September 1, 2023
When looking at history to understand its lessons and discern where we are coming from, there are, broadly speaking, two competing schools of thought: one sees history as the product of mind, that is, what people thought and were up to. This is called idealism, and it is decisively out of fashion.
The other sees history as the result of material pressures, such as economic developments or natural and other external conditions. It is called materialism, and it is what we are all conditioned to believe in these days.
To claim that material conditions play no role in human affairs — and therefore history — would be absurd, obviously. But ever since sociology, Marx, and the so-called “social sciences” came on the scene in the 19th century, we have forgotten that at the end of the day, humans do stuff because, well, they think about doing it first; they find reasons to do so based on their world views, priorities, and ways of thinking.
You might argue that sometimes, people have no choice: before they starve due to famine, for example, or when threatened with death-by-flood, they will inevitably migrate. But these are limit cases, and claiming that this means history just churns along on autopilot, and that human behavior is simply caused by external circumstances, would be to commit what I have called the limit case fallacy: taking an extreme case where complexity collapses into a single dimension, abstracting some law from it, and then slapping the law back on the 99% of other cases that are not limit cases. This is left brain hemisphere nonsense on steroids.
Besides, humans arguably always have a choice. People have been known to override even their sense of survival and accept certain death in the name of a higher ideal. If someone strongly believes that cannibalism is worse than death, he will rather die than eat his fellow men. And if he believes that leaving his land would be a sin against his soul, he might take his chances with flood and famine rather than migrating.
Most cases are not that extreme, though. It’s easy to claim, for instance, that the industrialization drew peasants to the cities because of better wages. But the fact is, not all did that. And to understand why those who did decided to do so, we need to know about their thinking, their reasons: what did they value? Why did they have those values, and how did they develop them? Why didn’t they see a future living on the land anymore? What were they looking for? What happened to their culture before then? Who were the movers and shakers of the zeitgeist at the time, and what were their motivations?
While we are at it: who decided that industrialization was a good idea to begin with? You can’t separate it from the radical shift away from traditional religious ideas and towards worship of science and technology in the 18th and 19th centuries, to name just one aspect. And you can’t separate that from earlier developments in the history of ideas, such as the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and knowledge. And even that is not straight-forward: reason and knowledge could have ushered in a flourishing of non-materialist cosmologies and studies that go beyond both religious and empiricist dogma, which indeed was a huge driving force during Enlightenment times, as I’ve talked about before. But alas, it went differently. That the industrialization happened, and happened the way it did, is dependent on a whole slew of developments in people’s outlook, what R.G. Collingwood called absolute presuppositions (see my essay about it here).
Also notice that a predecessor to the steam engine, the aeolipile, had been around long before the industrialization in Ancient Greece, but nobody had apparently thought about developing it further to power factories or vehicles. One wonders why, since from our perspective, this idea seems as straightforward as it gets. Perhaps this is the problem: from our perspective. People in the past simply had a very different perspective. And so, although nobody seems to know much about all that, it seems that the ancient Greeks just saw the steam device as a temple wonder, or a party trick. (Similarly, perhaps one day people will look back at our time and wonder why we didn’t develop telepathy to the society-altering powerhouse of communication those future generations might take for granted, and why instead we chose to see it as a mere party trick.)
Our sacred progressivism is too narrow a lens to capture what’s going on here: history is not some natural progression from primitive people towards our glorious age of technology. It is the history of people having different ideas, leading to entirely different lives and outcomes.
And even the industrialization could have gone much differently if people—including the elites at the time—had come up with different ideas, different visions. It’s all fine and dandy to look for certain patterns in the past, but history simply does not run on autopilot, whether it be a Marxian dialectic, Spenglerian cycles, or “evolutionary pressures” playing themselves out as if our ideas, our beliefs, and our daily thoughts had nothing to do with anything.
It is so much more complex than people being simply driven by some economic or social “law” that says “if X happens, then Y happens.” And even in the cases where such a law seemingly applies, the really interesting questions are obscured by the proclaimed causality between two end points: what we really want to know are the details between and surrounding these points. Hence Collingwood realized that every “historical fact” is connected to the entirety of the human experience, to the entire cosmos. As I’ve put it before: take any fact, drill down deep enough, and you end up with an infinite depth from which there is no escape.
