The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Michael R.J. Bonner. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Michael RJ Bonner. Michael’s a communications and public policy expert and a historian. He took his doctorate at the University of Oxford where he studied ancient Iran. Welcome, Michael.
Michael: Thank you for having me. Pleasure to be here.
Jim: I always have to deflate the stuffy Oxfordians by pointing out that, well today when we hear Oxford, our brain is templated to think old, ancient and venerable university, but obviously the name Ox Ford had to have come from a place where castrated cattle crossed the river. So whenever I hear Oxford, it’s always useful to keep that in mind so you don’t get your brain put off into too much of fancy and ancient. But nonetheless, a good place.
Michael: Yeah. Well, it reminds me of another anecdote that there was a story that the deer kept in the Magdalen College Deer Park, that they were just like the fellows, that they were old, infirm and inbred.
Michael: I’m with you there.
Jim: Indeed. Today we’re going to talk about relatively new book. I guess it was quite, what was it, the spring it was published?
Michael: Yeah, April.
Jim: April, yeah. A book called In Defense of Civilization, How Our Past Can Renew Our Present. So let’s start off with the obvious question. What is civilization?
Michael: Right. So that’s the million-dollar question, and I suppose I could be faulted for not trying to answer it, or at least not trying to answer it in abstract terms. I think it’s always going to resist definition of that sort, but I think it’s the kind of thing that we can, as Kenneth Clark said, we can recognize it when we see it and we can also compare it to what it isn’t.
And what I do in the book is that I start before there was anything that you could call civilization, before people were living in cities or towns or single fixed places. And that’s the fundamental difference, that there was a time when human beings didn’t do that, that we moved around, that relationships with other people outside the immediate group were brief or non-existent. Relationships with places were brief and perfunctory that you would move around following the animals that you hunted and so forth. But that suddenly changed.
How do we describe that change? Well, we sum it up in the word civilization. That there’s a sense of permanence, there’s a sense that we have a place where we belong, that there is a sense that people have ancestors and therefore a past and a natural extension of thought also suggests a future. That is what I mean by civilization.
Jim: One thing you do in you’re building up of the concept is you reject the congruence between civilization and settled agriculture.
Michael: Correct. Yeah, that’s very important because first of all, the idea that there was an agricultural revolution, I mean even the term agricultural revolution suggests a kind of Marxist outlook on the development of history. What we mean by that didn’t actually happen. The theory was that people decided to farm and then they had to settle down. Well, what actually happened is that people settled down first before there was farming. So the earliest towns or permanent settlements and what you might call temples, they are built in the Near East shortly after the Ice Age, in fact, almost immediately after the Ice Age and people are still hunting and gathering.
Jim: There’s that big one in Turkey that we’ve seen a lot about in the recent literature. Tell us about that one a little bit.
Michael: Yeah, so that’s the place called Gobekli Tepe. I can’t remember what Gobekli means, but Tepe means hill. It’s an old neolithic, very early neolithic settlement on the top of a hill in Southern Turkey. And what it actually is is a temple. It seems to be a sort of public shrine where ancestors were venerated and there are sort of tiny fragments of skulls there and evidence that they were put on display, kind of grim and macabre by our standards. But nevertheless, it represents a realization that different groups of people had common ancestry, and there’s evidence of little sort of dwellings or you might call houses, what have you, around this sort of public structure.
When it was built though, as I say, the Ice Age had just ended, and that was the period of the cave paintings in Lascaux and so forth. That period has come to an end, and agriculture had not yet developed. Domestication of animals, there may have been some kind of rudimentary form of it, but it hadn’t really taken shape the way it would 5,000 years later. So this is long before the supposed technological change that brought about agriculture. And what I infer from this is that you have to develop the sense that you belong in a particular place before you settle there, and that there’s no sort of material or economic change that presupposes that. It’s a fundamental change of outlook. And that of course raises the question, well, what brought that about? I don’t have an answer for that. Maybe we will discover more sites. In fact, I am pretty confident that we will discover more such sites that might shed some light on that. But the fact is that we decided to settle before we developed agriculture.
Jim: And then another one just to kick out of the way, and this comes from people not understanding the big picture timeline, is some people would say it was the invention of writing. That happened way later.
Michael: Yeah, definitely not. It’s an interesting question. Was there any kind of symbolic representation of anything? Well, yes. Obviously, there are cave paintings, but do they constitute some kind of language? Almost certainly not. There are also images that crop up on Gobekli Tepe, which seem to show what in another era you might call sort of totem animals or something like that. We don’t actually know what they represent, but it’s not linguistic, it’s not sort of characters that represent spoken language. But yeah, that comes much later. So the idea that there is some kind of technological change that brings about civilization or settled life that sort of sets us apart from our hunter gatherer ancestors, it’s not true.
Jim: So let’s maybe bring a little bit sharper focus on it. I know you’re not going to be able to define it crisply, but one of the phrases you use, in fact we’ll get back into this in more depth later, is the triplet of clarity, beauty, and order.
Michael: Yeah. So look, I’m not trying say, I think a lot of people could read that and misinterpret what I’m saying, I’m not trying to say that those are the ingredients of civilization, they’re not, they are the outcomes, they are the product. So you can look at a paleolithic cave painting and you can see it’s very beautiful. Very often they’re very vivid, energetic vision of animals. They seem to be rushing forward or there’s almost a sense of motion when you look at them in the cave. But are they clear? No. There are parts of them that are often missing. Very few of them even have hooves or they don’t seem to be placed in any kind of particular area in the environment. There are no landscapes, no sun or moon. So there’s a sense in which there’s a kind of jumble or disorder.
What you find in say the art of Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, is that those factors sort of come together, that there’s a clear sense of what is being depicted. There’s a sense of an orderly organization to the universe and sort of man’s place in it, and that it is proportional and harmonious and therefore beautiful. Those are the elements that come together in civilized material culture and that you can use them, I think, as sort of rubrics with which to analyze the art or architecture or literature of any particular period in human history.
So people might be able to quibble with the headings that I chose, or they might want to add something here or there, but it’s good to have these three sort of general rubrics, I think for ease of analysis. And I sort of organized my information accordingly. But ultimately I’m generalizing from the very earliest material culture from the first civilizations, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and to a lesser extent China. And that’s what I think I see, clarity, beauty, and order together.
Jim: Let me throw out a hypothesis. I’d love to get your thought on it. I’m a bit of a systems thinker, trying to think about what are cycles that hold things together. Civilization comes with costs at some level. There’s also obviously benefits. And so perhaps the benefit side of the equation might be summarized in clarity, beauty, and order. Well, order equals safety at some level. So if we think about a cycling system where things are trying to escape from civilization and sometimes do, which we’ll talk about next, the overarching benefits of civilization being clarity, beauty and order are the baits that tend to keep civilizations as a standing wave. Does that make sense?
Michael: It does. And I think there are people, there’s an author, James C. Scott, he’s got a book, I think his latest book is called Against the Grain, and he has an earlier one called Seeing Like a State.
Jim: I was going to say, Seeing Like a State is a great favorite for listeners of the Jim Rutt show. A lot of people have read it, a lot of people talk about it.
