1/28/08 - the fall of rome

In today's excerpt - the progress of civilization. In his acclaimed book, Nonzero, Robert Wright argues that the fall of Rome was inevitable since it had ossified and was no longer the leading source of innovation and that its demise did not slow the global progress of civilization:

"When a civilization such as Rome dominates its neighbors, it typically possesses some sort of cultural edge: better weapons, say, or better economic organization. Yet this dominance is hard to maintain precisely because these valuable memes [ideas] tend naturally to spread beyond its borders, empowering its rivals. ... The phrase 'barbarians at the gate' conjures up a Manichaen image. Inside Rome's walls, librarians are shelving painstakingly translated editions of Euripides when smoke starts seeping through the stacks. What had the Romans done to deserve this? Plenty. For starters, the economy of imperial Rome, to an extent notable even by ancient standards, had been built on slaves. ... [And] in the late imperial period, emperors were claiming divinity and acting like pharaohs. They stayed secluded, cultivating a mystique, and Romans who were granted an audience had to start by kissing the hem of the emperor's robe. ... None of this is to deny Rome's celebrated legacy. ...

"In the 1969 book Civilisation, companion to the BBC television series of the same name, Kenneth Clark had a chapter called 'By the Skin of Our Teeth.' Its premise was that western civilization was lucky to be alive. The 'Dark Ages,' as some have called the early Middle Ages, truly had been dark, just barely had the smoldering embers of the west's classical heritage survived to illuminate the world another day. ... The [issue] is not confined to the most famous dark ages, the European ones. Chinese cohesion suffered a big setback in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, as barbarians poured in from the north. And the barbarian onslaughts at the end of the second millennium BC had wreaked havoc from the western Mediterranean to the Middle East. ... And so on—a lengthy menu of regression to choose from. ...

"In his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, [Thomas] Cahill gasps at what might have been lost in the barbarian invasions ... [lamenting] that we might have lost 'Homer and Virgil and all of classical poetry, Herodotus and Tacitus and all of classical history,  Demosthenes and Cicero and all of classical oratory, Plato and Aristotle'...

"Well, them's the breaks. But what the people of the early Middle Ages most needed wasn't a good stiff dose of Demosthenes. They needed mundane things, such as a harness that wouldn't press on a horse's windpipe. This new device, in use by AD 800, tripled the weight a horse could pull, and thus relieved European farmers from dependence on slow and lazy oxen, easing both transport and agriculture. ... The iron horseshoe and the windpipe-friendly harness seem to have been invented in Asia and then to have leapt from person to person to person...all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. ...

"No one [world] culture is in charge, so no one culture controls the memes (though some try in vain). This decentralization makes epic social setbacks of reliably limited duration; the system is 'fault-tolerant' as computer engineers say. While Europe fell into its slough of despond, Byzantium and southern China stayed standing, India had ups and downs, and the newborn Islamic civilization flourished. These cultures performed two key services: inventing neat new things that would eventually spread to Europe (the spinning wheel probably arose somewhere in the Orient); and conserving useful old things that were now scarce in Europe (the astrolabe, a Greek invention, came to Europe via Islam, as did [navigational] astronomy.) To an observer in Italy or France in AD 650, it might have seemed as if there was a ... 'total system failure' ... but from a global perspective, there was no cause for alarm. ...

"Social evolution depends fundamentally on technological evolution, and not on the chance preservation of particular works of literature or poetry or philosophy. Even stereotypically 'western' features, such as the blossoming of personal liberty after centuries of serfdom, are in essence byproducts of technology."


Robert Wright


NonZero: The Logic of Human Destiny


Vintage Books a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright



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