The decline and fall of everybody

In 1997, Jared Diamond published Guns, Germs, and Steel, a magnificent study of the human race with a fundamental flaw running right down the middle of it, like an intellectual San Andreas fault.  The magnificence of the book stemmed from the epic sweep of the subject matter — nothing less than the last 13,000 years — and from the honesty with which Diamond judged the human cultures that have come and gone in that time.  The flaw had to do with Diamond’s belief that the past could never have turned out differently.

For such an imaginative scholar, that shows a surprising lack of historical imagination.  The Arabs conquered the Spaniards with superior organization and technology; the Spaniards learned, reconquered Spain, then proceeded to overthrow the Incas with superior organization and technology.  The Incas stayed down:  was that inevitable?  Theoretically, couldn’t they have learned from their conquerors, and pushed them out as the Spaniards did with the Moors?  And if theoretically possible, why didn’t it happen?  To a speculative historian, that is by far the more interesting question.

If the past lacks contingency, then so does the future.  I will skip right over arguments about free will and get to practical matters.  If human affairs lack all contingency, they should be easy to predict — like the trajectory of billiard balls.  But we know, from Philip Tetlock’s new book, that we are awful at prediction:  and the more knowledge we possess, the worse our prediction record will be.  So either experts are peculiarly dense, or we are not billiard balls.  Or, as I suspect, both.

Diamond has denied belief in determinism, in Guns and in his latest book, Collapse.  I read the latter eagerly — it was subtitled “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” and I thought I was about to get an explanation why the Roman Empire fell after ruling the world, and why Ancient Egypt disappeared after 4,000 years of persisting.

Not so.  The grand problems of culture and history, which lay at the heart of Diamond’s earlier book, are nowhere to be found in Collapse.  Instead, we get Montana, Greenland, and Easter Island.  The decline and fall of Montana just lacks dramatic impact:  not even the producers of Brokeback Mountain would dare make a movie out of it.  And both Greenland and Easter Island were (like Montana) not cultures but footnotes.

Even more discouraging, Diamond’s answers are pat:  the environment did it.  Montanans mined too hard.  Easter Islanders chopped down too many trees.  The Greenland Vikings ate too much beef.  What passes for contingency appears as the Other:  if only the Vikings had turned into Eskimos, they would have survived Greenland’s Little Ice Age.  But that seems, at the very least, unfair.  If I were asked to turn into an Eskimo to survive an ice age, I wouldn’t do it.  I mean, I like fish and chips just fine, but rubbing whale blubber all over one’s anatomy is in many ways worse than freezing to death.

And what about the Romans and Egyptians?  Turning into Eskimos wouldn’t have helped them much.  Plus, they treated the environment fine.  They left plenty of trees behind.  Yet these civilizations, which produced geniuses in every field, shaped the beliefs of millions for ages, and erected mighty works that still stand, are gone.  The long, long thread of generations snapped.  All that remains, as in Ozymandias, is a colossal wreck.

Two years ago, in a hot July afternoon, my wife and I wandered into the breath-taking wreckage of the forum in Rome.  We had been there many years before.  We felt the same way both times.  The immensity of the debris, the inconceivability of such a collapse, became more than an intellectual puzzle — was felt as beauty, sadness, and a strange oppression of the heart.  How could this happen?  By what strange metamorphosis did this race of giants become pygmies hiding in the shadows of their own ancestors?  And if they shrank to nothingness, what is in store for us?

Because human events are contingent, history primarily concerns the future.  The fall of Rome is the key event in history, and so the most important problem about the future of every community.  And given the absence of an environmental catastrophe, there’s a curious temptation to find moral causes of decay.

In fact, the urge to moralize about Rome seems irresistible.  My mother-in-law tells me that, as a young person, she thought the Romans had declined because of all those feasts they ate while lying down.  From the early Church fathers to Ben Hur, the pagan Romans have been portrayed as brutes and perverts.  Their civilization, one guesses, simply fell apart because everyone was too busy doing the thumbs-down sign at the gladiatorial circus, while copulating with every passing carbon-based life form.

The problem, as the last pagan writers never ceased to point out, is that by the time the empire fell it was a thoroughly Christian commonwealth, and had been so for nearly two centuries.  When the worst happened, the good guys were in charge — Ben Hur-wise at least.  To refute those annoying pagans, St. Augustine was forced to explain, at great length, the difference between flesh and spirit, which uncoupled the fate of the City of Man from that of the City of God.

The great historian of the fall of Rome, Edward Gibbon, came to reject Augustine’s formula.  Gibbon relates how, as he stood among the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter above the forum, hearing the barefoot friars chant their plainsongs, the thought flashed through his mind that Rome had been destroyed by “the triumph of barbarism and religion.”

The insight inspired a masterpiece still worth reading many times over, but as an explanation, it described better than it explained.  Barbarism and religion certainly triumphed, but did they overthrow Roman civilization?  The Eastern Empire faced barbarians as fierce as in the West, and developed more intolerant strains of religion.  Yet it survived a thousand years — another un-Diamond-like impossibility.

The Eastern Empire, what we usually call Byzantium, is the ultimate counterfactual to Rome.  It should have fallen 100 times, but died by inches instead.  Reflecting on its history can induce a kind of existential despair about the likelihood of ever knowing anything:  maybe the Byzantines just pushed the “I’m feeling lucky” button, and got good answers.

But that is a sterile line of thought.  To claim all human events are contingent is identical to claiming none are:  our past, and so our future, become a series of random accidents, over which we have no influence, and about which we can have little useful to say.

Did Rome fall for external or internal reasons?  The question makes sense for the Incas, who were the most successful people in their world until the Spaniards inexplicably showed up.  For Rome, which remained, to the last moment, the most powerful and advanced society relative to its neighbors, the question is besides the point.  Rome died of self-inflicted wounds.  The zeal to abandon reality for religion was a symptom, probably not a cause.

Politically and morally, the empire was an ungainly monster, part oriental despotism, part republican city-state.  The abundance of genius in the population never declined, I would guess, but the numbers of people, genius or otherwise, involved in decision-making shrank drastically and dangerously.  Still, with a little quiet they might have puttered on.  But they ran into interesting times, and when they pushed the “I’m feeling lucky” button, the answer came in the form of German savages leaping over the city walls.

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