The Seeker, the Stoics, and the Transhumanist


The following is a transcript of a memorable discussion on Facebook. Henry van Wagenberg poses a question to Massimo Pigliucci, noted Stoic, and then to his friend, the Transhumanist David Vincent Kimel. Jimmy Daltrey and Donald Robertson, Stoic experts, are also on hand.


Henry: Massimo Pigliucci, how do you get around the problem of Hume’s Is/Ought Problem or Naturalistic Fallacy and Stoic Philosophy? The Stoic argument, as for so many of the Greek schools, building on Socrates, is that Nature is the good. The Stoic virtues are all build on this foundational argument. But Hume demonstrated that this is false – that what is natural and what is good are not the same – thus paving the way for modern philosophy. How do you reconcile this foundational problem?

I’ve been able to read the chapter in Becker’s book on Stoicism which addresses this question. His answer is that “agency” is the true good. He writes, “As biological organisms we arc through the processes generation, growth, development, reproduction, and degeneration… We ceaselessly organize and re-organize our biological lives into endeavors… We hold that, considered as an end, Virtue consists in perfected agency. To the extent that this activity — the exercise of our agency — is our maximally comprehensive and controlling endeavor, its end is our final end” (Chapter 6: Virtue). This is an intriguing solution to the problem. I will reflect more on it. However one obvious problem is that if “perfecting our agency” is our goal, what should we use our agency for? If, as Becker argues, “agency” is the “final end”, then by this reasoning we should use it… to increase our agency. So we should increase our agency in order to increase our agency. It certainly seems to me that becoming an active, free agent, which the Stoics sort-of call for even if we are in a determinist universe, is likely a part of a virtuous life. However my question would still be… to what end?

Massimo: Henry, Hume did not demonstrate the falsity of going from is to ought, he only pointed out — reasonably! — that if one does that then one needs a justification. The Stoics provided a justification in their developmental theory of morality and their concept of oikiosis….

Henry: Thanks kindly. I’ve read parts of the developmental theory in Julia Annas’ “The Morality of Happiness” and I read the summary in your book. Unfortunately I think there is a huge problem, which is that there is extremely strong and convincing evidence that violence is also an element of our species’ nature. Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, for example, offers a survey of archeological evidence for how murder was more commonplace among our distant pre-settlement ancestors than it is today. Freud’s “Das Unbehagen in der Kultur” and his general investigations raise questions about the connection, for example, between violence and sexual pleasure. Camille Paglia in her “Sexual Personae” raises deep questions along these lines, and writes “Rape and sadism have been evident throughout history and, at some moment, in all cultures. When social controls weaken, man’s innate cruelty bursts forth. The rapist is created not by bad social conditioning but by a failure of social conditioning. Sex is power. Nature is a hard taskmaster. Sex has always been girt round with taboo, irrespective of culture. Sex is the point of contact between man and nature, where morality and good intentions fall to primitive urges. The Indian nature-goddess Kali is creator and destroyer, granting boons with one set of arms while cutting throats with the other. She is the lady ringed with skulls.” Recently a book about sexual dominance, submission and power called “50 Shades of Grey” sold more copies worldwide than Harry Potter. It seems far too common for violent elements in pornography across cultures for it to be an accident. What percentage of films watched by young men all over the world contain violence? 90%? 100%? I absolutely agree that there is also strong evidence that we are also a cooperative species, but if we argue from the empirical side as you do in your book, then I think we have to acknowledge that our Nature also includes a strong propensity to violence. And then our argument for Stoic Philosophy along empirical lines is broken, because now we can no longer argue for cooperativeness in Nature, without arguing that violence is also a virtue. Therefore if we want to argue for Stoic Philosophy we do need an excellent deductive argument for it. Thoughts?

Massimo: Henry, any philosophy is established on axioms. The Stoic ones are those listed by Jimmy above. They are good enough for me. One can argue that different axioms yield a better philosophy, like Epicureanism. Maybe, but there are good arguments developed by the Stoics against other philosophies. Moreover, I think the quest for a philosophy that is universally true and based on indisputable axioms is a fool’s errand, and we shouldn’t waste our time with it.

Henry: David Vincent Kimel, thoughts?

Kimel: Thanks for thinking of me, Henry. You always throw out the most provocative questions, and you are never satisfied with anything less than the truth, or at least a clarifying approximation of it, which is the best philosophers can provide balancing upon each other’s shoulders like the world’s ugliest but most thought provoking cheerleading squad. I think that in the evolutionary scheme of things, my species of transhumanism is closer genetically to Epicurus, Bentham, and Hume than the beasts of the Stoic school and its offshoots. But as a good Romanist, I’m fascinated by the Stoics, and always find something interesting to think about when I engage with their texts, especially on the subject of freedom and its limitations (more on this later).

The classic formulation of Stoicism is of course that one should live in harmony with Nature. But why? Perhaps Epicurus can help us. Well, first, what is Nature? One possible definition is “the Natural order of things,” which I take to be the realm of real world outcomes that are at the mercy of Fortune. If this is how we understand Nature, it’s clear that it’s actually an extremely harsh environment and far from “good” by many metrics—volcanoes erupt, free republics become tyrannies, etc. The justification for living “in harmony” with its brutality is that from an existential perspective, we are dogs being pulled by our master, Fortune, and if we don’t keep up with her punishing pace, our collars will start to choke us and she’ll drag us over the rough road; so, we’d better keep up in harmony with her pace, if we can. The only entity that we can personally control in the face of adversity is our reaction to adversity—hence, reasons the Stoic, we should detach ourselves from emotional attachment, and find true freedom in a kind of indifference as we accept whatever Fortune brings us. Under this reasoning, the syllogism in response to Hume is something like, “Nature is actually full of evil from a human perspective because it’s bound to random Fortune, but at least we have the power to control our emotional reactions to its outcomes, which are the true origin of suffering; given that real world outcomes are all we have to work with, a good philosopher should focus on moderating his or her emotional reaction in ‘harmony’ with Nature if he hopes to avoid pain.” This is our only chance for freedom in a world of bad outcomes—and freedom is better than slavery to an emotional attachment connected with a worldly outcome, because any worldly good can always be taken away, and if it is the sole source of your spiritual sustenance, you will be lost.

However, there is a tension here leading to a kind of puzzle. Can’t this attitude lead to passivity in the face of the horrors of reality? (In other words, if Fortune’s domination over natural outcomes is so terrible, why should we be in harmony with it if this leads to the perpetuation of unjust outcomes—which goes back to the spirit of your original critique, Henry.) At the same time, what about all the Stoics who wrote about living in harmony with Nature not from the perspective of “we’d better be in harmony with Fortune because it’s all we’ve got, and by ‘harmony’ we mean the numbing freedom of indifference,” but, “Nature is actively noble and synonymous with God’s plan, so we should live in harmony with it”—hence, for example, we see Seneca going to great lengths struggling to try to prove that men should live in harmony with their natures (marked by wisdom, reason, prudence, etc.) , but that anger is UNNATURAL—strange, considering how universal it is, and how easy it is to fall prey to it without the vigorous training of Stoic philosophy to help arm us against it.

There’s no easy response to the debate at this point. The truth is, the Stoic, like the Zen Buddhist, seems to be in danger of falling prey to apathy rather than crusading in the name of Progress, for he mistakes spiritual numbness for the greatest good, when the elimination of pain and the promotion of the imagination through attempts to understand and control nature leads to more capacity for happiness for human society at large (to say nothing of the benefits of sometimes losing oneself to passion for the sake of an existential thrill). At the same time, because “Nature” was simultaneously hugely brutal but at the same time the source of the argument that humans were different from animals because we were “naturally” endowed with the capacity for virtue and logic, there’s a tension at the heart of the philosophy when it comes to the proper attitude toward Nature (is Nature, when considered in union with Fortune, good or bad from a human perspective?), Nature’s relationship to Fortune (are they synonymous?), and the relationship of Nature to the Nature of Human Nature. There’s so much equivocation it becomes difficult to sort it all out.

However, in my opinion, no philosophical lens is equally clarifying in all situations, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Stoicism emphasizes the freedom that comes from controlling our reactions to the tortuous aspects of Nature, and the importance of embracing Nature’s noble aspects, like our natural capacity for Reason. The suggestion is that with emotional freedom in the face of the harshness of Fortune, humans can become AUTHENTIC, since this is an actualization of their natural Reason, which dictates indifference to losing anything worldly as the only rational stance to take, since it will surely be lost in the end. This can provide a great clarifying lens when you’re in situations beyond your control, when you are becoming too passionate about something transitory, etc. It is perhaps less helpful a clarifying lens when thinking about other situations, like the need to increase justice in the world and the importance of existential abandon for true happiness. It’s not good to be a Stoic at all times, but there are times when it can be hugely emancipatory.

As a kind of afterward, I also wanted to mention that in Roman history, far from being passive, the Stoics were the most courageous senators who often had the balls to commit suicide rather than live under the tyranny of the worst autocrats. They refused to live “unfreely” and silent in the face of evil—they “embraced their natures” as free men and died courageously (think Cremutius Cordus, Seneca, the Stoic martyrs of the Flavians, etc.) There was a strong emphasis on fulfilling one’s duty, on rejecting worldly materialism, and on realizing the fundamental spiritual unity of all humans, regardless of their rank. It brought hope to the oppressed, from senators to slaves, and by the looks of this message board, it continues to inspire people to this day.

Massimo: Well, David appears to be under a number of (common, I must say) misconceptions concerning Stoicism. First, “living according to (or in harmony with) nature” doesn’t mean that nature is kind to human beings or that anger is not “natural” in the sense of being an instinctive reaction to certain situations. It means living in accordance to the best of human nature, i.e., that of a social animal capable of reason.

Nature for the Stoics isn’t good or bad, it just is. Yes, the ancient Stoics believed in “Providence,” but they didn’t mean anything like the Christian variety, they meant whatever happens as a result of cause and effect. So I don’t see the tension that David sees.

Second, no, Stoicism is in no danger to become a philosophy of apathy. It should be very clear from pretty much everything the Stoics wrote. Buddhism doesn’t risk that either, if I understand their tenets correctly.

I honestly don’t see why Stoicism isn’t helpful in terms of social justice. One of the four virtues is that of justice, and the Stoics affirmed the principle of cosmopolitanism that they inherited from the Cynics. Did they go out fighting revolutions in the modern progressive sense of the term? No, but then nobody did at the time, so this isn’t a problem specific to Stoicism.

‪Finally, I don’t have a particularly good opinion of transhumanism: Why we don’t need transhumanism.

Kimel: Massimo, LOL, there is no misconception because there is no single version of Stoicism. My engagement with the core ideas of the philosophy were both sound and valid, and that’s where the real debate is–not how “real” Stoics define these terms, according to you. Also, you can’t have it both ways–you can’t simultaneously say “Nature isn’t good or bad, it just IS” and at the same time say that the “good” is living in harmony with it–where did “the good” come from (especially if Nature can be changed and we’re not necessarily stuck with it?) I actually provided Henry a reason that we should live in harmony with Nature from a certain perspective bound to maximizing freedom and avoiding pain, and I think many Stoics would not have disagreed with me. I also admit the reality of its unfortunate/tragic aspects of Nature, which are actually central to Stoic thought when it comes to avoiding their emotional repercussions. And finally, I show that living “in harmony with Nature” can end up down problematic roads. As for Transhumanism, we’ll see which of is is on the right side of history after a millennium of genetic engineering and cyborg technology.

Jimmy: David, when you say, “Also, you can’t have it both ways–you can’t simultaneously say “Nature isn’t good or bad, it just IS” and at the same time say that the “good” is living in harmony with it–where did “the good” come from (especially if Nature can be changed and we’re not necessarily stuck with it?)” You misunderstand what the Stoics meant by Nature, in modern parlance it would be the algorithms that lie behind the laws of nature, would be the laws of nature…you can’t modify them, unless you pop next door across the mulitiverse and see what they’ve got going on over there. And I said this to Henry : you have misunderstood what the Stoics mean by nature. It doesn’t mean nature as sharp in tooth and red in claw, rather the apparent rational order within the cosmos. More understanding the algorithms behind physics and applying them to ethics, not letting it all hang out like apes.”

Kimel: I don’t think I have misunderstood it. I think I have pointed out that from a rational perspective, Nature can mean different things to different people, and its ambiguous relationship to the injustice of random outcomes from a human perspective is actually one of the central themes and challenges of stoicism (though its negative aspect is sometimes relegated to “Fortune”). Massimo’s line of thought seems to erase the reality of evil in the “physical outcomes of the universe” by detaching it from moral significance (I’m not surprised he’s not a transhumanist, since we believe in the inherent good of Progress in defiance of random physical outcomes); Jimmy’s line of thought tries to say that Nature isn’t something changeable and organic like “human nature,” but the general laws of physics, which evidently can give us moral insight but are invariable. But neither of you actually answered Hume or Henry’s queries.

Jimmy: How can something random be unjust? How can something without intention be evil?

Kimel: Think of a baby being born with a genetic illness we could have eliminated with medicine. From a HUMAN perspective it is unjust. I know what a Transhumanist would say about the proper attitude to the randomness, but what would a good Stoic say? I also want to point out that sometimes the Stoics use Nature to mean the laws of the cosmos, but sometimes they equivocate and use it as a shorthand for human nature, and often as a further shorthand for “the best in human nature.” There’s not a stable or coherent single definition. Also there’s no one version of Stoicism!

Jimmy: Genes are evil?

Kimel: Yes, ones causing outcomes leading to curable physical torment are evil from a HUMAN perspective.

Jimmy: So you believe in Satan or by evil do you mean undesirable?

Kimel: I define evil as curable physical torment that leads to no utilitarian ends. Progress is its elimination and the creation of the capacity for more art, love, health, and scientific understanding. Evil is always undesirable in some ways but not in all ways by all people; and the undesirable is not always evil (as anyone on a healthy but yucky diet knows). Evil and undesirable are related ideas but are not synonyms. EG Imagine Livia poisoned Gaius and Lucius, which was certainly undesirable to them and arguably an evil act, but it wasn’t undesirable to her since it fulfilled her selfish ends. She tries to justify it to Claudius in Graves’ novels by claiming it was for a utilitarian rather than a personal end–ie it was for the good of the empire–and thus tries to exonerate herself.)

Jimmy: Can we row back to there being evil without agency? ‪A coconut falling out of a tree is not evil, if it falls on someone’s head or not. ‪Similarly a genetic mutation is blind. Neither good nor evil.

Kimel: I think we’re getting into a battle of semantics here. Permitting the evil effect to continue is what’s evil, if agency must come into it. But also… an event or gene can have evil effects, and to that degree it is evil even without autonomous human agency guiding it. Sir, if this is leading down a road where you try to use rhetoric to deny the importance of human agency in the relief of physical torment, I think you’re kind of proving some of the points in my original argument about how the Stoic attitude toward “Nature” is not always helpful.

Jimmy: We agree that human inaction could be evil. ‪If you were walking under the tree and I failed to warn you that a coconut was about to fall, that would be wrong, evil if you like.‪Would you cure sickle cell anemia?

Kimel: I’d leave it up to parents to weigh the risks of using the medicine, which will lessen over time as the medicines get better. At first there will be linked genes, etc., that make genetic engineering riskier, but insofar as we empower parents to force their children to be born in the first place (and to be born with genetic illnesses) and to make big health decisions all the time, it will lead to progress and less sickness in the long term. (For example, sickle cell anemia has anti malarial properties, doesn’t it? Parents would be unwise to remove the gene in some circumstances. But in the future we can perhaps eliminate the disease and still keep the linked benefit.)

Massimo: David, it’s a bit hard to take seriously a comment that includes LOL, but I’ll try. Stoics didn’t equivocate between human and cosmic nature, they clearly meant both. It’s also clear that the latter is to be used as guidance in human life. ‪So there is no contradiction at all in saying that Nature (the Cosmos) just is, but that it is also good to act in certain ways for human purposes. The fact that ancient and modern Stoics disagree on some aspects of the philosophy is neither surprising nor problematic. Do you know of any philosophy (including transhumanism) for which that’s not the case ‪Transhumanism itself means a lot of different things to different people, and “ending up on the right side of history” is hardly a litmus test for being ethically right. And no, cancer is not evil, by any reasonable definition of evil. It just is. But obviously we, as humans, try to counter it if possible. Again, no contradiction.

Jimmy: The gene that causes sickle cell gives immunity to malaria. I thought you might know that.

Kimel: Obviously I know that. I mentioned it in my answer! And Massimo, please see the whole preceding discussion about how I define evil and progress. I go into it in my article too. Also, it’s Facebook, not the Ritz. Who cares about LOL. Do you think Socrates would have cared about how people spoke? It’s the content of an argument that makes it serious or not, not the style, and not how many Likes it gets. The Stoics did not always mean a single cosmic and human nature which was all one thing and all morally neutral–why else did Seneca work so hard to show anger was UNNATURAL? ‪We disagree about the definition of evil. If your definition leads you to the conclusion we don’t need transhumanism, I’m not very compelled by the relevance of Stoic philosophy to our modern world as you understand the philosophy. Luckily, though, there is no one Stoicism. Anyway, peace out! Off to party with the Epicureans…

Jimmy: My bad David.

Kimel: Sorry if this got heated–I’m a debater by training. You guys are clearly very brilliant and have great insights, and I think there are ways to reconcile Stoicism and Transhumanism.

Jimmy: Not at all heated.

Massimo: David, no worries about getting heated, though I do think calm conversation, rather than debate, is what’s useful. ‪Okay, the LOL thing is trivial, but just because we are on Facebook that doesn’t mean we can’t have a conversation as adults. No need to be at the Ritz… ‪I did *not* say that the Stoics always meant the same thing by cosmic and human nature, on the contrary. But just because those are separate concepts they don’t need to be contradictory. Both the cosmos and humans are “natural,” which means not intrinsically good or bad. They just are. But as human beings we care about certain things (“good”) and want to stay away from others (“bad”). Seneca thought that anger is unnatural in precisely the sense that I meant: not that it doesn’t “naturally” (i.e., instinctively) occur, but that it is contrary to reason. *That* is what the Stoics meant by human nature: the nature of a social animal capable of reason. It’s not just that we disagree about the definition of evil, I know few people who think that natural phenomena deserve moral labels. Morality is a human invention, so for me it makes no sense to talk about evil cancer. And perhaps you are under some misunderstanding about my issues with transhumanism, which is why I linked the essay above. I certainly don’t object to curing diseases.

Kimel: Sir, first you said: “Stoics didn’t equivocate between human and cosmic nature, they clearly meant both. It’s also clear that the latter is to be used as guidance in human life.” ‪But then you said: “I did *not* say that the Stoics always meant the same thing by cosmic and human nature, on the contrary…” So did they mean the same thing or not? The answer is, sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. Depends on the author and context. Your intuition that it’s impossible to assign moral categories to physical outcomes which stand beyond human autonomy (like plague, pestilence, war, etc.) is not universally held. Events can be evil in light of their effects and the subjective repercussions they bring. But whether we define the event as evil or inaction in its face as evil is perhaps a moot point. Also, I like using informal language. It makes philosophy more accessible. If it’s good enough for Catullus, it’s good enough for me. A conversation, like a poem, isn’t a treatise.

Massimo: I’m afraid we are running quickly toward the end of a useful thread. Still: despite your protestations to the contrary, there is no contradiction in either the Stoic or my position: human nature is a subset of cosmic nature, obviously. So a Stoic may refer to one or the other. If to the broader, then the narrower is implied, if to the narrower, then that stands on its own and doesn’t imply the broader. You can call it an “intuition,” but it makes no sense to attribute moral valence to things that don’t have agency. It’s a category error. But of course you do that by bringing in the “subjective repercussions” brought on by natural phenomena. So it’s not really the phenomena in themselves that are evil, but our judgment of them. Which is precisely the Stoic position, incidentally. And I think there is a huge chasm between Catullus and LOL…

Kimel: Didn’t Catullus use the language of the street, even specific verbs for different kinds of sexual gratification? So LOL indeed. Of course an act in itself can have moral valence without autonomy in light of its relationship to pleasure and pain. Consider “murder” versus “killing.” Isn’t one definitionally evil? Isn’t the other only potentially so? If Stoics equate nature with either everything that happens (which includes bad stuff from a human perspective) or human nature (which includes very bad urges), then saying live in harmony with nature isn’t a very persuasive philosophy. (And that’s why Henry started this thread). But my formulation actually provided a valid response to Hume from a stoic perspective, while acknowledging the limitations of a Stoic perspective in some contexts.

Massimo: Use all the LOL’s that you like, it’s a dispreferred indifferent to me. ‪”Murder vs killing”? Those are *obviously* human judgments. Do you think a lion kills or murders the cubs of another lion whose harem he has taken over? It’s not an either/or, it’s a both! But they are not identical. If it’s not a persuasive philosophy to you that’s fine, that’s outside of my control. But it is a beautiful and meaningful one for lots of people. ‪The Stoics already had a response to Hume (so to speak), in their developmental account of morality.

Kimel: Well, you try to argue that murder and killing are hard to distinguish so it’s just a value judgment, but it’s like saying the color orange doesn’t exist because it’s an illusion between red and yellow in a rainbow with no clear beginning or end. But “orange” is still “orange” despite attempts to explain it away. Murder is an example of evil in action because we define it as an unjust killing (and injustice in the world increases pain and diminishes happiness). Actions can be evil in themselves depending on how we define the action. ‪I think a better approach to railing against transhumanism is to try to find ways to reconcile traditional philosophies with a progressive and futuristic outlook; the link between Transhumanism and the Stoic’s ideal of a universal city, for example, is intriguing. I never said Stoic philosophy didn’t persuade me. I said the answer to Hume on this thread was insufficient, and I provided an alternate one (albeit one that could be further refined along more Transhumanist lines). ‪Every philosophy is a prism that is helpful in some circumstances and less so in others. It always helps to consider the Stoic approach, but there are situations where it’s not good to be a Stoic. We have to be passionate sometimes about taking nature into our own hands to crusade against evil outcomes.

Jimmy: Hume thing is easy. ‪Smoking is a cause of cancer, you ought not to smoke (assuming you don’t want cancer as an a priori) ‪It isn’t rocket surgery. ‪All the Stoics are saying is “if you want to live well, you ought to live wisely, courageously, prudently.with temperance.” That it is in our human character to aspire be be wise, to tend to a greater understanding of ourselves and our place within the cosmos isn’t really a ridiculous hypothesis and is well argued by Stoic thinkers..

Donald: I agree with a lot of the comment from David. I disagree with the interpretation of Stoicism (?) in the first para. The Stoic goal isn’t to live in agreement with nature in order to “avoid pain”, rather living in agreement with nature is conceived of as an end in itself. The reason Stoics believe anger is unnatural (para 2) is that it’s not in accord with reason, being, according to their analysis, a value-judgement holding that some external thing is morally bad. (Their premise is that only our own actions can be judged good or bad.) ‪Para 3: It seems to me that Stoic apatheia is not the same as “apathy”. It’s the overcoming of unhealthy/irrational passions, not complete indifference toward external things or total lack of desire and emotions. It’s perfectly compatible with human affection and a desire for justice, etc. See the numerous references in Marcus Aurelius, on every other page, to natural affection, brotherhood, philanthropy, cosmopolitanism, justice and kindness.

Kimel: My first paragraph provided an answer to Hume by marrying stoicism to some epicurean thinking; many of the arguments are variations on real stoic arguments, though. The whole point of the thread is that saying be in harmony with nature as an end in itself isn’t sufficient for Hume. ‪As for apathy and indifference… it depends on the author. Some Stoics said to practice not loving things, even your own children. EDIT: They didn’t say not to love, they said not to care when something is removed, which is kind of paradoxical if you really think about it, and really means not to fully love.

Jimmy: I think you might find it was rather practicing imagining their children having died, to learn the impermanence of all things. The Roman Stoics at least are shot through with love and kindness. Marcus in particular.

Massimo: I don’t think any Stoic said you should not love your children. They said you should accept that they are mortal and are going to die. As for merging Stoicism and Epicureanism, it’s impossible, they are mutually exclusive. As Dan often puts it, they both valued virtue and avoidance of pain, but the Stoics put the first on top, the Epicureans the second. It’s either one of the other.

Kimel: I think it’s disingenuous to say you can love something truly and not regret its loss. Epictetus (?) said to begin training yourself to be detached at the thought of loss by thinking about your attachment to a jug and then working up to your attachment for your family. I don’t deny that Stoics like Marcus Aurelius emphasized love and compassion, but to be fair, Stoics can’t completely have their cake and eat it too–telling us to love something passionately, but not to care when it’s ripped away from you.

Stoicism and Epicureanism are not mutually exclusive in all ways; as you mention, they even value many of the same ends. Implicit in in my opening post was the idea that we need recourse to a discussion of pleasure, pain, and its avoidance and an honest appraisal of the evils of nature from a human perspective in order to answer Hume’s objection to Stoicism. Otherwise you are left with the problem that Nature and human nature (whether they are the same or not–you shifted your opinion on this a bit***) might be “natural” but are not necessarily good to embrace. I thought your attitude toward transhumanism (whose practitioners are the heirs of Bentham and Epicurus) was telling, and might speak to it being problematic to use a Stoic lens in all situations–sometimes, it’s better to rail against Nature, or transcend it.

‪What is virtue? If someone read this thread from the beginning, it would be hard to say “be in harmony with Nature” instead of “be a transhumanist and eliminate unwanted torment.” The elimination of torment IS virtue.

‪(*** At first we have, “Stoics didn’t equivocate between human and cosmic nature, they clearly meant both. It’s also clear that the latter is to be used as guidance in human life,” but then you said: “I did *not* say that the Stoics always meant the same thing by cosmic and human nature, on the contrary…”)

Donald: This line of argument surprises me. People try to argue that it’s simply self-evident that to accept the loss of something is incompatible with love but it seems to me there are a great many ordinary people (non-Stoics) for whom that just seems like common sense or facing up to the realities of life.

Kimel: I guess a lot of people don’t permit themselves to love something to the point of being really dependent on it, then. Kind of sad in a way–it’s being so ruled by fear of loss, you don’t let yourself get really lost in emotion.

Henry: Great to read this debate. Many fun thoughts. I have just caught up on it with the time delay across the Atlantic.