Michael: So what I would say in response is that, yeah, there are trade-offs, you might say, or even potentially downsides. That it’s arguable that maybe not everybody, but on the whole people would have been healthier, not crowding into cities. And it took a long time in the history of humanity to work out exactly how to make that safer and better for us. And of course, once you’ve got people crowded in, you get law codes and police forces and what have you. Yeah, there’s no question about-
Jim: And worse food and all kinds of things, right?
Michael: Yeah. Very likely. However, how do we account for the fact that it was always preferable? Civilization’s collapse, and yet we have always gone back to that structure. We have never completely abandoned the sense that the required stability and a place and purpose in a single spot. On the whole, it produces societies that are probably actually less violent than what came before. There’s that famous book, War Before Civilization. Some statistics are presented in there, which obviously you can question some paleolithic statistics. But on the whole warfare became much less devastating than it was before. Didn’t obviously go away, but it became less violent. The idea of entire towns and villages and whole kin groupings being completely exterminated. That became more rare after people settled down. And of course it was revived by people like the Assyrians and the Nazis, but on the whole, it was rare. So yes, there are trade-offs, there are things that you have to put up with, but civilized life has always been preferable since it arose, to the state of savagery or barbarism that could be the alternative to it.
Jim: Of course, you mentioned the cities. It’s a very interesting fact that probably cities were net killers of people until 1900 when we figured out, maybe some exceptions in Rome where they understood clean water early, but in general, and certainly it was true in the West until 1900, cities were net killers, and the only reason they kept growing is because people moved in from the countryside. So that kind of argues two things simultaneously, point in different directions, the problems of civilization, but also the attractions of civilization.
Michael: And I think that we have pushed… Let me put it this way, in the modern period, having worked out things like clean water and general sanitation and how to live in big cities in a healthier manner, our cities have become, I would argue, far too large to be on the whole useful to us. I can’t give you an exact number, but I suspect that there really is a limit to the point at which many, many people living in one place remain sort of a net benefit.
If you live in a city with tens of millions of people and it’s far more than you could ever actually meet, and it can’t really be governed, I think, even with modern technology. So what I’m saying here is that even though there would be still a lingering desire or a need for people to live together in groups throughout human history, that it does reach a limit and then technology can push it beyond that limit, and it’s not necessarily good for us. So the idea of a net killer, I think even though that we have cured that with technology, I think we’ve introduced other problems which I touch on in the book. Things like atomization or the sort of isolation that comes from the political abstraction when the population gets too big and so forth.
So I wouldn’t… How should I put this? I would hesitate to blame the city itself when we can actually make that problem worse with technology, even though we’ve eliminated the disease factor, if you see what I mean?
Jim: Yeah. Another argument is that the result of what we have is essentially the emergent result of capitalism plus dominance and coercion. The end result are big, big cities that are easier to control and are at least marginally more efficient in a purely economic term. Because one of the issues about market driven civilizations is efficiency at the margin is what decides most decisions in the marketplace. There is no view to the future in the marketplace, at least not much, three years max. And when you combine the elements, particularly driven by the inner loop of money on money return, economies of scale, network effects, even if they’re only small effects, everything interesting in economics happens at the margin. Then the mega cities and such are the, not predictable necessarily, but the actual emergent effects of the systems that we have.
Michael: Yeah. Which goes back to the idea that simply because we have economic and technological advancements, it’s not enough for us to call ourselves civilized.
Jim: Interesting. Now, one thing we can say about every civilization except our own, is that they have collapsed.
Michael: Well, yeah, I take your point, but I would phrase that as a question. Has our civilization collapsed? I mean, if you lived in say, Eastern Europe between 1922 and 1945, you might think that your civilization had collapsed, or the first world war could be construed as a collapse of a civilization. But again, despite the triumph of technology. So yeah, they all do collapse, but I’m sorry, I interrupted you there.
Jim: Well, I was just going to… Let’s go next to whether ours is in the process of collapsing or not, but let’s just talk generally about the fact that these civilizations, they obviously provided something of value and clarity, beauty and order seems like a reasonable stick down on the ground, but then they all collapsed. So back up a little bit and tell us the story of collapse. How does that happen? Where does that come from? What are the dynamics of that?
Michael: That’s a good question. I mean, a lot of people have tried to explain what those dynamics are, and I don’t attempt to do so. I think it’s enough for me just to simply observe that empirically in history, this is just what has happened. The very, very oldest attempt that I’m aware of to explain it is the old idea of the ages of the world. You have a golden age, a silver age…
Jim: Hesiod and that kind of stuff.
Michael: Exactly. So that’s the first articulation of it. It also crops up in the Bible. There’s a Zoroastrian scripture that includes it too. But yeah, the idea that there is a deterioration from a high peak and then it sort of builds back up again. You find that in many religions. There’s the Norse myth of Ragnarok in which the world comes crashing down and then everything sort of grows back up again. So yeah, people have observed this for a long time throughout history, and I guess you could say that time was viewed in more of a cycle that goes round, round and round. And the original meaning of the word revolution was that things would sort of go back to where they were before and there would be change.
Obviously, I think that we don’t really think of time that way. We don’t think of our own civilization that way. We think that things, I’m pretty sure this is still the dominant view, if you ask people on the street that things sort of move in a particular direction. This is a vision that’s very important to liberalism and to contemporary doctrines of progress, that there is this sort of end state that we’re moving towards, a sort of Fukuyama idea of the end of history. It’s also present in Marxism. And I think ultimately this all goes back to the Christian vision of a sort of direction of history, but it’s been secularized or the spiritual element has been removed from it.
And of course there have been people since Hesiod, like even Haldun or I think Vico who sort of [inaudible 00:22:27] that there are these cycles to history and you can sort of understand how they work and signs of decline and so forth. I think Arnold Toynbee thought that way. And most recently there’s Peter Turchin who’s come up with a book End Times, where he talks about various sort of economic and social indicators that portend collapse.
I’m content to say that civilization just collapses. That’s just one of the things that happens in history. They rise and they fall. Eventually they become exhausted and they just collapse. Not always violently, not always permanently either. The history of Dynastic Egypt or Imperial China, basically the same sort of artistic and material culture and literature that gets re-articulated over and over again despite a couple of spectacular collapses. Whereas you have in Mesopotamia, you have the same sort of cycle of collapses, but several different cultures and empires occupying roughly the same place that succeed one another.
In the West, as I say, we don’t really think this way anymore. We’ve come to see ourselves, I think, as sort of having completely superseded the ruins of things that have come before. And I’m not sure that we are really capable of contemplating our own eventual collapse or fade out or however it might occur. But we have come close, I think in the 20th century, a lot of the sort of anxieties surrounding something like nuclear war or warfare in general, the two great wars, I think that a lot of that was bound up with the idea that collapse could indeed occur. But since the end of the Cold War, that hasn’t really been front and center, although now that there’s war in Europe again, it may be coming back.
Jim: Yeah, it was interesting you mentioned Peter Turchin, he was on our show a couple of weeks ago, EP 190, Peter Turchin on Cliodynamics and End Times. Also, I’m currently reading Neil Howe’s new book, The Fourth Turning is here, What the Seasons of History Tell Us About How and When This Crisis Will End. It’s another new attempt to tell, to my mind, kind of rigid and reductionist, but a cyclical view of history that has become quite popular with people. I’m trying to reach out to him to get him on my podcast, haven’t heard anything back yet from him, but hope to have one.
