Scientists are Civilizations Too

Mario Livio’s Brilliant Blunders looks at five of the major scientists of the modern era (Darwin, Pauling, Einstein, etc.) and examines the significant mistakes each of them made.  Livio does not take cheap shots.  He does not blame the scientists to errors they made due to what they could not have possibly known.  Instead, Livio focuses on blind spots in their theories that they should have seen, or prideful mistakes they made later in life.  Thus his book* functions as a psychological as well as a scientific study.

Each of the scientists in the book made their most significant contributions relatively early in their career (i.e., Einstein’s “Miracle Year”), and Livio believes this trend holds true for scientists in general.  The scientists then committed their “blunders” later in life, and when asked to comment on this, Livio stated that most likely, these men were not content to stay with a pat hand.  If at 35 you change the world with your theories, who wants to tinker with its finer points until retirement?  Instead, the scientists somewhat naturally seek other major breakthroughs, but this time in areas outside their wheelhouse, which is when they make their mistakes.

Are scientists unusual in this regard, or might it be a common human trait?  One thinks of presidential second terms that never seem to go quite as planned (Truman, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, GW Bush, Obama?).  Local Washingtonians remember the humdrum nature of Joe Gibbs’ second stint as the Redskins coach.  U.S. Grant made a much better general than president.  In literature we have figures like Merlin and Lear making their big gaffes late in life.

Of course it could be that we see “fall’s” at the end of things only in hindsight.  We call it the end because he /she “fell” and ended their careers on a bad note.  But they only would end if they did something bad, thus the theory is entirely circular.

I don’t accept this entirely, for some careers end well, and some know when to ride into the sunset.  But the question remains whether or not we trace something general about human life, and we don’t need a perfect record for that.  And if it reveals something about human life in general, it may reveal something about civilizations.

Spengler thought that civilizations had a natural lifespan, like biological organisms.  No civilization by definition could keep going ad infinitum.  I think that’s because he saw civilizations as the outworking of a particular idea, embodied in a particular people (or, perhaps for Spengler, a particular race).  If we take the city-state idea with Athens, for example, we can see

  • An initial dynamism with the “new” idea of democracy embodied in a small community
  • This dynamism having great success, which leads to expansion
  • The expansion leading to inevitable betrayal of the idea, or at least, the idea can’t apply in the same way beyond their community.
  • The tension and contradictions now need resolution, which comes in the form of the Peloponnesian War.

One can see a similar process happening with the Roman Republic, and perhaps even Israel.  The idea of a Jewish state had great moral and dynamic force in the wake of W.W. II.  This gave Israel a great cohesion and sense of mission with their founding generation (’48-’67).  But the success engendered by the force of the idea led to Israel becoming an occupying force, with all the inherent contradictions that implies for their original idea.

In the end I think we should recoil from inevitability Spengler preaches but still be strongly cognizant of the usual pattern of temptation.  In order for our ideals or our identities to experience continual renewal, we need to be aware of their limitations.

*I should say that I did not read the book, but heard the author interviewed.

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“One of these real toffs . . .”

My favorite chapter in C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is “Banquet at Belbury,” when God removes the gift of language from N.I.C.E. and it immediately hurtles towards catastrophe.  Lewis writes on Wither’s reflections during the banquet,

“We shall not,” Jules was saying, “we shall not till we secure the erebation of all prostundiary initems.”  Little as he cared for Jules, a sudden shock of alarm pierced him.  He looked around again.  Obviously it was not he who was mad–they had all heard the gibberish.  Except possibly the tramp, who looked as solemn as a judge.  He had never heard a speech before from one of these real toffs and would have been disappointed if he could understand it.

I very much identified with the tramp as I read Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.  Here I was, tackling one of the great historical tomes of the 20th century.  Here I was, understanding very little of it.  Both things were as they should be.

Spengler makes me nervous, partly because he is leagues smarter than I, partly because I often don’t understand him, partly because of the occasional racial undertones of his work (thankfully not much in evidence in this book, I don’t think, though certainly present in others).

But I confess a certain sympathy for Spengler.  I think of Longstreet’s comment in Gettysburg, “We Southerners like our generals religious and a little bit mad.”  My favorite historians have a touch of madness about them.  They try to have a grand unified theory.  They try to make history matter.  Today, for example, I picked up a thick book on the Plantagenets that looks promising in its details.  The preface shows that the author has a good idea of cause and effect within a certain time frame, but in the end, one thing just leads to another.  And if that’s all you have — in the end, who cares?

Still, I would have liked to have understood Spengler more.  Large chunks of this work remain unintelligible to me.  Apparently he was a recluse, and I have the impression that he wrote for himself more than the public.  I open at random (honestly) and see this sentence:

In both cases we have in reality an outbreak of deep-seated discordances in the culture, which physiognomically dominates a whole epoch of its history and especially of its artistic world — in other words, a stand the soul attempts to make against the Destiny that it at last comprehends.

He writes like one of those German operas where something is always burning and people are always dying (taking quite a bit of time doing so to boot).  For me, it’s just too much.

But this should not deter anyone.   Despite his eccentricity, real gold can be gleaned (all I say next has the caveat, “if I understand him correctly”).

Spengler challenged received opinion magnificently.  For him, Egypt was superior to Greece, and Renaissance art can’t equal either the Gothic or the Baroque.  Rome’s empire came much more easily for them than for others.

Most challenging for our time, he viewed the health of a culture by its inner life.  So things such as technological innovation and expansion have no real bearing on the health of a civilization.  Both constant innovation and physical expansion for Spengler probably serve as hints of decay.  It is the bored civilization, he writes, that thinks primarily in terms of economics.

He has moments of great precise insight.  For example — we automatically think of the Greeks as the founders of history as a discipline.  But he argues convincingly that the Greeks lacked an historical mind.  He cites a few details to support this but the crux of the argument comes from Greek funerary practices.  They cremated, while Egypt embalmed.  The Egyptians knew everything about at least their official past, but the Greeks focused too much on absolutes to care about particulars.  They loved Homer, but never bothered to dig at Mycenae as Schliemman did 3000 years later.  They never bothered with the notion of Agamemnon as fact.  Myth mattered to the Greeks, but little else.  When we see this, so much of their literature, architecture, and even politics makes more sense.

Throughout Spengler urges us to see civilizations as a whole.  We can’t take Roman sculpture and separate its time and place.  Therefore we should approach mimicry of the past with fear and trembling, as we may get more than we bargained for.  Along those same lines, culture can’t create out of a vacuum. We have no Beethoven now because our culture couldn’t possibly make one.  But that’s not our “fault” anymore than we should blame 19th century Germany for not having a John Coltrane.

This is enough to encourage me to read again in the future.  For now, if anyone understands the chapter on the meaning of numbers, or the physiognomic, or many other such parts of this book, please let me know.