In that sense, “social science” is an oxymoron: by “science” we usually mean something vaguely modelled after physics. But the whole point of physics is to artificially generate limit cases by means of controlled experiment, so that certain mathematical relations become visible that are otherwise obscured by the sheer complexity of what’s going on. But you can’t do that with history or societies. The exception, perhaps, are experiments in social psychology, such as the Milgram experiment. But to the degree that social psychology works, we are still left with figuring out what those experiments mean in terms of internal reasoning and motivations. (The endless debates around these experiments and their interpretations are a testament to that.) We can then use these insights to help us understand people in the past and present, and why they thought what they thought and did what they did. But the point remains: it’s about understanding people, not about postulating laws.
The Collapse Will Be Mental
Again, nobody in their right mind would claim that external pressures, economic shortages or migration streams have nothing to do with how things go. The problem, however, is that in our modern day and age, we seem to have emphasized these factors so much that we have lost the ability to discern how thoughts shape reality.
This can easily be demonstrated by the fact that economists, technologists, and so-called scientists have become our go-to high priests for figuring out where we’re headed, replacing not only the oracle of Delphi or the wise men of old, but even the classical humanists: nobody seems to be interested in what historians think anymore, or those philosophers who have developed some actual wisdom, or the classically educated. (Of course, those are an endangered species anyway, so there’s that.) Never mind actual priests and theologians.
I don’t know about you, but except perhaps for the true (and few) old school scientists who combine their science with a profound interest and therefore education in a wide range of fields, including history and the history of ideas, I’d take Delphi any day over most of those dimwit “experts” when it comes to inspiring a way forward. (Not to mention that silly class of grifters called “futurologists.”) Because you see, if we are to avoid further collapse and degradation, we need to change the way we think.
You can see the truth of that in history, too. While there are endless debates as to why the Roman Empire fell, for instance, it is clear that the proverbial degeneracy of the late empire was caused neither by invading barbarians nor comets nor “economic laws.” The fact is, people (including the elites) went bonkers before all that, whatever it was.
To the religious mind, the reason for this dynamic is straight-forward: if a society as a whole develops what used to be diagnosed as “moral insanity,” eventually God will give it a good spanking and escalate from there — be it in the form of war and pestilence, floods and comets, or just a series of bad luck, which can be enough to wipe a civilization off the face of the earth.
But even the non-religious mind can understand this idea: a society that has gone off the deep end, where people cannot think straight anymore, will be vulnerable to all kinds of shocks. In a Roman society where everybody is just out to secure some petty benefit for himself, where the classical virtues have just become a half-hearted show nobody believes in, where all kinds of perversions have become the mainstream way of life, and where everybody knows that the once-proud Legions are nothing but groups of mercenaries protecting corrupt oligarchs, what do you think will happen when a bunch of barbarians shows up? Or just a disruption of the complex logistical networks? Or even just a few bad harvests? Again, we need to understand how people thought, what their motivations were, their dreams and aspirations, their highest values, individually and as a society. Only then do we understand how and why they behaved the way they did, and how that produced history.
Yes, tough times beget strong men, who beget prosperous times, which makes men weak, which leads to tough times. But even if we take this as expressing a deep truth, it is vague and malleable. The devil is in the details — or rather, in people’s minds and souls. It is there that we have to look, and where solutions emerge.
The Solution Will Be Mental
If, at the end of the day, history is downstream from mind, then so will be the solutions to our problems.
To those who say that whatever historical cycles they have identified are inevitable, I can only repeat myself: we can always choose differently. Which renders the idea of “historical laws,” understood as akin to the laws of science, moot. If anything, they are better understood as thinking habits playing themselves out based on lack of wisdom and knowledge.
The fact is, if we chose today to think differently, everything would change.
Sure, there are biological and physical constraints to what we can do. We can’t change a man into a woman; we can’t decide that giving up food is the solution; we can’t pretend that resources are infinite, and so on. But because reductionism — biological, physical, or otherwise — is false, there is no reason whatever that we cannot radically change our entire outlook on the world, therefore our entire way of life, therefore history.