And interestingly, we just had Cronin and Walker on talking about the science of time, and we talked about how historically people thought of time as cyclical and that modern man thinks of time as linear, and maybe that’s not quite exactly right. And so anyway, this topic seems to be in the air, seems to be in the air. Not only does people like Peter Turchin have his theories of collapse, much of which he talked about in his earlier works, but one that we talk about sometimes here on the Jim Rutt show is Joseph Tainter in his book, the Collapse of Complex Societies, where he goes into a long, deep analysis of all kinds of things.
However, at the very end of that book, he comes out and says-
Jim: … all kinds of things. However, at the very end of that book, he comes out and says, “Well, modern … ” And this was written in 1990, which I think is interesting at the time. He says, “Well, it’s unlikely that our society will collapse, because other societies were generally pushed over. They may have been tottering on their own internal problems, but they were generally pushed over by either a big environmental event or more often by an invader, and nobody’s going to invade the modern civilization and knock it over.” However, I think that of course, was the time of Fukuyama and The End of History, which people unfairly have read. The book is actually more nuanced than it is given credit for. But nonetheless, that idea that the status quo in 1990 was now so amazing, it was going to last for … the Reich that will last for a thousand years, and here we are 30 years later, it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Michael: Right. Well, I mean, anybody who says that the way things are is the way they always will be, I mean, that’s just simply not plausible. And historically it’s pretty idiotic. I mean, I don’t think that there’s ever been a time immediately before some spectacular collapse in which somebody did not say that everything’s great and it’s going to last forever, but things don’t have to be pushed over in order to collapse.
If you think of something like the Egyptian Old Kingdom, which lasted for what, 700, 800 years? I mean, by the time you were sort of midway through that, you would’ve thought that this is just the way things are, the way things always will be, that’s just going to keep going on. It must’ve seemed absolutely indestructible, especially considering that several Mesopotamian dynasties had come and gone by then already, and yet it also faded away.
There was no invasion. Oh, there might have been a plague, but if there was, I don’t think it was recorded, but eventually these things just lose their momentum or energy, and then that’s the end. But the key thing for me in my book is that they also tend to come back together again, and they do that in a very particular way, which is that they … There’s always a movement or an urge to sort of reconnect one with the past, which goes back to the idea of the original impetus for civilization in the first place, which was the idea that mankind has a past, has a place in the present and eventually one in the future, and that we reconnect ourselves with it and redevelop that sense of stability, place and purpose.
I forget the name … Tainter, you mentioned. What Tainter is missing is that you will collapse or your civilization will fade away if people give up on it, if they decide that it is no longer worth imitating what came before, or if there is no longer any kind of urge to maintain a connection with older models or with older ideas, and therefore to try to recreate them and then perhaps even to surpass them. That will be the end if there’s nobody left to do that.
But on the other hand, revivals have happened even after very, very long intervals. People have decided to look back on what happened before and try to see what worked and recreate it. Obviously, people in the West will think of the Renaissance. They talk about [inaudible 00:30:03]-
Jim: We’ll get to that in a minute. We’ll get back into that. And again, people just give up out and becomes tired, and it kind of peters out. That’s one scenario. It gets pushed over is another, and we’ll talk about this later. But you also put forth a third one, which is people start innovating a little too hard, the idea of futurism, and I would suggest that both Marxism and Nazism are examples of trying too hard to innovate and push a culture forward, and they ended up in sort of disastrous, non-functional forms, and they crashed hard. Fortunately, neither of them conquered the whole world because if they had, we might’ve had the equivalent of a new Bronze Age collapse. And even though we talk about the fall of Rome is the exemplar, the real exemplar in our lineage is the Bronze Age collapse, which was quite a bit … appears at least as far as we know, to have been quite a bit more devastating than the fall of Rome.
Michael: That was a spectacular collapse, the collapse of an entire world system. And it’s a warning for us because it’s a very ancient example, but it is a good example nonetheless, of a globalized world order such as we now have. In the ancient world before the kind of communications technology that we now have, the late bronze Age would have been the most interconnected the world could have been and ever was, and that was why the collapse was so total. It’s a warning for us who grew up in the ’90s when we were sort of used to the message of an ever more intricate and interconnected world, that that actually makes you fragile. It doesn’t create a stronger world. It creates one that is more likely to collapse totally when trouble comes.
Jim: We actually know this from the study of food webs. There’s some optimal connectivity. If they become too connected, there’s too many species, it actually increases the probability of collapse rather than what you’d think is increasing robustness. A little data I love to throw out is for a long time the percentage of world GDP and international trade, the peak was 1914, and it wasn’t until 1988 that we got back to the percentage, about 25%, of the world economy being in trade. Now the number’s in the thirties, it’s higher than it’s ever been, or at least it was until a couple of years ago. It seems like it’s going down a little bit now, but we’re probably still well above the critical point that is in the danger zone where things could endogenously collapse. I mean, what’s the effect of the Chinese possibly falling into deflation in a 1930s-style Depression could happen? What’s that all going to be about? Right?
Michael: Well, very much so. Yeah.
Jim: Yeah. These issues with the Russians screwing with the trade in grain and fertilizer, that’s a shock that we’ll see flop through the system here for a few years. Our systems are indeed quite fragile and could go down.
Michael: And I think that it’s odd that that was … I mean, my experience being a young person in the ’80s and ’90s is that that idea was laughed at. You said, “Well, let’s all trade with China as much as we can.” Okay. Well, what if there’s some kind of political turmoil there? We have no control over that. Don’t you think that would be bad? It didn’t seem to occur. This sort of thing didn’t seem to occur to anyone, at least not until it was too late. And of course, we’ve all just lived through a plague. The idea that there would be pandemic diseases was sort of not really taken very seriously for some time, and it took that experience to remind many of us that we don’t make enough of our own stuff and that we were fundamentally unprepared in a variety of different sort of critical industries.
But yeah, I mean, the fragility is definitely there, and it was there at the time of the Bronze Age collapse. What’s instructive about that though is that it’s probably where that collapse was most devastating in Aegean area, in what we now call Greece, that the rebirth had its most spectacular effect, which of course, you could not necessarily have predicted knowing … If you had known ahead of time that there was going to be some sort of horrible collapse, you might not have suspected that revival would come from the place where reading had been completely forgotten, where the alphabet had to be re-imported and then sort of re-engineered from nothing, where art and architecture virtually disappeared, where the population collapsed by maybe half or more in many places. But that is what happened, and it has been paralleled elsewhere. But in the Bronze Age collapse, it was at its worst by far.
Jim: And that was five or 600 years from the Bronze Age collapse to the high culture of let’s say 600 BC, something like that. That was big gap. Essentially, if we look backward from where we are today, that would be back around before Columbus. So that was that big of a gap in the historical period of progress. Actually it’d be a hundred years. 1490. So a hundred years before Columbus, almost. So a big, big gap.
Michael: Which is an interesting thing for us to contemplate, I think, because a lot of people would … Modern people are not used to thinking that some sort of great rebirth or revival would come from thinking about something that happened six or 700 years ago, and yet it always has in the past.
Jim: All right, let’s go on to the next one, which of course is the one we tend to think of when we think about our lineage, which is the collapse of Rome, and then the very gradual rebirth after that.