David, as you point out, my question is still unanswered. Massimo for some reason my original question in its full form, when I tried to direct it to you it failed – I pasted it again above.

But the simple summary is: isn’t the empirical argument for Stoic philosophy broken because — while cooperation appears to be a part of our nature — violence is, too?

Therefore, the argument “it is our nature empirically” fails as a justification for the Stoic virtues and for the purpose so often cited by, for example, Marcus Aurelius, “The fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good” (6.30).

I suspect, however, strongly that Marcus Aurelius is in fact correct and that living rationally, i.e. with integrity, i.e. with “good character”, is the right way to live, and furthermore that this will entail cooperation with all other reasoning beings. I propose that we need a strong deductive argument. I propose no less audacious a claim than that, in order for Stoic philosophy to live again, for us to truly live out its claim to live rationally, we must discover or invent a rational argument bridging Hume’s observation that he has never found an argument between is and ought.

Jimmy: Henry, we have visited this already. ‪That there is violence in nature does not make it a virtue. Humans discriminate between what is desirable, and what is not. ‪It is not a blank appeal to nature wherein we should be violent because there is violence. ‪Virtues can only be good and pursued as ends in themselves. The pursuit of wisdom or love of our neighbor as an end in itself will not result in badness, whereas violence at all is badness, regardless if it being pursued as an end in itself. The pursuit of virtue is synonymous with pursuing nature as our nature is virtuous. ‪If you want to pursue the Stoics for holding virtue as an end in itself, you will have to take down Socrates, Plato and Aristotle as well. You misread Hume, he says oughts are frequently derived from is without justification, not that it is iimpossible, in fact it is perfect banal when qualified. ‪Yellow snow is dogs piss. ‪Is it desirable to drink dogs piss? ‪Depending on your view you ought or ought not to eat yellow snow.

Henry: You write, “Humans discriminate between what is desirable, and what is not.” How many millions of people throughout the history of our species have concluded, as a result of that discrimination, that it is their desire to kill? That it is their desire to commit an injustice? That is their desire to act with violence? Just last night here in Berlin I walked past a park and caught a glimpse of a a group of teenage boys drunkenly attacking a public construction sign with punishing kicks.

In fact, as the great Martha Nussbaum describes in her Neo-Stoic explorations of the Hellenistic schools in “The Therapy of Desire”, the Stoics want to use rational argument to guide our behavior – not to follow our desires. In many cases this leads to (from the outside) bizarre behavior from the Stoics in terms of “what is desirable” and “what is not” — for example, Cato committing suicide, Socrates drinking the hemlock, or Seneca eating only crusts of bread and a glass of water despite a great fortune and all the food he could want — in other words, a philosophical therapy of their desire based on reason.

You write “the pursuit of virtue is synonymous with pursuing nature as our nature is virtuous”. What is the reason that life “red in tooth and claw” as you write is excluded from your definition of nature? Why is that rational to exclude it?

As for taking down Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – yes, tragically, that is exactly what Hume did. Hume showed that this foundational idea of the Greeks, that what is natural is good, is false / irrational — or at least he showed that we haven’t found an argument for it… yet.

Jimmy: One thing at a time. Here’s Hume. ‪In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given. ‪A reason should be given, not that the project is impossible.

Henry: I totally agree. I don’t see a reason why it’s impossible. Has an argument been discovered or invented for it yet, that you know of?

Jimmy: If you are truly interested Henry, look into Socrates and see how the thinking developed. The Stoics are kind of an offshoot of the Cynics.

Henry: Socrates and the Cynics believe that what is natural is good. This Ethical Naturalism article you cited explains, “Ethical naturalism encompasses any reduction of ethical properties, such as ‘goodness’, to non-ethical properties; there are many different examples of such reductions, and thus many different varieties of ethical naturalism. Hedonism, for example, is the view that goodness is ultimately just pleasure.” In other words, apparently, Hedonism can be justified just as easily by ethical naturalism as the Stoic philosophical life and its virtues. How can you use this “Ethical Naturalism” to defend the Stoic virtues?

Jimmy: This is the core of your misunderstanding. ‪Only human intentions, human actions can be good or bad. Nature/Cosmos/Logos is rational and providential. This is general nature. ‪Let’s use logos as a synonym for nature, they are one and the same.

Our particular logos is a subset of the general logos, so to accord with the logos we should (if we so desire) align our particular logos with the general logos. Then we will experience eudaemonia, spiritual well being.

‪That people are violent is true but violence is neither rational nor does it act towards the general good and is thus against the logos, is against our true nature.

These people are acting in error, they think they are doing good, as they see it, but this is the opposite of wisdom, Amathia (great word) disknowledge, unlearning.

Henry: I think this is all beautiful but I think we’re just back to the same problem as before. If the general logos is the source of reason, and the general logos has imbued its subsets, including ours, with violence, then why shouldn’t violence be rational? Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge is also a system of virtue ethics, I suppose. Teachers working in the fields until they die is one of their virtues. I’m reluctant to use such a strong example, but perhaps you get my drift – there are lots of possible systems of virtue ethics, i.e. seeing particular things as ends in themselves. ‪What we’re after is a reason-based virtue ethics. That’s the original promise of Socrates and Stoic philosophy.

Jimmy: The Epicureans “follow nature/follow virtue” no less than the Stoics. There is simply that the Epicureans think virtues necessary for pleasure, whereas the Stoics find them sufficient.

Henry: Both the Epicureans and Stoics, and all the Greek schools, are undermined by Hume’s argument

Jimmy: Hume says is that an explanation is required and having goals provides explanations. ‪Hume is a caveat to moral arguments, not a divine law forbidding them….See More

Henry: What is the reason to pick one goal over another? ‪What is the reason to pick one of the four Stoic virtues as a goal instead of the goal “kill that person” over there?

Jimmy: I have to go, that we don’t pick goals that fuck things up is the key, and we can learn how to do that. ‪Killing people generally turns out badly in terms of personal guilt, harm to other people and harm to society. ‪Stoicism is all about not fucking up. It’s supposed to be practical. ‪Should you run people over when driving to work? If not, why not?

Henry: Socrates was given the opportunity to leave Athens rather than face the trial. It would have been practical for him to do so. Instead, he stayed in Athens, and he drank the hemlock. Cato, too. Seneca, too etc.

Yes, Stoic philosophy is practical in the sense of “living out a practice”, but its ends can be extremely impractical, demanding that we act according to virtues like courage that require great difficulties and dangers. And it relies on the argument that its particular and (to outsiders) peculiar ends, its virtues — which can even entail suicide — are good and rational.

Is your argument that I wouldn’t run people over while driving to work that Stoic Philosophy is, so to speak, common sense? It seems to me that “common sense” is exactly what Socrates, the Cynics and the Stoics attack in their drive to live a reason-based life.

Jimmy: Nobody said it was easy. You asked why we don’t decide to kill people and I replied. It is generally common sense, we consider our actions, the urges that push us to action.

Massimo: Henry, I see lots of comments already, but the answer is actually simple: the Stoics were concerned with the *best* attributes of human nature, which are cooperation as social animals and ability to reason. They were perfectly aware that human beings are also naturally violent, angry, etc.. But they thought it empirically obvious that we do great things when we cooperate and use reason, not when we destroy things out of anger and greed.

Henry: Massimo Pigliucci… Thanks kindly – good thoughts.

‪In this crazy-long comment-chain — I have never been in a longer one in my life I think — we did already touch on this question of *best* attributes.

I absolutely agree with you that the ancient Stoics believed this as you describe, that violence was a part of our nature, but not the *best* part.

The question is, is the argument behind that crucial judgment correct / reasonable?

Moreover even if it is correct / reasonable, how do we discriminate between the things we do through cooperation that we might suspect are “not great” (Pol Pot’s soldiers cooperating to sweep away the teachers of Cambodia to the countryside, for example) and the ones that are?

More important though is the first question. Why is it empirically true or obvious that the things we do through cooperation and reason are “great things” and the ones we do through, say, violence are not?

One idea that comes to mind would be that empirically human beings are able to do, create, build, grow, etc. more by cooperating.

‪It certainly does appear that from nature, cooperation is the true killer app / naturally selected trait. By certain measures, we are the most successful species on the planet. By the measure of pure biomass, its ants. But either way, ants or humans, it’s a species that thrives on cooperation.

‪But that still seems flawed, because then the argument is that the root of Stoic philosophy is cooperation because it enables our species to grow more. First of all, that would not make cooperation an end in itself — our species growth would be the true end. But if that was our true end, then there might be all sorts of weird logical consequences: for example, maybe each man should marry 6 women, as suggested in the imagined bunkers of Dr. Strangelove; birth control should be abolished, or other such measures.

Jimmy: The two Stoic axioms are that

‪a) Humans are rational

‪b) Humans are social.

‪Never ending population growth after a point would be an irrational goal as it is not sustainable and would ultimately be harmful.

Massimo: Any philosophy is established on axioms. The Stoic ones are those listed by Jimmy above. They are good enough for me. One can argue that different axioms yield a better philosophy, like Epicureanism. Maybe, but there are good arguments developed by the Stoics against other philosophies. Moreover, I think the quest for a philosophy that is universally true and based on indisputable axioms is a fool’s errand, and we shouldn’t waste our time with it.

Henry: Thank you for your words that Stoic philosophy for you is established on axioms. I acknowledge that, just as a Christian philosopher can develop arguments from a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith,” so, too, can a member of a Hellenistic school. And they can have a certain circumscribed integrity on the other side of that leap, acknowledging that it is held on the other side by faith or a decision to believe.

‪Nevertheless I charge that the great strength of Socrates and the Stoic philosophy that followed him is that they did not say, “just do it because it’s listed in my axioms on this tablet (from god, or from myself)”, but rather used arguments and reasoning to discover axioms that were, so far as they knew at the time, true.

Through that they won a true integrity (wholeness) – acting rationally, acting in the way that is right – that it’s hard for us, in this post-modern age where picking a philosophy or a religion might as well be a trip to the shopping mall, to even imagine.

‪If the axioms on which we build Stoic philosophy are false – i.e. not “universally true” and “indisputable” then how can we build “good arguments” against Epicureanism, Hedonism, racism, or any other type of system?

If it isn’t true that the Stoic virtues are ends in themselves, but rather a matter of preference, then how can a system of philosophy that argues virtue is the true good help us to live with integrity?

Jimmy: Nobody said Stoicism wasn’t falsifiable in principle. It is scientific in that regard. ‪You are free to argue that a life lived foolishly is superior, by whichever criteria you choose, to one lived wisely. Stoicism is very robust and above all coherent.

Kimel: ‪What I want to suggest to you here is that Bentham was right, and every great philosophy is secretly built on an Epicurean basis—that is, they all come down to assertions about “the Good” from a human perspective based on unnecessary torment being “the Bad” (and I want to suggest to you that its elimination is at least “the Good” even if whether Pleasure is the Good is another story.) In this case, from a deductive framework, I could argue that virtues are Good from a rule utilitarian perspective because when people act bravely, wisely, judiciously, etc., there is more happiness overall and less pain in society. Virtues are “good” because of their effects.

‪I think that until now in the history of philosophy, different schools have dueled each other trying to prove that each was the One. But the truth is, the world is complex, and just as we can view reality through a telescope, a magnifying glass, or even a distorting lens, we can consider human relations from the perspective of different philosophical schools, and only act after weighing the pros and cons from a variety of different frameworks. E.g., while one might not be a Marxist, applying a Marxist lens to questions about social change can help to illuminate specific dynamics associated with, for instance, class struggle. This is why so much of the work of people like Freud remains interesting and relevant despite the fact that few psychiatrists today subscribe strictly to his specific model of the human spirit; applying his model, however bizarre it sometimes appears, can help to emphasize and clarify the role of forces like family interaction in early childhood and repressed memories in shaping character. Ideally, scholars should use a variety of thematic lenses to examine a subject from different vantage points; many, however, stick strictly to their favorite set of glasses, stubbornly ignoring the microscopes and binoculars of the world and complaining that such apparatuses blur vision because they cannot learn to refocus their vision. You know my interest in using the lens of complexity theory, which accentuates the role of the unexpected, the contingent, and the probabilistic on history.

‪If we use this model, I think that the argument I gave in my first response provides an answer to Hume, even if we need to use a little Epicurean logic. To me, there are two separate but related branches of Stoicism (actually many more, but I want to talk about two.) One emphasizes the importance of enduring adversity with a calm mind, and the other talks about being in harmony with Nature. The Stoics draw the conclusion you should endure adversity with a calm mind from the principle we should be in harmony with Nature, and that is why the two branches exist—they’re interrelated. But an Epicurean is perhaps the opposite—he begins from the deductively defensible position that pain is the bad, and then shows that by enduring adversity with a calm mind and being balanced in our dealings with existence, we reduce pain. From here, I tried to bridge back to Stoic arguments; the way to endure adversity with a calm mind and be balanced in our dealings with the world is to detach ourselves emotionally from the idea of loss and practice virtue ethics. I don’t know if any Epicurean philosopher ever put it quite like that, but that syllogism is actually pretty implicit in this school of thought—and this, Henry, is the reason that in practice, the Stoics and Epicureans behaved in the same way, even though they argued about first principles.

‪But according to the model I just presented, we can provide a deductive basis for Stoicism from an Epicurean foundation, and the philosophies aren’t at odds. The only people who think they’re at odds are the insistent people on this thread who won’t let go of the idea that “being in harmony with nature is good” doesn’t need to be questioned as a first principle. The first principle I give you is better—pain is bad from a human perspective and its removal is good. Unnecessary torment being bad (at least in part) is the only question to which the answer “it just is” is sufficient–it’s how we feel.

Jimmy: The big axiomatic difference between Stoic and Epicureans is that Stoics thought the principle of all life was self preservation and that pleasure was secondary, a marker if you like, roughly equating to pleasurable stuff is likely to be helpful… My favorite quote by Epicurus:

‪Therefore wisdom is a more precious thing even than philosophy ; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly; nor live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.

Kimel: There are other pleasures beyond those accessed through virtue, no matter what the ancient Epicureans said. The idea that Nature/virtue are synonymous might be a stoic axiom, but it’s an unsound principle, no matter what the ancient Stoics said. Henry and Hume’s challenge was to defend stoicism on first principles, which requires more than presenting the arguments of ancient authors. The closest I’ve seen is a vague reference to the idea of oikeiosis and the idea that survival is a better first principle than eliminating pain and maximizing virtue. But I think my “neo-epicurean” answer to Hume is more effective.

Jimmy: We’ve been through that, Hume’s challenge is surmounted by postulating goal directed behaviour.

‪In order to achieve X we ought to Y.

‪It is no different for Utilitarians or Stoics or Transhumanists in fact….

Kimel: You’re just reasserting that nature is the good. It’s not a sound argument.

Jimmy: Nature being synonymous with wisdom, the axiom is that being wise is better than being dumb….Would you take issue with that?

Kimel: Yes, because nature is not synonymous with wisdom. And notice how you Stoics use “nature” in this slippery way where sometimes you refer to the laws of physics, sometimes to human nature, and now evidently to wisdom.

Jimmy: Phusis is the ancient Greek word for “nature,” cognate with the verb “to grow” (phuein ); as in English, it can be used both for the natural world as a whole and for the “nature” (i.e., the essential or intrinsic characteristics) of any particular thing, which it has “by nature” (phusei ). We are Homo sapiens.

Kimel: Yeah, a species that murders, lies, etc. Its nature isn’t exclusively to be wise, and the nature of the world around it is hugely cruel. The only answer now is maximize the wise to maximize the good, etc. but you’ve gone a long way from be in harmony with nature. Now it’s be in harmony with parts of nature, but what parts? And the specter of Bentham creeps us again. Also “be in harmony with nature to maximize survival” leads to Machiavelli, not virtue ethics. Another thing Stoics now try to do is show that things like anger are “unnatural” to get away from the idea that our nature is anything less than the Good.

Jimmy: You are throwing out a lot of stuff there. The onset of anger is natural, to give in to it, to nurture it unwise..

Kimel: Always?

Jimmy: Have you not read Seneca?

Kimel: Yeah, but he’s wrong.

Jimmy: Is that your whole hypothesis? Under which circumstances is it best to nurture anger? To be carried away by it?

Kimel: There exist circumstances in which it is right to be angry, like perceiving deliberate cruelty for its own sake being perpetuated and doing nothing. Then after the initial spark of anger, it inspires moderate action to best correct the injustice. Anger needn’t be untempered by wisdom. So Anger too has its place. Also when you get carried away by anger, there’s cathartic value. The momentary release of anger perhaps creates more moderation later.

Jimmy: You have just paraphrased Seneca.

Kimel: I don’t disagree with everything in Seneca. I just disagree with him that anger is unnatural.

Jimmy: But you are saying the same thing as Seneca… Protopassions

Kimel: Did he say anger is natural and it leads to a cathartic release potentially making more moderate and wise behavior more likely afterwards? Also even if anger is manifested viciously, it is still 100% natural.

Jimmy: Honestly David, I might suggest that you find out what the Stoics actually thoughts before you attack what you think they thought.

Kimel: Cool. Nice chatting!

Jimmy: Cool…

Kimel: The way to answer me from a Stoic perspective wasn’t to argue about ancient authors and who is better read and understands them better, but to try to derive deductive arguments for being in harmony with nature from first principles without recourse to pleasure and pain.

Jimmy: Because the individual is defined by the society in which they live. Harm to the one is harm to the whole, harm to the whole is harm to the one…

Kimel: Nature is more beautiful than good.

Jimmy:  “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” J S Mill

Massimo: I really don’t think Bentham was right, and an Epicurean philosophy is highly problematic, as it includes a withdrawal from public and political life.

‪As for the Stoic axioms, they did defend them with arguments, they didn’t just pluck them out of nowhere. But philosophers tend to agree these days that every argument at some point runs into a floor below which there is no further justification. Like in geometry, either the axioms are self evidently true or useful or they are not. I find the Stoic ones to be both true and useful, but of course opinions vary.

Kimel: That sounds like an excuse not to provide justifications for being in harmony with nature from first principles without recourse to pleasure and pain, and somehow deriving virtue ethics from that.

Jimmy: You might try somes scholarly sources for that: I’m not an academic. It is a very robust philosophy that held sway for around 500 years, it would be a shame to write it off as bollocks before having a good look. You might even find inspiration.…/dp/0521779855

Kimel: I never, ever said it was bullocks. Read over my original comments again. Sometimes a Stoic prism is useful, but to try to provide it with a deductive basis, you need recourse to pleasure/pain. Good discussion!

Jimmy: Are you simply saying that any ethics that isn’t utilitarian is impossible? Bit dogmatic: Utilitarianism itself is far from without criticism.

Kimel: I’m saying that all philosophies involve “the good,” the elimination of unnecessary pain and the maximization of virtuous pleasure is clearly “the good” from a human perspective, and pleasure and pain are the correct first principles to work with.

Jimmy: All? Only consequentialist ethics. Not virtue ethics or deontological ethics. Locke and Kant didn’t work like that.

Massimo: David, again, most philosophers don’t think there is such thing as “first principles”. Try to provide an example and you’ll see I can always come back and ask “why?”

Kimel: Virtue ethics can only be justified from a utilitarian perspective in the end, I think, but let’s not get into it. I’m not interested in rehashing the arguments of the old philosophers I’m interested in truth. Intense thread! Massimo, if that’s your answer to Hume and you’re sufficiently confident, then that’s dope (by which I mean chill, not dumb), but it requires a leap of faith.

Massimo: David, maximizing pleasure is very obviously not the highest good.

Kimel: Depends how we define pleasure, doesn’t it…? Isn’t contribution to the maximization of art and scientific progress the highest pleasure, and the elimination of unnecessary pain a virtue?

Massimo: David, if you want to play sophistic games with the definition of pleasure I’m not joining you. But to claim that virtue ethics can only be justified on utilitarian grounds is to profoundly misunderstand both virtue ethics and utilitarianism.

Kimel: Then please justify virtue ethics for me on the basis of first principles other than pleasure and pain. But when you say be in harmony with “nature,” don’t play the same sophistic games you suggest I play with “pleasure.” Also, the idea that all people inspired by Epicurean philosophy should withdraw from political life because some ancient epicureans did is bad logic. We can debate about how to maximize and experience different forms of pleasure, including the pleasure of participating in a democratic community (as a Transhumanist I identify pleasure with the elimination of unwanted torment and the maximization of progress through art and science), but you can’t provide any justification for virtue or stoic principles without recourse to pleasure and pain. At least not on this thread.

Jimmy: What are your thoughts on Kantian ethics?

Massimo: And David, did you miss the part where I said that nothing can be justified from first principles? ‪As for my allegedly bad logic, we agree that a modern Epicurean doesn’t have to accept everything Epicurus said, though I would then like you to extend the same courtesy to the Stoics.

Kimel: That’s why I’m a transhumanist, not an Epicurean, but we and the utilitarians are their evolutionary descendants… Jimmy, the categorical imperative is unsound. There is no justification for why universalizing an action and its hypothetical effects should decide whether it should be morally permissible to me as an individual. It’s based on the intuition that it’s bad to make moral exceptions for ourselves, but as a general formula for deciding on an action’s morality, it clearly fails–think of the example of lying to a murderer to prevent his killing his next victims. That one always causes kantians a lot of trouble… however, given that I think we should use different philosophies non mutually exclusively to gain insight on how to act, it’s worth considering Kant’s perspective too. Also please see for my refutation of Kantian aesthetics (it’s under “philosophy”)

Henry: One thing I will say, this thread is the most intense that I’ve ever been in.Massimo you write of Stoic axioms, “they are good enough for me” and “I find the Stoic ones to be useful.” What is the measure you use for useful and good enough? ‪It can’t be happiness. That is, we both agree, not the measure that the Stoics use for themselves. It’s a more Epicurean measure and as you write, and I agree, “Epicurean philosophy is highly problematic.” ‪It can’t be reason, because we’ve already ascertained that they are not “universally true” or “indisputable” – i.e., in more simple words, they are not true. ‪One of the great insights of Stoic philosophy is that we cannot hold two contradictory impressions in our mind at the same time. We must waver between them in a kind of painful cognitive dissonance. This is one of the reasons that reasoned integrity can bring us joy. Thus we cannot find something to be both true and not true at the same time. Either the logic behind Stoic axioms is true, or it is false. Our mind cannot handle a middle ground there – at best it could waver between them. What is the measure by which you determine that Stoic philosophy’s axioms, in light of Hume, are good enough or useful?

Massimo: Henry, because they resonate with my understanding of human nature, and if followed provide meaning to my life and make me more useful to society. What else would I want?

Kimel: Problem is, I can say that any philosophy or religion “resonates with my understanding of human nature;” it’s subjective, and dependent on my life experience and upbringing. The idea of Stoicism adding value to life through more meaning and leading to more “usefulness” for society sounds pretty Epicurean/utilitarian to me–the reason it’s “good” is that it leads to more happiness for you and society.

Henry:‪ Yes, I agree with you David. “Resonates with my understanding of human nature” – do you mean it subjectively or objectively? It sounds subjective to me. And “more meaning” sounds like a term that, when carefully scrutinized and broken down, would turn out to be “happiness.”

Massimo: Okay people, please give me an example of any philosophy that doesn’t resonate “subjectively.” What, are we talking math now?

Kimel: Massimo, I agree with you–but some philosophies have stronger rational foundations than others, and are hence more appealing to logical thinkers across cultures–they “resonate” more strongly because their foundational principles are rigorously sound.

Massimo: Indeed, and the Stoic one is one of the strongest I know of. That’s not at all mutually exclusive with its tenets “resonating” with me at a subjective level, no?

Kimel: Well, it speaks highly to your character that you took the time and energy to engage in a multi-day debate on this topic examining the underpinnings of your belief system. We might not agree on lots of things, but I think that your participation shows great depth of character and patience on your part, and I thank you for it. Without question, this is one of the most thought provoking discussions I’ve been involved in…

Henry: Massimo, I can absolutely respect and honor that as a leap of faith as David referred to it earlier, just as I respect my best friend who is a Catholic, and who has many reasoned arguments built upon his leap of faith. ‪It seems to be problematic philosophically though for two reasons.

‪First, it seems to me that we cannot capture the deep and profound sense of integrity that the ancient Stoic philosophers lived out. To them, their virtues were “absolutely true”, the fruit of pure reason. That integrity of being empowered them in all kinds of ways. It made them into teachers. Above all, I think it really motivated them. For our minds, as mentioned above regarding contradiction, there is all the difference in the world between, “in my opinion cooperation is a good thing, but I respect your opinion that non-cooperation is good” and “Cooperation IS the good. I respect you as a reasoning being. And while my reasoning may be incorrect, would you like to reason-out together whether cooperation is good?”

‪Second, there seem to be real reasons to question your understanding of human nature — as much as I really want to share it (and in many ways I do share it, because I do believe that cooperation plays an enormous and beautiful role in our being). It appears that violence / power, as I described at the beginning of this thread, is a major element in us that plays a role in all kinds of ways, even in our fundamental sexuality. If we are going to call our reasoning cooperativeness higher than that, the increasingly decadent post-modern world is going to ask us why. And we should go out to them with beautiful reasons.

Jimmy: To quote Marcus Aurelius, If thou findest in human life anything better than justice, truth, temperance, fortitude, and, in a word, anything better than thy own mind’s self-satisfaction in the things which it enables thee to do according to right reason, and in the condition that is assigned to thee without thy own choice; if, I say, thou seest anything better than this, turn to it with all thy soul…

Henry: Jimmy, this is probably my favorite passage from Marcus Aurelius. Thanks for quoting it. As he summarizes, “and, in a word, anything better than thy own mind’s self-satisfaction in the things which it enables thee to do according to right reason…”

‪No, I haven’t found anything in human life better than that, better than “my own mind’s self-satisfaction” in the fruits of “right reason.” That is exactly the reason why I am here, participating in this argument: because my “right reason” demands reasons for my actions. Only then can I enjoy my “mind’s self-satisfaction in the things which it enables me to do according to right reason.”

‪Justice, truth, temperance, fortitude – all depend on each other, and all depend on truth. Are the axioms behind Stoic philosophy true? Or are they just a subjective matter of opinion?

Jimmy:‪ It’s a bit of a tough question to answer since you don’t appear to want to do the heavy lifting yourself.

