All theories of universal history, from Ibn Khaldûn to Toynbee, share the same ambiguity: to what do they apply? If history has laws, what are they laws for? Call it a civilization; where does one civilization stop, and another begin?
To be useful as objects of study the units of universal history must be smaller than the whole of history, yet larger than any form of political organization, short of empire.
Sometimes these units are obvious. Probably there is a Chinese civilization; probably there was one each for the Mayan world and the Inca; probably the Hellenistic ecumen constituted one – but should this be distinguished from the Roman imperium? And should the Romani be distinguished from the Rhomaioi? Or was Byzantium part of a Christian world? Is there a Christendom? Is there as a Ummah? And so on.
This is a task for a great scholar and a life’s work. I am only an essayist and this is only an essay. My intent is not to prove anything, only to disburden myself of certain thoughts that I cannot do justice to.
Sometimes we distinguish two civilizations because we study them by different means. The continuity between the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire is, I think, far more important than the latter’s adventitious Christian characteristics. But because Rome was Latin (and Greek, of course), and Byzantium was (a peculiar) Greek; because the scholarly apparatus for the study of Roman history stretches back to the Renaissance, but Byzantine studies are mostly late nineteenth century in origin; because Roman history precedes, and Byzantine history parallels, that period of history which is, in the West, called modern over against ancient – because of all this, they are studied separately; and being studied separately, they are seen as separate.
Certain kinds of difference thus force us to posit disparity. Similarly, resemblance may imply unity where none exists. Because the caliphs borrowed their statecraft from the Sassanid Empire, and adopted many of its artistic traditions, they are often taken to belong to a common line of “oriental despots” – which does the Shahnashahs too much credit for ambition, and the Caliphs too much credit for power. Ethnicity is another such decoy – Hungarians are not Huns. So are titles – Tsar nor Qaisar is proper Caesar.
If neither resemblance nor difference suffices to taxonomize, how should we proceed?
Consider the relatively clear case of China. Note that Chinese civilization as we know it is not of singular antiquity: it is speculative to speak of Chinese culture before the Qin. Presumably it was more diverse than what survived the infamy of Shi Huangdi; and the relative homogeneity of Chinese culture since may be attributed to that memetic bottleneck.
What is the substance of that continuity? The ideas of Confucius are uppermost. Does that suffice? That we admire Homer does not make us Greeks; but it might, if we looked to Homer to tell us how to live – as many Chinese still do (or rather, do again) to Confucius. But to say Confucius implies that there has been only one, which is false; the Confucius to whom temples were built by emperors is not the Confucius whose ideas are invoked in the party conferences of Beijing. The lessons drawn are very different.
Very different; but not utterly different. Utter difference would be different answers to different questions; but here are different answers to the same question. Even the Cultural Revolution that repudiated Confucius did not propose a new question, only a new answer to the standing question: How can men be good?
Once we ask this question – How can men be good? – we will find it very difficult to decompose into smaller ideas. For instance, does it not imply that men are capable of being good? Not so; the doctrines of Legalism suppose that men cannot be good unless compelled to be; but the answer, though opposite to Confucius’s, is still to the same question. The meaning of each term of the question changes – men as parts of essentially unitary rural families, as individual city-dwellers, as members of the bureaucracy, as members of the Party; good as benevolent, good as obedient, good as doctrinally correct – but the question itself is perfectly stable.
Can we find stable questions elsewhere? Consider the Greeks. How at the beginning, Homer arrives with an answer and a question, What is the good life? How at the end, or even after the end, Hypatia goes out onto the streets of Alexandria with a bravery the equal of any church martyr’s, to show the benighted that there could be such a thing as a good life; how Julian tried and failed, despite absolute power, to seek that good life for himself, and induce others to seek it.
Neither Hypatia nor Julian were stupid. Hypatia, perhaps, thought that the strength of Christianity was its willingness to seek out and teach even the lowest and most wretched; so she did the same. Julian seems to have thought that the strength of Christianity was its focus on a wonderworking man, and tried to set up Apollonius of Tyana in Jesus’ place. Neither of these analyses were simply wrong; but both were inadequate, because they missed the scope of what had happened. Christianity was not a new answer to the question of the good life; it was a new question: How can I be saved?
