In his account of the Athenian debate over their proposed expedition to Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides has Alicibiades close with a famous analogy on the fate of states and nations that remain inert.
And as for security, whether for remaining there, in case of any success, or for returning, our fleet will provide us with it; for by sea we shall be superior to all the Siceliots put together. And let not the non-interfering policy which Nicias recommends in his speeches, nor his setting the young against the old, divert you from your purpose; but acting in your usual order, just as our fathers, by consulting young with old, raised the state to its present height, do ye now too, in the same manner, endeavor to advance it; being convinced that youth and old age can do nothing without each other; but that the period of levity, and of mid-age, and of extreme preciseness, will have most power when joined together; and that the state, if it remain quiet, will be worn out on itself, like anything else, and its skill in everything grow dull; while by entering into contest it will continually gain fresh experience, and will find self-defense habitual to it, not in word, but rather in deed. My decided opinion then is, that I think a state of no inactive character would most quickly be ruined by a change to inactivity; and that those men live most securely, who regulate their affairs in accordance with their existing habits and institutions, even though they may be of an inferior character, with the least variation.
The Athenian adventure into Sicily ended in disaster, but the idea that states and people must essentially “keep swimming or die” entered into our consciousness. Progress must involve motion, the conquering of challenges. So J.S. Huxley comments that,
Life can never be about equilibrium. Given the well established facts that change . . . multiplies in an expanding geometric ratio, then change in the status quo is inevitable. A status quo may exist for a time, but with one organism bumping against another means a rearrangement of them all.
And J.R. Smuts adds,
A peculiar feature about the change in equilibrium in a physico-chemical structure is that it is never such as to produce a perfect new equilibrium; the new is merely approximate, just as the old was. We may say the change was from too little to too much.
The instance of a super-saturated solution is a case in point, where the crystallization lags behind the conditions which bring it about. When the change comes it swings beyond the necessities of the case. Again there is the condition of instability which has to be righted by a swing back in due course. Thence arises the character of natural change. Complete equilibrium is never attained and would be fatal if attained, because it would mean stagnation, atrophy, and death.
Once let a large, favorable variation take place . . . others must keep up or perish. So it comes to pass that history moves in successive phases of momentary equilibrium, with extended periods of “conflict” and readjustment, each one a higher plane of independence than the one before, and each giving place to the other.
So it seems nearly an axiom (at least for post-Enlightenment western societies) that change=growth, growth=progress, progress= something good (?).
But Thucydides had no love for Alicibades, and whether or not he reports fairly, clearly the scope of his narrative means to show the disastrous nature of Alcibiades’ logic. Earlier in the war his hero Pericles urged the Athenians to accept war with Sparta, but only if they resolved firmly not to add any new territory to their empire.
But Pericles may not have been entirely consistent. In his famous “Funeral Oration” he celebrated the dynamic, maritime nature of Athenian life in his famous funeral oration.
If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates; while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbour, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes. Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because we have at once to attend to our marine and to dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different services; so that, wherever they engage with some such fraction of our strength, a success against a detachment is magnified into a victory over the nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.
“In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves.
Pericles’ words have resonated strongly with western societies for at least the last two centuries. Democracies have long wanted to be thought of as progressive, diverse, open to new experiences and new people, etc. But this vision had its critics, most notably Plato, who wrote in his Laws,
Athenian Stranger. And now, what will this city be? I do not mean to ask what is or will hereafter be the name of the place; that may be determined by the accident of locality or of the original settlement-a river or fountain, or some local deity may give the sanction of a name to the newly-founded city; but I do want to know what the situation is, whether maritime or inland.
Cleinias. I should imagine, Stranger, that the city of which we are speaking is about eighty stadia distant from the sea.
Ath: If the city were to be built at the seaside and were going to be well supplied with harbors but ill-supplied with the necessities of life from the soil, then it would have needed mighty saviors and divinely inspired legislators to escape the moral confusion and moral corruption that are the inevitable penalty of such environments.
