and strong religious faith. It stays in this state of normalcy for perhaps a millennium or two until a new civilization rises, has its hour upon history’s stage, and then collapses and dies, ushering in another long era of normalcy. This is not to say that these civilizations do not leave any permanent marks upon humanity whatsoever, but it is to say that successive civilizations are distinct things-unto-themselves, unmistakably and intrinsically different from what came before. Though it may take some limited influence from a previous civilization, each successive civilization that rises after a period of normalcy is not and cannot be a continuation of a previous civilization in any direct sense. There are parallels between them, of course, but these are mostly the historical expressions of each civilization’s parallel course through the inevitable, inescapable path of the cycle. There is no great path of history leading all of mankind towards a more utopian future. There are only isolated blooms of civilization that flower, wither, and die, leaving the placid landscape of normalcy that surrounds them little affected by their brief, creative, tumultuous, violent existences.

This is heresy to those who believe in the Whig View of History, as those who do believe in it tend to believe with a passionate religious fervor. Every worldview has its dogmatic teachings, its unquestioned assumptions, its good believers, its bad unbelievers, its divine wrath, its rapture, and its eternal paradise. To be a holder of the Cyclical View of History in a world dominated by variants of the Whig View is to be an atheist in the temple of the gods of the polis; to deny that the perfected future is coming at all is to deny the rapture that will carry the mass of good believers off to eternal paradise. This is a position that the mass of good believers finds intolerable, and there is sure to be much wailing and gnashing of teeth (or at least, much denial and adolescent snark, which are the signature rhetorical tools of moderns), and a flurry of logical fallacies, to include endless appeals to the infallible truth of their own Normality Bias, whenever a Cyclycal View “doomer” shows up to rain on the perpetual Whig View parade of utopian religious fervor.

And yet, reality stubbornly remains what it is, despite all denials and wishful thinking.

Like the Whig View, the Cyclical View also has subvariants to it; though being a far less popular historical viewpoint than the Whig View (especially at the present) it has fewer of them. As with the subvariants of the Whig View, the subvariants of the Cyclical View are not mutually exclusive, and allow for overlap between them such that each person who holds the Cyclical View may hold to one or the other or, to some greater or lesser degree (and understanding that usually a complex event like the rise and fall of a civilization has more than one cause), to both simultaneously.

There are two currently-major subvariants of the Cyclical View of History, which I have termed the Bardian (though I could just as easily have called it the Tainteran or the Kunstlerian), and the Spenglerian Views. Let us explore these in more detail:

The Bardian View: Given the chance to coin a name for this view, I have chosen to name it for Professor Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence, whose seminal talk on these topics is available in print form here. In essence, this view argues that a high civilization starts to rise when it hits upon a key set of resources, which it exploits until it becomes rich and powerful, then continues to exploit until it starts to exhaust them. At that point, it finds itself needing to put greater and greater inputs into the complex economic, governmental, military, and societal systems that it has built around these resources in order to simply stay where it is in terms of prosperity and power. When continued resource exhaustion makes even this impossible, the civilization begins an absolute decline, from which it cannot and will not recover. It will, because it must, undergo a series of rapid, drastic, and involuntary decomplexifications – and it is this process that Bardi uses as the definition of “collapse”. The fact that it is a set of resources and not a single resource that causes the rise of these civilizations deserves emphasis – the imperative to use this interlocking set of resources, and to use them as efficiently as possible, is (at least initially, before bureaucratic inertia takes hold and starts driving itself) what initiates the drive towards increased complexity. An example of this kind of key resource set can be found with the Romans, who had a system based on a set of resources that centered on gold, legions, slaves, and farms. The gold paid the legions, who went and conquered foreign nations, whose territory was turned into farmland and whose people were turned into slaves. The slaves then worked the land that produced food and the mines that produced gold; this food fed the legions, and the gold kept them paid and equipped. It all worked well for a long time, until the Romans had already picked all the low-hanging fruit, i.e. conquered all the lands that had a lot of available resources (gold, good farmland, an enslavable population) and were relatively-easily conquerable. Beyond this, their system hit its limits to growth – a point of diminishing returns beyond which further growth was either impossible or not economically feasible. For example, even if the Romans of, say, Marcus Aurelius’s day had been able to invade the territory of the barbarian Germanic tribes, it wouldn’t have produced enough return to be worth what would have had to have been invested in it – the barbarians were warlike and would not be easily conquered, they would likely have made exceptionally troublesome slaves even if they were, they had no proven gold reserves, and their lands were cold and rocky, which made them not very good farmland. But the Romans had, as most complex societies do, built a system whose ability to function at anything even close to the level to which it had been built was predicated on its ability to continually add new resources to the system. When the point of diminishing returns on that was finally reached, the Romans had to add greater and greater inputs of existing resources into the system just in order to keep up the level of complexity (not to mention power and prosperity) that they already had, and when even this became impossible, they were forced into a rapid decomplexification: collapse.

