Thursday, 25 February 2010

Empires, past and future

Illuminating and sensibly unsensational view of prospects for the 'American empire' in the light of the fate of previous empires, the Roman and the British. It's from Cambridge historian, Piers Brendon.

I haven't read his books but this piece makes me wonder whether I should (having googled a little I note that his masterwork on the British Empire, natch, appears to have irritated Lord Salisbury and pleased Robert McCrum Literary Editor of the Observer, but they both agree it's a cracking read).

I don't have anything to add really apart from recommending it as an enjoyable (and comforting) bit of historical comparison and geopolitical speculation.

20 comments:

Brit said...

The key line is this: All too often, however, students of the past succumb to the temptation to foretell the future.

I would add "and pronounce on the present". ie. The Starkey Syndrome.

History is a series of tragic or meaningless contingencies. It's not that there are no patterns, it's that there are millions of patterns and no human can possibly hope to comprehend them.

Historians get hypnotised by the one or two ways in which current events can be seen as similar to their favourite historical ones; ignoring the countless ways in which they differ.

Gaw said...

I think you have a bit of a straw man there. There are very few historians who would claim to 'comprehend' history - Hegel, Marx, Fukuyama, for instance, and they're mostly philosophers of history (and always wrong, of course).

I don't buy your epistemology anyway. It would suggest we can't learn anything from anything. A single human life is sufficient to disprove this. Is your life a 'series of tragic and meaningless contingencies'? If not then why should human lives writ large be so?

Brit said...

. Is your life a 'series of tragic and meaningless contingencies'?

Depends on what I've been drinking. But seriously, that is my point. The scale of the individual life, and the scale of historical narratives are totally different orders of knowledge. Well, in fact, even individual lives are pretty much incomprehensible to narrators - which is why people get multiple biographers telling totally different stories/giving different versions of the same person: revisionists, counter-revisionists etc. Once you get beyond a generation or two we're blundering around in the dark, trying to illuminate the Grand Canyon with a candle.

This isn't nihilism, which suggests there is no truth - it's just an acknowledgement of our inability to know the truth.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Hmm, I'm intrigued that a historical comparison of a speculated fall of "the American empire" with the fall of the Roman one might be "comforting"! Or is that not it?

Gaw said...

Brit: Compare history writing to the market. Lots of individuals sort through a mass of data, making judgments with the use of their reason. Put it all together and you get some sort of consensus - or at least an averaging out that approximates to something useful. Naturally this isn't the truth (in the same way that 50p for a Creme Egg isn't the truth). But it provides a useful way of understanding where we've been, where we are and who we are. It also teaches you to think.

Gaw said...

Gadjo: On page 2 he says 'the differences are palpable' and that America can recover its position.

Brit said...

I'm not dissing your discipline per se, Gaw. History's fine by me and yes, we need these operating narratives. It's one of the Arts.

And then it's the overreaching. One can say that the US 'empire' will one day decline, just as the Roman and British Empires did. But this is to say nothing: a bet which doesn't cost anything. Like "one day Manchester United won't be one of the top 2 teams in the country". Big deal. Anyone can say that, my objection is to a claim to authority on the basis of having spent your life writing about the Romans.

Gaw said...

Surely you made a deeper, epistemological claim?

History is a series of tragic or meaningless contingencies.

BTW how do you get round the contradiction inherent in this sort of postmodern philosophising: it's all meaningless and contingent, er, apart from this particular totalising, monist view.

(I believe this is what that Iddiols chap was pointing out in the comments on your John Gray post).

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ah, ok. But did the Roman empire recover it's position?? I thought it was over-run with Goths, for a while at least. And it surely never recovered its position (ditto the British empire).

Brit said...

I think, but am not sure, that Iddiols has a strange logical argument against Gray that goes something like this:

1) Gray makes an argument against the possibility of progress based on a Socratic dialectic
2) Inherent in any Socratic dialectic is the assumption of the possibility progress
3) therefore Gray is wrong if his method of reasoning is valid, but could be right if it isn't.

I was being poetic with the 'meaningless contingencies' phrase. What I mean is that the truth of history is knowable only to God. That doesn't mean there's no truth. It's entirely compatible; and a candle in the Grand Canyon doesn't illuminate nothing.

Gaw said...

Oh. We agree then. I like to think of our Grand Canyon being festooned with candle-bearers all calling out to each other with descriptions. So yes, a right old mess.

Brit said...

I suspect that we disagree only in our idea of the size of the Canyon and the power of the candles, and also I have conveyed in my comments a degree of contempt for the historians to which, naturally and rightly as one of them, you object.

worm said...

I'm eagerly awaiting Brendon's next book on the Brittas Empire

I have 2 different folio copies of Gibbon's 'decline', given to me by relatives with stern faces, who handed them over with solemn advice about how 'history repeats itself'. So far, I have repeated history be being yet another person who has utterly failed to read them.

dearieme said...

I thought that this was a lovely flourish of the rapier:
"...Lord Macaulay...said that the end of their physical empire would be the proudest day in their history if they left behind “the imperishable empire” of their arts and their morals, their literature and their laws."

Even crueller, I'll bet, because he assumed that not one American reader in a hundred would recognise it as an insult.

Gaw said...

Brit: Which discipline produces the pontificators of choice is a matter of fashion I suspect. At one time it was philosophers, at another literary critics. Right now historians are in vogue.

Anyway, your beef (most recently) wasn't actually with an historian, it was with a classicist. These persons are equipped to misapply knowledge across a range of disciplines.

Worm: Your aphorism about Gibbon was Gibbonian.

Dearieme: And I read...

Faced by the prospect of decline, Americans could hardly do better than to cling to the noblest traditions of their own civilization.

...as a finger wagged in the direction of the pro-torture crowd.

A good piece, all in all.

Sophie King said...

And not a marrow in sight.

Gaw said...

Sophie: This blog has had its veg moment. Must think of another veg-related theme so I can relive it.

Sophie King said...

Don't know how I missed that post, Gaw. I will remember RLS's linnet-infested garden with great pleasure next time I'm grubbing about in my borders.

Simon said...

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire is primarily a narrative history so if you are already familiar with the subject you might not find it very illuminating. I would recommend his other work though - The Dark Valley is a really good survey of the 1930's.

Gaw said...

Sophie: Since I posted it and re-read it a lot at the time that eccentric poem has become one of my top favourites.

Simon: Thanks - really useful tips. But re the Empire book, I clicked the order button on Amazon button earlier this afternoon. Anyway, it looks like it has a few amusing anecdotes.