Michael: Okay, so what I would say, the collapse of Rome is often misunderstood. It’s misunderstood in two different ways. First of all, there are some people who don’t want to think of it as a collapse. They want to think of it as some kind of natural evolution. I mean, I can tell you that it really was a genuine, horrific, shocking collapse, that the amount of CO2 dissolved in the atmosphere went down to below prehistoric levels. And we know this from ice core samples. So there’s no question that there was indeed a collapse. But the other way that it can be misunderstood is that the Germanic peoples that we call barbarians, when they moved further south, it was not their intention to destroy the Roman world. It was their intention to be sort of absorbed by it and to be part of it.
Ultimately, that didn’t really succeed. But it goes to prove my point that the idea of imitating the high civilization of the past was a sort of natural and near universal tendency. So the so-called barbarian rulers of Rome, that what they’re actually trying to do is they’re trying to recreate the old empire, and ultimately they fail for a while. And then there’s that, what we call the Dark Age. I don’t know if we still call it Dark Age, but it’s sort of habitually called Dark Age. And then the barbarian kingdoms that emerge out of that in Western Europe, they do eventually form their own sort of independent kingdoms interacting with what’s left of Eastern Rome and the Arab Empire in the Middle East. And of course, the great revival is always attributed to Charlemagne, crowned King of the Franks, crowned Holy Roman emperor in the year 800.
But again, the sort of inner logic of that whole process is that you have a group of people who have come from really far beyond the limits of what would’ve been considered the civilized world. They move south. The empire collapses through a combination of overstretch and exhaustion and economic problems and so forth, but they never give up on the idea of trying to recreate it even after they have failed. And of course, in the end, they don’t recreate it. Something new comes out. But it is in the effort to try to maintain the old Roman high culture that the spectacular flourishing of civilization in what we call the Middle Ages comes about. And if they had tried something else, if they had sat around trying to write their histories in gothic or in whatever language the Lombards spoke, or Frankish, whatever, there would’ve been no Latin literature. It all would’ve been lost. Who knows, Europe might have turned out to be much more like the northern hinterland of China down to the modern period.
But it was that process of trying to integrate themselves into the Roman imperial tradition and to imitate what had come before that gave us what eventually emerged out of the rubble of collapse.
Jim: Yeah, and I’m with you that the collapse certainly was real. One of my favorite statistics is that late Roman Empire, about 60% of the townspeople of Gaul were literate. A hundred years later, the King of France was illiterate and literacy rate felt low single digits, and most of those associated with the church going forward. And the Sharma Lane, little bright light, it didn’t flash for long. It flashed for a generation or two, and then it kind of subsided again. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that maybe the turn was finally made with the fall of the Eastern Empire, which sent a bunch of scholars and materials to the east and then the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain and the rediscovery of the Arabic translations of the Greeks. So let’s move the clock forward to the Renaissance.
Michael: I don’t dispute that narrative so much as I want to sort of augment it, that if you zoom out … Let me start again. If you zoom in too closely, you’ll see what looks like the fall of Rome, a brief flickering under Charlemagne that gets imitated a little bit by Alfred the Great. Then it goes out, and then there’s a sort of rediscovery of classics that start under people like Dante and Petrarch, and then it sort of grows from there. If you zoom out much further though, what you see is that the fall of Rome in the West is paralleled by a much more catastrophic, but shorter collapse in the East when Rome and Persia have fought each other to the death, and then they’re sort of exhausted and ruined. There’s been a horrible plague. The Arab conquests start, and then you have this sort of Dark Age in Byzantium and the Dark Age in Iran for maybe 150, 200 years.
It’s the Arab Empire under the Abbasid Dynasty, that suddenly they’ve decided that they want to be a great world power. They’re surrounded by all these Zoroastrians Christians and other sort of Buddhists from centralized … these sort of much older religions and traditions who they’ve sort of been having a rough time lately, but they still have enough of their own much older histories and literature and statecraft and so on. And so left in order to be able to look back on it. The Arabs very quickly appropriate all of that, centered on the translation movement in Baghdad beginning in sort of the late 8th century. And it’s from that moment that you can plot an almost uninterrupted upwards trajectory of learning and science and literature and so forth, that Charlemagne and company are trying to imitate by looking back at their own classics and so on. And Alfred the Great is imitating that in his term, and that’s what triggers the huge translation movement in Europe from Arabic into Latin.
That’s where people like Thomas Aquinas and his teacher, Alberta Magnus, that’s where they became acquainted with sort of Aristotelian and Platonic thought through translations made from Arabic. The interest that generated in classics is what eventually led to seeking the original real thing in its Greek original from Byzantium. It took a long time, but the European Renaissance can be seen as the kind of final coda of that movement that began in the 9th century, which is why …
I don’t want to belabor this too much. I could talk sort of forever about this subject. Which is why we should see the Middle Ages, or what is sometimes still called the Dark Age, from about the 8th century up until the middle of the 16th. That period is actually the age of diversity, of thought, variety, of wide ranging academic freedom, and not necessarily globalization, but certainly a very deep appreciation of intercultural appreciation and the depth of scholarship, which has arguably not really been matched. I mean, Thomas Aquinas, a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, is arguably the greatest disciple of Avicenna, the Persian polymath, and the two of them both come at the end of a sort of long tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle. But in Aquinas’s work, he’s referencing Cicero, Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Maimonides, you name it. There is no tradition or culture that is off limits for him. And he of course wouldn’t have done that in his Summa Theologiae. He wouldn’t have done that if he had thought that he had nothing to learn from others.
So why am I saying this? It is a position of great arrogance, and arguably stupidity, on the part of modern people to think that they discovered academic freedom, cultural exchange, and quote unquote, diversity.
Jim: Yeah, it’s never as simple as the narratives sometimes make it out to be. Right? So we have this period, Petrarch, Dante, et cetera, and also towards the end, Copernicus and Vasco de Gama, Columbus, et cetera. You then have a subhead in the book called The Paradoxical Outcome of the Renaissance. What did you mean by that?
Michael: So I think that humanism, what we call humanism, which sort of flourished in the Renaissance, that it reaches a peak then, but it wasn’t invented then. It has a much longer tradition behind it, much older tradition, which I think you can find even in people like Aquinas, even in the medieval thinkers that are often thought of sort of fussy scholastics, whatever, that there’s still a wide ranging appreciation for human variety and culture and so forth that you could call humanism and ultimately at the root of what the great thinkers of the Renaissance were on about. Unfortunately, at the same time, you also have a kind of attitude that takes shape in the minds of people like Petrarch. Petrarch is so deeply obsessed with the past and with the classics, and especially with Cicero, that he’s constructed a kind of fantasy, and the fantasy itself is an idol that he worships.
He eventually sort of shuts himself up within his own mind, imagining himself as a kind of Ciceronian figure, writing letters to antiquity and so forth, and you get the impression that he dislikes his own time so much that he’s sort of unable to live in it. He prefers to live in a fantasy world. It’s very different from the Renaissance men like Alberti who practiced more of a civic kind of humanism where he was deeply involved in the life of his city, and he was an advisor to one of the Popes. He was an architect, architecture is very much a social art, and he delighted in exercising all of his physical and intellectual faculties. But with Petrarch, you see the beginning of the kind of person who wants to isolate himself from the world and sort of only be with his thoughts. And I think that there’s something of a straight line from there through people like Montaigne and Descartes.