There are many continuities between the Christianity we know and Hellenism; but Christianity does not require Hellenism to inform it. Think of the Armenian, Coptic, and Nestorian churches. The Hellenic world formed Christianity, but the result was something that could be transplanted and flourish.
Only the appearance of dependency and continuity between Christianity and Hellenism leads us to expect correlation. But there is no idea in Christianity that correlates with the Good Life, and there is no classical idea that correlates with Salvation.
This is essential. Had Christianity simply given (as did the mystery religions) a new answer to the Classical question, a new form of the good life, even one universally accessible and approachable, even one with a face and a story dividing history into before and after, it could never have displaced the weight of tradition and intellectual sophistication on the Pagan side. But by asking a new question, Christianity removed Paganism’s advantage – found the lever to move the world.
The other great religions of the historical period afford more examples in their rise. Buddhism’s question is clear: How can I escape suffering? Islam’s only seems harder because English has never absorbed the relevant vocabulary. Still, it can be approximated: What is the straight way? or the straight path? (sirat al-mustaqîm), the safe way (sharî`ah), the right direction (qiblah, sunnah).
And what of the West? Does this method allow us to characterize the West as a civilization? I have already posited a line between Classical and Christian civilization as hard as that between any other pair. What, then, is the West? A variant on Christian civilization, or a post-Christian one?
The West, I think, comprises four separate civilizations: the Christian, the Enlightenment, the Modern, and the Postmodern.
This seems extreme, too much, as if being too close magnifies distinctions that distance would smooth out. But this diversity is due to extraordinary circumstances: only about 500 years, yes; but 500 years of the greatest rate of accession of wealth in human history, 500 years of discovery and invention, 500 years of almost continuous and descendingly brutal warfare. Never anywhere else has humanity made so much progress so quickly, and never anywhere else has such instability – dynastic rivalries, balances of power, secret treaties, competing ideologies – been prolonged without collapse.
And why is the West different? Because the West discovered America. This is might be a controversial thing to say. Certainly the volume of writing about Western civilization that does not stop to consider the unique event that stands in the middle of it is astonishing. It is like reading a biography where, between chapters, the subject goes from riding the bus to driving his Lamborghini, and having to refer to outside sources to discover that, in the interim, he had won the lottery – won the lottery, and used the proceeds to fund a string of bank robberies.
This is where we run up against the limit of lawfulness in history. If history is lawful – if history has laws – shouldn’t they explain things like the discovery of America? They shouldn’t; they can’t. Every system of laws, at least every system of laws at a higher level than basic physics, has to allow for anomalies and externalities, phenomena that originate beyond its boundaries and traduce its principles. Chemistry cannot compass the splitting of the atom. The laws of history have nothing to say about the discovery of continents; it is a disruption every bit as massive and arbitrary as the fall of a comet.
Suddenly, a new world. Two golden empires in periods of political instability that yielded, as if by destiny, to bumbling adventurers. Two vast continents, infinitely rich in resources animal, vegetable, and mineral, their populations totally unprepared for European arms or European diseases. Gold and silver, yes, but also new crops, new domesticated animals, new drugs – a vast river of every kind of wealth that flowed torrentially into Europe for hundreds of years and supercharged its economy and its intellect.
Nothing like this has ever happened, before or since. And Europe did nothing special to earn it. It wasn’t science. They owe the discovery to a geographically incompetent, morally bankrupt eccentric with no other distinction than that – not unimportant – of being a superlative navigator. It wasn’t technology. Those golden empires fell not to gunpowder – gunpowder was still a curiosity – but to swords, lances, and crossbows. (In men, in means, in method, the conquest of the Americas was an extension of the Reconquista.) And, in large part, it wasn’t even on purpose. Nature waged biological warfare on their behalf long before anyone, victim or victor, understood what was happening.
Nor, once they had it, did they do anything special to deserve it. The history of European exploration, invasion, and exploitation in the Americas alternates between impractical idealism and incompetent greed, with each new doomed project building on the compacted ruins of the failure of the last. But the tide was in Europe’s favor, and though it rolled out every time, each time it rolled in, it rolled in a little higher, a little redder.
