A Thought Experiment in History

Friday 14 June 2024

Nick Nielsen
9 min readJun 17, 2024

History is one source of social cohesion, but it is not the only source of social cohesion. A society in the fullness of its powers draws on many sources of social cohesion, of which a shared history is but one. Another obvious source of social cohesion is a shared vision of the future — shared hopes for the future of the society in question — which nicely complements a shared history. With the two elements of a shared history and a shared future, we can already identify four permutations of social cohesion or the lack thereof:

  1. Shared past, shared future
  2. Shared past, no shared future
  3. No shared past, shared future
  4. No shared past, no shared future

In the strongest permutation of possessing both a shared past and a shared future, history is a continuum that connects generational cohorts over generational divides; ancestors and descendents have mutual obligations to each other. We can use the term “directionality” to capture the sense of a trajectory through time that includes both the past and the future, as well as the movement that takes us out of the past and into the future. We should include this mode of transition from past to future since there may be scenarios in which a shared past and a shared future are connected by different pathways in the present, and directionality singles out that pathway that honors the meanings and values attached to both past and future. Shared directionality, then, is a strong form of social cohesion over time, but, again, it isn’t the only form of social cohesion over time.

Nietzsche formulated the idea of the morality or mores, of the morality of custom.

“Tradition” formerly captured much that I am here calling directionality, but, since the Enlightenment, tradition has been seen as a retrograde force that must be overcome in order for the Enlightenment’s social project to be realized. For the passionate believer in the Enlightenment’s promise of progress, tradition is counter-directional for Enlightenment society. In pre-modern societies, by way of contrast, tradition dominated to the extent that innovation was stifled. Nietzsche called this the morality of mores (also translated as the morality of custom), and expressed it in his typically compelling prose:

“Nothing has been bought more dearly than that little bit of human reason and of a feeling of freedom that now constitutes our pride. But it is this very pride that now makes it almost impossible for us to feel with those vast spans of time characterized by the ‘morality of mores’ which antedate ‘world history’ as the real and decisive main history that determined the character of humanity — when suffering was a virtue, cruelty a virtue, dissimulation a virtue, revenge a virtue, the slander of reason a virtue, while wellbeing was a danger, the craving for knowledge a danger, peace a danger, pity a danger, being pitied ignominy, work ignominy, madness divine, change immoral and pregnant with disaster.” (Daybreak, section 18)

A proper society is eternal and unchanging, according to the morality of custom, and anything that threatens this eternal and unchanging order is a threat to the social order. Before we assimilate this pre-modern conception of society to an oppressive totalitarianism (which is a thoroughly modern idea), note that there is escape from this order — madness is divine, and often celebrated. In a pre-modern social order, madness is identified and contained with its proper bounds — perhaps during the “Feast of Fools” or by carnival monarchs (rituals sometimes called symbolic inversion).

The “Feast of Fools” was a ritual of symbolic inversion.

However, all societies change, whether slowly or rapidly, but they do change. When societies change slowly, we call this stability; when they change rapidly, we call this a transitional period. If a society changes very rapidly, we call it a revolution. The traditionalist society derives its legitimacy from demonstrating that nothing has really changed, despite apparent changes. The Enlightenment society derives its legitimacy from demonstrating that the times they are a changing, despite the appearance that the more things change, the more things stay the same. So each society has a metaphysical relationship to its directionality that distinguishes between appearance and reality, but these metaphysical conceptions are distinct, probably mutually exclusive, and very likely irreconcilable. Metaphysical directionality, then, is one of the pillars of cohesion and stability. Now let’s revisit the four permutation of social cohesion over time, giving what I believe to be the approximate meanings (or outcomes) of these distinctive forms of social temporality:

  1. Directionality
  2. Reactionary milieu
  3. Revolutionary milieu
  4. Dissolution

Directionality I have already discussed. Dissolution seems obvious: no society can survive the alienation of its constituent peoples from a common bond over historical time. Perhaps the very fact that this seems obvious means that it demands further elaboration. In newsletter 291, in which I said that empires are based upon the imposition of imperial unity through force, by so saying I implied that multi-ethnic empires can be maintained by force over historically significant periods of time. If this is true, then the distinct pasts and futures maintained by imperial subject peoples can be contained by force and the empire can metastasize in space and time until it encounters other limits to its expansion, but its expansion is not necessarily constrained by restive subject peoples, as long as these peoples are periodically reminded that they are under the boot heel of the empire. I could respond to this by arguing that the ruling class must maintain its tradition internal to itself (and divorced from the traditions of subject peoples). However, this sounds like a weak response; sufficient care and attention to detail would be necessary to present this as a compelling argument for the cohesion of empires.

It didn’t take long for the Praetorian Guard to discover that the could make and unmake emperors.

Moreover, since force is the writ of empire, the ruling elite must maintain control over the soldiery. This is one of the key points where the Roman Empire failed. The Praetorian Guard discovered that they rather than the emperor were the real power, who could install an emperor or murder him if he became inconvenient. And the legions, once Roman citizens when citizenship meant something, were first overstretched by the empire’s long borders, and then replaced by foederati, for whom Roman citizenship meant little or nothing. During the republic, and Senate and the people of Rome retained control over the armed forces; with the advent of empire, an emperor’s control of the military was questionable and always open to challenge. Many emperors rose up through the ranks, and they understood the soldiery and often effectively exercised control, but this is no longer about the Senate and the people of Rome, but rather a standing army with a state attached to it.