For the sea is an insidious neighbor which makes itself agreeable to the daily interaction [between good soil and good harbors], but is salt and bitter inasmuch as it fills the country with tradesmen’s business, and the souls of the country with deceit, and the body politic with distrust–each seeking advantage over his fellow man and neighboring states.
These social evils are to some extent counteracted if the soil produces something of everything; and, if it is a rough and highland country . . . it will not be able to do so. If it could not, it would produce a large export surplus and would attract to itself the equivalent import of gold and silver currency–and that is the greatest moral disaster that can overtake a country.
[As for sea power], it would have profited the Athenians to lose seventy times seven children a year to the tyrant Minos [referring here to the ancient legend of the Minotaur] before turning themselves in defense to a sea power instead of heavy infantry, and so lose the power of standing fast, acquiring instead the habit of perpetually jumping ashore and then running back to their ships at a run hardly after landing.
This method of warfare erases any sense of shame at being too cowardly to risk one’s life by standing one’s ground and receiving the enemy’s attack. It suggests facile and “plausible” excuses for taking to one’s heels–never of course in disorder but always “according to plan.”
There is nothing so demoralizing for infantry as their allied fleet riding at anchor in their rear. Why, even lions, if they took to tactics of that sort, would run away from deer.
Cle: Yet all the same, sir–well, what about the Battle of Salamis? That, after all, was a naval battle, in which the Athenians beat the barbarians, and it is our belief that this victory was the salvation of Greece.
Ath: I know that is the general view . . . But in [my] belief, it was the land battles of Marathon and Platea that were the day-spring of the salvation of Greece and its crowning mercy.
Arnold Toynbee took up the question of how civilizations grow in volume 3 of his A Study of History. He first considers civilizations in an “arrested” state. The nomads and the Eskimos perform near heroic feats of adaptation to survive in their environment. However, the environment requires too much adaptation, leaving those in them stuck at a particular point in its development. Ultimately the social organization can never transcend their environment.*
Toynbee has a lot in common with Spengler, but ultimately rejects Spengler’s “biological life span” template for civilizations. Toynbee believes that civilization transcends individuals so in theory, civilizations can extend themselves ad-infinitum if they play their cards right. So to find the clue Toynbee uses scientific analogies about crystallization and so forth. Civilizations have to keep moving to avoid stagnation. But what kind of movement? Toynbee is too smart to focus on mere territorial enlargement. Measuring growth by technological advancement also fails as rubric for many reasons, one of them being the question, “Which is more impressive, the ‘invention’ and original mastery of fire, or the steam engine?”
Ultimately knows that spiritual/psychological growth should occupy pride of place along with other factors. But how to measure this? How would it manifest itself? This is not so easy, as Toynbee knows (though credit him for trying).
Recently I wrote about the “noon-day” devil of acedia. Essentially acedia involves the temptation to distraction out of a sense of listlessness and no purpose. The key to fighting this temptation involved drilling down into the recesses of the self, and ultimately to train oneself not to bored with the things of God. So one monk tells his confessor, “Father, I have been troubled by acedia, but praise be, the temptation vanishes whenever I go visit Abba Paul.” “On the contrary,” his confessor replies, “you have entirely given into the temptation and will soon be in its power.”
Hence the dictum–“stay in your cell.”
St. John Cassian writes,
When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. It will not suffer us to stay in our cell, or to attend to our reading: we lament that in all this while, living in the same spot, we have made no progress, we sigh and complain that bereft of sympathetic fellowship we have no spiritual fruit; and bewail ourselves as empty of all spiritual profit, abiding vacant and useless in this place; and we that could guide others and be of value to multitudes have edified no man, enriched no man with our precept and example. We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. We paint the fellowship of the brethren there, its suavity, its richness in spiritual conversation, contrasting it with the harshness of all that is at hand, where not only is there no edification to be had from any of the brethren who dwell here, but where one cannot even procure one’s victuals without enormous toil. Finally we conclude that there is not health for us so long as we stay in this place, short of abandoning the cell wherein to tarry further will be only to perish with it, and betaking ourselves elsewhere as quickly as possible.