As for the West, it has a set of interlocking key resources too – one that centers on fossil fuels, capital investments, and technology. A Bardian would argue that the obvious decline taking place in the West – which is at present in the phase of desperately trying to add more inputs into the system just to stay where it is, and beginning to visibly fail at that – is the result of one or all of these resources having reached a point of diminishing returns more or less simultaneously. Fossil fuels, they say, are running out, with all of the low-hanging fruit having already been picked (“Peak Oil” translates, more or less, to this idea). Capital that can be invested has largely run out – wasted on nonsense, spent on unwise and unsustainable projects such as the buildout of suburbia, or simply blown in outright swindles – to the point where the inputs now going into the system to try to sustain it are the products of nothing more than accounting fraud on a colossal scale; money simply printed or lent into existence, unconnected to any tangible wealth, that cannot ever be repaid or made “real”. High technology, they argue, has hit a point of diminishing returns – it requires even greater inputs of energy and capital investment into a system that is already running short of both, and adds even greater complexity to a system that was already overly complex to begin with. As the limits of this system become more undeniably apparent – as fossil fuels begin to run out in earnest, as the massive frauds of the capital investment system begin to unwind, and as technology proves increasingly unable to save us – the West will be unable to maintain its current levels of complexity and will face (soon – very soon) its own rapid, drastic, and involuntary decomplexification: again, collapse.

The Spenglerian View: Named for the historian/philosopher Oswald Spengler (a man much admired by traditionalists and reactionaries; much despised by Whig View adherents), the Spenglerian View differs from the Bardian View in asserting that each high civilization begins to rise when it hits upon a key set of ideas – philosophical, cultural, religious, artistic, economic, and scientific concepts – which builds it into a strong society and allows it to rise. Some of these are fairly standard across successful cultures, while others are unique to each specific one. The standard ones are perhaps best expressed in what the Romans used to call the “old republican virtues” – fortitude, propriety, piety, hard work, humility, courage, temperance, modesty, self-restraint, honesty, studiousness, respect for tradition, and respect for the law primary among them. The specific ones vary, are what make both each culture unique relative to others, and allow that culture to produce its own unique accomplishments in every area, from art to law to science. The specific ideas that allowed the west to rise included, for example, its own form of Christianity (the sort that produced the Gothic cathedral – vastly different from, say, Byzantine Christianity), the Protestant work ethic, Capitalism (as defined by Adam Smith; not to be confused with modern-day crony corporatism), respect for individual rights and private property, and the Scientific Method. To the Spenglerian, then, a culture is at its core a set of ideas, and one with particularly good ideas will rise on the strength of them until it becomes rich and powerful, and continue in its strength and prosperity until, like a musical or artistic style that has explored every creative avenue open to it and then become stagnant and stale, it exhausts those ideas. This can happen gradually over the course of centuries, or it can be suddenly accelerated by a civilizational calamity (as it was in the West with the calamity of the World Wars). When this does happen, and the culture becomes feeble, one of two things can happen. The first is that it can simply continue to gradually rot until it disintegrates entirely. The other is that it can, in a manner similar to an old or weak biological organism, become subject to infection by other ideas. In the case of the Romans, Gibbon was quite right to identify the twin viral infections of Epicureanism and Christianity as the ideas which came along and infected a weakened Empire (The fact that I may prefer Christianity to Rome, which was brutal and wicked even before it began to decline, makes no difference here – the factual point stands). In the case of the West, it was the ideals of the French Revolution, refined and amplified by Marx and Marcuse. A healthy culture fights off these infections for as long as it can, as the West in fact did in 1815 and 1848, and continued to do successfully until its wounds, self-inflicted in Flanders’ fields, rendered it too weak to continue to do so. In the case of Rome, it had become obvious by the time of Constantine that Christianity had infected its society to the point at which it could no longer continue as it had; and indeed it did not, as it broke into the Byzantine Empire (an essentially different civilization that, while keeping the Roman Empire branding, thrived on an essentially different set of ideas), and the Western Roman Empire, which collapsed not long after. Similarly, the West has become irrecoverably infected by Marxism of both the classical and Cultural Marxist varieties and, once these utopian dreams inevitably fail, will not survive in any recognizable form.