‪If you had an end of year exam question, “What did the Hellenistic philosophers mean by Phusis” I strongly suspect your reply might be “Well I didn’t read any of the big books and those assholes on Facebook wouldn’t give me a straight answer”

‪If you want a logical proof you can look to Becker’s work, which you can get now on Kindle.

‪Is virtue true?

‪The Greek word is Arete, which I think is better translated as “excellence”, excellence of one’s kind.

‪Should we try to be “better people”, I think so, what is the counter argument?

‪If you want to know what that means, to be a “better human”, I think once you have asked the question you are on the way to being a Stoic.

That as axioms the stoics have

‪a) Humans are capable of rationality: Pretty self-evident

‪b) Humans are social animals: Pretty self evident.

The body of Stoic philosophy is a mish-mash of deduction, observation, a dash of logic, but the thing, epistemologically, that makes it all hang together is its coherence.

Kimel: Henry is exceptionally well read and no dilettante, and he’s brave enough to interrogate the logical underpinnings of the philosophy instead of taking them for granted. Why are the virtues good? I argue that when applied from a rule utilitarian perspective, they maximize happiness and minimize the unhappiness of injustice. Obviously you guys don’t agree with me (and neither does henry.) But there’s no easy answer to Hume’s objections in any of the writing of this thread, though a lot of condescension. (For example, you say henry and I are unread and don’t understand, and massimo even wrote an article trashing my entire philosophical school when it’s clear he’s not very familiar with actual transhumanist thinking–imagine I wrote, “Why we don’t need stoicism” and actually wasn’t informed at all.) If ya’ll want to preach to the choir, go for it, but Socrates would not approve.

Jimmy: David: we discussed Hume, if there is a telos is to ought is easy.

‪Basketball players ought to be fit.

‪Where is the problem?

Kimel: Because that statement is not logically equivalent to “Humans ought to live in harmony with nature as a first principle.” I think what Henry was looking for is probably something like this. Let’s define Nature in the broadest sense—encompassing both human nature and the natural order of things.

‪Take it as a given that self awareness + logic = will to preserve oneself OR, Take it as a given that self preservation = “the good” (Jimmy was on the right track that this is a workable first principle, even if a problematic one)

‪How is one best able to preserve oneself? Let’s say the answer is, “One should live in harmony with one’s nature and the nature of the world around it.”

Well, humans are civilizing, logical, and virtuous by definition (that is, humans are distinguished from “Creatures” qua their humanity by these virtuous tendencies; they are what it means to be a human and not a beast—the other aspects exist, but they are held in common by lower beings, and only humans by definition civilizing, logical, and virtuous)

Hence, humans should live cooperatively, rationally, and virtuously in harmony with their nature and Nature.

We could even take it further and say that to act virtuously is in harmony with the natural order of things, which are often random and cruel from a human perspective. But by cooperating, we minimize that randomness and maximize the potential for freedom and virtue.

‪I do not agree with the above, but it’s at least a start. (Rationalism is not always the appropriate response if you hope to lead a fully textured emotional existence; self preservation as “the good” is a subjective judgment; and I think that happiness and the elimination of torment are much better first principles than the mere will to survive, which actually leads down a Machiavellian road. The idea that what makes human human is their unique capacity for virtue is not only problematic, but ignores the refined wickedness of which we are not only uniquely capable, but can actually helps us to survive. At the same time, under an honest lens, the virtues are really such because they inherently maximize happiness and minimize pain from a rule utilitarian perspective–that is a more satisfactory answer as to WHY they are good than “they just are”)

Jimmy: You missed “all acts should be directed towards the social good”

Kimel: I disagree with that idea strongly. I also think it’s been used to justify a lot of evil historically. I could argue our primary obligation is to our own imaginations and maximizing the capacity for its freedom, etc. The Stoics take too much for granted. What about “fun” as an end in itself?

Jimmy: What about cocaine and pizza?

Kimel: I prefer onions on my pizza.

Henry: David I think that the Stoic philosophers were on to a major discovery about happiness which undermines Utilitarianism, roughly speaking the Hedonistic Paradox. The Stoic argument to pursue what is right & good, i.e. virtue, and that through that, as a side-effect, we will experience happiness or joy – appears to be correct and is, in my opinion, one of their wisest insights. As Thoreau, a great reader of the Stoics, writes from Walden Pond, “Happiness is like a butterfly. If you chase it, it will fly away from you. But if you put your mind on other things, it will come and land gently on your shoulder.” More specifically the Stoics your mind shouldn’t just be on “other things”, but on virtue. The Wikipedia page for it has a wonderful collection of observations along these lines. I am going to paste them here below because they are delightful. Even John Stuart Mill noticed this effect.

Kimel: I’m afraid I don’t have time to get into a defense of Epicurus or utilitarianism today, but I’m a transhumanist and recognize we belong to the same evolutionary family. I can give you arguments starting from the first principle that unnecessary torment is “the bad” to build up to a philosophy which endorses not only virtue ethics, but the promotion of scientific and artistic progress as the highest good. And I can do it from sound first principles.

Ben: Your first principle is problematic for a few reasons. In fact nearly every word in the sentence is problematic in a first principle…

‘Unnecessary’ is only a straight forward matter in toy cases. As soon as rubber hits the road, you may have a problem justifying this prescription without reference to some far more fundamental principles.

Secondly, ‘the’ bad, rather than ‘a’ bad is a very hard position to defend. I can think of many bads that are unrelated to physical torment.

Thirdly, why specify physical? it seems that the most painful situations for us humans are often psychological.

Fourthly, why torment itself, rather than the wilful inflicting of torment? This would certainly make more sense if, as you claim, you wish to develop frmo this principle into a for of virtue ethics.

Kimel: You’re right, it’s “a bad,” but one we all agree upon as rational humans, so it’s a hot starting point. Unnecessary means things like the pain of disease–some things are more unambiguously unnecessary than others. Eliminating the pain of illness is a great place to start. Also, torment can be physical or emotional. Finally, torment can be inflicted by inanimate things like genes. I don’t buy the stoic argument that non animate things cannot be evil–they can be evil to the degree they participate in the torment of humans.

Ben: Why is disease unnecessary, out of interest? You mean treatable diseases? That seems to lead to a position in which pharmacology is the most ethics route one can take with one’s life. Should we also remove the possibility of physcal harm whenever that possibility arises, seeing how it avoids such a big evil in the world?

Why do sane and happy people put themselves in positions to hurt themselves every day? Why do kind and brave people die every day, willingly? Must it be a hedonic calculus, whirring away underneath the conscious mind, as a final cause?

Would we say that a kind woman, who had been brave and reflective in her convictions, who had loved and cared for many people in her life, but who dies of Hepatitis C at the age of 60 has lived a bad life? If not, what countervailing forces of good are at play, which render the bad so ineffectual? Wouldn’t these forces, then, be a better place to start in our inquiry into the bad and the good?

Would we say that a kind woman, who had been brave and reflective in her convictions, who had loved and cared for many people in her life, but who dies of Hepatitis C at the age of 60 has lived a bad life? If not, what countervailing forces of good are at play, which render the bad so ineffectual? Wouldn’t these forces, then, be a better place to start in our inquiry into the bad and the good?

Kimel: You pose some great questions. I don’t want to hijack this thread, since this is super off topic at this point. So let’s agree to fight this out another day. But this is what I’ll say.

Pain is bad, but boredom is a kind of pain too, etc. The idea isn’t just to eliminate torment (for then I could blow up the planet and it would be free of torture), but to maximize the freedom of the imagination. And I can argue that comes from maximizing the production of inspirational art, science, etc–we value “meaningful contributions to progress,” progress being defined as an increasingly lucid understanding of reality forged from the insights of autonomous contributors whose imaginations are liberated (high iq, curable diseases treated, etc) .

Self sacrifice is beautiful because it comes from love, which is another good in itself in many circumstances. By cultivating the freedom of the imagination, I can argue we will maximize chances for love in the long term.

The woman who died lived an existential life–the whole thing wasn’t good or bad objectively, that’s a subjective judgment. But the circumstances of her ending were bad qua unwanted pain.

But the last thing I’ll say for today is that Bentham was profoundly right about at least one thing–all philosophies talk about “the good,” and insofar as that’s true, it follows we should think about how to maximize it. The question is how to define the good–pleasure is one good, but not necessarily the only good in all circumstances. But transhumanism maximizes the good by liberating the human imagination from the constraints of the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune, empowering us to understand the world and manipulate its parts to good ends (ends maximizing the power of the imagination and minimizing physical torment) with increasing power and efficiency.

Jimmy: Is L Ron Hubbard involved?

Kimel: Why are you so intolerant of transhumanism? This is the cliff notes version.

The first principle has to be a quale, because that’s a unique entity where it is sufficient to say “because it just is” as an answer to why it is what it is. And unwanted unnecessary physical and spiritual torment being bad from a human perspective is the result of its identity qua being a quale. Then, think about how nature is bad from a human perspective to the extent that there is a lot of unwanted  torment that serves no good end for humans, and also because the imagination is enslaved to the circumstantial and genetic wheel of fortune, which leads to more torment, and less ability to maximize the good (less pain and more possibility for freedom and happiness) through virtue. But man’s nature is logical, artistic, and cooperative–so he should use his intellect to maximize the power of science to eliminate unwanted pain while simultaneously liberating the imagination from the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune, leading to more scientific progress, art, and freedom in the future.

Jimmy: I’d never heard of transhumanism before you mentioned it. At first glance it strikes me as more Marvel than Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Mandela. It has echoes of Buddhism no? Life is suffering, salvation from the wheel of life, transformation into superior beings.

Kimel: The way I see it, part of it is about making sure all people get access to the amazing advances in medicine unfolding now, not just elites. No one is superior to anyone, but some people are lucky to be healthier and have more active powers of imagination than others… It’s a very noble philosophy at its best, but like all schools of thought, I’m not the only transhumanist, and to be fair, my understanding of the movement is unique to me. I didn’t read that defense of it somewhere, I just thought it up.

Jimmy: The pessimism is very Buddhist. I think life is great.

Kimel: So do I! That’s why we should maximize everyone’s chances to pursue happiness in their lives with as little torment as possible.

Jimmy: I’m no psychoanalyst but you seem to be rather more dark in your views. Not too hot, not too cold, water falls from the sky, food comes, out of the ground, we are here to support each other. La vie est belle.

Kimel: Nature is more beautiful than good. Perhaps not thinking about the torment is an example of philosophical privilege… but anyway, Transhumanism is the philosophy that leads to the most happiness and fun through scientific progress, amazing simulations, great conversations between geniuses, etc. There’s a whole lot to counterbalance the bleakness we are fighting to overcome.

Jimmy: I take it you know the anthropic principle. Bleakness? Where do you live?

Kimel: I am a human being, so the welfare of the human imagination and its capacity to contribute to progress is what concerns me. On earth as it is, there’s a whole lot of bleakness that we take for granted bound to our enslavement to the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune. Stoics are good at smiling through thunderstorms. Transhumanists dare to imagine controlling the weather. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.

Roman Decadence and Complex Systems Theory: Toward a New Teleology of Historical Progress, Collapse, Modernity, and Futurism



Discourse on the link between the erosion of traditional moral values and political collapse during the era of the Roman Republic and Julio-Claudian dynasty nurtured the ideology that just as “capitalism” is often conceptualized as a ubiquitous bogeyman in the eyes of some contemporary critical theorists, in antiquity, “free love” was a similarly corrosive force beguiling individuals into losing a sense of allegiance to the state as they succumbed to their petty perversions.[1] This vision of the ancient world, perhaps best epitomized in the moralizing histories of Sallust and Tacitus, haunted the Western imagination forever afterward, with “perversion” thematically bound to the idea of social collapse. This final chapter stands as a rejoinder to such notions, defending the practitioners of vilified forms of sexual expression from the ridiculous allegation that they provoked the fall of Rome or will cause modern culture to descend into anarchy, instead proposing a very different model of historical change in the ancient world.

The idea of Roman history as the cautionary tale of a society where sexual transgression sparked the conflagration of civilization at large has found various forms of expression over time, alarmingly often in modern political contexts. In May 1971, for example, President Nixon complained that All in the Family was promoting homosexuality and declared:

You ever see what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them. Aristotle was homo, we all know that. So was Socrates. The last six Roman emperors were fags. Neither in a public way. You know what happened to the popes? They were layin’ the nuns; that’s been goin’ on for years, centuries. But the Catholic Church went to hell three or four centuries ago. It was homosexual, and it had to be cleaned out. That’s what’s happened to Britain. It happened earlier to France. Let’s look at the strong societies. The Russians. Goddamn, they root ’em out. They don’t let ’em around at all. I don’t know what they do with them. Look at this country. You think the Russians allow dope? Homosexuality, dope, (and) immorality are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the communists and left-wingers are pushing it. They’re trying to destroy us![2]

Nixon’s bizarre understanding of history is grounded in terror at the idea of society slackening as its individual members kowtow to their personal inclinations rather than the cisgendered heteronormative patriarchal rules of the game. Depressingly, the idea of Rome falling in the wake of the normalization of homosexuality has remained something of a trope in conservative circles. According to his 2012 book America the Beautiful, future Presidential candidate Ben Carson wrote that “as a Bible-believing Christian, you might imagine that I would not be a proponent of gay marriage… I believe God loves homosexuals as much as he loves everyone, but if we can redefine marriage as between two men or two women or any other way based on social pressures as opposed to between a man and a woman, we will continue to redefine it in any way that we wish, which is a slippery slope with a disastrous ending, as witnessed in the dramatic fall of the Roman Empire.”[3]

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These kinds of cockamamie theories have often been promulgated by “scholars” too. For example, Roberto De Mattei, the deputy head of Italy’s National Research Council and a “prominent…historian” claimed as recently as 2011 that the “contagion of homosexuality and effeminacy” destroyed Rome after it subdued Carthage, which was apparently “a paradise for homosexuals.”[4] Other scholarly metanarratives about ancient history, love, and historical collapse have proved to be equally dark and outlandish. Perhaps no schema linking political disintegration and sex seems to be so misguided in retrospect as the work of Joseph Vogt, whose “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) popularized the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome, with the originally “Aryan” conquerors increasingly diluted by inferior Semitic and African genetic influences.

In the wake of these kinds of revolting models, no wonder reputable historians have increasingly turned away from the construction of grand schemas and have instead accentuated the nuance and complexity of micro-systems, overseeing increasingly specialized and compartmentalized studies of the past (and writing for increasingly small audiences). In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge challenged the underlying validity of sweeping explanatory schemas fumbling to account for complex phenomena like the onset of political disintegration. He characterized the postmodern condition in general as one of skepticism toward metanarratives, rejecting their old-fashioned emphases on “transcendent and universal truth.” According to Lyotard and critical theorists inspired by his legacy, such metanarratives invariably downplay the naturally existing complexity of various systems, and they are often created and nurtured by oppressive power structures begging to be deconstructed. In short, since grand metanarratives tend to ignore the heterogeneity of the human experience, theories of human progress as historical development toward a specific goal are ultimately deemed inadequate by most of my academic peers.

Nevertheless, while I realize that to propose a metanarrative schematizing historical progress in 2017 is to invite a barrage of criticism since the very definition of progress has been destabilized by critical theory, the merits of the theoretical approach outlined in this paper speak for themselves. Its themes stand as a strong retort to millennia of hysterical discourse demonizing non-normative sex as the cause of civilization’s ills. The fact that any given metanarrative can be problematized does not mean that metanarratives in general cannot still be useful as thematic prisms through which to view a complex social process, providing a simplifying yet clarifying lens that can often prove revelatory when it comes to accentuating unexpected dynamics of open-ended questions.[5]

Though this chapter is grounded in original research in complex systems theory, the underlying thesis is not unprecedented. In the eyes of Jose Ortega y Gasset, for example, the modern world was liberated from a tendency toward chaos and collapse due to the inherently progressive nature of technological evolution and its marriage to the scientific method, ensuring an increasingly vibrant standard of living for an increasing number of people over the long run. According to his view, a failure of “technique” [6] rather than non-vanilla sex doomed the Roman Empire. In the language of complexity theory, the system tended toward a state of collapse because the pace of technological and scientific progress was ultimately retarded before it could gain the unstoppable momentum it seemed to attain after the Italian Renaissance. The remainder of this chapter defines these terms, summarizes the themes of complex systems theory, and applies this lens to the subject of “historical progress” in the ancient world. I conclude by proposing falsifiable hypotheses that could test this framework, providing evidence against the idea that either sex or Christianity was at the root of Rome’s collapse.

Defining Terms: Progress and Modernity

The fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.JPG

Once writing was invented and the memories of past thinkers could be stored and readily accessed, a long conversation was initiated between generations of brilliant individuals who, in long discussion and debate with each other’s ghosts, were ultimately able to further and further clarify humanity’s collective understanding of the empirical characteristics of reality, to say nothing of how its constituent elements could be carved up, recombined, and harnessed to serve utile human ends. Tragically, throughout many periods of history, voices were deliberately excluded from this evolving dialogue and even denied basic education, which consequently resulted in a lower quality of debate, less discourse, and slower advancement in the arts and sciences in general.[7]

Be this at it may, once history began (that is, once representational symbolic records came about), a long conversation between ingenious contributors was initiated which led to what I want to call “progress.” The invention of writing enabled a conversation to take place that could be sustained across multiple generations about questions to which there seemed to be no obvious answers, but to which meaningful contributions could nonetheless be made that served a useful, clarifying role. Is there a God? How is motion possible? Why does it rain? What is art? How can I maximize the yield of my crops? Different people have different perspectives on these kinds of open-ended questions and diverse ways of schematizing the problems and solutions. Once their perspectives are added to the evolving discourse, these people’s contributions can never be erased. If what they articulated was meaningful and clarifying, it will inspire new, micro-discourses in turn. Over the course of time, thousands of meaningful contributions lead inevitably to what I want to define as progress—an increasingly lucid understanding of the nature of reality and how to harness its constituent elements toward (hopefully) good ends such as the alleviation of physical torment. Across the millennia, if enough people are welcomed into the conversation of great minds, there will be millions of meaningful contributions which can never be erased, and this will inevitably lead to advancement over time as battles will rage in the marketplace of ideas and only the best ideas (those most bound to meaningful contributions from the perspective of the most people) will survive.

What do I mean by modernity? In this chapter, I mean a condition in which political institutions valuing both autonomy and stability, economic institutions catering to the distribution of “money,” and academic institutions governing scientific research create synergistic platforms where discursive progress can take place. Foucault, of course, reminds us that the influence of institutions on discourse can be oppressive, but in fairness, the great institutions of civilization can also provide stages upon which meaningful contributors can interact with one another and usher in an increasingly accelerated and exponentially growing rate of progress.

According to the teleology of modernity as imagined in this paper, and contrary to the idea that most premodern Iron Age civilizations were fundamentally similar in nature, I will argue that a formative moment for the West took place in the polytheistic, “democratic” civilizations of Greece and Italy and Asia Minor and not in the monotheistic or monarchic contexts of other civilizations. I will also suggest that the medieval contribution to modernity is in some ways being overstated in contemporary scholarship, though the preservation of ancient knowledge and the creation of the university-system would of course contribute immeasurably to the synergy between academic, political, and economic institutions which this paper associates with modernism.

Complex Systems Theory and Historical Change


 According to complex systems theory, certain events such as rises and declines in the number of living species unfold according to a process of punctuated equilibrium, with spurts of sudden advancement or collapse associated with changes in the organisms’ relationships to their environment. The rule of the day is long intermediate periods of stable predictability interrupted by sudden catastrophic plunges, then a series of unpredictable oscillations before a new homeostatic balance is reached. I want to suggest that a similar lens can be applied to thinking about the process of historical change in the form of political collapse (the elimination of old institutions and the leadership roles associated with them) and reconsolidation (the creation of new institutions and the subsequent rise of novel opportunities for political dominance by new factions of people.) The system can be conceptualized as a zero-sum game for power expressed in the form of individual “players” scrambling to attain limited institutional positions; over time, individuals maneuver and form alliances to gain such positions, and preexisting hierarchies can be upset by changing environmental conditions.

Complex systems theory is an emergent area of scientific investigation. While chaos theory, a subset of the general field of complexity, has been enriched with quantitative theorems since the emergence of sophisticated computer technology in the 1970s, the study of complexity as a broad principle in itself is, as of yet, largely limited to qualitative descriptions of the dynamics of non-linear systems marked by sensitive dependence on initial conditions. In my opinion, these qualitative descriptions, while frustrating to mathematicians seeking specific formulae to describe the evolution of complex systems, are in fact an ideal prism through which to view the periodic transformations of civilization without reducing the infinite nuances of the phenomena involved to anything analogous to a neat set of simple rules. Fundamentally, in order to comprehend the behavior of a non-linear system, one must in principle examine the system as a whole and not merely investigate its parts in isolation. For this reason, a description of change over time in a civilization demands a somewhat sweeping chronological approach, whatever the detractors of metanarratives in history might say. Antiquity uniquely provides us with several useful examples of cultural evolution over whole millennia.

The essential idea of complex systems theory is that the interactions of individual parts within a whole can result in so-called self-organizing criticality. This is to say that the changing relationships between diverse constituent elements of a complex system can spontaneously result in great changes in the whole, potentially characterized by radically distinct emergent properties. The complex whole exists in a fragile state of equilibrium in a “critical state” on the “edge of chaos.” Changing environmental factors can tip aspects of the complex system into chaos itself through “cascading events,” resulting in the sudden onset of turbulence, tumult, and disorder. Eventually, according to chaos theory, the complex system should settle into new points of equilibrium rather than simply collapsing altogether—chaos is turbulent and unpredictable, but it is not synonymous with a complete and total breakdown of order. The new equilibrium, however, similarly exists at a critical point on the “edge of chaos” until new environmental forces again tip it toward chaos and the eventual emergence of a new state of homeostasis similarly radically divergent from the preceding initial conditions. The entire process is one of punctuated equilibrium-by way of analogy, imagine a graph that shows exponential growth, a period of stagnation, and then either a period of collapse or a resumption of growth; the horizontal axis would be time and the vertical axis would be some measure of the level of progress (which I suggest can be measured in such potential ways as surviving written records per year, patents produced per year, deaths by disease each year, institutional roles available per year, etc.)

According to information systems theory, the emergence of chaos can result from exceedingly slight shifts in environmental forces, minutiae like the emperor Claudius’ choice of a successor, or unpredictable migrations of whole barbarian tribes. Such forces precipitate the rapid emergence of unpredictable, fast-changing sets of information that have the capacity to overwhelm traditional governmental structures and contribute ever more to a slide toward a chaotic breakdown. Nevertheless, according to chaos theory, this breakdown should not be complete, but rather characterized by the emergence of new equilibrium points which are always themselves on the edge of chaos. This process perhaps explains phenomena like the restoration of imperial hegemony in the form of the “Dominate” in the third century AD after a period of civil war, the permanent splitting of the empire into eastern and western regions of governance, and finally, the tripartite division of the Mediterranean region into Western European, Byzantine, and Muslim spheres of influence. We can think about the history of the Roman Empire as a narrative of punctuated equilibrium; during eras of “chaos,” individual efforts by the government to restore the old order resulted in diminishing returns, reflective of the theories of Joseph Tainter, but clarifying when they actually come into play.[8]

In my opinion, the question of why certain eras are characterized by such diminishing returns has everything to do with the emergence of chaotic patterns complicating previous states of equilibrium until a new homeostatic balance is eventually reached, potentially far less complex than the initial system. The old ways of carving up and dividing resources are upset by demographic and environmental changes and shifting cultural expectations. During periods of turbulence associated with the onset of chaos, complex systems whose central organizing structures are burdened by an overflow of information tend to disintegrate—whether they were organized as a multiparty system, a monopoly by a single party, or a dual party system, old organizational structures built to accommodate old fashioned flows of predictable information quickly become outmoded. New factions rapidly form. However, as any single faction gains an upper hand, it is in the interest of all smaller factions to join together against it. This leads inevitably to a bipolar tension, with the creation of a two party equilibrium and the ultimate emergence of a single party system or a new multipolar equilibrium themselves susceptible to collapse and always tending toward bipolar cleavages. In this chapter, I will call this the factional nature of political change.

Insights from chaos theory can help to make sense of the largest questions in world history from a fascinating new perspective. Turbulence and transformation are the order of the day rather than decline and fall. The unexpected appearance of chaos belies the linear biases of traditional models of history. Violent fluctuations and oscillations cannot be casually dismissed by mono-causal theories; they are in fact a fundamental aspect of any system at a critical point on the edge of chaos.

As mentioned before, there is currently a decided movement among historians in the direction of micro-history. But there is nevertheless great value in a global approach to world history and the exploration of supposed periods of “decadence.” Broadly speaking, the very nature of causation itself is more complex than contemporary historiographical accounts of things like the “decline and fall” of the Roman Empire suggest.

In other words, a core set of beliefs in the field of history about the nature of complexity and causation are ultimately incorrect. Traditionally, it is assumed that simple systems behave in simple ways, and that as long as such systems could be reduced to a few perfectly understood deterministic rules, their long-term behavior should be stable and predictable; it is also asserted that complex behavior implies complex causes, and that a system that is visibly unstable, unpredictable, or out of control must be governed by a multitude of independent components or subject to random external influences. Now, however, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, and astronomers have created a new set of ideas. Simple systems can give rise to complex behavior, and complex systems can give rise to simple behavior. Moreover, contrary to the idea that the stories of the rise and fall of individual civilizations are fundamentally unique, it is now believed that the laws of complexity hold universally, whatever the constituent parts of the system.

Questions about causation need to be approached probabilistically (what forces worked to raise the odds that a specific outcome took place, and to what degree did they raise the likelihood of the outcome?) and inclusively (what diversity of explanations can help to explain an outcome rather than a mono-causal model?). The following three sections illustrate this approach toward describing history.

Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Phoenicia Versus the World of the Poleis


In the beginning was the Stone Age. It last for an obscene number of millennia. A rock is only so sharp and strong, and during agonizingly long eons, humankind struggled to carve up and recombine the constituent components of nature, powerless to harness them toward useful and progressive ends. But then, civilization began in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China beside great rivers where agricultural surplus could be harnessed by the sundry institutions required to organize labor. The use of bronze was fundamental to this shift because it enabled the creation of objects like axes, ploughs, and swords, tools that could not be chiseled out of rock. Such devices enabled nature to be carved up more efficiently, leading to further surplus and the possibility of the creation of a leisured class devoted to discursive inquiry rather than the brute struggle to survive. Now, progress was born, and “history” proper began with the invention of writing. The pace of technological progress was incredible, particularly in the intercompetitive monarchic city-states of Mesopotamia, where the boat, writing, and the wheel were pioneered. I believe that the decentralization of the region was key to its innovativeness. Whenever one city-state innovated by creating a new invention, other city-states either had to adapt and improve the invention for their own ends or lose their territory and be winnowed out.[9]

Ultimately, however, these early Bronze Age Civilizations did not evolve institutions in which politics, economics, and academics lined up to create modernistic synergy along the same kind of radical lines to be seen in Greece and Italy and Asia Minor. After the great burst of inventiveness around the time that bronze was first forged, there was a sudden stagnation. In other words, a kind of equilibrium was reached after exponential growth (which could be measured according to such factors as numbers of inventions created per century, the number of new cities founded, etc.) The reason why is that the very institutions that created the platforms upon which meaningful contributors acted suddenly became oppressive, forming rigid class structures which excluded voices from discourse and emphasized the creation of rules where the goodies could be monopolized by the elite.[10] Subsequently, authoritarianism, rigid class structures, and oppressively dogmatic religious institutions barred, exploited, and excluded people from contributing to discourse (for example, all non male elites). This inherently retarded progress, since the voices of geniuses went silenced: for example, there were thousands of anonymous women who never got the chance to be Aristotles, though they had the capacity to do so.

Between the age of the pyramids and the birth of Thales of Miletus there extended a tragic 2000 years—approximately the length of time separating us from Cleopatra. But then, iron came, and a new age dawned, with a sudden rise in progress. When we mastered iron, we literally forged a new future for ourselves—stronger tools which were more productive, resulting in more utility (stronger armies, more crops yielded per acre, etc). This rise in productivity allowed the goodies to be spread to more people than traditional elites, and suddenly, new classes began to arise. These new classes for the first time could contribute to the development of political, economic, and academic institutions, leading to more progress. This promise would prove to be most fully actualized in the Greco-Roman-Semitic world.[11]

The cultures of the poleis of Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor did not have religious institutions strong enough to sanction or to ban provocative debate about the nature of reality. At the same time, in that society, inherent values of the government were grounded in the celebration of debate, equality, and the inherent importance of every man’s contribution. The city states were fiercely agonistic, yet their people spoke dialects of the same language, so everyone could simultaneously compete with each other and imitate each other’s innovations. Finally, the society was composed of disparate, far-flung colonies that were inherently at competition with the societies around them and forced to govern themselves without the help of age-old institutions. One man in this society declared that everything was made of water. Another man questioned the hypothesis of Thales. This led to a debate which progressed toward proto-scientific notions. The origins of “modernity” were not bound to be found in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor, but rather probabilistically likely to be brought into being there thanks to institutional features of those territories, to say nothing of their geographically central location on the easily accessible Mediterranean Sea. Enriched by iron tools and metal coins, utile goods could be distributed to more people than ever before, and more and more brilliant positive contributors could make a difference to their communities.

Greece and Italy are in a culturally diverse spot in the Mediterranean Sea near the spot where one group developed the alphabet (the Phoenicians), another group pioneered centralized bureaucratic organization (Egypt), another group developed coined money (the Lydians), and still another group refined ideas about monotheism (the Jews), making the area a diverse hodge-podge including the voices of many different people with many different perspectives. Ultimately, the institutions of the Greco-Roman world created a unique situation where political, economic, and academic institutions could welcome a greater plurality of voices with a greater variety of ideas than in other contemporary states. Compare the situation to that in other ancient cultures:

The Egyptians: They essentially invented the idea of the centralized monarchic state and refined techniques of massive stone architecture in concert with the Mesopotamians. But their 3000 year old civilization was one of the least progressive in the history of the planet despite the enormous productivity of the land of Egypt itself. This is because political, economic, and academic institutions all aligned to impoverish the vast majority of the country and retain the goodies for a small minority who monopolized all education (it took years to learn hieroglyphs—difficult to do that if you’re a peasant). It boggles the mind to think of all the women, non-elites, and foreigners deliberately excluded from discourse—and many of them extraordinary thinkers! One of the sole examples of real political innovation took place under an elite despot (Akhenaten), and his legacy of “novelty” in questioning whether there were one god or many was vilified forever afterward in Egyptian lore. Tellingly, however, when Greco-Roman civilization came to Egypt and Alexandria was established as a polis, it became the greatest center of science in the ancient world because it welcomed a cosmopolitan congregation of voices debating the nature of reality in a way that was never possible before, and all in the presence of the bounty of the Nile River, which could feed enough people to provide a great deal of leisure time. Even women were sometimes allowed to participate in this academic discourse.

The Jews: Arguably, as a whole, Jews have made the most meaningful contributions to human progress from the perspective of individual ingenious contributions to life on this planet. But I think that ideas about religion and politics in ancient Judaea made it probabilistically much less likely that a “scientific revolution” would take place there rather than in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor (the world of the poleis). This is because more people and more ideas were inherently excluded from discourse in the Jewish culture due to ideas about politics and religion, leading to less internal progress. In Jewish culture, there was no place for discourse questioning whether certain elements of the Law could be broken (though debates about the meaning of the law could, and did, take place, admittedly showing that what superficially seems dogmatic can often run much deeper.) A rigid priestly caste monopolized power and education, meaning that many voices which might have been brilliant went uneducated while a small group of individuals monopolized the learning for themselves. Much scientific progress was bound to discourse on the Law and its meaning, with a neglect of areas of study about the atomic nature of reality. After all, the Bible inherently answered certain kinds of questions (“God made it that way.”) The Jewish idea that God chose them, loved them, and had a special covenant with them sowed the seeds that would one day grow into the concept that there is fundamental goodness in the world and all people are inherently worthy of redemption and made in God’s image. Yet science and philosophy as we now know them began as a branch of Hellenic paganism and not monotheistic Judaism.

The Phoenicians: The Phoenicians are the most similar to the Greeks of any other Mediterranean civilization. They lived in mercantile-oriented small city-states; there was no single governing monarch; the people were seafaring and polytheistic; and they established colonies in the Western Mediterranean. They were also an inventive culture, pioneering glass, dye-making, and most importantly of all, the alphabet, which not only hastened economic transactions, but also made education more readily available to more people than ever before, and hence led to great material progress. There were even institutions resembling the ecclesia or comitia of the Greco-Roman world.

Yet while the Phoenicians were great explorers and agronomists, there seems to have been absolutely no tradition of philosophical discourse and debate in their society. Why? One of the reasons is that the Romans annihilated Carthage and its books, but we have to look deeper than this—there were no famous Phoenician philosophers (though Zeno of Citium might have been of remote Phoenician ancestry.) We must look to religion, economics, and politics, I think, to say nothing of social attitudes toward abstract philosophizing versus practical knowledge. The Canaanite form of polytheism was one of the world’s most brutal, at some times in history evidently mandating child sacrifice even among elites during times of hardship—this more than anything shows a brutal commitment to religious principle at the expense of reason, for all of the institution’s social-leveling power. The Phoenicians formed a narrow mercantile ruling oligarchy over polyglot city-states where the bulk of the non-Punic population was denied political rights. In the Phoenician homeland where there was the most scope for “equality,” overmighty empires like the Persians and Assyrians conquered the cities and set up restrictions to ensure that society was oriented toward the production of ships and money, not knowledge. Culturally practical knowledge was valued much more than silly, impractical “abstraction,” which was conceptualized as something fundamentally Greek.

Because we cannot rerun history as a simulation just yet, it is impossible for us to test hypotheses about what might have happened in other times and places and in other contexts. But the fact remains that in the history of our world, the Greece-Italy-Asia Minor axis created a certain synergy associated with democracy, empiricism, and coined money that proved hugely historically influential. Political, economic, and academic institutions were inherently more inclusive of more voices and ideas than in the case of their Mediterranean counterparts, and this made more scientific progress more likely. The fruits of that progress constitute the core of Classics.

From the Grandeur That Was Rome to the Squalor of the Dark Ages


Between Thales of Miletus and the period of the height of activity in the Library of Alexandria under the early Roman emperors there existed a period of approximately 800 years. Toward the end of the period in Alexandria, Aristarchus was the first to propose heliocentrism and Hero invented the steam engine; early “computers” like the Antikythera Mechanism boasted the sophistication of eighteenth century Swiss clocks.

Aristotle’s work had long set the stage for empiricism and the development of the scientific method. “Modernity” seemed to be on the cusp of something great. Then, the unexpected took place. Among a perfect storm of other forces, the repercussions of a single man’s unjust crucifixion would reverberate through the centuries—history’s greatest example of the Butterfly Effect in action.

Earlier in this dissertation, I have addressed the topic of decadence from the perspective of the common but outmoded belief that sexual perversion was the destabilizing influence in Roman history around the time of Christ. Contrary to the opinions of scholars like Blanshard, I have argued that behavior which might be considered licentious did in fact exist in the Late Republic as a response to changing political and economic conditions in which the sexual availability of slaves and prostitutes coupled with the rise of totalitarianism by divine right upset traditional patterns of morality. However, I have also shown that the idea of sexual license itself as a chaotic influence on Roman history is a case of mistaking causation and correlation. Free love did not vitiate the Roman Empire. The inadequacy of its cultural hierarchies in the face of the turbulence of history did.

While the study of antiquity is inherently interesting for its own sake, it is perhaps particularly valuable because it represents a long stretch of time in which myriad historical changes took place, with the entire history of the system existing in a kind of metaphorical laboratory. The height of the Roman Empire and its subsequent decline are particularly fascinating because the sophistication of the Mediterranean world ultimately faltered, and the Roman Empire and the barbarian cultures surrounding it finally blended together into a single, largely similar culture. Why did the sophistication of the ancient world lapse so horrifically, and why was the recovery rate following this collapse so slow? The theory of complex systems provides the answer: the “parochial” elements of the ancient economy described by historians like Moses Finley ultimately hindered the development of historical momentum toward industrialization until the entire system collapsed over the edge of chaos into increasingly less complex states of equilibrium. Society was transformed from the single-party domination of the Principate to the multiparty chaos of the Dominate; then, society re-stabilized as the two-party Eastern and Western Roman Empires before the Western portion distintegrated and the Mediterranean was divided into the multiparty three civilizations of Islam, Western Europe, and Byzantium. The periods between the eras of stable hierarchies (the second century and the fifth century and the seventh century) are the ones associated with the onset of chaos; the conclusion of this chapter provides a means of testing the thesis.

Mono-causal explanations for Roman decadence such as “perversion” are ultimately fruitless. In fact, the era of the greatest sexual license in Roman history is ultimately the one of its greatest economic and territorial expansion. Instead, complexity theory provides a very different answer to the question of why the Republic fell and the Principate replaced it: a plethora of forces existed that pushed the old multipolar equilibrium represented by the checks and balances of the earlier Republic and its feuding dynasts over the so-called “edge of chaos” into a simpler new “homeostatic state” marked by the monopolar despotism of a single family, very much like those of their Hellenistic neighbors (and hence less complex than a unique Roman political system artificially distinct from the institutions of the civilizations around it).[12] The history of the transitions along the way are classic lessons in the factional dynamics of the organization of power, shifting between single-party and multi-party modes of organization with a marked tendency toward dualism: hence we see patrician versus plebeian, optimates versus populares, cives versus socii, Marians versus Sullans, the dictatorship of Sulla, the First Triumvirate, Caesarians versus Pompeiians, the dictatorship of Caesar, the Third Triumvirate, Octavian versus Cleopatra, and the ultimate rise of the dictatorship of the Julio-Claudians, the union of the two most influential families of the late Republic.

We have seen that throughout history, changing relationships between humans and the metals with which they forged their tools contributed to chaotic transitions and the emergence of new forms of social organization accommodating increasing numbers of people in dominant roles. In the late Roman Republic, however, as the Republic ripened (or rotted, depending on one’s perspective) into the Principate, it was not a change in humans’ relationship to metals but rather an information-overflow associated with the repercussions of Roman imperialism that destabilized the national government to the point of Civil War; the autocratic monopolar system which followed was both simpler (less complex) than the earlier multipolar system which preceded it and also far more similar to the surrounding civilizations (organized under monarchic rule by divine right), as if by a process of osmosis which diluted the institutions of the Republic. By the same token, when the Western Empire collapsed, the cultures on either side of the Rhine and Danube became fundamentally more similar: Christian, de-urbanized, and dominated politically by German tribes. The tortured intricacies of the late Dominate collapsed into simpler states more similar than dissimilar to the civilizations surrounding them.

Of course, the Middle Ages was not a single Dark Age, but we have to admit that the level of progress was retarded for some time. It seems to me that the period as a whole in the West can best be defined as an age of stagnation and decline at the end of the Iron Age that eventually settled into an equilibrium and then began to hit upon an upward trend again after the crisis of the Black Death created another pivot point on the edge of chaos at the end of the period. According to my formula, fewer voices must have resulted in less discourse for some time, and less discourse must have resulted in less progress in the form of meaningful contributions to questions about the nature of reality. Institutions must have become less welcoming of difference and more oppressive and oriented toward self-preservation rather than the creation of meaningful platforms for debate. At the same time, there must have been no new significant advancements in metallurgy to radically improve the potential for creating new sources of utility to fuel the development of new social classes. I understand that medievalists regret that classicists historically derided their era’s contributions and are right to emphasize that the era they love was a dynamic one in some ways, but it’s important to understand that the period between the fall of Rome and 1000 AD really was a Dark Age despite some cultural continuity. It serves as a sobering lesson for all ages—the momentum of material and technical progress can never be taken for granted.

According to complex systems theory, there existed at least a small probability that the Roman Empire might have industrialized at their pivot point c. 180 AD. Why did they fail to do so? Was it due to their penchant for licentious sex? How can historians even begin to go about answering these kinds of counter-factual questions in the first place?

Rather than branding ancient cities fundamentally primitive or modern in nature in the tradition of Max Weber, I want to examine the various forces working for and against the increasing specialization and application of productive technologies in the Roman Empire. My conclusion is that while aspects of the ancient Roman economy were in fact quite “modernizing” and might have led to a technological revolution under different circumstances, there existed sufficient forces in society hindering the momentum of material progress and rendering an industrial revolution in antiquity far less likely than one in late eighteenth century Britain.

Of all eras of world history, the period of the Roman Empire boasted many of the prerequisites for a commercial and industrial revolution. The Roman world contained some sixty to one hundred million inhabitants living in largely peaceful conditions. A single currency was employed throughout the Mediterranean, disseminated by bankers and professional financiers. The very existence of the Mediterranean as a great central lake facilitated trade and communication, as did the existence of a fine road system overseen by the policing power of the Roman army. Sprawling urban centers like Rome and Alexandria boasted populations in the hundreds of thousands, their populations demanding a steady stream of material products in order to sustain themselves. Great opportunities existed to serve increasingly globalized markets. At the same time, individual merchants enjoyed a set of circumstances marked by relatively free trade, and the capacity to make massive amounts of money by participating in the commercial life of the Empire. In places like Alexandria, intellectual elites cooperated to pioneer potentially world-changing technologies like Hero’s rudimentary steam engine. From the perspective of complex systems theory, all of these forces might have tipped the Roman Empire into a state of industrialization, and the “proto-modernity” of several aspects of the ancient world cannot be denied. As I suggested earlier, the world of the poleis is where institutional “modernity” was born and then refined and extended to the West by the Romans.

Nevertheless, several factors existed rendering an industrial revolution unlikely—the high Roman Empire was an era of equilibrium and eventually stagnation in world affairs. All of the following elements, from the perspective of a computer simulation, would lower the probability of progress and raise the probability of stagnation.

The language required to describe and conceptualize economic growth was relatively rudimentary. The cumbersome system of Roman numerals rendered mathematical calculations arduous and difficult, hindering the development of practices like double-entry bookkeeping, which is virtually unattested in antiquity. At the same time, ancient manuals on the field of “economics” usually emphasized the importance of maintaining the self-sufficiency of plantations, with expenditures kept lower than income. This stands in stark contrast to the later emphases of early modern economic theorists, who advocated catering to the rules of supply and demand to maximize fiscal profits. Ancient economic theorists downplayed the desirability of investment in trade, which was seen as inherently riskier than pooling resources in real estate.

There existed fundamental bias among the most politically powerful classes toward manual labor, commercial investment, and applied technology. Finley exhaustively categorizes these trends in his famous books on the ancient economy. While modern critics are correct to point out that these conservative biases were not necessarily universally felt in Roman society, their existence among the classes of society with the greatest ability to invest in new material resources surely acted at least in part against the chances for industrialization. In antiquity, slaves, freedmen, and non-citizens were responsible for most economic activity. The political powerlessness of these groups is remarkably conspicuous, particularly when their situation is compared to that of their counterparts in the Middle Ages; in medieval Florence, for example, membership in a trade guild was a prerequisite for political participation in the state.

In the late Republic, free enterprise and what Weber called “merchant capitalism” were at their height. Limited liability joint stock companies even existed in the form of conglomerates of entrepreneurs who pooled resources to win the rights to tax farm various provinces. In the early Roman Empire, however, there existed an increasing preference for the use of appointed officials for such activities, and the legal underpinnings of corporate cooperation failed to further develop. Thus, there existed no overlap between the era of the greatest commercial sophistication and freedom (the late Republic) and the era of greatest economic expansion and opportunity (the early Empire).

There existed several bars to the application of new technologies. While current archeological work admittedly points to the widespread implementation of certain technologies (windmills, etc.), there existed no patent law in Roman antiquity to spur on technological innovation. In fact, narratives exist of Roman emperors actively discouraging technological progress for fear that mechanization would result in unemployment, and hence social instability. For all of its revolutionary potential, Hero’s steam engine was viewed more as a toy than an implement of social change. Techniques of metallurgy stagnated in an era of universal peace, as did the need to create new weaponry for the sake of a competitive edge over enemies. At the same time, the omnipresence of slavery similarly served to deter investment in new machinery, since investments in slaves and real-estate promised the safest returns.

The very unity of the Mediterranean world stifled innovation. Consider the example of Roman Lusitania. Merchants in that province had access to the entirety of the Mediterranean basin to sell their wares. In the Middle Ages, however, geographical fragmentation denied the state of “Portugal” a Mediterranean coast. Thus, merchants were forced to turn to the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of finding new products and markets, spurring the development of radically new shipping technologies. No such incentives existed in the unified, relatively non-competitive world of Roman antiquity.

The existence of amphitheaters drained economic resources, particularly in the West (which, interestingly, had far more amphitheaters than the Roman East, which was traditionally more economically vigorous than the West and survived much longer). Rather than investing in economically beneficial infrastructure, local elites poured money into the celebration of gladiatorial games, importing professional fighters and exotic beasts to satiate the interests of the populace. However, all of these resources were ultimately wasted despite spurring limited economic activity. In the same way, the existence of grain doles similarly retarded economic growth, as major metropolitan centers invested most of their resources on defense and feeding the unproductive urban populace, who remained in a permanent state of economic non-productivity. In my opinion, these historical forces provide some validity to Weber’s insistence on the “parasitic” character of ancient cities, which generally consumed resources from the countryside rather than producing materials to be redistributed to suburban markets (though exceptions admittedly existed to this rule.) At the same time, though, the Romans’ emphasis on the importance of the distribution of the bounty of the government back to the people and the emperor’s promotion of fun on public holidays were, in my view, admirable features of their culture, if only the spectacles didn’t cause so much pain and heartbreak to their victims.

There existed virtually no notion of “historical progress” in the Roman Empire. Although many at least sensed that the order of the Roman world was preferable to barbarism, major historians advocated cyclical views of history, or the notion that the true “Golden Age” was in the distant past, before urbanization and the use of tools corrupted humankind’s primordial naïveté. With the civilization at large devoid of the sense that the world could actively be improved over time through the evolution and application of radical new technologies, the momentum of increasing material progress was actively retarded.

According to my model of the Roman Empire as a complex system existing on the edge of chaos, ancient civilization was able to survive for a remarkably long period of time at a “critical point” of great material prosperity so long as the army remained loyal to the emperor and the citizens of the realm agreed to pay the taxes required to support its infrastructure. In terms of the punctuated equilibrium of progress, it was an era of equilibrium after one of growth. Broadly speaking, the Empire can be compared to a snowball that could maintain its structural consistency so long as it continued to roll, but begins to melt when its journey down the hill comes to an end. In the same way, so long as the Roman army was able to incorporate new territory into the Empire and redistribute booty in the form of slaves, booty, and various forms of material resources, the civilization was able to subsist at the edge of chaos despite its lack of internal momentum toward industrialization. However, once the civilization’s territorial growth came to an end, the costs of maintaining the defenses of the sprawling realm proved to be immense, and the system became remarkably unstable. As instability led to the emergence of chaos, efforts by the emperors to preserve the structure of their civilization resulted (as Tainter suggests) in diminishing returns on investments in social complexity. Why is this the case? In the long term, chaos theory suggests that the system was bound to collapse into new states of less sophisticated equilibria unless the momentum of scientific and technological progress overtook the abiding forces of stagnation and “decadence” mentioned throughout the dissertation. The story of the “decline and fall of the Roman Empire” is actually a tale of turbulent dynamics upsetting the ancient society and resulting in a new homeostasis similar to the old order in some ways, yet fundamentally distinct in others.

According to world systems theory, the fall of the Roman Empire cannot be understood as an isolated phenomenon. The third to seventh centuries AD were in fact marked by cascading patterns of turbulence throughout all of Eurasia unleashed by the outbreak of plague, environmental degradation, and aggressive migratory patterns by individuals formerly content (or compelled) to exist on the fringes of civilization. After the period of the Antonine Plague, emperors became increasingly reliant on marginalized ethnic groups and finally barbarian hordes to man the Roman army. This resulted in a massive influx of foreigners into the empire with only marginal allegiances to the state, ever ready to resort to violence for the sake of promoting the interests of a local warlord. At the same time, as uncivilized tribes across Eurasia spilled into each other’s territory, barbarian groups saw their ancestral lands taken from them and were compelled to venture into new countries. The prosperous civilized territories surrounding the Mediterranean seemed increasingly attractive to such immigrants. Migrations were associated with the sacking of major urban centers, terrorizing the local populace into retreating into the countryside and destroying the traditional bases of Roman tax collection.

Chaos theory suggests that the onset of chaos produces more information than a stable state of equilibrium; for example, each new number in the numerical pattern 121212121… represents less new information than each new number in the chaotic, seemingly random series 173749724… As the Roman Empire slipped over the edge of chaos, the central government began to be flooded with information concerning the destruction of cities, the emergence of rebel groups, military disasters, the migratory patterns of barbarians, and the outbreak of diseases. Even as it was burdened by this information overload, it began to lose internal consistency as civil war swept through the empire and loyalty to the central government became increasingly divided. Unlike the situation in the Han civilization, Roman dynasties were usually helmed by individual emperors with a great deal of personal power as opposed to the largely ceremonial kings of China, ruled by a narrow oligarchy of Confucian bureaucrats. As the empire slid into civil war, the individual charisma of the Roman emperors was increasingly undermined, and the relatively feeble bureaucratic institutions of the central government proved incapable of juggling the dilemmas at hand. To make matters worse, as increasing numbers of would-be emperors attempted to finance their campaigns and new sources of precious metals dried up, massive inflation began to undermine the economy, and several areas of the empire reverted to bartering and trade-in-kind. While traditional historians often point to individual elements of this chaotic breakdown as an explanatory cause for the transformation of Roman society, chaos theory instead suggests that they are all fundamentally interconnected symptoms of a movement over the edge of chaos after a long homeostatic/stable period of self-organized criticality.

The leaders of the Roman Empire were confronted by major problems, and they were in no position to stem the tide of chaos despite their best efforts to do so. Just as chaos theory predicts, however, the system did not collapse entirely overnight, but began to re-solidify at new points of equilibrium according to the creation of new party-systems tending toward bipolar duality. Thus, the dictatorial Roman Dominate replaced the relatively gentle rule of the Principate, as military figures attempted to cement the structure of the collapsing society by imposing mandatory liturgies on local aristocracies who had once given freely in a process of euergetism, requiring children to follow their fathers’ professions, and mandating religious uniformity throughout the empire. This new state of homeostasis, imposed by brute force and driven by an increasingly de-urbanized economy, proved far more precarious than the old order, and unsurprisingly, the system again slid into chaos as the barbarous nations on the fringes of the Roman world created entirely new kingdoms within its borders. A division between East and West after a brief division in four would prove to be abiding.

In 1776, Edward Gibbon famously pioneered the view that Christianity was ultimately a symptom of decadence, and one of the principle causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire. He reasoned that its emphasis on peacefulness and passivity vitiated the ancient martial spirit of the Romans, and that its insistence on non-material causation served to hinder the development of the ancient scientific method. Thus, in the tumultuous third, fourth, and fifth centuries AD, thinkers increasingly turned to un-judicable philosophical debates about the nature of divinity rather than taking steps toward the refinement of the scientific method. Eventually, thought was “canonized” by the government, and discourse shut down altogether, relegated to the realm of “commentary” and “copying.”

There is some truth to this narrative. Yet ultimately, I believe that complex systems theory problematizes these claims, to say nothing of the fact that most of the warlike barbarian hordes who overran the provinces of the Roman West were themselves Christian, rendering the idea that the religion necessarily resulted in a state of martial enervation somewhat non-compelling.