I have talked elsewhere about the metaphysical nexus we find ourselves at. We are called upon to transform our presuppositions, our internalized beliefs about the world, our place in it, and how it all fits together. No fiddling with what
calls “the machine” will do. Because our world is not a “system” running its course according to a bunch of parameters, we can’t change its parameters to alter the course of history. We have to change our minds.
This is the good news. The bad news is that I can’t see how enough people will be able to pull off this kind of transformation. Which means God’s spanking session might still be around the corner.
But so what. The thing is, if you change your outlook, your entire experience changes.
For example, from a more spiritual perspective, if you learn how to see the unseen and develop trust in the higher reality, you will know that the Higher will lend you a hand if you do your part. You won’t be terrified of the future and take bad decisions as a consequence, but instead you’ll know in your heart that you will end up exactly where you are supposed to. That there will be subtle guidance, and in the end, All Will Be Alright.
We seem to have completely lost this idea.
It is astonishing how much we have been conditioned to believe in materialism, nihilism, and a cold, pitiless universe for so long. You can only slowly realize this by working your way through all the contradictions and absurdities this materialist mindset entails, and also by studying how people in the (distant) past have looked at the world — how utterly different it was. And this is not about embracing some half-baked religious mindset as a sort of cope. This doesn't fly, because even if you develop trust in the Higher, this doesn't mean you can just be lazy and not care about the real world. On the contrary, it requires hard work, even harder than anything else. But it's a different kind of work, coming to be as a consequence of an entirely different view of the world. It can be comforting too: just knowing in your heart that you don't need to figure out and understand everything — because nobody can. If you keep walking the path, learning and growing in the process, the cosmos will pull you along in the right direction.
This means that you might well be alright even if things go to crap. It also means that individuals can have more impact than they think: our efforts are scalable on a spiritual level; we can leverage the Cosmic Logos. (Ugh!)
Perhaps not everybody has to — or can — be part of this transformation. But individuals have been known to change the course of history, as have small groups who seed a new way of thinking, a new mindset.
From a new way of thinking, a new world shall arise. One in harmony with the cosmic order: whole as opposed to fragmented in its thought, oriented towards the High instead of the Low, embodying universal order instead of chaos: in communion with the cosmic purpose, the final telos of unity and Truth for those who freely choose it.
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There’s one good counter-point to all that: we know that people tend to rationalize their behavior. That is, they might come up with elaborate stories about why they do things, when in fact they’re simply following their lower biological instincts.
But first, while this is true, it is certainly not true for all people, all thoughts, and all actions. This alone counters the argument, because even if just one person in a hundred is able to really think (at least sometimes) as opposed to build narratives around urges, history cannot be seen as a mere product of material or biological pressures anymore.
Second, even when people do rationalize urges, this is still thought. And they still act based on this thought. The debate then really is about how much free will we have in terms of what we think.
Russian philosopher, naturalist, and economist Nikolai Danilevsky. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
November 28 marks the 200th birthday of Russian thinker Nikolai Danilevsky. Relatively unknown in the West, Danilevsky is extraordinarily influential in modern Russia, and understanding his ideas is essential to grasping the essence of the current political conflict between Russia and the West.
In the early 1990s, two theories of humanity’s future competed for the attention of those interested in international affairs. The first was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, which predicted that every country in the world was destined eventually to adopt the same social-economic and political system, namely Western-style liberalism. The second was Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, which stated that rather than converging, the countries of the world were separating into distinct civilizational blocs.
To Russians, none of this was remotely new. For the Fukuyama-Huntington debate did little more than echo a long-standing argument that has been raging among Russian intellectuals since the infamous debate between the Westernizers and Slavophiles in the 1840s.
The Westernizers were Fukuyama-ists before Fukuyama. They had what academics like to call a “teleological” view of the world, considering that the iron laws of history dictated that all societies eventually converged on a common end (telos in Greek). For them, this end was synonymous with the West. As the mid-19th century liberal Russian thinker Konstantin Kavelin put it, “The difference [between the West and Russia] lies solely in the preceding historical facts; the aim, the task, the aspirations, the way forward are one and the same.”
The Slavophiles countered this argument by contending that Western civilization had peaked. Russia, by contrast, still had much to offer the world through its own unique, Orthodox, culture. Only by developing this uniqueness and avoiding assimilation into the West could Russia contribute to universal civilization.