This brings us to the collapse itself. The first thing to understand here is that Spengler described a dual peak for civilizations, the first being what he referred to as the Cultural Peak, the second the Civilizational Peak. The first represents the height of its core set of ideas – the period at which it is producing its finest art, its highest manners, its wisest philosophy, its most considered practice of religion, and its most important of its scientific concepts. This last point deserves to be made explicit, for here we mean the highest development of its underlying scientific concepts – such as the finalization of the Scientific Method – and not the technological fruits of these concepts. For those, we go forward to the Civilizational Peak, which is the height of the fruits of all of these ideas; in short, the height of the civilization’s wealth, power, trade, military prowess, and technology. Once this has been reached, and passed, the civilization goes into absolute decline, with no new core ideas available to relight its fading fire. All of its ideas are played out – degraded, worn out, with nothing more to offer.

So what does one see firsthand – “on the streets”, as it were – during such a collapse? At the top end of society, the concept of Noblesse Oblige – the obligation that the elites have to the common people – begins to erode. This is not simply limited to titled aristocracy. In the West, political leaders plainly no longer represent the interests of the common man (at least, not beyond the dirty business of using largesse from the public fisk to buy votes). Business leaders have lost any sense of obligation to society at large, or even to the long-term future of their own businesses, in their pursuit of making every last short-term dime possible – and increasingly degenerate into mere swindlers (this, Spenglerians would argue, just as much as a simple lack of investable capital, explains the wane of our financial system). Art declined first into “entertainment”, then into pablum, and finally into a racket to handle the laundering of Cultural Marxist agitprop. And then there are the common people themselves. It has been said that in a rising society, the poor try to imitate the manners of the rich, while in a declining society, the rich try to imitate the manners of the poor. How, then, do the poor fare in all of this? Even worse, for in a time of Spenglerian collapse, things get ugly both for, and with, the common man. Among them, decorum, propriety, and manners disintegrate; crime increases, as does promiscuity (and its attendant bastardy), addiction, welfare dependency, and general coarseness. The “old republican virtues” go into freefall, and barbarianism becomes not just something to be found beyond the borders of the Empire. Thus do the Fedora-sporting, tie-and-collar wearing working men of a time past give way to tattooed man-children wearing jean shorts that hang off them like ill-fitting clothes off a baby. The founding fathers of the United States worried about the American public someday degenerating into the sort of people who could no longer maintain a rational democracy; expanding our view a bit reveals the awful specter of a people – in all of the West – who are of the sort who can no longer maintain a high civilization.

Just as the Bardian View describes a period of more resources being frantically thrown into a system to try to keep it going along smoothly, so too, in a sense, does the Spenglerian View – there is deep truth behind the old saying that declining societies have many laws. But in this case too, these efforts are ultimately fated to fail. Whether it simply fades away due to idea exhaustion, or is destroyed by infection, the declining society is doomed. Things that cannot go on forever don’t; and people who are not capable of maintaining a high civilization won’t. The civilization built by their ancestors will fade, and crumble, and die.

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Here I feel that I must emphasize the fact that what I have presented in both parts of this article are, of course, oversimplifications of these ideas. They could not be otherwise. The works of Spengler and others who share his fundamental point of view (Toynbee and Evola, for example) fill thousands of pages in many volumes. The work of James Howard Kunstler (perhaps the most outspoken Bardian thinker in the United States today) alone covers many books, a weekly column, and a regular podcast. This is intended to be a summary, primer, and introduction to these ideas, not a full explanation of them. But I do hope that in providing this summary, I have managed to clarify and solidify a body of existing ideas, and provided a starting point for you, gentle reader, to begin your own investigations into the nature of history.