First, I plan to explore the historical forces that gave shape to Christianity in the first place from the perspective of complex systems theory. The “Butterfly Effect” is a fundamental principle of chaos, which stresses the interdependence of the constituent parts of a complex whole, sensitivity to initial conditions, and the potential for cascading effects. On the most basic level, the life and death of Christ, an anonymous carpenter in a backwater of the Roman Empire, had the potential to revolutionize the entire Roman world due to its nature as a complex system sensitive to the Butterfly Effect. At the same time, the emergence of the idea that humans were naturally sinful served to incentivize parents to baptize their children, since the prospect of sprinkling water over an infant represented a low cost when it came to forestalling the possibility of eternal torture in hell. Moreover, in a world marked by widespread poverty, a philosophical system stressing God’s love of the poor was surely an attractive alternative to the official state religion, which accentuated the worship of brute power. As the structures of Roman government fell into increasing disequilibrium following the Antonine Plague of the late second century, the apocalyptic message of Christianity perhaps seemed increasingly instructive, as well as its emphasis on the promise of a better world in the hereafter. Roman culture’s traditional emphasis on exemplarity also likely facilitated the rise of Christianity, as martyrs met their deaths heroically in the face of persecution by the state, ultimately forming a new canon of exemplary figures replacing traditional Roman personae such as Lucretia and Cincinnatus. And the Christians were on to something in their aversion to the ubiquitous violent sexual exploitation permeating ancient society—unfortunately, this intolerance extended toward all elements of human sexuality, throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

In the short term, Gibbon was surely correct that the rise of Christianity led to a loss of momentum in the development of the ancient scientific method due to its emphases on supernatural causation and obedience to the Bible as the literal, unquestionable word of God. However, in the long term, I believe that Christianity in fact represented a major source of power for the West, embodying one of the reasons that the equilibrium of the Middle Ages ultimately metamorphosed into a new and more vigorous state of homeostasis in the Renaissance following a period of chaos in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, ripe for a new era of development in the unfolding of the punctuated equilibrium of discursive progress.

Unlike the situation in the Roman Empire, there existed opportunities for common men and women to become priests and nuns during the Middle Ages, greatly broadening the net when it came to the number of individuals contributing to intellectual discourse. It must be remembered that the possession of great intelligence and even genius is randomly distributed. Consequently, given the nature of ancient demographics, it stands to reason that most great minds were either enslaved or members of severely disadvantaged classes with little access to education. The rise of Christianity began to mitigate this problem, adding more knowledgeable voices to scientific discourse.

During the height of the Roman Empire, the greatest intellectual achievements associated with scientific development were associated with the Library of Alexandria. Why was this the case? Uniquely, it provided a centralized infrastructure through which scholars could share ideas, research the best writings of the past, and find rewards for new theories. Unfortunately, such centers were few and far between in the Roman world. However, the rise of medieval universities as schools for studying the Bible enabled numerous such centers to come into being in the long run, greatly facilitating the growth of the scientific method. Unlike in the pagan Roman Empire, there existed major incentives to provide access to such centers of learning, as knowledge of the precise Word of God was a prerequisite to enter heaven. At the same time, these centers often specialized in the copying of ancient texts, broadening their dissemination.

The system of Roman education was largely geared toward an education in rhetoric and debate, emphasizing relativity and a lack of absolute truth. At the same time, during the height of the Roman Empire, it was difficult to enjoy a career devoted to the pursuit of science and literature for its own sake unless you came from an especially affluent social background. The growth of Christian centers of learning altered this state of affairs, providing the possibility of education to more members of society (and hence more geniuses) than ever before. The Church’s emphasis on the possibility of the existence of Truth with a capital T coupled with the concomitant study of ancient literature emphasizing the rudiments of the scientific method eventually created a unique synergy paving the way for the achievements of figures such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Descartes.

It seems clear to me that the emergence of Christianity can be explained by complex systems theory as a variation of the unpredictable Butterfly Effect, with the cascading repercussions of Christ’s life and teachings increasingly prevalent throughout all levels of Roman society. As the late Roman Empire succumbed to chaos, the religion’s teachings appeared increasingly attractive to an ever-expanding core conservative group, who proved unwilling to compromise their major beliefs even in the face of widespread persecution. While Gibbon is perhaps correct that in the short term the rise of the religion led to a retardation of the development of the scientific method, in the long term, the presence of the Church in Europe served as a major stimulus toward scientific growth, to say nothing of representing a major step forward when it came to social attitudes toward coming to the aid of the poor and helpless.

Historical periodization is, admittedly, a somewhat arbitrary science—thus, for example, some have even hazarded to suggest that the Classical world ended with the fall of Athens at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War. In my eyes, however, there is great validity to Henri Pirenne’s thesis that the true end of the ancient world took place after the Battle of Tours in 732 AD, which halted the expansion of Muslim armies into Europe. Modern historians have questioned this thesis, suggesting, for example, that it conceptualizes the Islamic World as an Other. However, from the perspective of complex systems theory, 732 AD represents a significant date marked by the creation of a radically new equilibrium in which the Mediterranean was divided into Western European, Byzantine, and Muslim spheres of influence, and the unified system of currency came to an end; fundamentally speaking, the date marks the final and permanent fragmentation of formerly unified economic zones. Formerly, the most stable points of equilibrium involved either the political unity of the entire Mediterranean basin (the Principate and the Dominate) or a division between the Latin speaking West and the Greek speaking East (the Late Roman Empire). Now, for the first time, the economies of Western Europe would be left to develop on their own in a crucible of geographical fragmentation and intense internal competition. A new equilibrium had come about. The new civilization would ultimately give rise to a dynamic culture which, when pushed out of equilibrium over the edge of chaos by the Black Plague and Great Schism, arrived at a new homeostatic state enriched by the discoveries of the Renaissance and the resources of the Americas, empowering it to set forth and conquer the world.

Modernity and Futurism

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 By the end of the Middle Ages, urbanization had sprung up again and an inter-fragmented collection of nation-states loosely created by the tribes who inhabited the fallen Roman Empire were all competing to make meaningful contributions to ensure cultural survival; many meaningful contributions also came from the Muslim and Chinese worlds as well, who were no less involved in the struggle to survive, understand, and harness and recombine the world’s elements toward utile ends. Yet unlike the unified Chinese empire or the great Muslim monarchies, after the fall of Rome, the West was blessed with an inter-competitive edge much like that of ancient Mesopotamia, when a city-state had to innovate or be annihilated. After the Black Plague, there were so few people left alive in society and institutions had become so inherently weakened that the stage was set for an era of true rebirth. All the ingredients were there for renewed progress: competition, a demand for new elites and experts, the necessity of welcoming of new voices to the table, and higher wages for the living. Now, progress began to quicken, and the development of steel weaponry and maritime navigation made possible the discovery and exploitation of the New World. Descartes improved upon Aristotle, and the experimental method was eventually articulated and led to the possibility of Newton finally answering Parmenides’ questions about how limits and infinity should be conceptualized.

On a macro scale, the economic history of the West is until the nineteenth century largely the story of a loss of precious metals to the East in return for luxury items, a trend first undermined by the discovery of the New World, and then finally put to rest in the nineteenth century Opium Wars. The eventual emergence of full fledged European capitalism proved particularly productive to the development of new technologies. In the midst of intense competition, there existed major incentives to produce wares quickly, differentiate them, and deliver them to market more rapidly than competitors, all of which would be facilitated by more efficient productive technologies. In the Roman Empire, despite the intensity of urbanization, categorical bars existed to the development of such technologies. Max Weber’s model of “merchant capitalism” is particularly revealing, because it suggests that commercial agents had incentives to ensure that local production remained rudimentary so that there would continue to exist increasing demand for foreign products unable to be manufactured closer to home; this state of affairs was undermined in the capitalist age, when the political fragmentation of Europe rendered the geographical scope of merchants’ activities much smaller. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, England had twice as many people as Rome, huge international markets, knowledge of advanced science, and a particularly conducive environment to the exchange of free capital. Thus, the probability of an Industrial Revolution was much greater than in Roman antiquity. The forces working against Roman industrialization would ultimately render the “critical point” of its equilibrium on the edge of chaos increasingly precarious. In a sense, then, economic stagnation represents the heart of Roman decadence.

We are now in the midst of an era of great scientific development. In terms of the punctuated equilibrium of progress, we have all of the ingredients suggesting that we are neither in decline nor at an equilibrium, but in the midst of a rise—an era like the golden age of Athens, or Augustan Rome, or the Renaissance.

  1. We are transitioning into a new age of metal—the Silicon Age. The ability to process information and enhance the human body with computers will increase the potential for more and more people in society to enjoy sources of utility. This will inherently lead to more and more voices joining discourse, and more meaningful contributions over time.
  2. For the first time in history, women and non-elite males are being welcomed by academic, political, and economic institutions. This will inherently lead to better discourse and more progress over time for all of the reasons brought up throughout this paper: more geniuses will now contribute.
  3. There exist many new inventions every year, which is indicative of a high degree of technical innovation and experimentation.
  4. Wars are not being fought between dying superpowers. The era from the Boxer Rebellion to the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of crisis in which nuclear weapons might have annihilated material progress and shown its dark side, temporarily halting progress (but perhaps, like the Black Death, enabling the creation of progress in the future as the survivors experimented with new technologies to live on in the wreckage of the earth.) At the moment, the probability of major metropolises being destroyed by nuclear weapons is much lower than it was at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I define Futurism as the belief that close alignment should be forged between political, economic, and academic institutions to harness the most progress possible in as short a time as possible to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, particularly in the form of advancements in medicine and the development of cyborg technology, cloning, and genetic engineering. In the face of the threat of the “singularity” and a destabilization of the superpowers imperiling the world through nuclear war, Futurism is the only hope for harnessing the exponential power of progress for good rather than toward self-destruction in the form of the retardation of progress.

Concluding Thoughts: Simulations and Falsifiable Hypotheses About Ambiguous Questions of Causation


 A major advantage of the theoretical model proposed in this paper is that it lends itself to the creation of “simulations” to explore open-ended hypotheses about causation, which is always a matter of a storm of different probabilistic influences, some more direct and major than others (in other words, certain forces raise the probability that an event will take place more directly than others). Assume that the unfolding of Roman political history from the Principate to the barbarian successor states represents the evolution of a complex system sensitive to initial conditions and the Butterfly Effect; it was one in which individuals engaged in a long term zero-sum game for power expressed in the form of a limited number of political and cultural offices and institutions, with conflicts represented by battles such as those mentioned in the (imperfect) historical record.

We will consider two hypotheses. The first is whether gay sex caused the Roman Empire to fall; the second is whether Christianity was the culprit. First we must consider how to model the questions at hand by constructing crude and imperfect simulations of history drawn from quantitative data when possible; next we need to justify what empirical results (what relationship between quantifiable variables) we would expect when examining the outcome of the simulation if a given hypothesis were true; then to say what we would expect if it were false; next what we ourselves hypothesize; and finally, how quantitative data drawn from the relationship between variables in the simulation sheds light on our assumptions, or defies them.

In the case of the first hypothesis, compose a list of years, listing battles per year. Also, search a database of literature (including legal literature) for mentions of gay sex. If it were probabilistically true that homosexuality largely precipitated the fall of Rome, the least I would expect is that the decades which saw the most battles would be associated with the most surviving mentions of individuals described as engaging in gay sex, and also the most surviving laws permitting institutions like, for example, gay marriage, relative to times of internal stability (measured by a lower frequency of battles per year). Yet if it were probabilistically unlikely that non-normative expressions of sexuality played a decisive role in corrosive social change, I would expect little alignment or even reverse alignment—individuals described in the historical record as having gay sex would be distributed evenly across the years, or their numbers might even decline as the empire entered into its most violent phases.

Of course, neither correlation necessarily guarantees causation—for example, perhaps as the empire declined, more religious hysteria arose leading more people to be falsely accused and demonized for homosexuality, generating an artificial rise in the historical record of how many times it is mentioned in surviving literature but saying nothing about its actual social prevalence or why society was collapsing. However, the specific information that the number of mentions of homosexual behavior declined in the final period of the greatest violence would be very problematic for the first hypothesis, because it would suggest not only that most instances of homosexual behavior come statistically from the late Republic and early Empire when there were the fewest battles and the civilization was strongest, but that the era of the final collapse was actually one of cultural repression toward gay sex, since one would expect that with all else being equal, the number of mentions should be equally distributed across the centuries, with highs and lows in the historical record reflecting various degrees of either cultural permissiveness or paranoia. (I actually hypothesize that the highest number of mentions of gay sex would come from the High Roman Empire, when the civilization was flourishing. Then, after an artificial rise associated with the rise of the hegemony of Christianity and discourse hysterically demonizing gay sex, laws banning it would lower the numbers in the final centuries of the Western Roman Empire, thus vitiating evidence for the first hypothesis.)

The second hypothesis made famous by Gibbon is even more challenging to model. Like the first simulation, we might compose a list of years, examine the number of battles mentioned as occuring per decade, and see if the most mentions of Christianity correlate with the years containing the highest numbers of battles. However, just as last time, there would be little revelatory information even if the number of battles correlated strongly with the most mentions of Christianity—after all, perhaps the civilization became Christian coincidentally while it was collapsing or as a response to the horror of the collapse, and this led to a rise in the number of mentions, saying nothing in either case about causation. However, just as with the first hypothesis, the specific information that mentions of Christianity declined during the time of the most intense violence might prove problematic for the theory, though it could also be a function of other forces as well, like so many people perishing, there was little literature produced during the final death throes of the culture. (I actually hypothesize that the data this time round would speciously vindicate Gibbon, with the most mentions of Christianity found during times of the most violence at the end of the Western Empire.)

In order to model the question more closely, we would need recourse to a wider comparison. Even if Christianity, which was unique to the Roman Empire and its environs, caused Rome to fall, we would expect it to have no effect on the history of another similar directly contemporary Iron Age empire such as, for example, Han China. Hence, if the hypothesis were true that it was Christianity that had the largest probabilistic influence on the collapse of Roman civilization of all other possible factors, we would expect it to have more of an effect on the outbreak of battles and their locations than, for example, Pan-Eurasian forces that might have affected both empires, such as the onset of plague or the migration of barbarian tribes or the widespread adoption of a new technology. If the hypothesis were false and Christianity’s rise had less to do with the fall of Rome than Pan-Eurasian factors, we would expect those forces to have more of an effect on the outbreak of battles. But how can all of this be modeled?

Imagine we were looking at a map of the Roman Empire and Han China, divided into many quadrants.

These are the elements that would be tracked:

1) the locations of iron deposits and other natural resources that can be pinned down with a fair degree of accuracy, including the locations of major mines (these are, of course, static)

2) The locations of recorded battles (these move about, and are thus dynamic)

3) The location of metropolises, major roads, and other geographical features (Mediterranean sea and the Rhine-Danube frontiers; major Christian centers, etc.)

4) The borders of the empire

I tentatively hypothesize that times of plague, rebellion, and civil war should show statistically significant changes in the relationships between the static and dynamic data sets as such periods would lend themselves to efforts to seize control of local mineral deposits and resource-distribution-centers.  By contrast, in times of relative internal stability, the Rhine-Danube frontier and the walled frontiers of China would be more likely to attract dynamic movement in response to external pressure along the borders. Permanent changes in spatial relationships would suggest watershed moments in Roman history. (Imagine, for example, if after a certain date battles suddenly never take place within a 50 mile radius of an area that once suffered from yearly violence.) The upshot of all this is that using the right mathematical tools, the relationship between these variables can be systematically evaluated, and we can investigate what various causal forces (internal or external) seem to have been primarily responsible for violence at different points in time.

Consider the question of Christianity’s influence on the fall of Rome. If it were true that Christianity was a major formative factor, we might expect major Christian centers to attract battles—this might be, for example, the result of sectarian violence between rival heresies, or barbarians sacking passive religious populations. We might hypothesize that the number of battles within a 50 kilometer radius of major Christian centers would rise over time as the empire collapsed, and we might even expect such centers to attract more battles relative to pagan cities untouched by Christianity or the fifty mile radius along the Rhine and Danube frontiers. By contrast, if it were not the case that Christianity were a major factor, we might see no such increase over time as we studied the decade by decade data. We might guess that the number of battles named in the historical record would remain highest within a 50 mile radius of the length of the Rhine and Danube, since the primary focus was on keeping out barbarians. (I actually hypothesize that the data this time round would again champion Gibbon, with the most battles found around cities, which were—albeit coincidentally—also Christian centers, since it was primarily an urban phenomenon.)

In order to disprove Gibbon, we might propose a new question—whether Christian centers or, for example, mineral deposits were greater probabilistic attractors of violence. If the urge to control mines was the primary determiner of where conflicts arose, we would expect the number of battles in the vicinity of mines (within a fifty kilometer radius) to rise during decades of turbulence, and we would expect the battles around Christian sites to either decline in number or show no statistically significant rise or fall at all. (In this case, I actually hypothesize that there would be no relationship between the locations of mines and battles at all; the number of battles in such locations would not rise over time relative to other indicators like whether an event is within 50 kilometers of a Christian center or 50 kilometers along the Rhine and Danube, since the late Roman emperors resorted to adulterating their coinage and hiring mercenaries.)

Our last resort might be to add Han China into the mix so that we could begin to see the limits of Gibbon’s view by considering Christianity’s impact versus that of pan-Eurasian forces, like the outbreak of plague, the spread of new technologies, and the migration of barbarian tribes. Comparing the two empires decade by decade, I would measure the number of battles per decade and whether they were within 50 kilometers of the borders of each empire (in the case of Rome, the Rhine-Danube frontier.) During times of internal instability, metropolitan centers and mineral deposits might be expected to attract battles more than the old frontiers, which are disintegrating (presumably because armed groups want access to the goods in the cities and countryside.) If Pan Eurasian forces were the largest probabilistic influence on the fall of Rome, I would expect the empires to both show an increase in the number of battles outside of the 50 mile radius along the frontier zones during the same period—the shape of the graphs (with more internal battles rather than frontier battles over time) would be expected to have the same shape over almost the same time frame. If a cultural force unique to Rome such as Christianity caused the fall, by contrast, I would expect no such relationship to exist between the datasets of the two empires, separated by thousands of kilometers.

Of course, any similarity or difference might be purely coincidental. Nevertheless, finding that both Rome and China were undergoing turbulence at the same time (measured by the number of battles in internal regions rising, to say nothing of the number of battles rising in general) would provide strong evidence for the view that Pan-Eurasian forces had a major formative effect, which itself undercuts the idea that the rise of Christianity was the vitiating factor. (This time, I expect that Gibbon’s argument would be undermined—turbulence in both Rome and China was probably caused at least in part by the same migratory phenomena affecting all Eurasia; in the language of this chapter, it was sparked by the complexity of an artificial border with a high degree of organization on one side and a low degree on the other collapsing into a less chaotic state of stable, simpler homeostasis with cultural similarity and less political sophistication on each side of the barrier. A heap of stones, however aesthetic, is no long-term solution to socio-economic and cultural division between neighbors in any time or place.)


[1] In the eyes of biographers like Plutarch, Mark Antony’s decision to divorce his Roman wife in favor of taking up with his Egyptian mistress and then dividing up Roman territories to their illegitimate children together might stand as the epitome of such forces in action. (Of course, from his perspective, he was only restoring traditional Ptolemaic territories to their rightful owners and leaving the Senate to govern Rome rather than imposing his will as a dictator upon it.)

[2] Quoted by James Warren, “All the Philosopher King’s Men,” Harper’s MagazineFeb, 2000. Accessed at

[3] See

[4] See

[5] E.g., while one might not be a Marxist, applying a Marxist lens to questions about social change can help to illuminate specific dynamics associated with, for instance, class struggle. This is why so much of the work of people like Freud remains interesting and relevant despite the fact that few psychiatrists today subscribe strictly to his specific model of the human spirit; applying his model, however bizarre it sometimes appears, can help to emphasize and clarify the role of forces like family interaction in early childhood and repressed memories in shaping character. Ideally, scholars should use a variety of thematic lenses to examine a subject from different vantage points; many, however, stick strictly to their favorite set of glasses, stubbornly ignoring the microscopes and binoculars of the world and complaining that such apparatuses blur vision because they cannot learn to refocus their vision. The lens of complexity theory accentuates the role of the unexpected, the contingent, and the probabilistic on history.

[6] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses : Authorised Translation from the Spanish (New York: W. W. Norton & co., 1932).

[7] Discourse becomes impoverished in the absence of diversity for two reasons—first, geniuses who were born anything but elite males are doomed to a life where they cannot actualize their potential; second, the greater the diversity of voices and lived experiences at the table, the greater and more powerful the synergy can be created as unique perspectives are applied to age-old problems.

[8] In the language of this paper, during periods of “turbulence,” a situation envisioned by Tainter can readily arise in which individual efforts by the government to micro-manage a devolving state of affairs in the face of rapidly changing environmental conditions and information-overload can simply provoke more devolution.

[9] Shades of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.

[10] This is where Foucault’s greatness as a historian is most apparent, because he understood this phenomenon intuitively.

[11] Interestingly, after the Bronze Age stagnation, there was a temporary dip into chaos and misery at the onset of the Iron Age when barbarous tribes armed with iron ransacked civilization. Eventually, however, a long and productive equilibrium was eventually reached.


The Rape of the Sabine Women


This is a poem I wrote in tenth grade after reading Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. The style is old fashioned, but I think this is the first thing I wrote of which I’m proud. Yet this isn’t how I’d approach the subject matter if I wrote it now.

Sing through me, Muse, of bloody deeds born out in ancient times

before the Ides of March and ere sweet Virgil penned his rhymes.

Exhibit shepherds’ lowly huts where now the Forum lies,

bear back this song to that old time ere Rome’s triumphant rise.

Tell of the plot of Romulus, who as a god is hailed,

to see more women with the scarlet wedding gown be veiled.


Upon an early gloaming when the sun god left his keep

and ushered in the stars that bulging mists of nighttime sweep

a train of Sabine pilgrims marched into the Latin land,

faint stellar rays illuminating that unhurried band.

These Sabine men and women came to Rome once every year

to celebrate festivities when harvest time drew near.

As bees in spring emerging from an arctic winter’s hive

in wagons all the Sabine men began their kin to drive

to Rome, the site of seven bluffs set on the Tiber’s curve,

the village whose inhabitants surmount the Titans’ nerve.


Soon spying the migration of the faithful from a hill

the King summoned his brethren the high senate house to fill.

“Soldiers!” now he cried, “Know this, its truth I swear by Saturn:

that our Latin city is endangered by its pattern

of stalwart fighting men who boldly sacrifice their lives

to Rome without replacements for our city’s dearth of wives.

A man becomes a corpse without a son to take his place,

so is it any wonder numbers dwindle in our race?

Perhaps our Sabine visitors can their young ladies lend,

for women they have plenty, and on women futures pend.”


While the Romans plotted on the slopes of Palatine

the Sabine crowd, all unaware, scaled the Capitoline.

Their hoary king bore on his back his daughter just of eight,

the princess Calpurnia, worried that they might be late.

Her brother road beside the girl upon his regal mare

promising the eager child that they would soon be there.

And soon the pinewood gates of Rome drew back to meet the crowd.

The Roman king now met the crowd and grinned before he bowed.

“Friends!” he cried, “Now enter, do not hesitate or falter,

pray collect your loved ones and come worship at our altar.”

In droves they came and packed the marshy slopes of Rome’s wet Forum

sitting down to dinner and behaving with decorum.


By now the pulpous evening clouds had just begun to fuse

though were it dusk or twilight weary eyes could hardly choose.

In time platters of food were brought, of venison and hog.

Soft hymns were sung to Neptune oer the sacramental log.

While celebrating rituals no Sabine man took note

of signals from the Roman king or of his sudden gloat.

The men of Rome now suddenly threw down their wooden chairs,

rushing toward the tables, disregarding pious airs.

Unsure whether to call it jest or something more perverse

some men just laughed, while others fumed when they suspected worse.

Befuddled and appalled, the hapless Sabines tried to fight

though struggle was futile in the darkness of that night.

As when a wave reaches a shore and forces with it foam

thus did the Romans drive the men beneath the heaven’s dome.

The Sabine men were in despair as clouds drooping and thick

forbid them to mark out their wives or their daughters to pick.


By now the pure Calpurnia had lost her father’s gaze

and strove to meet her brother’s eyes within the writhing maze.

The cries of the poor princess were all futile as they flew,

for every girl cried “Father!”, to distinguish no one knew.

Then suddenly a sodden grip grasped at the royal arm,

the Sabine princess fleeing its acerb designs of harm.

So terrorized by visions of her family made slaves

the tragic Calpurnia plunged into the Tiber’s waves.

“Spare me this dishonor, old man river, bear me home!

Deliver me from violence upon these hills of Rome.”

Thus did she cry before her mouth was silenced by the fall,

her corpse interred by Tiber, sympathetic to her call.


But by now every Sabine had been driven from the hill,

each eye was moist and beard was wet as tears began to spill.

The fathers and the husbands could all barely keep their gaze

upon their shrieking women in the early evening haze.

And then the screams of women were soon muffled in the night

as wooly hands pressed down on mouths and throats were closed in fright.

The Forum marsh was tainted by blood pouring down in drips

from shredded mouths of women biting down on ashen lips.

Now from the jaws of Romulus rose one triumphant shout

as women were abducted and their men were driven out.

Well aided by the darkness of a night without a moon

a silence soon descended with the final woman’s swoon.

And in the huts of mud, the brides now borne across the porch,

bloody hair and broken limbs replace the wedding torch.


Yet Father Time will dry away the tears from ruddy cheeks

and mouths become complacent with the passing of the weeks.

As love affairs soon flower and as bellies start to grow,

a yearning for their homeland Sabine women do not show.

Thus at least the Romans took their wives’ abiding silence,

for what man knows the difference between sorrow and compliance?

For each brocade the Triple Fates to mortals choose to give

provides mankind one of two paths: to suffer or to live.


But now the frauded Sabine men return allied to fight

with heathen mercenaries in revenge for that rough night.

They tramped in packs, the soggy lands were springing with their stomp;

the Furies smiled upon their cause and on the martial pomp.

The men of Rome all saw the march upon their lofty towers

aware their nation’s life would hinge upon the coming hours.

King Romulus passed out new swords to adolescent troops

as older men rode ordering the great throng into groups.

And when the Sabine trumpets echoed through the hills of Rome

the soldiers rushed to bar the gates to shelter gods and home.


Yet even as the men of Rome all rushed to Sabines catch

Tarpeia, daughter to the warden of the portal’s latch,

set her gaze upon a Gallic shield’s golden bubble,

thirsting for its sleeted face and heedless of the trouble.

Succumbing to desire of the most outrageous sort

her eyes glistened as Sabines with their trinkets paid her court,

and promised to receive the shields’ bounty as her pay

the girl unbolted all the gates and showed the men the way.

The Sabines, now reminded that they should complete the deal

all soon allowed Tarpeia their gilded bucklers to feel.