Jim: Throw Erasmus in, if you like.
Michael: Sure, toward the kind of person who wants to isolate himself from the world, that he’s sort of retreated inward, living entirely in a kind of disembodied … the life of a disembodied intellectual. And I think that ultimately that’s sort of bad for us. But from there, you can see the growth of radical subjectivity instead of the sort of communal … communal might not be the right word, but more of a public civic spiritedness.
Jim: Then in your section, you titled The Paradoxical Outcome, one of the people you talk about who though is going the other way from that tendency is Francis Bacon, perhaps the inventor of modernity. Talk about Francis Bacon and where he took the outcome of the Renaissance.
Michael: So I think Bacon is an interesting figure because I think he’s unfairly given credit for the scientific method. I mean, again, it’s another example, standing on the shoulder of giants, that a lot of, quote unquote, Arabic thought and the work of Roger Bacon, who’s not a relative of his, but a medieval thinker, that they prefigure the scientific method, or at least the spirit of putting things to the test. And there’s also the famous example of the Byzantine scholar, John Philoponus of Alexandria, who actually put Aristotle’s theory of falling bodies to the test long before Galileo, in fact, almost a thousand years before Galileo. Bacon though, is the man who gave the new world of …
Michael: … gave the new world of exploration, and of knowledge, and the explosion of facts and discovery, he gave that all a philosophical basis. That the purpose of… Well, first of all, you got knowledge by looking at facts, instead of by developing a sense of theories of how the world ought to work or first principles, as Aristotle said. You just look at the facts and then you, through a process of induction, then you develop the general laws out of it.
But for him, knowledge… There’s the famous idea, knowledge is power. That goes back to Bacon. Knowledge can be judged by its capacity to produce wealth. And he turned the very idea of ancient authority on its head, that he saw antiquity as the youth of the world. And nobody would ever go to youth for wisdom. So you should turn to yourself and your own time as you would to an older person for knowledge and wisdom. Now, I think that that can easily be over interpreted. Bacon certainly knew his ancient authors, and I think it can probably be said that he respected them, but nevertheless, he inaugurates this idea that your quest for knowledge is best served by turning away from ancient authorities. And from there, as you imply, that’s sort of the beginning of the modern idea of a break with the past.
Jim: Yeah, I always look at that as a very, very important moment. Because it’s very quite interesting. Aristotle, one of the great polymaths of all time, and yet his kind of muddled thinking about science led to the fact that the science didn’t actually have much impact in the world. At least that’s one of the reasons it didn’t have much impact in the world. While the Baconian revolution, a straight line to the world we have today, pretty much. By the 1600s, we had Boyle and we had Newton. It was on its way. The shot had been called and off we go.
We did a very interesting podcast on here with Michael Strevens, EP 109, called The Irrational History of Science, where he goes into the pre-history. And he makes a very strong argument that Aristotle was not actually a scientist. You could call him a proto-science guy. But it wasn’t until probably Newton growing off of Bacon that we had real science. And since then, it’s not ever been stopped. Obviously there’ve been digressions, mistakes, crazy stuff, but the arrow of modernity has never been turned aside. And I would say, my take, my position historically has been that’s probably a good thing. But there are no doubt costs from that perspective, and I know you think a little differently about it.
Michael: Well, look. What I would say is, I don’t think it’s good necessarily to get into a semantic debate about what a scientist is, but I understand the point about Aristotle versus Newton. I understand where they’re coming from. But part of the reason why people I think want to take Aristotle down is that he was so widely respected and so influential simply because he had the kind of mind that ranged so widely over so many different things. And his main effect on, I want to say European thought, but it’s really the thought of everybody who ever came in contact with him, was to sort of burst the bubble of the kind of fantasy world that you could easily construct for yourself if you depended only on Neoplatonic thought. So I don’t want to get into too much of a digression about that, but until people like Aquinas and his ilk became acquainted with Aristotle, it was far more common to think of the world as this sort of set of symbols of other things, part of a divine plan or representations of religious ideas that ultimately, this goes back to Plato, but obviously it really strongly resonates with the kind of Christian cast of mind.
But once Aristotle was rediscovered, then you had a powerful impetus to try to look at the world as it actually is, what I call clarity in the book. And this is what gives what we call now science, it’s push forward. Observation of the world as clearly and distinctly and plainly as possible. The downside of that though is that unless you can find some way to sort of contain it or sort of shape it and frame it with analysis and filtering the stuff that isn’t… Filtering out the noise as they might say now, you get overwhelmed by facts and you can’t really make sense of it. I think that a lot of us are living through something like this now in the so-called information age. The information age is now the age of disinformation, lies and bull shit and all the other stuff that you find on the internet that sort of confuses people and makes them anxious and upset and so forth.
Something similar happened from the end of the 16th century onward, and that very few people could handle the on rush of just pure facts and surprising information and new things from the new world and so on and so on and so on. Obviously someone like Newton was because he was able to make sense of this and sort of construct ostensibly a new model of the universe that made sense. It was orderly, it was complete. It could be compared to a very elegant machine and so forth. But we should also remember that the age of Bacon and Descartes and the age of discovery and so forth was also the age of astrology and witchcraft and violent persecutions and burnings at the stake and so forth. That it was then that the superstition and the sort of religious violence really took off, not before. And of course, we have the example of the 30 years war and the wars of religion, which all come after the Middle Ages, after the great age of Aristotelian and Scholastic thought.
So that’s what makes me of two minds about Bacon and company, that once the door was open to the world of pure facts and information, that it was quite overwhelming and too much for most people to handle. And I think we have something very similar right now. But there was a question which I think I failed to answer that you asked.
Jim: Well, whatever it was, I forgot. Let’s move on. So let’s move on to the next step was after a hundred years or so of early modernity, a new class of thinkers had accepted Newton. Turns out Newton was wrong in some fundamentals. We’ll get to that later, but let’s call it the high enlightenment. People like Hume and what were some of the other classics of that era? The later ones, Voltaire and Diderot, Jefferson, Franklin, even Napoleon, you could say, are high enlightenment folks. And in some sense, I like to think at least that our civilization is still basically a civilization of high enlightenment, even though it’s under attack by the postmodernists and other forms of intellectual nihilists. And so it seems to me that what came out of that early modern era was perhaps so far best and richest intellectual tradition the human races yet created, which would be the high enlightenment perspective of the late 18th century.
Michael: A part of me wants to agree because the clarity of thought that comes out of that period, I think is often really extraordinary. I mean, sometimes I do get tired of the sarcasm of people like Voltaire, but it’s brilliant writing, him and Montesquieu and Gibbon, Hume, even Jefferson. I think that Jefferson as a writer is somewhat overrated, but he still makes for good reading a lot of the time and the sort of the tidy mindedness that comes out of the French Enlightenment, it does have a certain attraction to it. But I think that the enlightenment ultimately makes too great a claim for itself, that the clarity of thought that was so heavily emphasized then, it’s found in other civilizing epochs, too.
The great writers of the Middle Ages were not much different in their capacity to present ideas in a simple and straightforward fashion, especially, I would argue in the Islamic golden age, the writers prized brevity and clarity and orderliness to their writing above all as they themselves wrote. But there is a dark side. There is a dark side to the enlightenment that manifested itself in the excesses of the French Revolution. And to a certain extent also in the American one, or the American one was less violent. That even someone like Alexis de Tocqueville, in his travels through America, he notes that the tendency for egalitarianism and rational democracy to isolate people, and of course that can manifest itself either in sort of rugged individualism that Americans are so proud of or in the kind of atomized, isolation that we suffer from now.