Towards eleven o’clock or midday it induces such lassitude of body and craving for food, as one might feel after the exhaustion of a long journey and hard toil, or the postponing of a meal throughout a two or three days fast. Finally one gazes anxiously here and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen approaching: one is for ever in and out of one’s cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting: one’s mind is in an irrational confusion, like the earth befogged in a mist, one is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some brother, or the solace of sleep. Finally our malady suggests that in common courtesy one should salute the brethren, and visit the sick, near or far. It dictates such offices of duty and piety as to seek out this relative or that, and make haste to visit them; or there is that religious and devout lady, destitute of any support from her family, whom it is a pious act to visit now and then and supply in holy wise with necessary comforts, neglected and despised as she is by her own relations: far better to bestow one’s pious labour upon these than sit without benefit or profit in one’s cell. . . .
The wisdom and achievement (both spiritual and social) of the desert fathers has few historical parallels. This points us in a new and more profitable direction than standard measures of growth, such as the health of the economy or advancement in technology.
Certainly, for example, the western world has achieved tremendous technological leaps over the past 150 years, but we should not necessarily call this “growth.” These technological advances have largely served to help us to the things democratic nations tend to do, such as move and consume, except now we can do this more quickly. I don’t mean this to sound harsh or cynical. Democracies tend to be forward looking and anti-tradition. This has its place. Democracies seek to empower choice, and this has its most obvious reflection in choosing where we go and what we buy. Technology has changed nothing in the spiritual and social plane for us. We remain on the go, we remain distracted, with the facilities for spinning our wheels vastly improved over time.
De Tocqueville, as usual, predicted something like this, writing
The first thing which strikes a traveler in the United States is the innumerable multitude of those who seek to emerge from their original condition; and the second is the rarity of lofty ambition to be observed in the universally ambitious stir of society. No Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise; but hardly any appear to entertain hopes of a great magnitude, or to pursue lofty aims. All constantly to acquire property, power, and reputation; few contemplate these things on a great scale.
Without this great ambition (if he is correct) we will tend to spin our wheels in the same direction. Again–we should not call this growth automatically.**
We assume that the desert monks had no social impact. Sure, we assume, they helped their own souls, or perhaps those of their brotherhood, but not society at large. But a careful reading of the biographies of such fathers shows the opposite. People came to them all the time for healing and advice. Many stories exist of their charity to others. Some lived as solitary hermits, but many others lived in monasteries close to towns where a fair amount of interaction between them took place.
Perhaps the secret of real growth lies here. No tree can bear fruit if constantly uprooted.
*This can be contrasted to civilizations that seem “petrified” or “frozen,” such as a certain time period of ancient Egypt. Nothing about their physical circumstances forces a frozen civilization to stay at a particular level of development, but they choose to do so for a variety of reasons.
**I realize that what follows puts me squarely within the company of other grumpy old men. But I’ll take the plunge . . . . The fact that The Force Awakens was so popular reveals this very fact about our culture. The movie had nothing original about it, with no memorable dialogue, acting, or even memorable scenes. With its casting it was calculated precisely to hit squarely within the middle of our cultural mindset. People praised it for “being the movie fans wanted to see.” It hit all its marks, giving us all the old characters plus an even bigger Death Star. But this is precisely the reason why the movie failed to challenge or move us in any way.
To plunge even further . . . one might almost say that an “acedic” listlessness pervades the whole movie. What happened to the Republic? Nobody knows, nobody cares–it’s not important. What is the “First Order” and what do they want? How did they get here? Nobody knows, nobody cares. In A New Hope Alderann is destroyed cruelly but for a “reason.” Now whole systems are destroyed for no apparent reason. Obi-Wan’s death had some meaning or purpose within the Star Wars universe, but not Han’s death–it just happened. Han himself as a character appears stuck in an endless loop of meaningless activity. The heroine receives Jedi powers and can fly the spaceships with no context, no training, again for no apparent reason. Why? Nobody knows, nobody cares. What is important is that we saw what we desired. The movie fulfilled our list of demands.