Rushing at her, though a child, they crushed her brittle bones

beneath the weight of golden shields, heedless of her moans,

and as her shattered lungs both strove to draw a final breath

Tarpeia’s ruptured figure with a quake succumbed to death.


Cried the king of Sabines, “Is this not the Roman rule,

to twist the words of bargains and play allies for the fool?”

Yet as the Sabines cleaved the skull and threw it from the hill

the Roman troops had all arrived, and swords were drawn to kill.

Alert of Roman enemies, the Sabine king did try

to scream to his great lines of men a fitting battle cry.

Proclaimed the king of Sabines “For Calpurnia we fight,

My daughter seized by unripe Death upon that awful night!”

Screamed the king of Romans, “For posterity we battle,

For if we halt or falter, we’ll become but Sabine cattle!”

As when two bulls lock horns or when two waves meet with a crash

the men fly at each other and their heavy bucklers smash.

Fists are raised and talons blanch as they press down on swords:

Roman and Sabine now prepare to carve through vocal chords.


When suddenly an angry shriek rose up above the din

as women pressed between the men and warned them of their sin.

“Shameless Roman, see your fault and in shame look away

for the sake of godless deeds performed upon this hateful day!

Was it not enough that you should seize us on that eve

that now our frauded kindred must you force our gaze to leave?

Did your thoughts turn to us when you marched consumed by hate

to leave us without gods or homes to bear a widow’s fate?”

With so much said, the women turned their eyes to their old nation

all seething with sincere despair and with unbound frustration.

“And as for you pretenders who think us your kindred blood,

what did you on that night when we were sullied in the mud?

You fought like cowards when it might have mattered still to fight.

And now you come to slaughter, without asking if it’s right.

The greatest fault on all your parts lies in your estimation

of women as a helpless lot consigned to please their nation.

Now Jove alone may judgment pass and us the verdict loan:

say which is worse, to seize a wife, or live with hearts of stone?”


With this impassioned caution every warrior did freeze

and even grim king Romulus sensed shaking in his knees.

Weapons fell and oaths were pledged as holy Phoebus set

and bloodless hands were pressed as if a promise to forget.


Now Sabines quit the battlefield, now all march off to Rome,

to that city of glory which the gods will call their home.

And grasping the repentant arm of every Roman male

the modest Sabine women beamed as they retold the tale.

Thus was the ancient city saved and thus did she survive

with allies strengthening her walls and aiding her to thrive.

The ghosts of all the slaughtered to Elysium now rise

safely dead and buried and so hidden from our eyes.

They leave the sleeping poet to look forward to the day

when Sovereign Rome shall triumph, all the world in her sway.


(And who’s to say what constitutes a virtue or a sin

when all the epic poems are written by the men who win.)


In the Presence of Strangers: Moving Day (Chapter VII)


It was eleven-thirty in the morning and Raz wished death upon his sister. After his night in Tel Aviv, he was in no mood to begin the day before the late afternoon, and the never-ending uproar of Yael moving her things out of the house was hindering his attempts to fall asleep. He had always been a light sleeper. From a creaking door to a ringing telephone, even the faintest noises seemed to converge into an atonal shriek that gave him no peace. He kicked his legs wildly beneath the sheets, trapped somewhere between slumber and fury. For a moment, he harbored a secret urge to leap out of bed and throw his sister’s boxes out the window.

After a long time, he realized that he was asleep again. He tried to resurrect a dream that the sound of Yael’s footsteps had interrupted. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember its content beyond the fact that it had somehow involved Yasmine. He eventually decided to invent a new scenario inspired by the same theme.

He pictured himself sitting next to her on a breakwater, waves rolling rhythmically beneath them. (He took note of the uneven texture of the rocks on which they sat and congratulated himself on the realism of his imagination.) After a pause, he reached out to touch her hand. Suddenly, she began laughing at him. At first, it was only a chuckle, but it soon evolved into a giggle, and then into a snicker, and finally into pure hysterics. He wished that she would stop. He tried joking with her, reasoning with her, screaming at her, and yet she remained impenetrable. At last, as her cries reached fever pitch, he lunged forward to silence her by force and fell headlong into the sea. Drowning, he looked up and saw her for a final time sitting contentedly on the breakwater, a Sphinx complete with a misshapen nose. The answer to her riddle was in her laughter, but the question itself remained a mystery. She opened her mouth to speak. He swam toward her, desperate to hear what she had to say, and after an unbearably long pause, she whispered,

“Get out of the way, Yonatan! These boxes are heavy!”

Raz looked regretfully at his alarm clock. It was 12:02. He cursed under his breath and waited for the monitor to read 12:03. He counted the seconds silently in his head—one, two, three, four… He considered leaving the bedroom—five six seven eight… The most difficult part of waking up was done, and he wasn’t so very tired anymore—nine ten eleven… But then his mother would force him to help his father move his sister’s boxes, and that was the last thing that he wanted to do—twelve thirteen fourteen days in two weeks. Not two weeks and had gone by since her birthday and Yael had already enrolled in preparatory courses for nursing school, opening her life savings account to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv. Since then, Miriam had become afflicted with daily tantrums directed against anyone unfortunate enough to walk into her line of sight. As the atmosphere of the house became progressively more unbearable, Nachum perfected ignoring his wife and children into an art. Raz felt ready to move out. The clock read 12:04. He’d lost count of the seconds.

A stuffed dog and a blue and white plaid blanket that he had slept with since his infancy had fallen to the floor. He picked them up and tucked them both beneath his arm. He studied the ceiling of his room and counted two hundred and thirty-seven cracks. He wondered if he had counted correctly, but the darkness made it difficult to tell. His bedroom had a vaguely nocturnal air. The song of crickets was mimicked by the buzzing of an electric fan, and the glow of a fluorescent clock took the place of moonlight. Despite the late hour, the illusion remained a tolerably effective one. The pages of a wall calendar rustled to the rhythm of the fan and provided the room with an intoxicating cadence. Raz soon found himself drowsy again. He hid his head beneath the pillow. Unable to breath, he rose, turned it over, and buried his head in its cool side. He sighed and began to stroke his stomach with the tips of his fingers.

He imagined Yasmine’s hair rubbing against the hollow of his neck. He imagined the smell of her perfume, the coolness of her hands, and the weight of her body on his chest. He fumbled to find her lips and saw himself reflected in her eyes. He tasted her breath as she leaned over to whisper something into his ear. He couldn’t understand what she said, but she spoke with such self-assurance that whatever it was seemed terribly important. He cried out with pleasure. Her lips silenced him. Then, suddenly, he began to tremble. His reflection in her eyes had disappeared and in its place he saw the image of her laughing at him again. His vision began to spin until the room dissolved into a series of strange horizontal streaks. Her laughter had grown nearly deafening. His body heaved with adrenaline, and he reached into the air to grasp at nothing until he heard his mother shout,

“I want you to take this box, Yael! I want you to have it!”

“I don’t want it, Ima! I don’t need your charity!”

“Take this box!”

“There’s no room for it in the car! Besides, I don’t need your rags. I have enough clothes of my own.”

“Take it!”

“Sit on it!”


Raz’s body was beaded with sweat and he felt an unbearable pressure in his head. The clock read 12:45. He turned onto his right cheek, then onto his left. The clock read 12:46. He felt a mosquito bite on his left toe. The clock read 12:47. He touched a canker sore on his lower lip with his tongue, and its sour contents seeped to the back of his throat. The clock continued to read 12:47. He felt unclean, but had no energy to take a shower. Presently, he heard a loud crash in the hallway and a muffled sequence of voices.

“It was an accident! I was only trying to help.”

“Yonatan broke Saba’s lamp!”

“What’s for lunch, Miriam?”

“Did you hear me, Aba? I said that Yonatan broke the lamp that Saba gave me! Who cares about Ima’s lunches, anyway? With recipes like hers, it’s better to go hungry.”

“Did you hear what she just said to me, Nachum? Did you hear what she just said?”

“Not Nutella covered pita bread again, Ima! I hate Nutella!”

“Be quiet, Yonatan! They’re killing me, Nachum. Our children are like monsters.”

“Maybe it runs in the family.”

“That’s not funny, Yonatan. Don’t be so sarcastic!”

“Are you ready to leave, Aba? I’m ready to leave.”

“Not before you take this box!”

“I won’t!”

“Take it!”

Raz rushed into the kitchen and screamed,

“Everybody shut up!”

Miriam, Nachum, Yael and Yonatan interrupted their arguing and stared at him.

“You’re waking me up, for God’s sake,” he said more hesitantly. “Please stop.”

Yael rolled her eyes and left the kitchen to take a final box of clothing out to the car. Yonatan stared guiltily at the floor. Miriam sneered.

“Your father is breaking his back moving your sister’s trash out of this house, and you want to sleep through the afternoon? You should be ashamed of yourself. Help Aba with your sister’s things.”

“But I’m exhausted, Ima! I’m sick to my stomach.”

“Then go to the bathroom and vomit, but when you’re all done, help to move these boxes.”

“I’ll help you, Raz!” cried Yonatan. “I’ll help you!”

Raz drew a deep breath and cast his mother the most pitiable expression that he could muster up. She turned away from him, unmoved. He knew that he shouldn’t have gotten out of bed. His eyes darted about the room, eager to find some means of escape. He saw his sister reenter the house and approach her mountain of possessions in the living room. He smiled.

“Should I take this box out to the car, Ima?”

“No!” said Yael. “I’m not taking that box!”

“You are!” insisted Miriam. “You are!”

“I don’t want your box of old clothes! I don’t want anything from you! It will only clutter up my new apartment!”

“Who said that these are old clothes?”

“Anything of yours is old!”

“Are you hearing this, Nachum?”

Raz snuck out of the kitchen and returned to his bedroom. His skill at avoiding manual labor supplied him with a momentary thrill until a feeling of acute melancholy took its place. He could not forget the sight of Nachum’s expression when he left the kitchen. He had never noticed just how haggard and wrinkled his father’s face had become. He remembered a time when he had seen him as a Greek hero, a kind of Ulysses whose intelligence and sense of irony were so refined that his son could step forward and declare to the world in Shakespearean tones that this was a man. His views of Nachum had long since changed, and he felt vaguely guilty for the transition— not because he pitied his father, but precisely because he did not pity him. His quips went unnoticed, his ironies unheeded, and for all of his wit, he was nothing but an under-manager at the ELCO factory and unlikely to amount to anything else. When he wasn’t provoking an argument, Nachum had little to say, and after Raz passed beyond a certain age, he seemed to have nothing in common with his Aba. Now, he felt little empathy for the sarcastic and talentless shell of a man hunched over in the kitchen, and empathized with himself for his lack of it.

By now it was 1:30, and the house had at last grown silent. Raz couldn’t fall back to sleep. He began to play with a loose string on his T shirt and stare lazily at the rays of sunlight squeezing between the curtain and the window pane. He thought to himself that soon it would be dark again, and then it would be light, and everything at 10 Anna Frank Street would remain the same. His brother would remain a nuisance, his mother would remain neurotic, and his father would remain an emotional recluse. But then again, perhaps things weren’t as static as they seemed. Yael was leaving—Yael, whom he had loved so completely as a child, until that awkward day they never talked about which created an increasingly gaping gulf between them that widened until they seemed to share little in common but a last name.

And she wasn’t the only one on her way out. He was going to the army in October. The timelessness of summer was only an illusion. His mother, his grandmother, his father, his brother, none of them were trapped in time, none of them were immortal. They would all die someday, every one of them. He would die someday. It was as if an invisible river was pushing them all toward jagged reeds and there was no hope of escaping the current. And then there was only death, a dreamless sleep without an end, insensible and permanent. These thoughts converged into a dull ache deep within Raz’s stomach. More than ever, he found himself longing for Yasmine. His inability to understand her motives served as a convenient distraction from these kinds of thoughts.

It was 2:04. He heard Nachum sound the car-horn in the driveway. He wondered if Yael would knock on his door to say goodbye. He was her brother, after all. To his disappointment, he soon heard her taking her leave of his mother and younger brother, and realized that she would not be coming to see him after all. Now he was happy that he had refused to move her things. She deserved it for her lack of loyalty. He closed his eyes, imagining the scene in the hallway as he heard it play out.

Shalom, Yonatan. Maybe Aba can bring you to visit me next week.”

“I don’t care.”

“Why are you being such a brat?”

“Why couldn’t I have come with you today? Why is Aba the only one who gets to see your new apartment?”

“Because it’s a disgusting closet, and there would be no room for you there.”

“Thank you for that, Ima. Shalom! God help me if I ever come back to this place.”

“Remember that.”

“I will!”

“Take this box!”

“For the last time, I don’t want it! I don’t want your trash!”

“Shut your mouth and look through it before you talk!”

Shalom, Ima!”

Raz heard the sound of a door opening and closing, a long pause, and the roar of a car driving away. Yael was gone. A minute might have gone by, or it might have been an hour. He didn’t care to look at the clock. He was fully awake now, but had no strength to begin a day that was already too long. He put his hands to his eyes and pressed down on them until bursting ribbons of color formed beneath his eyelids. The sight of a yellow spark reminded him of the Dizengoff fountain, and his thoughts turned inevitably toward Yasmine again. He heard the sound of footsteps, and he felt a cold hand on his forehead. A tingling anticipation burned beneath his skin as he imagined Yasmine standing over him. Then, he opened his eyes and saw Ilana.

“Your mother let me in,” she whispered, stroking his hair. “I got here just before your sister left.”

He looked at her uncertainly for a moment.

“What are you doing here?”

“I came to see you,” she said, sitting next to him on the bed and fumbling to kiss his neck. “We haven’t seen each other in almost two weeks. Not since that night at the beach.”

He sat up.

“That’s right, Ilana. So what do you want from me now?”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. What do you want from me?”

“Nothing! I just came to see you.”


“What do you mean why? Because I love you!”

“You have some nerve sneaking into my bedroom without knocking. You’ve ignored me for two weeks. You didn’t even call. Get out of here.”

“Excuse me?”

“Get out.”

“Why would you say that to me?”

“Because I want you to leave.”

“What’s come over you?”

“Disgust. Disgust has come over me.”

Until that moment, he’d avoided looking directly at Ilana, but now he stared right into her eyes. Although he was ashamed to admit it, he found the expression of terror and confusion on her face gratifying. Whenever they fought in the past, he’d resisted the urge to leave her. Now the tables had turned, and he found himself charged with some newly discovered, wonderful sense of power. He rose from the bed and began to circle her in the darkness. He was almost having fun.

“I’m disgusted,” he repeated, “with you and your friends and your endless complaints. I was relieved not to have to talk to you for two weeks, to be honest. I thought that it was finally over between us… and I was right. We’re done.”

“I don’t believe that you’re saying this! We should at least talk about it more.”

“I don’t want to talk about anything. I want it to end.”

“What’s wrong with you, Raz? Stop it!”

“Happily, as soon as you leave my house. I tell you, I don’t want to see you anymore.”

She laughed nervously and moved to open the window.

“You’re sick,” she said. “Being in this room all morning has made you sick. I think you need some air.”

“Don’t touch my window.”

“You need some air!”

She pulled aside the curtain and stared at him with a desperate look on her face. The light illuminated her from behind so that Raz thought to himself that she looked more like a shadow than a human being. She sat on the foot of his bed and began to make frantic small-talk as he reached for a magazine and theatrically ignored her.

“Should we go out for a drink, Raz? Do you want to get some beer? Nathan said that his idea of a perfect life was drinking beer, listening to jazz, smoking Marlboros, and having a girl thrown into the mix. Isn’t that clever?”

Raz kept his eyes on his magazine.

“Well, that’s certainly not my idea of a perfect life.”

“Then what is?

“For you to leave me the hell alone.”

“Why are you acting this way?”

“For the millionth time, because I want you to leave!”

“I will leave!” she said, barely suppressing tears. “I will, if you’re not careful, and I won’t come back! There’s only so much that I can take! You humiliated me in front of my friends, but I was good enough to come here and give you a second chance, and you… you… you can go to hell, you and your big mouth! Nobody gives a damn about anything that you think or say, anyway! Of course, now that you’re handsome, people might pretend that they find you interesting, but they’re only playacting. You’ve never had an original thought in your life. The only way you can construct a personality for yourself is by blindly contradicting what other people say.”

He had scarcely been listening to Ilana, but her final statement caught him off-guard. He set aside his reading and addressed her quietly but deliberately.

“You don’t give a damn about what I think or say, and I don’t give a damn about you.”

She looked at him incredulously, but his spiteful expression seemed to indicate that he was in earnest.

“I won’t let you do this to me, Raz. I mean, we can’t let it end so easily! We need to talk this over some more. I gave you a chance by dating you when no one else would. I didn’t care how you looked, because I wanted you for your soul. Appearances meant nothing to me.”

“That’s funny. You just said that I was totally unoriginal and appearances are all I have to offer.”

“Don’t twist my words. I wanted you ever since we were kids and our parents would drag us to the same parties.”

“Really? I think the only reason you’re fighting for me so hard is because you think I’m good looking now, and you’d be losing a prize if I slipped through your fingers. But there’s no real depth of feeling between us.”

“You’re being evil to me. You can’t look into my eyes and tell me that I don’t mean anything to you now, after all of the memories we made together and all of the stories we told each other.”

“Ilana, I don’t have anything else to say to you.”

“But if we could only-”

“There’s no use dragging this conversation on for even one second longer. Nothing is going to convince me to stay with you. Nothing. I’ll be happier without you, and God knows you’ll be happier without me. In your heart, you know I’m right. We’re going nowhere and should have the maturity to surrender gracefully to what’s inevitable. I’ll never forget you, or that you wanted me when no one else in the world seemed to want me. But our story is over now.”

She stared at him silently for a moment before rushing out of the room. He closed his eyes very tightly. Everything seemed like a dream. He’d been so preoccupied with thoughts of Yasmine that he had nearly forgotten about Ilana’s existence. He hoped that he’d seen the last of her after that night in Netanya. As it was, he meant every word of what he said to her, though he very much regretted causing her pain. He stretched his arms and rose from bed. He felt rejuvenated and was eager to begin the day now. The clock read 3:33. He placed his blanket and stuffed dog on the foot of the bed, then walked toward the kitchen for a snack.

He didn’t pay attention to his mother sitting on the living room couch. Beside her was the little box that she had spent the previous night preparing for Yael. It was overflowing with a heap of report cards, childhood photographs, and drawings that she had saved since her daughter’s birth. She looked blankly through a scrapbook, remembering when her own mother had given her a similar album on the day she married Nachum. As she turned one of the pages, a yellow piece of paper fell onto her lap. It was Yael’s first drawing, a picture of a little house with three stick figures smiling pathetically in front of it. Miriam folded it up carefully and placed it into her purse. Then she began preparing dinner.


Mars, Tomb of Futurism


Tend Your Own Garden

If immortality is the Holy Grail of Futurism then the colonization of Mars is its Holy Sepulchre—a big empty tomb. Both attract their pilgrims: the former is a fairytale; the latter is a real place just out of reach, a sort of tantalizing inspiration to hungry dreamers everywhere salivating for land that doesn’t belong to them. These days, from the promises of Elon Musk to the heroics of Matt Damon, we positively fetishize Mars. Yet my advice to the 11th century crusader and the 21st century Martian colonist would be the same: tend your own garden.

I’m afraid that this is blasphemy from someone who calls himself a Transhumanist. After all, the colonization of space is tangentially connected enough to other themes associated with technological progress that they’re ordinarily all lumped together under the general banner of Futurism. In an increasingly divisive political climate, the promises of SpaceX and Mars One shine like the hope of some long-awaited escape from ourselves.

We might not have cities on the moon, but the fruits of space programs enrich our lives immeasurably.More fundamentally, the allure of space colonization is at the heart of some of our most beloved cultural narratives, shaping the aspirations of explorers since the first days of NASA and the Soviet Space Program. Even the earliest films lionized astronauts. The moon landing was the greatest collective lived experience of the twentieth century, this perfect human achievement more majestic than the pyramids and just as pointless only to the cynical.

Today, we might not have cities on the moon, but the fruits of space programs enrich our lives immeasurably. And given our recklessness when it comes to the fragile environment of this planet, perhaps we could use another world as a backup, just in case. We already have the technology to achieve the goal of getting to Mars, though for a perfect storm of reasons, it has yet to happen. But isn’t getting there a worthy goal? And won’t the journey there (and not only the physical journey, but the technical refinements forged along the way) benefit the cause of Progress with a capital P? Then what the hell am I complaining about?

Space X JCSAT-14 long exposure launch. Credit: SpaceX

Colonization Problems

My intention here isn’t to trash space exploration or regale you with clickbait about the top eleven reasons why the colonization of Mars would be a tragic mistake at this juncture in time. However, I want to seriously problematize the prospective colonization, if you’ll excuse a word that academics tend to overuse. I don’t want to focus on the hackneyed and frankly shortsighted idea that the money spent on getting to Mars could be better employed for services here on earth.

My critique has to do with the repercussions of contemporary attitudes about the seemingly unrelated topics of imperialism in outer space on the one hand and Transhumanism on the other. Cultural prejudices enshrining heroic astronauts blazing across the sky and mad scientists forging abominations pose serious problems for Transhumanists of all stripes and would-be Martian colonists alike.

If the predominant image of space colonizers enshrined in our zeitgeist is heroic pioneers soaring across the galaxy in the name of science and adventure, the narratives surrounding genetic engineering and cyborgs are positively apocalyptic by comparison—just think of Frankenstein, the Terminator, and GATTACA.

Somehow, an astronaut’s 400 million kilometer journey from Earth to a theoretical outpost in a faraway wasteland seems less terrifying than a head’s four-meter journey from its body to a theoretical apparatus capable of supporting its consciousness.The reasons for this difference in our intuitions are varied. They partly have to do with the genealogy of our ideas about imperialism in outer space, which are grounded in discourse about the benefits of the exploration and exploitation of underdeveloped foreign lands, exotic travelogues, Cold War propaganda, epic films, etc. They also have to do with the attitudes that surround Transhumanism, grounded in skepticism about discredited fields like galvanism, the abuses of the eugenicists, deep-seated fears surrounding physiological dislocation and dismemberment, etc.

Heroes and Monsters

The end result of all this discourse is that, right now in the popular imagination, would-be cyborgs are monsters and would-be Martian colonists are heroes. Let’s take it for granted that the exploration of Mars would provide net benefits for society at large. Nevertheless, whether from the vantage point of someone who wants to investigate Mars and preserve its landscape (let’s call this the environmentalist perspective) or someone who wants to colonize and terraform it(the imperialist perspective, which incidentally seems to completely dominate the environmentalist one), the problem inherent in this tension is immense.

First, imagine you were an environmentalist who felt strongly against the radical transformation of Mars. Your reasons might be varied. To you, the urge to dominate nature with the clutter of terrestrial civilization might seem arrogant and intrusive. True, there are no indigenous Martians to despoil. But the process of terraforming the planet’s surface would still seem to be hugely rapacious.

Mars, Tomb of Futurism: The Hopes of Success Are Dependent on Cyborg HumansMars, Tomb of Futurism: The Hopes of Success Are Dependent on Cyborg HumansImagine drowning its pristine scarlet valleys in water and clouding its translucent atmosphere with chemicals. Wouldn’t even the most single-minded developer preserve some of the planet’s original landscape rather than transform it all? Doesn’t this intuition concede that there is inherent value and beauty in the wild state of the place? If advanced aliens exist within visitable distance of our planet, they are evidently the type to silently observe or ignore us rather than actively intervene in our affairs. How primitive it might seem to them that our conception of space travel in 2017 is still bound to the small-minded earthly impulse to barge in, dominate nature, and claim random parcels of it as our own.

From this perspective, the only visits to Mars should be undertaken for the sake of exploration rather than colonization. The best agents to do so would be robots and cyborgs rather than unenhanced human beings, whose imprint on the environment would be immense by comparison. Yet until the development of cyborgs, we are doomed to either only know Mars indirectly or permanently scar its landscape as successive generations of pioneers perish on its inhospitable surface.

Now, consider the imperialist perspective. To you, between climate change, nuclear war, plague, and pestilence, the existential threats to human civilization are great enough that you feel we need to colonize Mars as soon as possible or face the potential extermination of civilization as we know it. The preservation of the beauty of nature is all well and good, after all, but human interests come first.

Yet the conditions on Mars for the colonizers would be like something out of Dante; indeed, the first Martian immigrants should be “prepared to die,” warns Elon Musk.

As it is, we can’t even control the weather yet here on Earth, let alone create a colony on another planet with an inhospitable atmosphere. The bright eyed and bushy tailed original colonists would be like Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, fantasizing about the march of civilization but ending up the lonely dupes of capitalism wallowing in lunacy in a dark place where they shouldn’t have ventured in the first place.

On closer reflection, the imperialist would realize that until it became feasible to travel to Mars on a mass scale, the original colonies could only remain pitiable outposts for misguided dying settlers and insanely rich tourists rather than anything like a safety net for civilization at large. The fastest and most efficient way to transform the landscape would be by the sweat of cyborgs. And yet ironically, with the advent of cyborgs, the need to terraform the environment to suit un-enhanced human needs would perhaps be moot.


Great Respect

While I might have misgivings about the subjugation of a planet ironically named for the god of conquest, I don’t want to disparage a journey there as an admirable Futurist goal. But whether you are an advocate of peaceful exploration or large-scale colonization, the time has come to think realistically about the requisite intermediate steps. We need to make heroes of the pioneers who are willing to risk their lives and careers to overcome the hurdles on the way to our destination “in this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching.”

Cyborgs and space explorers are entirely akin in their willingness to risk their lives for the sake of challenging the boundaries of conceivability. Yet in 2017, we call volunteers for the journey to Mars heroes, and there are no volunteers at all for brain implants because no doctor would ever dream of performing such an operation or convening a conference to discuss plans for one.

If a prominent surgeon called for volunteers and warned, as Musk did, that they must be prepared to die, I wonder if the public would meet the declaration with the same resigned sigh in recognition of the heroism of all involved. The principle is precisely the same: a human life is at stake. Yet we are willing to sanctify the sacrifice of the astronaut and glorify him, but would rather reverse engineer a machine analogous to a human brain than implant a machine into one

Investment in Mars in the absence of Transhumanism as a vigorous social ideology doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of Transhumanism, but it does come at the expense of the future of Mars. The most widespread current projections of the next century of human development imagine the needs of unenhanced humans predominating as a matter of course. Hence, long-term plans for Mars call for terraforming the planet to create a second Earth. Yet this limitation in our imaginations augurs great brutality and a great deal of human blood spilled along the way as we struggle to dominate conditions not meant for our bodies.