It could have happened to someone else; it certainly could have happened to China. But it happened to Europe. And out of the tremendous and unprecedented reaction were precipitated, in quick succession, three new civilizations: the Enlightenment; the Modern; and the Postmodern.
Christianity asks: How can I be saved? The civilization of the Enlightenment asks: How can men be perfected?
Not coincidentally, this resembles the Chinese question; though their knowledge was sketchy, Europe at the time of the Enlightenment was much affected by the mere idea of China.
But the two questions are not the same. Good is one side of a balance; and the same people who are now led to be good by good example, might in the future be led to be bad by a bad example. Perfection is different. Good is prior to evil: a good person is one uncorrupted by evil. Perfection is posterior to evil: a perfected person is one from whom evil has been removed – whether the causes of evil, the means to do evil, or even the hurt in evil – so that, by some constitution or adjustment of society, by checks or balances or an invisible hand, evil is turned to good.
The US and (loosely) the UK are still Enlightenment countries; but they are the only ones. Most countries in the world belong to a different civilization, which may be called Modern. The Modern question runs: How can we progress?
The line of descent is clear. What is progress? If we understand progress as the way from what we are now to what we can be, the Modern question is partly implicit in that of the Enlightenment. But the Enlightenment’s perfection is a thinkable, ponderable one, one in view; while the perfection at the end of progress is one we cannot now understand – a destination we cannot see until we get there, a horizon that recedes as we approach.
Modernity can be opposed to reason – witness the various systems of historical dialectic that have tried to replace reason – but, in its most common and only surviving form, Modernity does not oppose reason. Instead, after doing all that it can to cultivate reason, Modernity implicitly consents that the best use of reason is to recognize a forward movement in history which is unanswerable to reason and cannot be reasoned about – that the end of all our thinking is to climb to a perspective where we can stop thinking.
The name “Postmodern” is very unfortunate – unfortunate because it is ugly, and unfortunate because it is inaccurate. This civilization is coeval with Modernism; indeed, there was a generation or two (when Heine and Marx could dine companionably) which, having rejected the Enlightenment, contained the beginnings of both these civilizations: asking about the world, How can we progress? and about themselves – What is my story?
There seems to be a general suspicion now that before and beyond the West people do not and did not believe that the individual human being could have a story worth telling. They believed in the possibility of an ideal human being; and if there is such a thing as an ideal human being, then the value of the details of the life of any individual is only that of a case study – showing either where and why (taking warning!) they failed, or where and how (learn from it!) they succeeded.
The dubious conclusion is that the pleasure we feel in telling our own stories is a new one, one invented (perhaps by Shakespeare) and taught to us. But human beings are not made of civilization; civilization is made of human beings. A more plausible distinction is that we uniquely add to the idea that an individual has a story at all the idea that that story should be the individual’s own. We do not like to have to share our story with others – to be of a type – and we do not like those who publicly identify themselves with a story – the self-made man, the saved whore, the enlightened fanatic, the illuminated disbeliever. We think the story more plausible as it is more particularized, subverted or ironized, excused or made sympathetic. (This kind of storytelling is Romantic in form; but the Romantics were not Postmoderns – they believed in ideals, ones within view and within reach.)
Postmodernism is not simply a great rejection of all principle and belief. It uses ideas like relativism or deconstruction to clear places for itself; but within those places, Postmoderns are hardly nihilists – indeed their moral sense seems to me exceptionally, even vulnerably, sensitive and delicate.
Postmodernism – though it applies to several distinct and mutually antagonistic systems of morality – has only one moral method. This method is difficult to recognize as such because it runs backward. Other civilizations teach morality by the morality play; Postmodernism teaches the morality of the play. That is, in part, an esthetic morality – against ugliness and boredom, for beauty and diversity – and in part an emotional morality – for the sympathetic and relatable, against the pitiless and singleminded. It could be thought of as a musical morality: what is evil is the dissonant, the out of tune, and the off-key; what is good is the tempered, the resolved, and the danceable. This gives postmoderns not only an extraordinary moral susceptibility – one in which every part of life is either expected to find some moral dimension (part of the proceeds go to blank) or to serve some moral purpose (it’s not just blank, it’s a celebration of freedom/tradition/life); and a unique expectation of moral congruity – that the entirety of society should harmonize; that it is possible in this world, without hypocrisy, to be at once rich and generous, successful and kind, powerful and honest.