Interestingly, this argument still viewed Russia and the West as connected. Russia, by protecting its Orthodox heritage, was seen as being able in due course to export it to the West and so save the latter from itself. Slavophilism did not reject the idea of a common future.
It is here that Danilevsky stepped in, making the decisive break with teleological thinking. A biologist by profession, he adopted an organic view of the world. Human civilizations, he maintained, were organic beings that were born, matured, and died. None could be said to constitute the “End of History.”
In his most famous work, entitled Russia and Europe, he outlined a theory that Russia and Western Europe were entirely distinct “cultural historical types.” Different cultural historical types, he said, developed in their own separate ways. In opposition to theories of cultural convergence, he compared the world to a town square from which different roads (i.e. different civilizations) moved out in different directions. Each cultural historical type was inherently distinct, and consequently it made no sense to try to force it to develop along the path of another.
Other Russians built on Danilevsky’s theory. Late nineteenth century philosopher Konstantin Leontyev, for instance, postulated that civilizational life cycles had three stages: primary simplicity, flowering complexity, and secondary simplicity (the period of decay). Flowering complexity represented the peak of development. On an international scale, this meant that one should avoid the alleged homogenization that would come with everybody adopting Western-style liberalism, and instead celebrate a multiplicity of different civilizational types. The “End of History” would quite literally be the end of human development, and was thus to be avoided.
Later, Eurasianist thinkers used geology, botany, linguistics, and other fields of study to try to provide a scientific basis for the idea that the space of the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union constituted a coherent entity distinct from those around it. Originally devised by Russian émigrés in the 1920s, Eurasianism crept into the Soviet Union in the Brezhnev era, influencing among others the ethnographer Lev Gumilyov. Gumilyov argued that ethnic groups (etnoi) were a natural phenomenon and that what suited one group did not suit another, although those with certain complementarities could form a superetnos. The superetnos that was the Soviet people was entirely different from the superetnos of the West and as such should develop entirely in its own separate way.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, civilizational thinking has become de rigueur in Russia. A study by San Francisco State University professor Andrei Tsygankov showed that the most cited Russian authors in Russian academic articles on topics of international relations were Danilevsky and Leontyev. The idea that civilizational differences are real and can be objectively determined is now widely accepted outside the very narrow circle of Russia’s few remaining liberals.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was rather late in coming round to this point of view. In the early 2000s he was a traditional Westernizer, speaking of Russia’s eventual integration into Europe. More recently, however, his tone has changed. Speaking to the Valdai Club at the end of October, he used the words “civilization,” “civilizations,” and “civilizational” some 20 times, and commented that “real democracy in a multipolar world is primarily about the ability of any nation—I emphasize—any society or civilization to follow its own path.”
To rub in the point, Putin mentioned Danilevsky and cited his statement that progress lies in “walking the field that represents humanity’s historical activity, walking in all directions,” adding that “no civilization can take pride in being the height of development.” Putin followed this by calling for a “free development of countries and peoples,” in which “primitive simplification and prohibition can be replaced with the flourishing complexity of culture and tradition.” Though Putin didn’t say it, the language was pure Leontyev.
Some commentators argue that the “New Cold War” between Russia and the West differs from the original in that lacks an ideological component similar to the conflict between communism and capitalism. Others maintain that there is such a component and that it consists of the struggle between democracy and autocracy. Putin’s speech shows that both points of view are wrong.
For the speech reveals a very coherent philosophy well founded in a specific Russian intellectual tradition with origins in Danilevsky. However, this philosophy has nothing to do with autocracy and democracy. In fact, the very essence of civilizational theory is that no system is inherently the best. Putin is not making any claims about how states should organize their internal affairs, let alone promoting autocracy versus democracy. He is, however, making a claim about how the world as a whole should operate, and contrasting the vision of a world converging around Western values and institutions with that of a world consisting of distinct civilizations each advancing towards their own unique destinations. The New Cold War does, therefore, have an ideological component but it’s very different from what most people in the West imagine it to be.
Only time will tell which vision of the world turns out to be accurate. But for now, the terms of the intellectual debate have been set. Two hundred years on, it is very much Danilevsky’s moment.
Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.