This, of course, does not mean I think there should be no exploration of Mars, or even that I am dead-set against eventual colonization. But I would hope that any such colonization would be undertaken in a spirit of great respect for nature, imposing upon it, let alone uprooting it, as little as possible. And I would also pray that the path toward colonization would be blazed with as few deaths as possible along the way.

Yet this can only take place after the ascendancy of Transhumanism and not a moment before it. For the time being, I would no more recommend a journey to Mars than I would a voyage across the Atlantic to an ancient Roman armed with nothing but a leaky trireme and his copy of Ptolemy.

My article was published at

All Consuming Fire (Or, Gagging)


Dude, do you remember when we two went out for food,

we’d both run out of things to say and to repair the mood,

between texts on your telephone, betraying you were bored,

you said, “Eat that wasabi,” thinking that you’d be ignored.

But I wanted to prove to you that I was macho too,

and yearning to seem interesting, knew what I had to do.

Hesitation conquered, I devoured a heaping glob

then forced myself to grin and cover up my hidden sobs .

I stared at you impassively, although I was a liar.

Inside my heart was blazing with an all consuming fire.

I started seeing double and my jaws began to gnash,

internal flames infernal torched my boiling guts to ash.

Repressing every instinct, I behaved like all was normal.

I flashed a friendly smile at you and kept the night informal.

Despite such piercing flames I thought my soul itself would melt,

desperate to impress you, I concealed what I felt.

Your eyes brightened like summer skies, impressed that I was strong,

but when we paid the check and left you found that you were wrong.

I stumbled down the sidewalk spraying vomit left and right.

Anyone around would think that I was drunk that night.

We staggered to your room and I collapsed onto your bed.

I wondered if the hole in me would make me wake up dead.

But then you stood beside me and you even squeezed my hand.

All in all, the evening turned out better than I planned.

I didn’t know it at the time but soon our time would end.

But I would always have with me the memory of a friend.



Despite his mother’s incessant pleas to the contrary, Raz refused to a wear wrist watch. They rubbed against his skin, felt like shackles, and plucked the hair from his arm whenever he took them off. Worse yet, they inhibited his social graces. Whenever he found himself alone in public, he would approach interesting looking passersby in an attempt to discover the sound of their voices. Asking for the time led to friendly little chats on everything from sports to the weather, discussions just honest enough to energize him and just brief enough to avoid the tedium of longer conversations. But he knew that he would only seem ridiculous if he asked for the time while wearing a watch of his own, and consequently considered pragmatic necessity yet another reason to disappoint his mother.

But although he enjoyed this little victory over the trappings of adulthood, his triumph was only a limited one. There were other accessories of everyday life to haunt him. He particularly suffered under the tyranny of house keys and wallets. He could never stop checking to see that they remained safe in his pocket whenever he left the house. Eventually, he became so unnerved that he would jump in horror whenever he wore a new pair of pants and discovered an empty compartment. But he was anxious for good reason— he was terribly scatterbrained. In fact, he was thinking about how forgetful he was when he realized that he had forgotten the flowers he’d bought for Yasmine at home on the kitchen counter.

He could hardly believe his bad luck. Nobody brought flowers on dates anymore, but he didn’t care; the opening line that he had in mind for Yasmine wouldn’t work without a bouquet. He knew that he’d forgotten something the moment he stepped out of the house, but had left all the same in his eagerness to beat the evening traffic. Although he was a long way from home and already running out of gas, he was so overcome with disgust that he felt a strong desire to return to Kefar Sava to correct his mistake. He had meant for that night to see the initiation of his new suave persona, and he wasn’t about to become a sloppy strategist and arrive on a first date unarmed.

He was momentarily awakened from his torments by the realization that traffic had ground to a halt, caught up in a line of cars beside a cemetery. A funeral party was passing by, and taking its sweet time. The other drivers restrained themselves from sounding their horns out of a vague sense of common courtesy. But Raz was too exhausted to be polite and pounded down on the horn with all his might. Somebody was dead, but did that mean the living should be boiled alive in their cars? It was an unusually hot evening, and he thanked God for the car’s air conditioning. How had the older generation of Israelis survived rush hour traffic without it? He groaned in exhaustion as he positioned his brow beside the ventilator. Its soft hum proved temporarily soothing, and though its stale smell was far from pleasant, it was offset by the scent of a vanilla air freshener hanging over the dashboard. But he couldn’t remain calm for long and thoughts of Yasmine’s bouquet sitting neglected on the kitchen counter soon infuriated him all over again.

He was unsure what to do. Would his mother drive the bouquet over to him? That was unlikely. She was completely self-absorbed ever since his sister had enrolled in summer courses at Ramat Aviv and moved in with their grandmother. Would his father bring it to him? He was probably asleep. He cracked his knuckles violently and mumbled about how much he hated himself sometimes.

But then, he caught sight of a solitary grave tucked behind a sandy incline. On the headstone, a bouquet of flowers larger and more expensive than the one he had bought for Yasmine seemed to lie in wait, taunting him. Before he could stop himself, he left the car in the middle of the road and hurried over the hill. Taking care not to look at the name of the grave’s owner (he considered that doing so would have been unethical), he snatched up the roses and dashed back to the car, twice falling down the incline before leaping back into the driver’s seat. The funeral procession had since passed on and the way forward was open. Driving away to the sound of car horns and curses, he congratulated himself on finally being equipped for battle.

Following a tediously lengthy drive made a little bit shorter by the thrill of what he had done, he reached the maze of streets before Dizengoff Center and began to look for a parking space. After a long and unsuccessful search, he became all the more eager to abandon his car in the middle of the road when he caught sight of Yasmine waiting for him by a roadside kiosk. She was wearing a short red skirt that clung to the top of her legs and a loose fitting blouse to match it. Her eyes seemed even rounder and darker than he remembered. Despite the inadequacies of the bridge of her nose, he assured himself that she was a strikingly beautiful girl well worth the effort of subduing. If he could conquer her, he told himself, then he could conquer anyone.

At last, after a Hassidic Jew rolled out of a choice parking space beside a Eucalyptus tree, Raz positioned the car by the side of the road, double-checked that his wallet was safe in his pocket, and walked gallantly toward Yasmine, bouquet in hand.

“Roses for a rose,” he proclaimed in English, handing her the bouquet with a dramatic bow.

“More like thorns from a prick,” she declared with greater fluency.

He choked for a moment on his own saliva.

“I see that you speak English well enough to make jokes in it, but you might have at least thanked me for the flowers before you insulted me.”

“I’m sorry, Raz,” she said, accepting the flowers. “I couldn’t resist my opening line. It seemed so… appropriate.” Before he could speak, she added, “Thank you for the bouquet. Roses on a date—how… uh, American of you. I feel like the heroine in a black and white movie or something. They’re very nice, if impractical.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what am I supposed do with them now?”

“Put them in water. I don’t know.”

“I forgot my koom-koom at home.”

Yasmine pronounced the word koom-koom with such a hilariously sarcastic lilt in her voice that Raz had to smile. She pressed her advantage.

“Well, I think that even you’ll admit that lugging these flowers around Tel Aviv is a ridiculous thing to do. Will you take them back to your car before we head out, or throw them out, please?”

She curtsied as she presented the flowers to him, mimicking his earlier efforts at gallantry with all the accuracy of a little mirror. Raz felt a twinge of excited curiosity as he headed back in the direction of the Ford. But as he reached the car and placed the bouquet in the back seat, a sense of melancholy suddenly came over him. Her flippant reaction to his bait had failed to justify his crime in stealing it, and he found himself unexpectedly regretting his escapades at the cemetery. But his crisis of conscience was short lived. He decided that it was too warm that night to brood. The air itself seemed to sway as if it were distorted by hidden flames.

When he crossed the street to meet Yasmine again, he saw that she was looking through her handbag. She produced a pocket mirror and checked her mascara. Then they walked together toward a roadside art exhibit. He noticed how supple the skin of her neck seemed to be. He felt a strong urge to reach over and brush it with his hand, but he would hardly know what to do with his arm once he positioned it over her shoulder, and since he didn’t want her to think that he was trying to strangle her, he set aside his little temptation.

Eventually, they reached a long line of people waiting to enter the exhibition. A blonde child holding a baby in one hand and a sign pleading for alms in the other sat beside the ticket counter. Raz was happy to see him, since propriety seemed to demand that he perform an act of charity in recompense for his earlier antics at the cemetery. So after a deliberately lengthy sigh meant to illustrate the depths of his compassion, he prepared to drop a shekel into the boy’s hat. But just when he stepped forward to do so, Yasmine said,

“Do you ever get the urge to kick or otherwise attack panhandlers?”

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t stare at me like I just pushed your mother in front of a bus! Answer my question honestly.”

“Well, the answer to your question is no. Other people’s misfortunes don’t give me the urge to kick them.”

“So beggars really don’t irritate you at all?”

“No, Yasmine… I mean, not unless they’re too aggressive.”

“But they make their livings as parasites. Why don’t they get real jobs?”

Although Raz sensed a playful cadence in Yasmine’s voice, he was unsure about her motivation in questioning him like this. Until that moment, he had never encountered anyone who seemed to take as much pleasure in testing other people’s limits as he did. He continued to err on the side of caution.

“It’s not so easy. Some of them are profoundly damaged or addicted or mentally ill. Besides, that boy can’t be more than twelve years old. Have some compassion.”

“Twelve my ass— he’s fifteen at least by the look of his pimples, and probably older too. And that filthy baby he’s holding couldn’t possibly be his brother. It looks like he’s from Thailand. I wonder where he picked him up. Is it really compassionate to help kidnappers?”

“Are you completely heartless? Those two kids might be starving, for all we know. Hypothetically, would you at least consider giving them food?”

“I don’t typically carry breadcrumbs around in my purse.” She clapped her hands, ready to change the topic. “You have a stain on your collar, you know. But it’s alright— it suits you, somehow. It’s a nice shirt. You have good taste. You look great tonight.”

He nodded proudly. His grandmother had bought him the shirt only a week before and he’d picked it out himself to wear that night.

“Thank you, Yasmine. You look very nice yourself.”

“Could we go for a walk in Dizengoff Center after we finish with this exhibit of yours? It feels like we’ve been standing in this line forever. Are you sure that this place is worth the wait?”

“Yes,” he said, suppressing a smile as he mimicked the words he had once spoken to Ilana on a similar occasion, “the boundless limitations of modern art are endlessly interesting to me.”

“I’m not sure I know what that means, but is that toilet seat really on display?”

“It must have a point. Maybe it represents the vanity of modern values or something.”

She grimaced. Gradually, they moved toward the front of the line. Before they reached it, though, she dropped a mountain of shekels into the young beggar’s hat. Raz looked at her inquisitively. She laughed.

“Of course, I didn’t mean anything that I said before. I only wanted to see what kind of a person you were. Personally, I’m always generous to strangers. My father used to tell me, beggars come from God. There was an old woman who lived down the street from me when I was a girl. I’d hold her hand and help her walk down the street sometimes—she always liked to ask strangers to hold her hand. It was probably her only form of human contact. I’ll never forget that she told me once, ‘I wish that God would take me. Nobody loves me, and I’m no use to anyone. I’m always in pain, and I don’t deserve to feel like this all the time. I wish that God would take me.’”

“Wow, that’s intense. What did you say to her?”

“That maybe she should contemplate suicide.”

“That’s not very funny.”

“I didn’t say anything, of course. But I gave her some money, and it brought a smile to her face for a little while. Everyone is waiting for you to move forward, you know. We’re at the front of the line.”

By now, Raz was eager to show her that he was equally as clever and interesting as she was. But wit can never be summoned up on command, and the best that he could do on such short notice was to ask the woman at the counter for tickets for two children. The cashier was confused by the request and asked where the children might be, but Yasmine understood the intent of his meager joke and did her best to counterfeit amusement. Raz appreciated this. Most girls would have struggled to show their disdain for his pitiful attempt at humor, but this one seemed so self-confident that she had no need for contempt.

They collected their tickets and wandered into the sea of broken beer bottles and bathroom accoutrements that made up the exhibition. When they passed beside an enormous pyramid of toilet paper, Raz whispered,

“Do you kind of have an urge to push it over?”

“No. This place is full of trash, and I’d be afraid of catching the plague if I touched anything here.”

“Well, at least we can both recognize garbage for what it is.”

“You mean to say you don’t like this sort of art?” He shook his head. “Then why did you take me here tonight?”

“To see your reaction.”

“My reaction?”

“I think that these exhibits are ridiculous, but most people are so eager to seem sophisticated that they pretend to love them and it gives me a chance to laugh at them when I-” He stopped himself mid-sentence. Yasmine was so artful that she had tricked him into a measure of honesty.

“Don’t be embarrassed, Raz. To be honest, the only reason that I agreed to come here tonight was to laugh at your pretentiousness, so I see that I’m in good company. Evidently, we both get off on underestimating each other.”

He decided to shift the topic of conversation along safer and more academic lines.

“Do you think there should be some sort of objective criteria for judging art?”

“Absolutely not.”


“Of course. I guess that historically, some eloquent types have tried to construct formulas defining what constitutes good and bad kinds of expression. But all of those theories are just based on different kinds of bias, and they mean absolutely nothing to me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, most people call sculpture a high art, but not basket weaving. But it has nothing to do with the forms themselves—one just has the misfortune of being practiced by minority groups and women who live far away from big cities, where the critics lurk.”

“That’s a very interesting theory.”

“Anyway, artists can do as they please for all I care. I’m no critic. There’s a thin line between art and pornography, and it’s all the same to me.”

“That’s an awfully cynical thing to say.”

“But it’s true. Critics think that they know everything, but their opinions are no better than anyone else’s. I think that in the end, taste is based on what we’re used to and what triggers pleasant memories. But we all have different life stories, so there’s no objectivity when it comes to preferences. That’s why no one has the last word when it comes to art, and it drives intellectual bigots up the wall.”

“But sometimes it’s almost impossible not to be judgmental about art to some degree. I mean, with no standards at all, the only thing determining what’s worthy of display or not is hype, and artists just try to one up each other in shock value all the time to attract cheap publicity.”

“You have a point there.”

“It used to be that artists tried to convey beauty. Now they say they’ve after truth, which isn’t always beautiful. Well, that’s fine. But along the way, I feel like something fundamental has been lost. What will future generations think when they look at the pompous trash filling our museums? I mean, it must say something depressing about the state of world culture that one time period produced the Sistine Chapel and ours can only produce this sort of…”

“I believe the word you’re looking for is shit,” offered an old woman who’d overheard their conversation.

Raz and Yasmine began to laugh so loudly that they inadvertently attracted the angry glances of the people around them. But their scowls only fanned their amusement, and Yasmine cried,

“Let’s get out of here! Raz. These people are so full of hot air that one of them might burst open and stain our clothes.”

He continued to laugh hysterically.

“Hot air doesn’t stain, it burns!”

“Who cares? Let’s go!”

“But why? There are so many things here to laugh at.”

“A walk through the city is more interesting to me than this dump. Tel Aviv is like my drug. Let’s go to Dizengoff Center.”

Before he could say another word, she rushed out of the gallery and he dutifully followed her. His thriftier side would have resented paying thirty shekels for tickets and leaving so abruptly, but it was so exciting to be around Yasmine that he hardly noticed the loss. At length, they reached Dizengoff Center and its fountain of concentric circles, a notorious contraption resembling a three layered wedding cake that vomits up flames every hour on the hour. They found a comfortable perch on the marble lining of the fountain and looked down at the coins lining its bottom, the relics of strangers’ forgotten wishes.

“Tel Aviv is one of my favorite places on earth,” said Yasmine, rolling a ringlet of hair with her forefinger. “There are so many places to visit and so many things to buy!”

“I love the houses we passed by on the way over here,” said Raz.

“Really? But most of them were just grimy apartments.”

“No, Yasmine. Think about it this way. Every window represents another life, and every one of those lives is caught up in its own dynamic— a boy coming home from school, a mother cooking dinner, a father driving to work… a thousand secret stories. I think it’s wonderful.”

“Well, those secret stories sound awfully uninteresting to me.”

“In my eyes, there’s nothing more interesting than the little details of everyday life.”


“Good question. I don’t know. I guess I think that nothing reveals human character more. Sometimes, even the way that someone does something like peel an apple can be graceful and beautiful and significant. Know what I mean?”

Yasmine looked closely at him for a moment. Then she shrugged and stretched her legs out on the fountain. The bustle of the city seemed to calm her. Raz, however, swung his arms around nervously. Although he barely knew Yasmine, her immunity to his charms only increased his determination to win her over. But how could he faze her? At last, he decided to challenge her wit with silly, empty queries. He believed that the truth of personality lay hidden within the tangential, and quick responses to extemporaneous questions might reveal an Achilles’ heel. But before he could begin questioning her, Yasmine said,

“If you could give up two of your five senses, which would they be? If you had to choose, I mean.”

“That’s easy,” he answered. “Smell and taste.”

“Choosing smell and taste is clearly cheating. Which of your real senses would you give up?”

“Aren’t smell and taste real senses?”

“They’re not the important ones. Sight, hearing, or…”


“But speaking isn’t really one of the five senses either, is it?”

“Touch, taste, smell, vision, hearing. No, I guess you’re right, Yasmine.”

“That old woman sitting next to us certainly smells, doesn’t she?”

“She’ll hear you!”

“I don’t think so,” she said, producing a joint from her pocketbook and lighting it. “She’s probably deaf. Is that man sitting next to her a grandson or a gigolo, I wonder?”

The man in question leaned over and inserted his tongue into the woman’s mouth.

“An overly affectionate grandson,” laughed Raz. “Greed enslaves some people, I guess.”

“No, Raz. Not some people. All people. We’re all slaves to our own self-interest, aren’t we?”

“Well, I guess so. Some people even say that love is a sort of slavery. What do you love most of all, Yasmine?”


“Very funny.”

“But it’s true.”

“Then I suppose by that logic, you’re a slave to yourself.”

“But then I’m not a slave at all, right?”

“Maybe that proves only selfish people are free.”

She offered him a puff, and he accepted. He began to cough violently, which amused her. Then, without warning, she spun around and clutched his hands as if charged by a sudden inspiration. His face went white.

“What’s the difference between a gigolo and a prostitute?”

“Excuse me?”

She frowned and let go of his wrists.

“I was expecting a witty answer from you, Raz, and not another question as a response. But I suppose that the difference between a gigolo and a prostitute is that one drives a fancy car, and the other gets into the back seat of one. I’m sorry if that wasn’t especially clever, but it was the best that I could do on short notice.”

He frowned.

“There’s really not too much difference between them at all when it comes down to it. They’re the same in that they both throw away their lives. God only knows why people make the mistakes that they do.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be so judgmental about the choices that other people make.”

“Are you some sort of moral relativist?”

“Well, not entirely. Some things are true in all times and places. For example, I think that for the most part, people’s stupidity, laziness, and cowardice are pretty universal.”

“How horrible.”

“I’m only being realistic. People everywhere are always second-guessing themselves. They’re never content.”

“Do you really think that contentment is such a virtue?”

“It can be, as long as it doesn’t turn into complacency.”

“I think you’re playing at semantics. The words are synonyms.”

“I don’t think so. To me, complacency seems negative, but contentment is related to self-confidence, which is probably the single most important aspect of a strong character.”

“What do you mean?”

“People should learn to be confident enough to be content with what they can’t change and proactive about what they can. That’s the very opposite of complacency. And I’ve found that with enough self-confidence, you don’t have to go around excluding other people to feel important…”

“I’ve lost you, Yasmine.”

“Well, never mind. I’m giving myself a headache with all this philosophy! Who knows what I’m saying. It just goes to show, don’t try to justify your good ideas, because you’ll only end up complicating them. What do you think the most important attribute of a strong character is, if not self-confidence?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve heard that smart people learn from their mistakes and smarter people learn from the mistakes of others. But I think that the very smartest people of all learn from their own dreams.”

“What do you dream about?”

“I dreamt last week that I was drowning in a sea of toothpaste. What do you think it means?”

“A secret fear of bad breath?” They both laughed. “There’s no need to interpret dreams if you want to know yourself, Raz.”

“But I do know myself.”


“I’m a Jew.”

She smirked. He arched his back.

“You have bad posture,” she said. “I mean, really atrocious. You should see yourself on camera. You walk around like the hunchback of Notre Dame.”

“I thought that you didn’t read books.”

“I saw the Disney movie.”

“Well, thanks for the compliment, I guess”

“But your eyes are soulful, so that makes up for it. I wonder, what do you think my best attribute is?”

“Your eyes, also.”

“And my worst?”

“You have a big nose.”

He cringed at his daring, but he was desperate to faze her, and nothing seemed to shock or upset the girl.

“Do you really think I have a big nose?” she laughed, speaking with the same speed and vivacity that had characterized her earlier conversation. “I’ve never really had a problem with it. I think that it gives my face character.”

“If character is a synonym for imperfection,” countered Raz, still eager to elicit an emotional response from her and not another confident retort.

“Well, imperfection is in the eye of the beholder,” she answered casually. “But if I’m really such a hag, I don’t understand why you’d agree to be seen with me. I can’t help the way I look, but you control your own company.”

“Would you ever consider getting your nose fixed? You wear enough makeup, so appearances must be important to you on at least some level.”

“I think that my nose makes my face interesting. You’ve been fixated on it for the past five minutes, haven’t you? If it were any smaller, we’d have nothing to talk about.”

“Fine, Yasmine. Let’s talk about something else. Tell me about yourself.”

“What you see is what you get.”

He smiled in anticipation of her evasive response. She clapped her hands.

“Oh, the gigolo has gone away, our entertainment for the evening has walked off! What do you say, Raz? Do you want to go for a walk?”

“You’re not even remotely insulted by me?”

“No, I appreciate your honesty. It’s wonderful that you can be so open with somebody you hardly know. But your unibrow is fair game for ridicule now. By the way, will you be burying a thank-you note for the roses?”

“What do you mean?”

“Just this— if you’re going to steal bouquets from a graveyard, at least remember to take the condolence card out from under them.”

His heart began to race. He attempted to improvise an explanation, but she stopped him with a wink.

“Don’t worry about coming up with an excuse. I think that the situation is hilarious. And besides, if I can guarantee one thing, it’s that no one will miss those flowers. Now, come with me.”

Before he could fully process the odd turn of events that had just transpired between them, she took his hand and led him off into the shadows surrounding Dizengoff Center. She was the first to act, but then he took control, and she loved it. He didn’t kiss her like she thought that he would. His style was unexpectedly self-assured and hungry. Though his playful assertiveness provided the illusion that he cared most of all for his own pleasure, he was almost intuitively attentive to her slightest response to his body. He stroked her face gently with the tips of his fingers and whispered thrilling profanities into her ear. For a moment, she felt such melting happiness that she was sure that such pleasure must have been a sin. Experience itself had never taught her that anything so satisfying was bound to come with a great cost because she seldom felt much satisfaction in life at all. Still, her intuition warned her that this kind of ecstasy was dangerous. But all she could do was try to ignore the sense of the dread and let the moment overpower her before it was over.

There were no human voices now, no artificial lights, no bright corners in which to hide. Colors were gone and dim grays veiled the scene. Forms were barely recognizable and there was no distinction between the eye and the imagination. There was nothing but silence and soft skin. The energy of conversation melted into an effortless intensity of a different sort, nearly overpowering in its unexpectedness. The moon disappeared and the air went black. There was nothing left but touch and smell.

Then, without warning, flames shot out from the marble fountain. They leapt into the air and fumbled for the sky before plunging back again into the water beneath them. They waver at the tips and weave their way into each other’s bodies, dancing as a single fire. They will disappear forever after their little moment of display is done. But before they do, they will give rise to new flames that will leap and mingle in turn. And so it goes on into eternity, so long as water is wet and fire is hot and the two mixed together make steam.

The Meaning of Roman History to Britain, Italy, and Germany on the Eve of the Second World War


Yesterday, on June fourth, 1944, Rome fell to American and Allied troops. The first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands. One up and two to go! It is perhaps significant that the first of these capitals to fall should have the longest history of all of them. The story of Rome goes back to the time of the foundations of our civilization. We can still see there monuments of the time when Rome and the Romans controlled the whole of the then known world. That, too, is significant, for the United Nations are determined that in the future no one city and no one race will be able to control the whole of the world… But Rome is of course more than a military objective. Ever since before the days of the Caesars, Rome has stood as a symbol of authority. Rome was the Republic. Rome was the Empire. Rome was and is in a sense the Catholic Church, and Rome was the capital of a United Italy. Later, unfortunately, a quarter of a century ago, Rome became the seat of Fascism — one of the three capitals of the Axis… Italy cannot grow in stature by seeking to build up a great militaristic empire. Italians have been overcrowded within their own territories, but they do not need to try to conquer the lands of other peoples in order to find the breath of life. Other peoples may not want to be conquered.[1](Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

The thematic content of this radio address by President Roosevelt speaks to the remarkable breadth and occasional notoriety of the legacy of the ancient Romans among their heirs, students and emulators. Over the course of Rome’s long history, the city experienced so many diverse phases of development that cognizance of contemporary parallels to at least segments of its story served to enrich the Western imagination ever since the twilight of antiquity in the fifth century AD. As Roosevelt explained, “Rome” in fact epitomized many paradigms at once. It was, in turn, a monarchy overthrown by Senators demanding the right to self-determination; a Republic corrupted by civil war; a universal Empire unconquerable in battle; a perverse culture that oversaw the enslavement of millions of people and the exhibition of lurid spectacles that disgrace its legacy to this day; a magnificent civilization that tottered and fell; the spiritual mother of Byzantine Orthodoxy and Latin Catholicism; an insistent reverie in the minds of would be Caesars from Charlemagne to Mussolini; and a living nightmare in the hearts of their victims.