The kind of thing that I would prefer would be enlightenment. Enlightenment clarity with the medieval expansiveness of intellectualism and the sort of wide-ranging thought that you find even still in people like Montaigne, but it obviously goes a long way back further in the past. And that if we could somehow have the good bits without the bad, I think we would’ve been better off. But as I say, it’s not just the clarity that is overstated. I think that the vision of pure rationality is too much, that it is unrealistic. I mean, there’s Kant’s critique of pure reason, which I think he’s onto something there. And then of course the romantics had a reaction to the emphasis on pure, unaided reason. But if we could somehow recover a sense of that objectivity in our own postmodern world or something, I think we would be much better off.
You mentioned postmodernism, and of course I highlight postmodernism in the book as one of the great evils of our time. And-
Jim: I’m with you there. Let’s put that one off a bit. We will talk about postmodernism in some depth, but I’m with you that it is a very bad overall move, as was in my view, romanticism. But let’s go back a little bit because the one big elephant in the room we haven’t talked about yet, which is, I would argue the most important part of the high enlightenment is, at least amongst the leading thinkers, to finally be willing to say that all this religious dogma was basically just fairy stories. That there was anthropological and sociological reasons for them, but they aren’t true. And that was where Aristotle went wrong. He felt unconsciously compelled to weave his inductions with the fairy stories of his time. That circles were the perfect shape, or all the stuff you read, you go, “How could a guy that smart say something like that?” Well, it was culturally in the air. That generation of great high enlightenment people, especially Voltaire, Diderot, Jefferson, though more politely, Franklin, more politely, Hume, more obscurely, basically said, “Come on guys, childhood is over. We don’t really need these fairy stories anymore.”
Now of course, it turned out that the mass of men still seem to need something to fill that hole, but that’s a different story, which we can get to in a bit. So what do you think about a pretty bright line there where the real thinkers of the world finally said, “Come on, let’s not believe this stuff as literally true.”
Michael: Well, look, yes, they did say that, but I think that there’s a sense in which saying that is to betray a loss of their own tradition. Even St. Augustine is writing about the story of the flood as though it has to be interpreted as he knows that it can’t be literally true. And a lot of his discussions about creation suggest the same kind of thing, that there is a sense in which it is true, but it is not true necessarily literally, that the six days of creation might have to be understood as representing much longer periods of time and so forth. So I mean, maybe for people like Hume and Voltaire, even that was unacceptable or something. But there is nevertheless, a much longer tradition than many seem to be aware of taking revealed religion in a way that allows greater intellectual expansiveness, that it’s not boxing you in. It’s part of a larger outlook.
So there were of course people who took this much further into sort of outright atheism, and then there were people who tried to split the difference between some kind of, they wanted to say that Christianity was nonsense, but they still felt that there had to be some kind of spiritualism or… What’s the word?
Jim: Yeah, the Deists. The Jeffersons, the Franklins. Or John Adams, even, as it turned out in his old age.
Michael: Well, I’m thinking of someone like Robespierre who went even further with the cult of the supreme being. It can get into a kind of absurdity where you’re inventing your own religion. Which of course, people like the Soviets and Maoists ended up doing the same kind of thing with the cult of Stalin and the cult of Mao.
Jim: Or the cult of Marx, for that matter, that it was all predetermined. They might as well have been Presbyterians with as much as predetermination they believed in, right?
Michael: Yeah. So I think that the promise or the idea that we would ever really be able to do without metaphysics, I don’t think that that’s ever going to happen. And I think that there are probably biological reasons for that. I think Jonathan Haidt infers the idea that the human mind is set up in such a way as to try to infer a theory of mind or try to impute a theory of mind, scanning the world to see if that’s a rock, it doesn’t have a mind, it’s not plotting something against me. But that animal over there might, that other person definitely does, that kind of thing. That there may be an evolutionary reason for that, and that if the theory of mind can imputed to other, say, non-physical forces or even ideas, you’re going to get something with a kind of religious flavor, if not an actual religion. Which is why I argue that without a proper religion to sort of contain and organize this stuff for most people, that people’s metaphysical speculation will run rampant. And I think you can see examples of it running rampant when people try to infer malignant will to non-physical concepts. They talk about something like patriarchy or racism or something like that, as though they are demonic forces that are sort of oppressing the world that have to be sort of warded off with rituals and secret knowledge and things like that.
Jim: The occasional burning at the stake.
Michael: Yeah. So I would prefer… I just don’t think we’re ever going to get beyond that, and I would prefer to have a “civilized religion,” or at least an older one to contain and to civilize those impulses. I think that’s where the enlightenment goes wrong. Of course, there are people who argue, and I think I’m probably one of them, that there is actually a kind of religious, or there is an almost sort of Christian basis to the enlightenment. The idea that you’ve reached a point where you have learned something new and that human maturity has advanced. There’s a kind of Christian flavor to that.
Jim: Certainly the idea of human autonomy comes from Christianity.
Michael: Definitely. Yeah.
Jim: And Judaism before that. So yeah, there’s certainly Christian roots and anyone who doesn’t believe that the West has Christian roots, hasn’t done the reading. And this is one of the key questions of our time to my mind because I think we are finding that the death of God has left a God-shaped hole in people’s psyches, at least some people, many people, and I would say something like the romantic response to the high enlightenment was kind of a bizarre example of that. They recoiled essentially from that dark hole. But you got guys like Schiller and Novalis and Shelling and the Schlegels, et cetera, they weren’t much different than kind spiritualist hippies at some level. They’re new agey in their own way. And that sort of-
Michael: They absolutely were. But what’s missing from that discourse is the actual dark side that you find it in paintings by Goya or in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein and so forth, that the romantics had an actual dark slide. It wasn’t all flowers and mountains. And of course the 19th century, the romantic era, is the great era of seances and ghosts and spiritualism and Rosicrucianism and the weird sort of secret societies and Aleister Crowley and tarot cards and so forth. So yeah, those are reactions to the breakdown of organized religion and absolutely to the death of God, except they show, I think, that they show that people do not want to let go. Someone like Nietzsche would say this, that they’re keeping, I forget the exact phrase that he uses, but it’s like the corpse is still being venerated in a dark room, even though other people have realized that God is dead, that the philosophers and the theosophists haven’t accepted it yet, and they’re still… Because of course, something like spiritualism or table turning and tarot cards, it presupposes that there are spiritual powers, right?
Jim: Yep. Yeah. Magic. It’s metaphysics of some sort. In fact, the Rutian catchphrase, which I like the most of mine, is, “When I hear the word metaphysics, I reach for my pistol.” It’s one of the tests I use on these art generating, large language models, things like stable diffusion and stuff. I type that phrase in and see what I get. It’s a very interesting probe, but it does seem that there is like a libido for this, right?
