Friday, February 01, 2008

The end of Europe? III

"I grieved to think how brief the dream of human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes - to come to this at last. Once, life and property must have reached almost absolutely safety. The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work. No doubt in that perfect world there had no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed.

"It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal in perfect harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to the intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.

"So, as I see it, the Upper-world man had drifted towards his feeble prettiness, and the Under-world to mere mechanical industry. But that perfect state had lacked one thing even for mechanical perfection - absolute permanency."
- H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895)

For most of his adult life, Wells was a socialist by conviction, believing that progress could continue only if controlled and directed by a central authority, the kind that traditionally has not ruled free societies except in times of war. Only in his last years, during and after the Second World War, did Wells finally come to accept the obvious: socialism could be achieved - but only by reorganizing society on a permanent war footing. War had already led to socialism in the Europe and the rest of the world; continued socialism would just mean a permanent prospect of war. And even then, society could not be made to stand still in the way the vision-bewitched, power-hungry socialist planners wanted. Socialism could not be a permanent stasis, only a stopping point on the way to decline or self-destruction. In other words, Wells late in life grasped what his and the preceding generation of European intellectuals had led their civilization to: disaster. This same despairing realization lies at the bottom of Orwell's 1984, published in 1949, three years after Wells' death. Thus far Wells the prose stylist and popular social thinker.

But in his science fiction, Wells knew better: his artistic intuition was stronger and better than his political beliefs. In his bones, regardless of whatever socialist opium he deluded himself with, he understood the real situation, probably because in his youth, he had absorbed the new, dazzling, and penetrating ideas of Darwin and other evolutionary thinkers: your biography doesn't stop until your dead, and history doesn't stop until and unless humanity becomes extinct.* There's no PAUSE button. The evolutionary idea had a fatal implication for the socialist utopia: the world of stasis - the heaven-on-earth of the socialists - is a religious fantasy.

Europe might come to that sad end, within our lifetimes. But it's also imperative, before arriving at such a conclusion, to take the longest view possible of European and Western history and see its unusual features in the light of centuries and millennia. Compared with other societies and civilizations, Europe's demography has always been unusual: delayed marriage, exceptional accumulation of capital and knowledge, escape from the Malthusian trap of food supplies saturated by population growth. With these came other unusual traits: starting with feudalism, contractual government in place of autocracy; individualism, romantic love, feminism. These distinctive features originated in the much-misunderstood Middle Ages and Renaissance (which, contrary to a common confusion, should be considered a unit). This era marked the formative age of the modern West. The Western habit of extending adolescence allowed for rapid and sustained social change, so much so that the West now takes innovation and progress for granted. The American branch of the modern West goes a step further in "lightweight," low-overhead civilization. Not so for typical pre-industrial civilizations, where a static ideal always reigned in theory, if not in practice. In place of closed systems of thought (religious and philosophical dogmas), we have learned to live with partial and incomplete truths and take for granted the never-ending possibilities thus opened up.

This is all radically different from any human society that existed before about 300 years ago. Europe's overseas descendants and the societies of east and south Asia have absorbed this dynamic and made it their own, germinating new civilizations along the way. And all of this because Europe failed in a crucial way: it failed to be a successful pre-industrial society - unlike, say, China, by any measure, the world's most successful. (That's before the shock of its encounter with the modern West). Fruitful failure is often much more interesting and charged with possibility than simple success. Simple success tends to halt progress. Progress - real progress, not the fake "progress" of the left - requires repeated failure. One failure, once, won't do much; but repeated trying and failing changes everything. Repeated failure at one thing can lead to other and new things that no one had thought of before. That is one of the main lessons of the 1200 or so years of the history of the modern West.**

We should keep such facts in mind as we survey Europe's recent past and possible futures. These are especially important to keep in mind when we consider the triple roots of modern Western culture: the barbarian peoples (Germans, Celts, Slavs, etc.), the classical Greeks and Romans, and the Hellenistic-Hebraic hybrid of Christianity. It keeps a reasonable perspective on the views of such Catholic or conservative writers as George Weigel, a view that, for all its value, tends to overemphasize the ancient classical and biblical sources of the modern West, to the detriment of the distinctive contribution of the Dark Age barbarians. Their individualistic restlessness kept Europe from becoming too civilized, too successful and complacent at any one thing. That is why the legend of Faust is so dead-on about the modern West. It is perhaps the supreme story that modern Western literati have played with about their own civilization.†
* And what is history, but biography writ large?

** This is a larger point to grasp about human evolution. Humans are not better chimps or apes - they're good at something else entirely. Presumably, the ancestors of humanity were at some point primate failures and in danger of extinction. But they evaded an otherwise inevitable doom as failed primates by becoming a successful something-else. It is the unusually long adolescence of humans makes this possible. It also makes culture - as opposed to pure instinct - a human necessity. Culture is (part of) human nature.

† Worth reading in Goethe's version, at least Part One and bits of Part Two - see such modern translations as Kaufmann's.

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