Tag Archives: History

The Great Cycle Rule

History contains a lot of data, but when it comes to the largest scale patterns, our data is very limited. Even so, I think we’d be crazy not to notice whatever patterns we can find at those largest scales, and ponder them. Yes we can’t be very sure of them, but we surely should not ignore them.

I’ve said that history can be summarized as a sequence of roughly exponential growth modes. The three most recent modes were the growth of human foragers, then of farmers, then of industry. Roughly, foragers doubled every quarter million years, farmers every thousand years, and industry every fifteen years. (Before humans, animal brains doubled roughly every 35 million years.)

I’ve previously noted that this sequence shows some striking patterns. Each transition between modes took much less than a previous doubling time. Modes have gone through a similar number of doublings before the next mode appeared, and the factors by which growth rates increased have also been similar.  In addition, the group size that typified each mode was roughly the square of that of the previous mode, from thirty for foragers to a thousand for farmers to a million for industry.

In this post I report a new pattern, about cycles. Some cycles, such as days, months, and years, are common to most animals days, months, years. Other cycles, such as heartbeats lasting about a second and lifetimes taking threescore and ten, are common to humans. But there are other cycles that are distinctive of each growth mode, and are most often mentioned when discussing the history of that mode.

For example, the 100K year cycle of ice ages seems the most discussed cycle regarding forager history. And the two to three century cycle of empires, such as documented by Turchin, seems most discussed regarding the history of farmers. And during our industry era, it seems we most discuss the roughly five year business cycle.

The new pattern I recently noticed is that each of these cycles lasts roughly a quarter to a third of its mode’s doubling time. So a mode typically grows 20-30% during one period of its main cycle. I have no idea why, but it still seems a pattern worth noting, and pondering.

If a new mode were to follow these patterns, it would appear in the next century, after a transition of ten years or less, and have a doubling time of about a month, a main cycle of about a week, and a typical group size of a trillion. Yes, these are only very rough guesses. But they still seem worth pondering.

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Cowen On Complacency

A week ago I summarized and critiqued five books wherein Peter Turchin tries to document and explain two key historical cycles: a several century cycle of empires rising and falling, and a fifty year alternating-generations cycle of instability during empire low points. In his latest book, Turchin tentatively tries to apply his theories to predict the U.S. near future.

In his new book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen also takes a bigger-than-usual historical perspective, invokes cycles, and predicts the U.S. near future. But instead of applying a theory abstracted from thousands of years of data, Cowen mainly just details many particular trends in the U.S. over the last half century. David Brooks summarizes:

Cowen shows that in sphere after sphere, Americans have become less adventurous and more static.

The book page summarizes:

Our willingness to move, take risks, and adapt to change have produced a dynamic economy. .. [But] Americans today .. are working harder than ever to avoid change. We’re moving residences less, marrying people more like ourselves and choosing our music and our mates based on algorithms. .. This cannot go on forever. We are postponing change,.. but ultimately this will make change, when it comes, harder. .. eventually lead to a major fiscal and budgetary crisis.

In each particular area, Cowen documents specific trends, and he often offers specific local theories that could have led one to expect such trends. For example, he says fewer geographic moves are predicted from fewer job moves, and fewer job moves are predicted by workers being older. But when it comes to the question of why all these particular trends with their particular causes happen to create a consistent overall trend toward complacency, Cowen seems to me coy. Let me discuss three passages where I find that he at least touches on general accounts. Continue reading "Cowen On Complacency" »

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Cycles of War & Empire

I’ve just read five of Peter Turchin’s books: Historical Dynamics (2003), War & Peace & War (2006), Secular Cycles (2009), Ultra Society (2015), and Ages of Discord (2016). Four of them in the last week. I did this because I love careful big picture thinking, and Turchin is one of the few who does this now on the big question of historical cycles of conflict and empire. While historians today tend to dislike this sort of analysis, Turchin defies them, in part because he’s officially a biologist. I bow to honor his just defiance and careful efforts.

Turchin’s main story is a modest variation on related farmer-era historical cycle stories, such as by Jack Goldstone in 1991, & Ibn Khaldun in 1377 (!):

Different groups have different degrees of cooperation .. cohesiveness and solidarity. .. Groups with high [cohesion] arise on .. frontier .. area where an imperial boundary coincides with a fault line between two [ethnic] communities .. places where between group competition is very intense. .. Only groups possessing high levels of [cohesion] can construct large empires. ..

Stability and internal peace bring prosperity, and prosperity causes population increase .. leads to overpopulation, .. causes lower wages, higher land rents, and falling per capital incomes. At first, low wages and high rents bring unparalleled wealth to the upper class, but as their numbers and appetites grow, they also begin to suffer from falling incomes. Declining standards of life breed discontent and strife. The elites turn to the state for employment and additional income and drive up its expenditures at the same time that the tax revenue declines. .. When the state’s finances collapse, it loses the control of the army and police. Freed from all restraints, strife among the elites escalates into civili war, while the discontent among the poor explodes into popular rebellions.

The collapse of order brings .. famine, war, pestilence, and death. .. Population declines and wages increase, while rents decline. .. Fortunes of the upper classes hit bottom. .. Civil wars thin the ranks of the elites. .. Intra-elite competition subsides, allowing the restoration of order. Stability and internal peace bring prosperity, and another cycle begins. (pp.5-8 W&P&W)

Turchin (& coauthor Nefedov) collect much data to show that this is a robust farmer-era pattern, even if there are many deviations. For example, in Europe, 33 of 43 frontier situations gave rise to big empires, yet only 4 of 57 of non-frontier situations did (p.84 HD). “Secular cycles” vary in duration from one to four centuries; Western Europe saw 8 cycles in 22 centuries, while China saw 8 cycles in 21 centuries (p.306,311 SC). During the low instability part of each cycle, instability shows a rough “alternating generations” 50 year cycle of conflict.

I’ll grant that Turchin seems to have documented a reasonably broad pattern, containing most of his claimed elements. Yes, empires tend to start from frontier groups with high cohesion, and core cohesion changes slowly. First there’s war success and a growing area and population, and bigger cities. Eventually can come crowding and falling wages. Inequality also grows, with more richer elites, and this is quite robust, continuing even after wages fall.

While the amount of external war doesn’t change over the cycle, success in war falls. Many signs of social cohesion decline, and eventually there’s more elite infighting, with crime, duels, misspending state revenue, mistreatment of subordinates, and eventually civil war. Big wars can cut population, and also elite numbers and wealth. Eventually war abates and cohesion rises, though not to as high as when the empire started. A new cycle may begin; empires go through 1-3 cycles before being displaced by another empire.

Just as science fiction is often (usually?) an allegory about issues today, I suspect that historians who blame a particular fault for the fall of the Roman Empire tend to pick faults that they also want to warn against in their own era. Similarly, my main complain about Turchin is that he attributes falling cohesion mainly to increased inequality – an “overproduction” of elites who face “increased competition”. Yes, inequality is much talked about among elites today, but the (less-forager-like) ancients were less focused on it.

As Scheidel said in The Great Leveler, inequality doesn’t seem to cause civil wars, and civil wars tend to increase inequality during and after the war (p.203). External wars reduce inequality for losers and increase it for winners, without changing it much overall. It is only big mass mobilization wars of the 1900s that seem to clearly cause big falls in inequality.

In biology, over multiple generations organisms slowly accumulate genetic mutations, which reduce their fitness. But this degradation is countered by the fact that nature and mates select for better organisms, which have fewer mutations. Similarly, it seems to me that the most straightforward account of the secular cycle is to say since empire founders are selected out of a strong competition for very high cohesion, we should expect cohesion to “regress to the mean” as an empire evolves.

That is, in order to predict most of the observed elite misdeeds later in the secular cycle, all we need to assume is a random walk in cohesion that tends to fall back to typical levels. Yes, we might want to include other effects in our model. For example, civil war may allow a bit more selection for subgroups with more cohesion, and humans may have a psychological inclination to cohere more during and after a big war. But mostly we should just expect cohesion to decline from its initial extreme value, and that’s all a simple model needs.

Yes, Turchin claims that we know more about what causes cohesion declines. But while he goes to great effort to show that the data fit his story on which events happen in what order during cycles, I didn’t see him offering evidence to support his claim that inequality causes less cohesion. He just repeatedly gives examples where inequality happened, and then instability happened, as if that proves that the one caused the other.

We already have good reasons to expect new empires to start with a small area, population, and inequality. And this by itself is enough to predict growing population, which eventually crowds to cut wages, and increasing inequality, which should happen consistently in a very wide range of situations. I don’t see a need for, or data support for, the additional hypothesis that inequality cuts cohesion. We may of course discover more things that influence cohesion, and if so we can add them to our basic secular cycle model. But we don’t need such additions to predict most of the cycle features that Turchin describes.

In his latest book, Turchin points out many U.S. signs today of rising inequality and declining social cohesion, and at the end asks “Will we be capable of taking collective action to avoid the worst of the impending democratic -structural crisis? I hope so.” But I worry that his focus on inequality leads people to think they need to fight harder to cut inequality. In contrast, what we mostly need is just to fight less. The main way that inequality threatens to destroy us is that we are tempted to fight over it. Instead, let us try more to see ourselves as an “us” contrasted with a “them”, an us that needs to stick together, in part via chilling and compromising, especially regarding divisive topics like inequality.

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Get A Grip; There’s A Much Bigger Picture

Many seem to think the apocalypse is upon us – I hear oh so much much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But if you compare the policies, attitudes, and life histories of the US as it will be under Trump, to how they would have been under Clinton, that difference is very likely much smaller than the variation in such things around the world today, and also the variation within the US so far across its history. And all three of these differences are small compared the variation in such things across the history of human-like creatures so far, and also compared to that history yet to come.

That is, there are much bigger issues at play, if only you will stand back to see them. Now you might claim that pushing on the Trump vs. Clinton divide is your best way to push for the future outcomes you prefer within that larger future variation yet to come. And that might even be true. But if you haven’t actually thought about the variation yet to come and what might push on it, your claim sure sounds like wishful thinking. You want this thing that you feel so emotionally invested in at the moment to be the thing that matters most for the long run. But wishes don’t make horses.

To see the bigger picture, read more distant history. And maybe read my book, or any similar books you can find, that try seriously to see how strange the long term future might be, and what their issues may be. And then you can more usefully reconsider just what about this Trump vs. Clinton divide that so animates you now has much of a chance of mattering in the long run.

When you are in a frame of mind where Trump (or Clinton) equals the apocalypse, you are probably mostly horrified by most past human lives, attitudes, and policies, and also by likely long-run future variations. In such a mode you probably thank your lucky stars you live in the first human age and place not to be an apocalyptic hell-hole, and you desperately want to find a way to stop long-term change, to find a way to fill the next trillion years of the universe with something close to liberal democracies, suburban comfort, elites chosen by universities, engaging TV dramas, and a few more sub-generes of rock music. I suspect that this is the core emotion animating most hopes to create a friendly AI super intelligence to rule us all. But most likely, the future will be even stranger than the past. Get a grip, and deal with it.

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Cities As Harems

Many animal species are organized into harems, wherein a single male dominates a group of females and their children. When males become adult, they must leave home and wander singly or in small male groups hoping to tempt harem females into liaisons or to start new harems.

I’ve heard that polygamous sects are often run this way today, with older men kicking out young men when they come of age. But re-reading Montaillou on rural 1300 France makes me realize that humanity has long has related harem-like gender patterns.

Back in 1300 France, centrality gave status. The biggest cities were at the top, above towns and then villages. At the bottom were woodcutters and shepards, all male, who spent most of their time wandering far from villages or towns. Along with soldiers and sailors, these men lived dangerous low-status high-mobility lives in sparse areas. They sometimes tempted women into liaisons, or made it rich enough to start a family in a village. Such mating strategies may explain why such men moved so often even they were poor and moving is expensive.

Back in the high status centers, there remained a few high status men and women, many low status women, but fewer low status men. The lower status women were often servants to high status males, and often had affairs with them.

In the US today, the states with the most men relative to women are Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, Nevada, Utah, and Montana — mostly harsher low density areas. In contrast, the states with the most women relative to men are District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, near some of our biggest high status cities. Most big US cities have more women than men. The exceptions are San Jose, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Honolulu, Austin, Seattle, San Diego, places with new booming, mostly tech, industries. Men are more willing to move to try new often-harsher industries and places.

We hear college-educated women complain today that there aren’t enough college-educated men to go around, either during college itself or afterward. Of course there are plenty of other men around, but these women mostly consider such men beneath them. Seems to me this isn’t that different from 1300 France; women are more eager to locate near high status people. They focus on high status men, and lament there aren’t enough to go around.

Sometimes people fear today that low status men unhappy from being unable to find women will cause havoc. But in the past men avoided such feelings successfully by just avoiding women. By rarely seeing women they less often felt the envy that might cause havoc. If there’s a bigger problem today it might be because low status men more often come into contact with attractive but unavailable women. From this perspective, maybe low status men avoiding women via male-oriented video games isn’t such a bad thing?

Added 5July: Birds are like this too.

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Testing Moral Progress

Mike Huemer just published his version of the familiar argument that changing moral views is evidence for moral realism. Here is the progress datum he seeks to explain:

Mainstream illiberal views of earlier centuries are shocking and absurd to modern readers. The trend is consistent across many issues: war, murder, slavery, democracy, women’s suffrage, racial segregation, torture, execution, colonization. It is difficult to think of any issue on which attitudes have moved in the other direction. This trend has been ongoing for millennia, accelerating in the last two centuries, and even the last 50 years, and it affects virtually every country on Earth. … All the changes are consistent with a certain coherent ethical standpoint. Furthermore, the change has been proceeding in the same direction for centuries, and the changes have affected nearly all societies across the globe. This is not a random walk.

Huemer’s favored explanation:

If there are objective ethical truths to which human beings have some epistemic access, then we should expect moral beliefs across societies to converge over time, if only very slowly.

But note three other implications of this moral-learning process, at least if we assume the usual (e.g., Bayesian) rational belief framework:

  1. The rate at which moral beliefs have been changing should track the rate at which we get relevant info, such as via life experience or careful thought. If we’ve seen a lot more change recently than thousands of years ago, we need a reason to think we’ve had a lot more thinking or experience lately.
  2. If people are at least crudely aware of the moral beliefs of others in the world, then they should be learning from each other much more than from their personal thoughts and experience. Thus moral learning should be a worldwide phenomena; it might explain average world moral beliefs, but it can’t explain much of belief differences at a time.
  3. Rational learning of any expected value via a stream of info should produce a random walk in those expectations, not a steady trend. But as Huemer notes, what we mostly see lately are steady trends.

For Age of Em, I read a lot about cultural value variation, and related factor analyses. One of the two main factors by which national values vary correlates strongly with average national wealth. At each point in time, richer nations have more of this factor, over time nations get more of it as they get richer, and when a nation has an unusual jump in wealth it gets an unusual jump in this factor. And this favor explains an awful lot of the value choices Huemer seeks to explain. All this even though people within a nation that have these values more are not richer on average.

The usual view in this field is that the direction of causation here is mostly from wealth to this value factor. This makes sense because this is the usual situation for variables that correlate with wealth. For example, if length of roads or number of TVs correlate with wealth, that is much more because wealth causes roads and TVs, and much less because roads and TV cause wealth. Since wealth is the main “power” factor of a society, this main factor tends to cause other small things more than they cause it.

This is as close as Hummer gets to addressing this usual view:

Perhaps there is a gene that inclines one toward illiberal beliefs if one’s society as a whole is primitive and poor, but inclines one toward liberal beliefs if one’s society is advanced and prosperous. Again, it is unclear why such a gene would be especially advantageous, as compared with a gene that causes one to be liberal in all conditions, or illiberal in all conditions. Even if such a gene would be advantageous, there has not been sufficient opportunity for it to be selected, since for almost all of the history of the species, human beings have lived in poor, primitive societies.

Well if you insist on explaining things in terms of genes, everything is “unclear”; we just don’t have good full explanations to take us all the way from genes to how values vary with cultural context. I’ve suggested that we industry folks are reverting to forager values in many ways with increasing wealth, because wealth cuts the fear that made foragers into farmers. But you don’t have to buy my story to find it plausible that humans are just built so that their values vary as their society gets rich. (This change need not at all be adaptive in today’s environment.)

Note that we already see many variables that change between rich vs. poor societies, but which don’t change the same way between rich and poor people within a society. For example rich people in a society save more, but rich societies don’t save more. Richer societies spend a larger fraction of income on medicine, but richer people spend a smaller fraction. And rich societies have much lower fertility even when rich people have about the same fertility.

Also not that “convergence” is about variance of opinion; it isn’t obvious to me that variance is lower now than it was thousands of years. What we’ve seen is change, not convergence.

Bottom line: the usual social science story that increasing wealth causes certain predictable value changes fits the value variation data a lot better than the theory that the world is slowly learning moral truth. Even if we accepted moral learning as explaining some of the variation, we’ll need wealth causes values to explain a lot of the rest of the variation. So why not let it explain all? Maybe someone can come up with variations on the moral learning theory that fit the data better. But at the moment, the choice isn’t even close.

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Does Decadence Cause Decay?

Noble gentlemen and ladies in [Japan’s] Heian period (794-1185) were often remarkably promiscuous. … “Heian society was on the whole governed by style rather than by any moral principles, and good looks tended to take the place of virtue.” … It was, as all this suggests, a rather effete culture. The aristocratic ideal of male beauty—highly perfumed, moon-faced, smooth-skinned, extravagantly dressed—was close to the feminine ideal. A distinct air of decadence during the peak of the Heian period also suggests the approaching end of a regime, a world, in Genji’s words, “where everything seems to be in a state of decline.”

Less than two hundred years later, the self-obsessed nobility of the Heian court, distracted by the rituals and refinements of palace politics, oblivious of the world outside the capital, and mostly bored out of their minds, were overwhelmed by more vigorous provincial clans, notably the samurai, with their warrior codes and martial ideals. But in Genji’s time, the early eleventh century, the imperial capital (today’s Kyoto) still held sway; anyone unlucky enough to live in the provinces was considered too uncouth to be taken seriously. (more)

This seems a familiar history story, that elite self-indulgence and moral decadence causes social decay and displacement. It contributes to the Hunger Games stories, for example. It also seems a common foundation of conservative thought. But, is it true? I ask because I actually do not know. Has anyone done statistical tests on systematic historical datasets to see if decadence actually causes decay and displacement? I could imagine counter arguments, such as that decadence promotes peace instead of destructive war-mongering. So I’d prefer not to have to rely only on a few anecdotes and plausible intuitions.

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Growth Could Slow

Human history has seen accelerating growth, via a sequence of faster growth modes. First humans grew faster than other primates, then farmers grew faster than foragers, and recently industry has grown faster than farming. Most likely, another even faster growth mode lies ahead. But it is worth remembering that this need not happen. For a very concrete historical analogue, the Cambrian Explosion of multi-cellular life seems to have resulted from an accelerating series of key transitions. But then around 520 million years ago, after life had explored most multi-cellular variations, change slowed way down:

In just a few tens of millions of years – a geological instant – almost every major animal group we know made its first appearance in the fossil record, and the ecology of the planet was transformed forever. …

Scientists have struggled to explain what sparked this sudden burst of innovation. Until recently, most efforts tried to find a single trigger, but over the past year or two, a different explanation has begun to emerge. The Cambrian explosion appears to have been life’s equivalent of the perfect storm. Instead of one trigger, there was a whole array of them amplifying one another to generate a hotbed of animal evolution the likes of which the world has never seen before or since. …

The first sign of multicellular animals is in rocks about 750 million years old, which contain fossilised biomolecules found today only in sponges. Then another 150 million apparently uneventful years passed before the appearance of the Ediacaran fauna. This enigmatic group of multicellular organisms of uncertain affinities to other lifeforms flourished in the oceans up to the beginning of the Cambrian. Then [110 million years later] all hell broke loose. … Studies of “molecular clocks” – which use the gradual accumulation of genetic changes to estimate when particular evolutionary branches diverged – suggest that animal complexity emerged before the Cambrian. …

Two huge ecological innovations that make their debut in the Cambrian fossil record. …The first is the ability to burrow into the sea floor. … The second innovation was predation. … What else were these early creatures waiting for? One intriguing possibility is that they were waiting for fertiliser. Geological evidence suggests that rising sea levels during the Cambrian could have increased erosion, boosting levels of nutrients such as calcium, phosphate and potassium in the oceans. …

Atmospheric oxygen levels crept up gradually. … The crucial threshold seemed to be between 1 and 5 per cent of present oxygen levels. Geochemists’ best guess at when the ancient oceans reached this point is about 550 million years ago – just in time to kick off predation and its resulting ecological feedback. …

Precambrian oceans were full of single-celled algae and bacteria. When these small cells died, they would have started to sink, decomposing quickly as they went – and because decomposition consumes oxygen, this would have kept ocean waters anoxic. Filter-feeding sponges, which evolved sometime before the Ediacaran,then started clearing these cells out of the water column before they died and decomposed. The sponges themselves, being larger, were more likely to be buried in the sediment after death, allowing oxygen to remain in the water. Over time, this would have led ever more of the ocean to become oxygenated. (more)

So it remains possible that growth will slow down now, or after the next transition, even if a new series of accelerating transitions lies far ahead.

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Industry-Era Action Stories

This semester I teach graduate industrial organization. And while preparing, it occurred to me that if our stories adapted fast to our changing world, many and perhaps most action stories today would be about industrial organization, i.e., about firms competing over industries. The fact that most action stories today are not about this is a sad commentary on how slowly our stories adapt to our world. Let me explain.

Action stories are about conflict; people fight over big things at stake. Stories about one-on-one physical fights or chases come come from deep in our animal background. Related stories have conflicts within a couple who might mate. Similar stories about physical fights, chases, or love polygons among small groups come from nearly as far back. An animal fight story can have one animal notice and then run from another, with a climactic battle where one animal wins and the other goes away.

While such stories can happen for most any animal, it takes humans to have stories where tools are used to fight, hide, or chase. And it takes humans to have language to coordinates acts, to share info, and to deceive. And also to have social norms drive the coalition politics fights. Stories about humans can have villains deceiving others about their social norms violations, while good people use language and tools to coordinate to uncover and oppose villain crimes. Most crime and superhero stories fit well here.

Farmers told stories with all these same forager elements. But farmers also added new elements, such as overt inequality and classes, and stable locations, property and trade. Farmers also had larger social groups like clans, towns, and empires, and powerful moralizing gods. Farmer action stories often have wars, wherein large groups identified by their towns or clans, and led by elites, violently attack the known property, places, or elites of other large groups, with the just side often supported by moralizing gods.

The world of industry has also added new elements to our world, such as ideology, schools, firms, cities, fast travel and communication, and complex machine tools. And the stories we tell during the industry era certain do often include many of these new elements. But the core conflicts in our stories haven’t changed that much; we still love chases, fights, villains, and wars. Yet the core conflicts in our world have changed.

The world of animals was greatly shaped by chases and fights. But even though most of us are rarely involved in such things, we still love chase and fight stories. The world of foragers was greatly shaped by efforts to identify and oppose villains. But even though most of us rarely do that, we love crime and superhero stories. The world of farmers was greatly shaped by wars, and we still love war stories, even though wars happen and matter a lot less now.

Today the big fights that most shape our world are not the fights that dominate our action stories: fist fights, catching criminals, and wars between nations. While those mattered greatly in past eras, the fights that matter most today are arguably fights between firms over industries. The products and services we see, the cities where we congregate, and the people who are rich, are determined much more by which firms tried what in their battles to win customer allegiance.

Thus fights between firms are the great fight stories of today, in the sense of the being the large scale fights that most shape our world. And while during past eras the main stories told during those eras adapted to be about the main fights that shaped those eras, during out industry era we have not yet adapted industry-era stories to be about industry-era fights.

Few novels or movies tell the story of firms struggling to win customers. Sometimes we like stories of heroic inventors, but we usually suppress the group nature of their efforts. For example, recent movies on Alan Turing and Steve Jobs make it seem like those individuals did most of the work, ignoring the large teams that supported them.

If colleges taught courses detailing the methods of war, many young men would eagerly take them, and be quite engaged. But when we instead teach courses on industrial organization, i.e., on the many ways in which firms compete for customers, far fewer students take them, and their interest is more muted. Industry-era tastes for stories have not caught up with the industry-era reality that today these are the great conflicts that shape our world.

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Philosophy Between The Lines

Seven years ago I raved about a Journal of Politics article by Arthur Melzer that persuaded me that ancient thinkers often wrote “esoterically,” e.g., praising their local religions and rulers on the surface, while expressing their true atheism, rebellion, etc. between the lines. Melzer has just come out with a very well written and persuasive book Philosophy Between The Lines, that greatly elaborates this thesis.

Melzer’s book emphasizes the puzzle that while ancient thinkers were quite open about esotericism, modern thinkers have mostly forgotten it ever existed, and are typically indignantly dismissive when the idea is suggested. Below the fold I give an extended quote on a fascinating transition period in the late 1700s when European intellectuals openly debated how esoteric to be.

While Melzer’s last chapter is on implications of esotericism, he really only talks about how it can somewhat undercut cultural relativism, if we can see intellectuals from different times and places as actually agreeing more on God, politics, etc. Yet he doesn’t mention the most obvious implication, at least to an economist: since esotericism raises the price of reading the ancients, we will likely want to buy less of this product, and pay less attention to what the ancients said. Melzer also doesn’t mention the implications that the rise of direct speech might be in important enabler of the industrial revolution, or that seeing more past esotericism should lead us to expect to find more of it around us today, even if we now officially disapprove of it.

Melzer says that the main point of his book is just to convince us that esotericism actually happened, not that it was good or bad, nor any particular claim about what any particular ancient really meant. But this stance is undermined by the fact that the main bulk of the book focuses on elaborating four good reasons why the ancients might have been esoteric. In contrast, when Melzer talks about why we moderns dislike esotericism, and why esotericism is the usual practice around the world today in non-Western cultures, he mentions many illicit reasons why writers might be esoteric. For example, Melzer quotes An Anthropology of Indirect Communication giving these reasons for such talk:

To avoid giving offence, or, on the contrary, to give offence but with relative impunity; to mitigate embarrassment and save face; to entertain through the manipulation of disguise; for aesthetic pleasure; to maintain harmonious and social relations; to establish relative social status; to exclude from a discourse those not familiar with the conventions of its usage and thereby to strengthen the solidarity of those who are.

But when Melzer talks about why the famous long-revered ancient thinkers might have been esoteric, he gives only reasons that such ancients would have seen as noble: protecting thinkers from society, protecting society from thinkers, teaching students, and promoting social reform.

Now whether the ancients were esoteric for good or bad reasons isn’t very relevant to the empirical claim that they were in fact esoteric, which Melzer says is his main focus. So then why does Melzer focus on if the ancients were esoteric for good reasons? One possible answer is that Melzer actually wants us to like and respect esotericism, not just believe that it existed. Another possible answer is that Melzer sees his readers as biased to see ancient thinkers as good people. If many folks have invested so much in identifying with famous ancient thinkers that they will not accept a claim about those ancients that suggests they were bad people, then to convince such folks of his claim Melzer needs to show that that his claim is quite compatible with those ancients being good people.

Either way, however, Melzer does quite successfully show that the ancients were often and openly esoteric. That promised quote on late 1700s European intellectuals:

Continue reading "Philosophy Between The Lines" »

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