Returning to my middle two permutations of reactionary and revolutionary milieux, just as pre-modern and Enlightenment societies have regimes of metaphysical directionality to paper over the failure of history to exemplify their ideological programs, reactionary and revolutionary milieux also have recourse to an appearance/reality distinction. Both reactionary and revolutionary social formations must cobble together shared temporal complements to the portion of time they claim as their own. By this I mean that the reactionary claims the past as his sanction, and for him the future is the temporal complement; the revolutionary claims the future as his sanction, and for him the past is the temporal complement. Constructing a shared future on the basis of the past was an elusive project for pre-modern social formations, but then historical consciousness was not then what it is now.

Historical consciousness develops over historical time, and not everyone can spot historical anomalies.

Constructing a shared past on the basis of a hope for the future is much more straight-forward, and something like this has been practised by many regimes by careful selection of historical anecdote. However, this problem is made more difficult in the modern era due to the presumptive de-legitimation of the past. Nevertheless, there are usually enough fragments to collect into some semblance of a past, as long as no one looks too closely at the result. These ex post facto constructions of the temporal complement of the reactionary and the revolutionary give the appearance of directionality to social formations rooted in an asymmetrical conception of historical time.

It was universally understood by ancient writers that what distinguished republics from empires was that a republic required virtue on behalf of its citizens. Empire required no virtue, only force. Perhaps force is the more stable and enduring force in history; republics usually devolve into empires or mob rule in which force once again is the arbitrator of fate. But empires, too, are vulnerable; they are the Petri dishes of reactionary and revolutionary milieux, in which disenfranchised peoples look to their past or imagine a future in which the empire is laid low and cannot impose its feeble substitutes for the actual yearnings of a people. An empire is also a paradigmatically mythological milieu, in which an enfeebled gerontocracy is inevitably confronted by a younger generation that finds its hero’s journey in dethroning the corrupt old order and placing themselves on the throne. The result is that regardless of whether it is a reactionary or a revolutionary who rises to challenge the empire, the individual who rises to lead assumes a mythological role, whether or not they recognize this.

All ancient writers understood that republics require virtue on the part of the citizenry, and that this it the chief difference between republics and empires.

We can formulate a thought experiment based on the problem of stable social formations over time. Suppose you have a choice between a history of republics that succeed each other, one after another, with a few hundred years of stability followed by revolution and civil war until the next republic is founded on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a stable but unimaginative empire that endures for a thousand years, or maybe several thousand years, until it inevitably fails and civilization falls into a dark age until the next empire rises. To do this right, we would need to control for a number of important variables, which would minimally include:

1. Average lifespan of a republic.

2. Average length of the period of civil strife between republics

3. Average percent of loss of life due to civil strife

4. Degree of cultural and technological loss from civil strife

5. Average lifespan of an empire

6. Average length of dark ages between empires

7. Average percent of loss of life in transition to a dark age

8. Degree of cultural and technical losses during a dark age

I have already implied that republics endure, on average, for hundreds of years at the outside, while empires might endure a thousand years, or even several thousand years. (Egypt enters the chat.) The choice I am engineering, here, is that between a history of short-lived but virtuous republics, punctuated by violent episodes, and long-lived but amoral empires separated in time by dark ages. However, a thorough account of the variables, which in reality would be much more numerous than those I have listed above, might muddy this simplistic choice to the point that it is no longer clear that republics exemplify virtue and empires exemplify force.

Oswald Spengler argued that civilizations are incommensurable, which means that the repeated rise and fall of civilizations over time doesn’t add up to anything.

The meta-historical question here is whether either of these imagined histories adds up to anything. By framing the thought experiment in terms of republics and empires I have given it a distinctly political cast, but what is the relationship to civilization? With the longer scale of time represented by empires and dark ages, we would naturally associate each empire with a civilization, while the more rapid beat of history represented by the coming and going of republics might represent one civilization punctuated by a series of political regimes. If we maintain, with Spengler, the incommensurability of civilizations, then the series of republics of one civilization might add up to something over time that transcends the instability if each individual regime, but the longer, slower rhythm of empire would be a sequence of distinct civilizations, each unique and in commensurable with the others. Again, we would need to identify a number of variables to do this right as a thought experiment.

How many short-lived republics can be part of the same civilization until changes accumulate that result in a new civilization appearing within this historical sequence? If a sequence of short-lived republics are the vehicle for one civilization, and this civilization is eventually exhausted, must the sequence of republics be followed by a dark age when its civilization fails? Can two or more empires in sequence be counted as vehicles of the one and the same civilization? Can a civilization survive a dark age and be expressed again by a new political vehicle, whether republic or empire?

The Republic of Venice, known as La Serenissima, endured for more than a thousand years, which made it an exception among republics, which are not usually as long-lived as empires.