Some of the neuroscientists who study religion believe that one possibility is that it is a overactive agency detector. And the argument is when we were on the Savannah, it is a just so story. We don’t know if it’s true or not. When we’re on the Savannah and some grass is shaking, if we think it’s a lion and not the wind, well, if you’re wrong, the costs are fairly small. You ran a hundred yards that you didn’t have to, but if you were right, the lion ate you. And so under evolution, and of course could go way back before humans into the primate path, that there was a risk adjusted benefit to having an overactive agency detector because you were better to gamble that there was some agent, most agents being malevolent at that time, poor little naked humans without much in the way of weaponry. And we have the machinery that’s under evolution that causes us to see agency where it doesn’t exist.
Jim: … that’s under evolution that causes us to see agency where it doesn’t exist, and that that may well be the underlying neuro-basis for this tendency to believe in spirits and gods and demons and weird stuff, anything that essentially has agency. Ascribing the winds to gods, all those kinds of things. That seems reasonable to me.
Michael: Yeah. I think there probably is some truth to that, that the missing … Or at least, there must be some evolutionary basis. There must be.
Jim: Yeah. Dennett actually does a good job of it, Daniel Dennett, well-known new atheist. He lays out the argument of group selection advantage, that people who believe together in some story, whatever it is, will fight better, essentially, than those who don’t. And therefore they will have a group selection advantage against people who don’t have any such organized systems to believe.
And such people do exist. The Pirahã people, et cetera, who believe in nothing that they can’t see with their own eyes, essentially. But those people are very, very marginalized, living in the most remote corners of the world, and they have been beaten by people who get group coherence around a common story.
Michael: Yeah, I was going to say something like that, that we also have to account for the role of religion; not belief, but what you actually do, the cult aspect of religion. We have to account for the role of that in shaping communities. It’s very easy for us in the West to get hung up on belief, because our hereditary religion was so heavily shaped by doctrinal fights, in the very remote past, that we’ve forgotten the emphasis on public ritual. And going back to our earlier discussion about Göbekli Tepe and the foundation of civilization, that public cult is at the root of that.
You think about something like the cathedral towns of Europe or the local mosques spread out in the Abbasid Empires as a sort of focal point of the community. You can see that very little has changed since 11,000 BC and that there must be some … The need for that public cult, I think, should somehow still be satisfied. And if it doesn’t get satisfied, it’s going to find some, I think, asocial or antisocial outlet.
Jim: Yeah, I think there’s something to that. One guy’s work who I’ve really liked a lot and I’ve had him on the show a few times, a guy named Vervaeke. He’s a professor of both philosophy and psychology at University of Toronto and he’s put forth something very similar to what you’re pointing towards, which he calls the religion that is not a religion. He’s an extraordinarily erudite fellow who’s read all the classics, all the philosophers, knows all the world’s religions at an utterly staggering level, and in fact, has a 50-hour video series called Awakening From the Meaning Crisis. And I did a 10-hour version of that with him, where we took his 50 hours and cooked it down to 10 hours, five two-hour segments.
And the centerpiece of that, the turning point, his proposal for how to move forward, is to literally create a religion that is not a religion that has all the things you’re pointing at: public ceremony, singing together, a sense of moral obligation, a set of norms that we all agree to and enforce, even at high cost, et cetera, all the aspects without any metaphysical baggage. That makes some sense to me.
Michael: Okay. I mean, in theory, yeah. But I would say, what’s wrong with the ones we have?
Jim: Well, I would say because they’re not true! Why would we want to inflict on people fairy stories and try to convince them that they’re true? That seems to be very unhealthy.
Michael: Well, I mean, it could be. But what I would say is that, I think that there’s something to be said for the idea of a civic religion, which may have a certain amount of mumbo-jumbo to it. But the key fact is that it’s your mumbo-jumbo, you’ve inherited it. You may not be able to make sense of it, but you’re going to act it out. Like the Romans with their family masks and their public processions with all their ancestors’ masks. I don’t know what they did, they walked down the street or something like that and told stories about their ancestors. That wouldn’t have made sense to outsiders, but that’s what they did to hold their kin group, or tribe together and so forth.
I’m less hung up on things like the … Obviously, religions like Christianity and Islam, they have this sort of universalizing tendency to it, which they’ve inherited from late antiquity where the emperors and caliphs wanted to insist upon uniformity of beliefs, things like that. But ultimately, I think that it’s more important what you do, and that for better or for worse, we’ve inherited these tools of public ritual, which we could use. I’m not sure we need to invent anything new.
The question of belief, though, is different. The question of belief is different. But the idea of a public practice, a public ritual is what I would focus on.
Jim: That’s where the Romans were kind of smart. They didn’t care what you believed, as long as you did the rituals.
Michael: Yeah, and I think that the emphasis … In the Christian doctrinal debates of late antiquity, there’s a very good case to be made that most people didn’t even really know that they were going on. This was at the very, very, very peak of the church hierarchy, and that your local parish, the people who attended, if they attended, they just would not have known that these things were happening, and that the insistence upon uniformity of belief was what provoked the fractures and the tensions that occurred later.
But if you went to your parish church, or your local whatever, and you had your nearby graveyard where all your ancestors had been buried and everybody had always been doing this, and there were these rights of initiation and so forth, you weren’t really very much fussed about doctrine. I think that would be okay.
Jim: Yeah, the Irish managed to pull that off fairly well, because their Christianity is very interesting. For a very long time, it was not in contact with Rome. It basically evolved on its own. And even to this day, the rural Irish folks still have a fair bit of paganism around the edges, right? They still believe in fairies and still have their graveyard ceremonies and all that sort of stuff. But anyway, that’s getting off into a different place, we’re getting late here on time.
Jim: Let’s next talk about another, I would call heresy, of the high enlightenment. I think of romanticism as the first great heresy of the enlightenment. We don’t have the time to do it, but I can connect the dots, from romanticism to both Nazism and communism. I think they are both downstream from romanticism.
And then the next big one, futurism, we talked about that in passing. And I think we don’t have time to revisit that. And that’s the idea which also leads to both Nazism and communism.
Michael: Very much so, yeah.
Jim: I would call that one radical Newtonianism gone crazy, essentially. Laplace, et cetera, when they should have been realizing, by that point, that relativity, quantum science, which Hitler famously called Jewish science, those of us who watched Oppenheimer, though of course I’ve known that for a long time.
And then now, complexity science tell us that we can’t predict the future in a machine-like way. The world’s always going to be … Not only it’s going to be very strange, and that that’s a better model than naive Newtonianism, Laplace-ism, or futurism. But then the other newer heresy is the one we alluded to, I think we both, with disdain, is postmodernism. What do you think about postmodernism, and how does it fit on this road from the past to the present?
Michael: Oh, my goodness. Well, look, you mentioned the ideologies, you mentioned Marxism, Bolshevism, communism, Nazism, fascism, and many of them, with the exception of Marxism, having their matrix in futurism.
When all of those failed, when they had all been shown to have ushered in nothing but failure and bloodshed and so forth, there would’ve been a reason, I think, to look back on that and think, “Maybe we were wrong to feel so sure about these things”, and we’ve got to avoid constructing these grand, overarching theories of everything, or ideological disposition as an attempt to explain [inaudible 01:28:31]. Okay, fine, I agree with that. That’s where the postmodernists start. But where they end is that, basically, there is no certain knowledge, it’s impossible. It’s all conditioned by language games, and/or power, depending on which postmodernist you look at.