This idea of theatrical morality may sound strange in the context of Postmodernism. In particular, the name “postmodern” is applied in literature to writing that is suspicious of narrative, even hostile to it; writing that tries to take into acccount the fact of its being written; narrative that sees itself – the meta, the inter, and the recursive.
The literature of a civilization is not so much as record of its beliefs as a record of its obsessions. In the midst of the Enlightenment, Hume dedicated himself to dismantling reason not because he rejected reason, but because it obsessed him. Nothing is more natural than that the name “postmodern” should stand for an obsession with narrative. But we only break down narrative the way musicians break down a tune. We are not the enemies of narrative; we are its virtuosi.
All this praise I afford to balance my conclusion that the only Postmodern government that the world has yet seen was Nazi Germany. That Nazism was distinctly Postmodern does not mean that Postmodernism causes Nazism. Before Versailles and the self-destruction of the Enlightenment, the only Modern state was that of the Bolsheviks, and Communism was the only systematic Modern political philosophy; but Communism is dead (and undead), and most of the world belongs to some form of Modernity. Communism did not exhaust or characterize Modernism; Jacobinism did not exhaust or characterize the Enlightenment; Nazism did not exhaust or characterize Postmodernism.
But Nazism was entirely Postmodern. Its view of history was pure drama: the past the agon of Aryan and the rest, the present the agon of Aryan and Jew, the future the agon of civilization and Bolshevism. “What is my story?” Hitler asked himself, and answered with Mein Kampf. “What is my story?” Germany asked Hitler, who answered first with victory in the field stolen by a stab in the back from betrayers at home, then with Germantum and a German project and destiny which reached somehow back to Arminius and the Teutonic Knights and stretched ahead into Anschluß and Grossdeutschland. “What is my story?” young men and women asked Hitler, who answered with how Jewish conspiracy had stolen their pride and their opportunity, and that the time was a time for blood – enemy blood to spill, dirty blood to drain, pure blood to breed and spread – a time for blood and for iron, for sharpness and hardness – the West is in danger, forget decadent scruples and ornamental principles, forget law and mercy, get them before they get us – and generations later parts of this story live and still have power.
This fourfold division of the West is an unfamiliar one, but not difficult to construct. The harder test of the method is those ancient civilizations which had thought but not thinkers. There was certainly ancient Egyptian thought; but there were no ancient Egyptian thinkers. The same of Sumer, Babylon, Tenochtitlan, Cuzco. I can only make suggestions. In Egypt, for example, perhaps how can I survive? – and the answers develop from talismanic provisions against everyday dangers to elaborate systems for the safe approach to the afterlife. In Sumer, whose am I? – their idea of the god of the city being not the guardian but the owner of the city, the city’s workers the god’s slaves, its officials the god’s foremen. In Mesoamerica, how can the world be saved? – a precocious question, but, as we who have lived in fear of nuclear winter and live in fear of global warming should know, not an irrational one.
All this is doubly speculative. It is part of the speculative at best prospect of a science of universal history; and, being an essay written from memory, not a researched treatise, it is less an analysis than a riff. But I have found this way of thinking to be a useful approach to problems beside those of universal history; and, though the idea may not suffice for a system, I consider it worthwhile to oppose the commonplace that all human beings, when they begin to wonder about the world and themselves, begin by asking the same questions. It is a disservice to philosophy and anthropology alike to diffract all philosophies and all systems of thought and story through a prismal catechism of eternal questions – “Who are we? Where do we come from? What is the meaning of life?” – sundering into absurd and tortuous fragments structures of thought whose organic integrity derives from their proper niches in the ecology of possible questions.
Yet suppose that I were right? Surely there is danger in proposing a new mode of diversity to an already fractious species, and in dividing what geography, language, and culture have joined together. But when 800 years ago, in another aside to the science of universal history, Ibn Khaldûn proposed that the diversity of human physiognomies that we call race is not the result of of the individual histories of the children of Noah, but of adaptation to climate – then he, by proposing that that diversity was not adventitious, distinguished the real basis for unity. So I could – must – hope that a basis for explaining the most fundamental differences in belief as differences in approach, rather than weaknesses of mind or perversities of will, could make them less bitter.