System Containment

I am no authority on science-fiction, but I do partake occasionally.  Recently I devoured Christian Cantrell’s Containment, and while most of the characters are a bit flat, Cantrell fascinated me with the political and scientific problems his characters face.

The book’s cover has a blurb that hints at one of its main themes, saying,  “The colony on Venus was not built because the destruction of Earth was possible, but because it was inevitable…”

Throughout Containment the older generation advocates for realpolitik.   Arik, born and raised on Venus and trained to think “outside the box” to solve the problems inherent in the thin margins of existence in an inhospitable world, wants alternative solutions.  One of their arguments turns on Venus’ relationship with Earth.  Arik urges that  they put more resources into strengthening ties between Earth and Venus.  The leaders disagree.  “Every colony inevitably separates from the mother country,” they argue, so why put resources into a sinking relationship?

That got me to thinking, and I could not remember a colony that had not at some point separated and sometimes turned against their homeland.  In the post-colonial 20th century, the list is enormous.  But the ancient world has its own list.  Carthage came to overshadow Phoenicia.  Syracuse overshadowed Corinth.  Egyptian colonies in Canaan often had to be reclaimed.  Thera founded Cyrene in North Africa, which quickly established its own identity.  And so on, and so on. . . .

We can go beyond the idea of colonies separating from motherlands.  Containment does in part raise the question as to whether or not “Laws of Nature” govern human affairs.  Many would argue yes, that  “there is no armor against fate.”  History is rife with systematic patterns that, while not perfect, still show very strong tendencies.  For example, the idea of a “balance of power” between several states in a region appeals innately to our sense of fairness and proportion.  No one has too much, and each state has to rely on each other to maintain peace.  But, however noble the idea, can it last?

If we take Europe as an example, it seems not.  Before W.W. I England, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and even Italy to some extent all played a part in keeping the peace.  But with so many participants, too many possible variable were in play.  Combine these variables with human sinfulness, and you have W.W. I, which eliminated Austria-Hungary.  Twenty years later W.W. II eliminated all of them except Russia, who stood toe-to-toe with the United States, until we have the current situation where we have only one global superpower.

Earlier European history show this same tendency.  Around 1500 you have France, the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, and to some extent, England. The wars of Charles V finish the Holy Roman Empire.  Then you had England and France both take successful shots at the Hapsburgs, which left France and England remaining.  They seesawed back and forth until Waterloo, after which England stood more or less alone until 1871.

In the ancient world similar patterns show up.  Greece for a time stood balanced precariously on the backs of Sparta, Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Argos.  After the Persian wars only Athens and Sparta stood.  After the Peloponnesian War, a weakened Sparta held sway for a time before falling to Thebes, which then itself fell to Macedon.  Macedon alone held the torch in Greece until Rome ended all pan-Mediterranean balance by defeating both Carthage and Macedon from ca. 230-146 B.C.

Systems have the advantage of abstract elegance, but who wants fate to rule?  Many notable scholars use this fact to abandon Christian concepts of humanity.  After all, without some semblance of control, humanity gets absolved of responsibility.  If we have absolution from responsibility we have no ability to choose.  Our DNA does that for us.  The “I” disappears.  Why anyone would seek to destroy even their own identity with their theories is beyond me.  But the evidence does strongly suggests that patterns assert themselves in human affairs.  Do we have any hope of avoiding them?

We don’t need to deny the evidence, but instead see that it points in another direction.  Maybe systems assert themselves not because of fate, but because of the uniformity of human nature, a Christian truth.  Maybe we’re not enslaved to patterns, but instead enslave ourselves.  If that were true than we might expect that the spread of Christianity, which frees us from slavery to ourselves, would shatter the patterns.  If we believe that “service to God is perfect freedom,” Christians and Christian epochs should give evidence of the ability to escape destructive patterns.  Do the Middle Ages, for example exhibit a freedom from such “inevitable cycles” of behavior?

It may hold up.  After Charlemagne and the evangelization of the European continent, Europe has no significant, balance altering conflict until the 100 Years War in the 14th century.  Maybe Christianity did make a difference.  Critics, however, would probably say that

  • (1) The Crusades should count as a major conflict, and the only reason the Europeans didn’t fight each other is because the Church exported all its violent members overseas.
  • (2) The major conflict never took place because they lacked the resources and the political structure to fight major wars.  Once they had those (ca. 1500), then they did begin to fall into similar patterns as others nations in other eras.

Alas, I must confess, these are good counters to my proposal.  But on the other hand, regarding the Crusades, one could also argue that the Church also shipped society’s leaders overseas, which could opened up significant power vacuums in Europe, which usually lead to general wars.  Europe did not experience significant this during the Crusades.

Regarding point #2, they may have avoided centralized political systems (systems which could concentrate enough resources to wage a long, destructive war) during the Christian era precisely because they saw them as a threat.  Only when the moral power of the Church eroded in the 14-15th centuries do we see the state start to take over, a role it has not yet had to relinquish some 500 years later.

The evidence may be inconclusive, but  I agree with Toynbee when he wrote,

. . . the prospects of man in Process of Civilization depend above all on his ability to recover a lost control of the pitch, it is evident that this issue [is to be] decided by the course of Man’s relations, not just with his fellow men and with himself, but above all, with God his Saviour.