A Reason for Optimism
About four years ago, I wrote a post called “The Reckoning.” In it, I put forward the idea that unsustainable economic trends in the United States would lead to the emergence of populist politics and demagogues.
In the conclusion, I suggested that this incipient “reckoning” was symptomatic of a cleavage between different generations’ perceptions of the world. Basically, (1) that the generation that grew up in the post-World War II era — which by definition is responsible for the state of the union — would be incapable of adapting to a world without American primacy; and, (2) that the generation coming of age in a period of entropy and uncertainty would be willing to take on the shibboleths that have impeded political progress.
I closed with the following:
In A Study of History, the historian Arnold J. Toynbee posited that civilizations rise and fall through a process of challenge and response. I worry that the magnitude of the challenges have yet to be internalized; and I fear that the transition between accepting today’s world and adjusting to tomorrow’s — The Reckoning — could get turbulent; but I am cautiously optimistic that younger/future generations will respond to these challenges with ingenuity, catalyzing a political realignment that will lead to regeneration and prosperity. We just can’t see it yet.
When I speak with some of the youth in this country, and I read about their activism to put an end to gun violence in schools, my optimism for the future grows. A revivification of the body politic is underway.
There are many, many reasons to be worried about the state of the world. But — perhaps — we’re transitioning from a country defined by fear to one of confidence and energy. That would be a reason for optimism.
P.S. If you haven’t watched Kenneth Clark’s epic BBC series Civilisation, I highly recommend it. This clip from the first episode (transcribed below) came to mind as I was writing this. Clark posts up on a rock, with the Pont du Gard as a backdrop, and drops knowledge on the reasons for the decline of Greco-Roman civilization. It’s dope.
What happened? Well, it took Gibbon nine volumes to describe the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and I shall not embark on that.
But, thinking about this almost incredible episode does tell one something about the nature of civilization. It shows that however complex and solid it seems, it’s actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed.
What are its enemies?
First of all, fear. Fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague. Fears that make it simply not worthwhile constructing things or planting trees, or even planning next year’s crops. And, fear of the supernatural, which means that you daren’t question anything or change anything. The late antique world was full of meaningless rituals, mystery religions that destroyed self-confidence.
And then, boredom. The feeling of hopelessness, which can overtake people with a high degree of material prosperity.
There’s a poem by a modern Greek called Cavafy — a poem in which he imagines the people of some late antique city waiting every day for the barbarians to come and sack it. And then, finally, the barbarians move on somewhere else. And the city’s saved. But the people are disappointed. It would have been better than nothing.
Of course civilization requires a modicum of material prosperity — enough to provide a little leisure. But far more it requires confidence. Confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, confidence in one’s own mental powers.
The way the stones of that bridge are laid is not only a triumph of technical skill, but it shows a vigorous belief in discipline and law.
Energy. Vitality. All the great civilizations or civilizing epochs have had a weight of energybehind them. People sometimes think that civilization consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. Well, these can be among the agreeable results of civilization, but they are not what makes a civilization. And a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.
So, if one asks why the civilization of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted.