I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817)
Civilizations begin, flourish, decline, and disappear—or linger on as stagnant pools left by once life-giving streams.
These essays began as part of a continuing contribution to an E-Book titled The Wizards of Ozymandias: Reflections on the Decline and Fall. Written over a period of several years, they are intended as a collection of personal observations accompanying what I consider the dissipation of the systems and characteristics of Western culture. In my first book, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival,1 I used The Wizard of Oz2 to illustrate how the characters’ dependencies upon external authority provided a metaphor for what I regard as the greatest threat to human well-being: the institutional structuring of society. This book extends the inquiry to consider the impact institutionalism may have on the decline of civilization. My explanations for the major societal transformations now occurring—as well as the prospects for reviving the life-serving qualities of our culture—are offered as speculative impressions rather than as an empirical study of the causes of such changes.
The poet Shelley introduced us to Ozymandias in his poem of the same name, providing the picture of a tyrant whose arrogance of power led him to historical oblivion. Ozymandias is a reminder of the fragile nature of every system—be it biological, institutional, or galactic in character. As we are learning from the advanced course in history in which we seem now to be enrolled, this uncertain existence also applies to so-called civilizations. There is disagreement among historians as to the number and identity of civilizations around which so much of mankind has organized itself. While the values and practices of many past cultures continue to have a diluted influence—both good and bad—on modern societies, Western Civilization has lost much of its once-vibrant character. It is difficult for intelligent minds to dispute that this current system is in the process of joining Ozymandias in the dust-bin of history.
Western culture has added much to the quality of human existence. From the various arts, literature, and philosophy, to systems for producing and exchanging the means for enhancing the material well-being of mankind, to more sophisticated scientific understanding and its technological offspring and revelations in mathematics that have allowed us to take abstract reasoning into dimensions our ancestors could not have fathomed, the well-being of mankind has been greatly advanced during this epoch. We have even imagined ourselves capable of restraining the appetites of the Ozymandiases with written constitutions and structures designed to limit power.
Because of our nature as social beings, and having experienced the productive benefits of a specialization of labor, we have long known the advantages of organizing ourselves into groups to accomplish common purposes. Once in a while, a multitude of factors converge to create what is later recognized as a “civilization.” Western Civilization is the most recent example, having been preceded by, among others, such cultures as the Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Hittite, Minoan, Persian, Phoenician, Roman, Mayan, and Incan. Students of human history have tried to unravel the elements that both produced and brought about the demise of past civilizations. Because civilizations are characterized by multitudinous networks of complexities, historians invariably encounter the uncertainties that inhere in complication.
The study of chaos informs us that complex systems are subject to far too many interconnected and inconstant variables to make it possible to control events in order to achieve predictable outcomes. The ability to predict outcomes in a complex system rests on a “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” meaning an awareness of the presence and strength of every factor that could affect the result.3 In other words, our efforts to describe or to prescribe those patterns of regularity we define as “order” are limited by complexity itself. Events in our world are generally produced by countless networks of influences that make it difficult to identify causation. What may appear—if seen at all—as an inconsequential factor can produce damaging results (thus the nursery rhyme about “the want of a nail” leading to the loss of the war). We also discover that our faith in linear processes to produce anticipated results is often upset by the intervention of nonlinear influences (“the straw that broke the camel’s back”). The hubris that attends all political programs of central planning is fueled by an ignorance of the forces of chaos.
For the same reasons, explanations for historic behavior prove just as difficult. That so many factors have been identified by so many observers concerning both the origin and demise of civilizations, is a confirmation of the uncertainties that lie hidden within the dynamics of chaos and complexity. While there is no consensus of opinion as to the causes of the birth or death of civilizations, there are a number of common components upon which various historians focus.
As we better understand how chaos underlies so much of what we experience as both order and disorder in the world, we begin to discover the presence of what are referred to as attractors within systems. An attractor represents the organizing principle that brings regularity to a system (i.e., “attracts” orderliness). An earthquake fault line can be regarded as an attractor for geologic forces operating in an area subject to plate tectonics while, on a social level, an estate sale can be regarded as an attractor for antique dealers.
There are many who believe the marketplace is a form of undisciplined, disordered confusion, and that political intervention is required to protect the public from such unpredictable conduct. To those who understand the dynamics of the marketplace, however, the seeming chaos is underlain with processes through which the interplay of competing interests provides incentives for orderly behavior. In the language of “chaos,” the pricing system is an “attractor” that brings buyers and sellers together to engage in transactions that benefit both. The study of chaos and complexity make us aware that simplistic, linear explanations no longer suffice for our understanding of a complicated world. Scientific inquiry has helped us move beyond superficial explanations of behavior, and to examine less-apparent influences.
That said, is it possible to identify causal factors that bring about the creation and the demise of a civilization? Are there elements and processes that serve as attractors for the development of a culture? Such inquiries into the “how” and “why” of civilizations are difficult to assess, given the multifaceted variables involved. Like efforts to identify the mechanisms that trigger biological evolution, they are too dependent on abstract speculation. How, for instance, does individual behavior influence collective outcomes? Like the proverbial tale of the blind men reporting on their examination of an elephant, are we too locked in to our particular experiences to be able to communicate to others anything of verifiable substance? Because of my personal history, the focus of this book will be upon that period known as Western Civilization. What can be said of the dynamics of this epoch that distinguishes it from other societies in other periods of time?
Creative and vibrant civilizations do not come into being in some haphazard manner, nor are they the products of careful planning on the part of self-appointed “leaders.” They seem, rather, to have emerged from the convergence of various conditions, whose syntheses provided the opportunity for great numbers of people to pursue their respective interests in mutually-supportive ways. A culture thrives when it is capable of producing the values that define it. While some civilizations were grounded in agriculture, the success of Western Civilization can be traced, to a great extent, to the processes of industrialization, which essentially resolved the problem of how to sustain the lives of millions of people. It is important to note that a civilized society does not necessarily mean an industrialized society. The decline of our present civilization may be abetted by the emergence of an information based culture which might provide the basis for an even more prolific civilization.
The origins of any productive system seem to be traceable to conditions in which the self-interest driven purposes of individuals are allowed expression. These include the respect for autonomy and inviolability of personal boundaries that define liberty and peace and allow for cooperation for mutual ends. Support for such an environment has led to the flourishing of human activity not only in the production of material well-being, but in the arts, literature, philosophy, entrepreneurship, mathematics, spiritual inquiries, the sciences, medicine, engineering, invention, exploration, and other dimensions that fire the varied imaginations and energies of mankind. Our subjectively defined self-interests become energized within a social matrix that both encourages and reinforces novelty through informal, undirected processes.
Civilizations are not mandated by authorities, nor are they the products of systemic planning. People did not get together and say to one another “hey, let’s start a civilization!” Such cultures have been, rather, the unintended consequences arising from the interplay of creative forces that sustain and enhance life. The variability and cross-fertilization of ideas and techniques that can arise in pluralistic settings conducive to diversity and spontaneity, have been indispensable to the life of modern civilization. In much the same way that “brainstorming” sessions provide synergistic opportunities for individuals to come together to produce solutions to problems that none could have brought about on their own, a culture supportive of individuality can generate values and systems at exponential levels of creativity.
It is difficult to think of the dynamics of Western Civilization without identifying its individual creative producers. When mention is made of this culture, do not the names and accomplishments of Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Gutenberg, Beethoven, Galileo, Sophocles, Leonardo, Roger and Francis Bacon, Homer, Austen, Dante, Edison, Kepler, Carnegie, Michelangelo, Alcott, Locke, Curie, Rembrandt, Thomas Aquinas, Adam Smith, Emerson, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Milton, Bach, James Watt, van Gogh, Montessori, Pasteur, Darwin, Van Eyck, Einstein—to identify but a scant few individuals4—immediately come to mind? Do we not think of such persons as the creators of our civilization?
While the works of such people make up so much of the substance of our culture, their efforts, standing alone, would have been insufficient to produce a civilization. What other conditions were necessary to such ends? A factor I have long considered a major contributor to the emergence of highly productive societies can be found in what I call the “power of place.” Why, for instance, did technological inventiveness, standing alone, not produce industrialized societies in such places as ancient Greece, Baghdad, and Rome? In the 1st century AD, the Greek scientist, Hero, invented what we now know to be a steam-engine. He drew upon the works of earlier Greeks Vitruvius (80 BC-15 AD), and Ctesibius (285-222 BC) to create an instrument which, as far as is known, was used only to open and close temple doors. Another Greek invention, the Antikythera mechanism, was created in the second century BC, as a system of gears and cogs used, apparently, to calculate astronomical phenomena. While this device is often referred to as the earliest known computer, its appearance did not transform the pre-Christian world into a “Silicon Valley.” Was the two-thousand year-old copper cylinder found near Baghdad—believed by some to be an ancient electrical device—just another technological cul-de-sac that would await development centuries later? Did the glass industry of ancient Rome suffer from governmental restraints on technological innovation, thus impeding its development?5
My curiosity about the role that “place” might play in the creative process led me to inquire into the underlying conditions that attracted inventive and productive energies to Manchester, rather than Marseilles, as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution; or Florence, instead of Naples, as the center for the Italian Renaissance. Why did the Roman empire decline in its western region, but continue to prosper in its eastern domain? What forces converged to bring such creative minds as Emerson, Thoreau, Louisa May and Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, to live within walking distance of one another in Concord, Massachusetts? Why did an interest in individual liberty develop so strongly in America, and not in Russia? The “places” that provide settings for those outbursts of life-sustaining creativity we call “civilizations,” obviously involve more than just geography.
In order to more deeply explore the dynamics involved in the development of this culture, I would like to focus on one of the major contributors to Western Civilization, one that had a profound impact on my own life. At some point in my youth, I became aware of the long-standing practice in such countries as Austria of many students graduating from college and then going on to law school. Following their legal studies, they would undertake careers that may or may not have involved the practice of law. During my college years, I became very interested in going on to law school, although at no time—whether before, during, or after law school—did I have any intention of practicing law. I wasn’t certain as to what kind of work I wanted to do, but law practice was not one to which I gave serious attention: law school, for me, was to provide the opportunity to synthesize disparate subject areas of learning—what used to be termed a “liberal arts” education—and to develop critical, analytical thinking. This approach was well-expressed by one nineteenth-century writer who observed that the study of law was “a sort of search for truth, carried on by teacher and student in common, and which they feverishly undertook, opening up an endless field for philosophic speculation.”