Varo, a Roman Historian, divided up history into three ages—an age of history, for which there were written records; before that, an age of fable, from which oral traditions survived; and before that, a dark age, about which no one knew anything at all. It’s a simple division but a surprisingly useful one; even in those dark ages where literacy survived as a living tradition, records tend to be extremely sparse and unhelpful, and when records pick up again they tend to be thickly frosted with fable and legend for a good long while thereafter. In a dark age, the thread of collective memory and cultural continuity snaps, the ends are lost, and a new thread must be spun from whatever raw materials happen to be on hand.There are many other ways to talk about dark ages, and we’ll get to those in later posts, but I want to focus on this aspect for the moment. Before the Greco-Roman world Varro knew, an earlier age of complex, literate civilizations had flourished and then fallen, and the dark age that followed was so severe that in many regions—Greece was one of them—even the trick of written language was lost, and had to be imported from elsewhere centuries afterwards. The dark age following Varro’s time wasn’t quite that extreme, but it was close enough; literacy became a rare attainment, and vast amounts of scientific, technical, and cultural knowledge were lost. To my mind, that discontinuity demands more attention than it’s usually been given. What is it that snaps the thread that connects past to present, and allows the accumulated knowledge of an entire civilization to fall into oblivion?A recurring historical process lies behind that failure of transmission, and it’s one that can be seen at work in those homeless children of Dade County, whispering strange stories to one another in the night.Arnold Toynbee, whose monumental work A Study of History has been a major inspiration to this blog’s project, proposed that civilizations on the way to history’s compost heap always fail in the same general way. The most important factor that makes a rising civilization work, he suggested, is mimesis—the universal human habit by which people imitate the behavior and attitudes of those they admire. As long as the political class of a civilization can inspire admiration and affection from those below it, the civilization thrives, because the shared sense of values and purpose generated by mimesis keeps the pressures of competing class interests from tearing it apart.Civilizations fail, in turn, because their political classes lose the ability to inspire mimesis, and this happens in turn because members of the elite become so fixated on maintaining their own power and privilege that they stop doing an adequate job of addressing the problems facing their society. As those problems spin further and further out of control, the political class loses the ability to inspire and settles instead for the ability to dominate. Outside the political class and its hangers-on, in turn, more and more of the population becomes what Toynbee calls an internal proletariat, an increasingly sullen underclass that still provides the political class with its cannon fodder and labor force but no longer sees anything to admire or emulate in those who order it around.
Posted on Thursday, July 24th 2014