And then, I think that’s all highly questionable and obviously stupid. In fact, if you think about the idea of trying to live your life without any certainty about anything, it’s preposterous. I remember when I was an undergrad at U of T, there was a graduate student who considered himself a postmodernist, and he used to go around in the dead of winter, in the Canadian winter, in surfer shorts, because he wanted to tell everybody that cold was a social construct. Well, that’s idiotic, that’s stupid.
Jim: He’s probably now convinced that gender is a social construct.
Michael: He may very well be, although you might not be surprised to know that I don’t really talk to him much anymore. But the fact is that it can very quickly lead into a kind of idiocy, and also to a kind of nihilism. Nothing means anything, there’s no truth to anything. And also to extreme self-preoccupation, extreme solipsism, self-contemplation, and that you’re constructing your personal truth and so forth, which is what we hear a lot nowadays.
Jim: Lived experience. Lived experience trumps data, right? That’s a current, trendy, postmodernist assertion.
Jim: And you’re right, it’s completely disorienting. Much better, I would argue, which is the enlightenment view, adjusted by the adjustments I suggested, where we attempt to come to inter-subjective verification of the inter-objective, to use a Rutt-ism. Which is, there are things which we can reproduce, and there are things that we can measure, and sometimes we get it wrong. So that’s the inter-objective, that we can all do it.
And the inter-subjective is, a number of people actually have the conversation, do the experiments, or at least look at the results and can then validate, socially, that the following things are true: the sun will probably rise tomorrow in the east, right? A dedicated postmodernist would say, “Well, maybe.”
Michael: Yeah. They would say that even the concept of what is east is …
Jim: Yeah. As I say, stop your horseshit, it’s totally worthless. That’s my reaction to them. And it’s like a disease of the mind that has disabled a fair number of our best and brightest. Because I don’t know about in Canada, but in the United States, the mind virus of postmodernism, most severely, has been caught by humanities and social science people at our most elite universities. Terrible use of brainpower.
Michael: Yeah, it is. The way I explain it, I mean, there is this kind of loss of confidence that came out of the mid-20th century experience, that everything we were promised, or at least promised by ideology, turned out to be false. And that there’s something to be said for skepticism. Skepticism, I think, is usually called for as a first resort. As a historian, I have to approach my text with skepticism. As a political advisor, I have to approach what bureaucrats say with skepticism. I would not be serving well the people that I have worked for, in the past, in politics, if I did not approach problems with a sense of doubt about how they were presented in most cases.
But that’s it. That’s the end. We don’t need to go so far as to insist that the whole thing could be a sham, or proceed from the assumption that words are a linguistic game and that they have no particular meaning, because what you are then left with is that the person who decides what is true, “at the end of the day”, is the one who wields power. And unfortunately, this is exactly how a lot of the people that you just described think. I don’t find it appealing, I don’t get it, I can’t relate to it at all. I don’t know what they get out of it, apart from feeling like they’re part of a secret cabal. I don’t really get it.
Jim: My guess is, and John McWhorter, the writer, he wrote a book on woke-ism as a new religion.
Michael: Yes, and he’s right about that.
Jim: He’s not speaking metaphorically. He believes it literally is, and that it fits that religion-shaped hole left by the death of God. And so, it’s just another one of these attempts to fill that void. In this case, it’s a fairly pernicious and degraded form, but they have all the aspects. They have their solemn texts, they have their ceremonies, they have their burnings at the stake, they got all the aspects. So I think that the easiest way to see postmodernism is yet another failed attempt to fill the God-sized hole in the human spirit left by the death of God.
Michael: Yeah. I agree with McWhorter on that. I would also posit though that postmodernism itself has failed. Not only has it failed to usher in the somehow more tolerant, more open society, because it hasn’t done that at all, it has also been completely pantsed by Donald Trump and by Alex Jones.
Jim: Well, the funny thing there is that Trump himself is a postmodernist. I mean, he is an iconic postmodernist.
Jim: He’s a narcissist of … I was a business guy, at a pretty high level. I met lots of the famous business tech dudes of my generation, including some ones that are famous assholes, and none of them hold a candle to the narcissism of Trump. I’ve given him the title of all-galaxy narcissist, right? He does not understand the concept of facts. He just lives in this postmodern fog. And of course, he’s a proponent of identity politics to the first degree. The irony of it all is that most academic postmodernists think Trump is the worst guy imaginable, and yet he’s the perfect postmodernist.
Michael: Exactly, and so is Alex Jones. In fact, Alex Jones will be the first to tell you that what you think is knowledge has simply been constructed by people who wield power. It’s like hearing Foucault talk to you through, I don’t know what his accent is, but you’re seeing the face of Alex Jones and hearing the voice of Foucault.
Jim: Fortunately I’ve never heard the voice of Alex Jones, so I don’t have that little datum to even contemplate. I’ve seen his picture; that’s enough.
Michael: Yeah. So, this is a failure. It is time for the postmodernist to admit failure and move on.
I see a parallel here between the idea, what the postmodernists call the grand narrative, or the grand récit in French, the metanarrative, which they declared war on. The concept of the metanarrative is not that dissimilar from the Aristotelian idea of first principles, that you have to approach the world with some axiomatic assumptions as to how it works. There has to be that narrative, otherwise you will not be able to make sense of what you see.
One of those narratives is something like objectivity, or as you say, the inter-subjectivity of inter-objective experiences, or the idea that you can measure temperature. If you don’t believe that you can measure temperature, will you be able to do science? No. You have to assume that you can. You have to assume that the ruler is going to tell you the truth when you hold it up to the table. So, we have to have these. What the postmodernists now need to do is they need to surrender and develop these new, or rediscover old grand narratives.
One of the grand narratives that I think we need the most is the idea that we all have something in common. We all belong to a common humanity. For all of its faults and everything, we’re all part of it. Most of our experiences are going to be roughly the same as everybody else’s, and we all have to come to accept this. The idea that someone’s lived experience, as you said a second ago, is somehow so fundamentally different from my own, that we can’t have anything in common, I reject that. I think that’s a preposterous and fundamentally antisocial, and in the context of my book, uncivilized way to approach the world.
Jim: Indeed, indeed. That’s one of my pet peeves. Unfortunately, if McWhorter is right, he says, “Don’t waste your time trying to convert a postmodernist. It’s impossible. It’s like trying to convert a very devout Muslim or Orthodox Jew, you can’t do it.” And unfortunately, as postmodernists have seized some of the levers of our society, so my guess is we’re going to have to have a defenestration, perhaps literal or perhaps metaphorical. They’ll have to be rooted out of having their sweaty little grips around the levers of power in our society.
Michael: Well, I mean, I can’t disagree, but I just hope that we can do it without our own equivalent of the Thirty Years’ War, right? It just has to. We have to find some …
Jim: Some other way. We don’t want that, right?
Jim: Well, we’re about up on our time here. In fact, we’re about 10 minutes over. But this has been in a remarkably fascinating conversation, and we did not get to everything in the book, by the way. And I will also point out that the book is a very rich source of bibliography and good footnotes. So if you want an entry into the broader literature, Michael has done a wonderful job of pulling together a lot of the most important books along this line of discussion we’ve just had.
So the book is In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present. So I want to thank you, Michael, for writing an interesting book, and this very interesting conversation.
Michael: Thank you for having me, and it was interesting. Thank you.
Jim: It really was. All right, guys, we’re going to wrap it right there.