We shall see that for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Roman history was endlessly adapted and reinterpreted through the prism of contemporary political beliefs about race, empire, and military might. For the British, the civilization’s rise often inspired a sense of pride in the value of struggling against all odds to maintain a polyglot global empire, and Rome’s fate served as a reminder that Civilization succumb to barbarism in the absence of proper vigilance. For the Italians, the nationalist unity of Augustan Italy (27 BC-14 AD) and the glory of the period’s art, poetry, and political precedents served as vital thematic inspirations for the development of Fascist doctrine as we know it (the name “Fascism” itself was of course a reference to the bundles of rods and axes grasped by Roman lictors, symbolic of the authority of magistrates to inflict absolute punishment in the name of the law.) Finally, at the hands of German propagandists, the fall of Rome was portrayed not as the result of barbarian invasions from Teutonic lands, but rather the inevitable consequence of infiltration by Jews and other provincial peoples flooding the supposedly Aryan hinterland of the civilization and weakening its very genetic fabric.

Considering the uses and abuses of Roman imagery in the first half of the twentieth century, it seems remarkable that references to the ancient civilization continued to enrich the propaganda of Axis and Allied combatants alike. Although Britain was once conquered by the Romans and Italy was its mortal enemy in the Second World War, references to the valor of ancient Roman culture were continually spoken with pride by the leaders of a civilization that found itself at the heart of an empire even larger than that of the Caesars. Though Rome ultimately faltered militarily and was conquered by Gothic hordes, Mussolini and his cadre aggressively insisted that the new Italian Empire was the very embodiment of the ideals of Augustan Rome, Vergil’s predictions of eternal glory overshadowing the unsavory reality that the civilization ultimately collapsed upon itself. And despite the fact that Germany was never a lasting province of the Roman Empire and that Northern European warriors were in fact the very men who sacked the metropolises of the Empire and propelled Europe into the Dark Ages, even Hitler and his entourage could not resist grandiloquent comparisons between their Reich and the Latin Empire. The twin facts that Roman history is so diverse and that the study of its language and culture served as the foundation for classical educations throughout virtually every nation in Europe likely resulted in the abiding popularity of references to the ancient culture even among enemy nations whose people had historically served as Rome’s victims and destroyers.

The Importance of Roman Imagery to Victorian and Early Twentieth Century Britain


For nearly three hundred years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have had…In this period, almost equal to that which separates us from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, well-to-do persons in Britain lived better than they ever did until late Victorian times… there was law; there was order; there was peace; there was warmth; there was food, and a long-established custom of life…To be a citizen of Rome was to be a citizen of the world, raised upon a pedestal of unquestioned superiority above barbarians or slaves.[2] (Winston Churchill)

The preceding Churchillian encomium portrays Britannia under the sway of the Pax Romana as a sort of progressive wonderland. The statesman explicitly calls the era “most enlightened” and suggests that, for the wealthy at least, the vita bona was unparalleled until the late nineteenth century. Churchill does not consider evidence that even the Georgian era was likely far more prosperous than antiquity, with luxuries made more widely available and basic goods cheaper than ever before in the thematic shadow of a sophisticated capitalistic structure, to say nothing of the benefits of improved medicine for rich and poor alike.[3] But the memory of Rome had always been associated with dazzling cultural heights, and the art of showering hyperbolic praise on the civilization boasted a lively tradition in English letters stretching to Gibbon and beyond. By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the glorification of ancient Roman imperialism as a noble, civilizing force coupled with an appreciation for the discipline required to maintain the scattered Empire were deeply engrained mainstays in the English educational system. Celebrated Britons lionized the ancient Romans and proudly compared their multi-racial, multi-national empire with its two thousand year old counterpart. Only after the First World War did a sense of ambivalence regarding the violence of Roman imperialism begin to come, subtly, into play in certain intellectual circles.

Writing of the pervasive influence of Roman classics on British education, Churchill declared that “not without pride” would the Romans discover that knowledge of Latin was necessary if one wished to enter the “famous universities.”[4] Influential educational theorists of the nineteenth century such as Thomas Arnold emphasized the importance of inculcating students with a love of ancient writers, also accentuating thoroughgoing training in the nuances of Classical philology; the discipline and confidence required to navigate the complex twists and turns of Latin syntax was said to be character forming. Criticism of the virtual deification of Classics at the expense of pragmatic sciences was voiced since the 1860s, but until the aftermath of the Second World War (and perhaps even beyond it, to the 1960s), it was widely believed by individuals perhaps self-consciously justifying their own youthful scholarly efforts that knowledge of Greco-Roman culture would uniquely “open the door to the study of literature and art and all politics, and are the foundation of the humanities; which, finally, are full of high types and examples of great deeds done and noble words said, peculiarly capable of impressing the mind in the impressionable years which mark the transition to adulthood.”[5] Until after the First World War, knowledge of Greek and Latin was required for admission to Oxford and Cambridge, to say nothing of its being essential to the acquisition of academic scholarships. In recognition of this reality, so-called public schools often focused their curriculums on Greco-Roman antiquity, and drilling in Latin formed an abiding if often monotonous tradition at leading institutions at Winchester, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Charterhouse, and Westminster.[6] Knowledge of Latin and years’ worth of drilling in classical authors who sang the praises of Roman imperialism were also necessary for success in the Home Civil Service and Royal Military Academy. In this thematic context, the reverence paid to Rome by myriad British thinkers comes as no surprise.

Although many have written at length on the important of classical Greece to late Victorian British identity, even the arch-Hellenist Frank Turner admits that for long periods of history, Rome somehow clung more insistently to the imagination: “Roman law and literature…dominated Europe’s cultural experience. Roman walls, forts, bridges, baths, theaters, roads, and aqueducts could be found in Britain and across the continent…Even the broad Enlightenment appeal to antiquity had concentrated on Rome.”[7] Though eighteenth century German polymaths such as Winckelmann and Goethe had pioneered renewed enthusiasm for Athenian culture, Rome remained entrenched in the hearts of the British people who, like their ancient colonizers, found themselves a small nation at the center of a multinational, global empire. The notion of the Pax Britannica as a force for good on the world stage was closely modeled on the notion of the Pax Romana as a virtuous predecessor.


While eighteenth century French and American authors discovered archetypes worth emulating in the foundational legends of the Roman Republic as they struggled to win popular sovereignty, late nineteenth and early twentieth century British writers found sources of inspiration in the achievements of the autocratic Roman emperors. Writing on “The Imperial Ideal,” Sir John R. Seeley, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, declared in 1883 that “there are many other good things in politics besides liberty,” and that the Romans in particular introduced “the modern brotherhood or loose federation of civilized nations”.[8] Echoing a generation of thinkers who praised their nation’s expansion into tropical climes as an example of the progress of modernism over barbarism, historians such as W. F. Monypenny described Roman expansion as “conquest that ultimately justified itself as a furtherance to civilization.”[9] The Earl of Cromer’s praise in 1910 for the Romans’ talent at integrating foreigners into their empire is also typical of a fawning mindset: “No modern Imperialist nation has… shown powers of assimilation at all comparable to those displayed by the Romans.”[10] Sir Charles Lucas lauded Rome’s racial harmony in particular, theorizing that a homogenous equality existed among all free men of the empire regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Since slaves and freemen alike were of various colors, slavery itself was said to have contributed to a process of homogenization, drawing people of all ethnicities toward the imperial core, where they would eventually win their freedom and take their place as citizens. These emphases on class, color, and immigration were distinctly Victorian topoi.[11]

In contrast to German scholars who spoke of racial disharmony as the harbinger of Rome’s fall, there thus existed in Britain influential schools of thought that claimed quite the opposite—the strength of the Empire was its multi-national cohesion. Nevertheless, while progressive thinkers might have lauded the Romans for their color blindness, others found in antiquity a model validating the oppression of “barbarian” peoples. The notorious Cecil Rhodes enjoyed repeating the maxim of Marcus Aurelius: “Remember always that you are a Roman.” In fact, when ordering portrait busts of himself, he is said to have waxed lyrically upon similarities between his likeness and certain statues of Roman emperors.[12] For better or worse, Rome provided a model of despotic rule seemingly justified by the necessity of civilizing “barbarian” peoples, including, ironically, the ancestors of the British themselves. Nevertheless, a willingness to blindly emulate the methods of the Roman should not be overstated. In reference to Britain’s relationship with the English-speaking people of the dominions, historian Raymond Betts suggested that the Roman Empire was not worthy of comparison, since it was something “tyrannical and exploitive;” countries like Canada and Australia were predominantly inhabited by individuals of European stock, and there existed a sense that their people would not endure tyranny for long.[13] C. P. Lucas’s Greater Rome and Greater Britain (1912) is also typical of this trend when he writes at length about the difference between the administration of English-speaking dominions and tropical colonies—a constitutional framework is appropriate for the former, and paternalism for the latter.

Unfortunately, in the racially charged context of European men ruling over indigenous societies, some scholars were proud to look to Roman forbearers to justify their political control of other races. In 1883, the lecturer John Robert Seeley proclaimed that although Britain won its empire informally, there suddenly existed a moral duty to rule and civilize India, cautioning his audience to emulate the ancient Romans in their discipline but to resist their cardinal failure of developing tyranny at home as a response to expansion abroad.[14] The bureaucratic administration of India was in the hands of individuals steeped in myths of noble Romans civilizing barbarian hordes. So called “all-rounders” educated in the Classics, such as the Viceroy Lord Curzon, wrote of “the living influence of the empire of Rome” on the Indian subcontinent.[15] Sir James Stephen spoke boastfully at Eaton of the Indian empire being even “more populous, more amazing, and more beneficent” than that of Rome.[16] Indian Civil Service candidates in the mid-nineteenth century were required to be tested in a manner “not less severe than those examinations by which the highest classical distinctions are awarded at Oxford and Cambridge.”[17] For this reason, a grounding in the study of classical antiquity was held in common by most administrators. Proficiency in English language and literature was worth 1500 marks, Math 1000 marks, and Greek and Latin 750 marks each; Sanskirt and Arabic, though utile languages in India, were only worth 375 marks each, later raised to 500. The Royal Titles Act of 1876 established Victoria as “Regina et Imperatrix” over India, cementing the strange bond between the titles of ancient Roman despotism and those of British power over the Subcontinent.[18] For all of the crassly propagandistic abuses of Roman history at the hands of her Fascist enemies, Britain too thus had many sons and daughters who were willing to avoid the psychic repercussions of their aggressive imperial actions against other nations by imagining themselves clad in togas.


On the eve of the sobering horrors of the First World War and directly following that struggle, British scholars began to examine Roman history in an increasingly cynical and wry manner. Artists like Rudyard Kipling, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves began to challenge the supposedly glorious images of Roman legions triumphing over savages, age-old motifs immortalized in the poetry of Horace, Martial, and other ancient masters. For example, Kipling’s poem “A Pict Song” begins:

“Rome never looks where she treads, always her heavy hooves fall on our stomachs, our hearts, or our heads; and Rome never heeds when we bawl. Her sentries pass on—that is all, and we gather behind them in hordes, and plot to reconquer the Wall, with only our tongues for our swords.”[19]

Now, for the first time, the authorial voice identifies himself with the victims of imperialism rather than its agents. By the same token, Wilfred Owen famously challenged Horace’s claim that it was dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, calling it “the old lie” in a poem written between 1917 and 1918. By the time that Graves published I, Claudius in 1934, romantic images of the imperial household were completely set aside, and the rulers of Rome were portrayed as prototypes of the corrupt, fascist leaders of the era before World War Two. In The Roman Revolution, the great classicist Ronald Syme wrote: “When a party has triumphed in violence and seized control of the State, it would be plain folly to regard the new government as a collection of amiable and virtuous characters. Revolution demands and produces sterner characters.”[20]

Nevertheless, for all this increasing awareness of the imperfection of ancient Roman government, the civilization somehow retained its attractive luster for decades following the Second World War. In the words of Churchill, a Roman “would have the same sense (as an Englishman) of belonging to a society which was threatened, and to an imperial rule which had passed its prime. He would have the same gathering fears of some sudden onslaught by barbarian forces…”[21] In victory or defeat, Roman precedents provided poignant counterpoints to the English experience.

Augustan Rome and the Origins of Italian Fascism


Rome is our point of departure and our point of reference: it is our symbol, or if you will, our myth.”[22] (Benito Mussolini)

In 1932, an American professor of Classics by the name of Kenneth Scott wrote rather effusively in the “Journal of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South” comparing Mussolini to Augustus:

“It is an interesting coincidence that Italy’s premier is a journalist, a master of language, in speech or written word, a dramatist, a man who in spite of manifold duties can find time to write an autobiography and memoirs of his experiences in the World War. He is carrying on a tradition not only of Augustus, but of such emperors with literary talent as Claudius, Nero, Hadrian, or Marcus Aurelius and Julian.”[23] Mussolini also said: ‘Italy has had enough of liberty for a while. What it needs now is law. The people want peace, work, bread, roads, and water.’”[24]

Before the catastrophes of the Second World War forever disgraced the memory of the Fascist movement, an understanding of the phenomenon as a classicizing manifestation of hyper-nationalism seemed to many observers a viable, even vibrant alternative to the threat of popular communist revolution. In his creation of an ultra-patriotic state fuelled by propaganda, Benito Mussolini and his crew mined Roman history for all it was worth to associate the glory of their regime with the triumphs of their nation’s ancient culture. Symbols of Roman authority abounded in the nascent movement: the ceremonial rods and axes called fasces which gave the movement its name, the stiff-armed Roman salute, colorful imperial standards, and eagles with outstretched wings. Appeals to Romanitas, the “quality of being like a Roman,” were key to the nationalist agenda, the necessity of providing “peace, work, bread, roads, and water” calling to mind the achievements of the ancient Caesars.[25] The potential allure of liberalism and Marxism were dramatically overpowered by the state’s ability to command the people’s fanatical loyalties. Fascism was designed to bring about a permanent change in the European imagination, ascribing value to individual life only insofar as it was committed to service and obedience to the state. Tellingly, the fact that ancient Rome ultimately eviscerated itself with civil wars and over-expansion had no place in Mussolini’s appeals to the past.

The so-called First Party Congress held in Rome in 1921 helped to cement the popularity of Fascism as a movement calling for efficiency and militarism as an antidote to the creeping contagion of Bolshevism.[26] By 1922, Il Duce already had enough support among the hoi polloi to march upon Rome, self-consciously following in the footsteps of demagogues such as Sulla and Caesar before him. In the wake of the increasing spread of Fascist doctrine, the abstraction characteristic of Italian futurism in the arts was largely set aside for a return to classicizing motifs. Between 1922 and 1943, the fasces began to be imprinted on posters, bass reliefs, and military paraphernalia, symbolic of collective force; at the same time, statues of eagles, Roman-style military parades, and legionary insignia and standards were all resurrected to cement the power of the nascent state in the hearts of the Italian people, who were longing for greatness again. The spiritual renovation of the state was thus physically expressed through seemingly endless repetition of core motifs; indeed, some have suggested that Roman imagery was aggressively recycled in order to create a sort of brand or logo for the state, inspired by techniques of early twentieth century advertising.[27] It is important to remember that the early movement was not grounded in anti-Semitism; Margherita Sarfatti, an early influence on Fascism, was in fact of Jewish descent, though by 1938, anti-Jewish feeling had begun to taint the ideology. Before this, however, Italian Fascism seemed to many like a process of aestheticizing politics, slapping a classicizing Roman varnish on hyper-patriotism and fanatical commitment to a dictatorial figure.

Comparisons between Mussolini and Augustus were especially prominent. Both men had come to power after a period of civil disorder, and both stood at the center of a revolutionary autocracy built on the embers of what had once been a Republic.[28] Panegyrics by Giuseppe Bottai (the Governor of Rome from 1935-1937) and numerous works by E Balbo repeatedly emphasized similarities between Mussolini and Augustus, even drawing parallels between the first Roman emperor’s Iberian campaigns and the Duce’s support of Franco.[29] Mussolini himself hosted a major exhibition called the Mostra Augustea della Romanita on the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birthday, with Giulio Quirino Giglioli appointed to serve as the general director the exhibition.[30] Opened in 1938, an indoor fairground highlighted the historical developments that look place in Augustus’ lifetime, with a second and third series of antechambers devoted to the topics of “architecture and engineering” and “religion and society,” respectively. Meant as a sort of interactive museum, the halls of the exhibition highlighted models, maps, and artifacts charting the growth of the Roman Empire, but tellingly contained virtually nothing extolling the achievements of Senatorial rule or Republican virtue—some particular facets of Roman history were now politically incorrect. In the central room of the exhibit, eerily anticipating Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe in later history, sixteen portraits of Augustus were displayed in repetitive rows, with posters of the monuments of his age set alongside more recent constructions sponsored by Mussolini himself. The exhibition was meant to serve as a great rhetorical exercise in hyperbole, explicitly uniting Fascism and Roman Imperialism as a single, glorious tradition. Hitler enjoyed the exhibition so thoroughly when he came to visit Rome in May of 1938 that he even arranged for a return visit to study the displays in greater detail before the end of his trip.[31]

Until the eighteenth century, readers who were only familiar with Rome through their knowledge of the Classics often found that the city of their imaginations looked very different from the heaps of toppled columns that they actually found there.[32] Spending millions of modern dollars, Mussolini set out to revive the glory of the city’s ruins, often setting up enormous maps beside the renovations portraying the High Roman Empire on one side and the modern Italian Empire on the other. In the classicizing Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii, Mussolini delivered a telling speech on the occasion of the appointment of Filippo Cremonesi as governor of the city in 1925. He said:

“My ideas are clear, my orders are exact, and certain to become concrete reality. Within five years Rome must strike all the nations of the world as a source of wonder: huge, well organized, powerful, as it was at the time of the Augustan Empire. You will continue to free the trunk of the great oak from everything that still clutters it. You will create spaces around the Theater of Marcellus, the Capitol, the Pantheon…Within five years the mass of the Pantheon must be visible from the Piazza Colonna through a large space…The milleniary monuments of our history must loom larger in requisite isolation.”[33]

Within less than a decade, this vision of resurrecting the Augustan metropolis indeed became concrete reality. Begun in 1931, the Via dell’ Impero, now the Via dei Fori Imperiali, became the artery connecting the Piazza Venezia (site of Mussoloni’s office, the Sala del Mappamondo and the very hub of Fascist Italy) with the ruins of the imperial forums of ancient Rome.[34] The Ara Pacis, an Augustan altar dedicated to the peace brought about by the stability of his regime, was reassembled in 1938 and inaugurated on the 23rd of September, Augustus’ birthday. Finally, an entire suburb dubbed L’Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) was constructed in 1937, its architecture Fascist and bombastic to the core, including a giant rhombus dubbed “The Square Coliseum” and a museum of Roman civilization in the city-center famous to this day.

Ultimately, this glorification of Augustan Rome was also manipulated to validate Mussolini’s programs of imperial aggression just as it had been harnessed to justify the loss of civil and political liberties in the name of peace and order. Speaking of the Italian Empire, Mussolini once ominously averred: “We can give value to two regions (Tripoli and the Cirenaica) which once were owned by Rome and which must grow to the greatness of their past.” Aggressive moves in the Aegean and North Africa were described as glorious re-conquests of regions that had once belonged to Rome, with Mussolini delivering them from generations of waste and misrule.[35] In 1937, emblematic of this trend, the film Scipione l’ Africano portrayed the ancient Carthaginian Empire as a corrupt regime ruled by what can only be described as loathsome Semitic stereotypes saved from themselves by Scipio’s victory in the Hannibalic War; it was awarded the so-called Duce Cup at the Venice film festival and declared a masterpiece.[36] Until the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, all this posturing was seen as par for the course when it came to the justification of foreign imperialism, and even bears some similarity to the interpretations of Roman history voiced by the classically trained administrators of British India. Indeed, before the mid 1930s, Mussolini and his classically inspired movement seem to have been viewed as something inspirational to the nations that would go on to topple him; Roosevelt was often compared favorably to Mussolini in the implementation of his New Deal, for example.[37] But when on the 9th of May, 1936, a second Roman Empire was proclaimed following the fall of Ethiopia, the stark realities of the fruits of autocracy began to chip away at their attractive, classicizing veneer.[38]

Nazi Racial Ideology and the Rise and Fall of Rome


“In the historical department the study of ancient history should not be omitted. Roman history, along general lines, is and will remain the best teacher, not only for our own time but also for the future. And the ideal of Hellenic culture should be preserved for us in all its marvelous beauty. The differences between the various peoples should not prevent us from recognizing the community of race which unites them on a higher plane. The conflict of our times is one that is being waged around great objectives. A civilization is fighting for its existence. It is a civilization that is the product of thousands of years of historical development, and the Greek as well as the German forms part of it.”[39](Adolf Hitler)

Just as educated Britons waxed lyrically on the Roman antecedents to their Empire and Italians spoke with pride on the fruits of ancient Italian nationalism, Hitler and other German thinkers like him perceived Romanitas through their own particular political prism, obsessing about the racial continuity between themselves and ancient ancestors who ironically lived in an era before the concept of race had even come into full existence. The fact that the ancient Romans deemed the Germans barbarians was moot—that both civilizations shared a Caucasian identity was deemed more significant. Before the Second World War, the Germans even expressed admiration for the British Empire as a remarkable achievement proving the ingenuity and superiority of the white race over all others. In 1930, Hitler upbraided Otto Strasser for suggesting that the Nazis should provide aid to the burgeoning Indian independence movement, declaring that the Nordic British had a right to rule in the Subcontinent—“The interest of Germany demands cooperation with England since it is a question of establishing a Nordic-Germanic America, over the world.”[40] In the eyes of the crazed German leader, even matters of real politick were paltry concerns beside weightier matters of racial ideology.

Alfred Rosenberg and Hitler shared the belief that the course of ancient history revealed that Greece and Rome were the direct forbearers of contemporary Nordic civilization, with “Nordic” implying a “Caucasian” identity rather than a “Negroid” or “Mongoloid” one. The cultural achievements of antiquity were interpreted as the inevitable fruits of racial superiority unabashedly expressed over barbarian peoples. The story of the rise and fall of Rome was thus manipulated to justify the Fuhrer’s pseudo-scientific notions of race. The Romans were deemed “die Erstgeborenen der arischen Voelker,” a community of Nordic peasant farmers (Bauernstaat) that came to dominate the racially inferior people surrounding them.[41] In his writings, Hitler declared Italy “the original home of the concept of the state” and expressed awe for the rapid rise of Rome, employing ancient imagery such as eagles, fasces, straight-armed salutes, and legionary standards in his propaganda just as his neighbor to the South did.[42] Hitler found a source of inspiration in the order and militarism of ancient Rome, and a model for Berlin as a world capital.[43] In large part, with the exception of his memorable addition of the swastika to the canon of symbols, the imagery of German fascism was in large part deeply grounded in the classicizing tendencies of its Italian counterpart.[44] In his mind’s eye, Hitler seems to have envisioned himself as a sort of latter day Roman emperor, and he hungered to create a capital worthy of his imperial ambitions. Albert Speer recounts that Hitler saw himself above all else as a great artist, plotting to create a giant metropolis called Germania to be visually modeled on ancient Rome.[45] The imaginary city would have boasted a triumphal arch dwarfing Napoleon’s efforts in Paris and a Volkshalle on the model of the Augustan Pantheon that could have housed the entire Vatican within its walls. The structure was planned to be sixteen times the volume of St. Peter’s Basilica.

How was the Nazi government to account for the fall of the Roman Empire, which was of course precipitated by the direct ancestors of the German people? In the words of Mussolini, “thirty centuries of history allow us to look with supreme pity on certain doctrines which are preached beyond the Alps by the descendants of those who were illiterate when Rome had Caesar, Virgil, and Augustus.”[46] In the eyes of Rosenberg, and Hitler like him, the emperor Caracalla’s granting of full citizenship to all the citizens of the Empire muddied the civilization’s racial waters, and ultimately, a Jewish cult conquered the state like a form of ancient Bolshevism before virtuous German tribes to the North re-invigorated Europe with their pure Aryan blood and set the stage for the achievements of modern history; the same echoes of the idea of an Aryan-Roman super-race can be found in the work of Italian Julius Evola, a formative influence on Mussolini. The narrative of the rise and fall of Rome was thus directly perverted to express contemporary Fascist beliefs about race, nationalism, and imperial force. Still, the discontinuity between a vision of an “Aryan Rome” and the reality of warfare between ancient Romans and Germans, to say nothing of the specific association of Romanitas with Mussolini’s Italy, meant that Rome alone would not suffice as a model for ancient valor. At the same time, certain influential historians were less than impressed by the achievements of Roman culture, interpreting it largely as a cautionary example; Oswald Spengler, for example, identified “Caesarism” as a symptom of cultural decline and underrated Roman military achievements after the Second Punic War. Heinrich Himmler, chief and police and minister of the interior, was admittedly more interested in occultism than Classics and attempted to mythologize the ancient, pre-urban German tribes.[47]

Yet as Helmut Berve wrote: “We are not Romans, and the world around us is different from the Mediterranean world. Nevertheless we can learn endless lessons from Roman history.”[48] Hitler was so thoroughly seduced by the idea of Imperial Rome that as late as 1941, he declared to Himmler that “the Roman Empire never had its like. To have succeeded in completely dominating all neighboring peoples! And no empire has spread so uniform a civilization as Rome did.”[49]

The fact that a bizarre racially charged interpretation of Roman history became so prominent in Germany speaks to the tragic rapidity with which Nazi ideology had taken hold of the contemporary imagination. For generations, Germany had been Europe’s leading center of Classical scholarship, producing works of timeless value and priceless insights. This was the country where Theodor Mommsen pioneered the very art of modern historiography as he systematically and objectively explored the intricacies of the Roman past.[50] Barthold Georg Niebuhr too was a trailblazer, one of the first to differentiate between the value of primary and secondary sources in historical research; for years, Leopold Ranke had his bust in his study, and Grote, Toynbee, and Arnold all paid homage to his legacy.[51] Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Karl Bücher’s Die Entstehung der Volkswirtschaft became one of the most important books in the study of economic history thanks to its detailed attention to the nuances of the ancient, medieval, and modern markets; later, Ed Meyer’s critique of his work added a still more nuanced understanding of the sophistication and complexity of ancient civilization. It became clear that inflation, civil war, and barbarian invasions by Germanic tribes caused the fall of Rome. All of this scholarship, however, paled before the racially charged myth of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and a country whose intelligentsia once boasted the most scientific approach to the study of the ancient past completely lost its bearings and succumbed to the allure of fairy tales. Non-German historians such as Numa Fustel de Coulanges attempted to redress the balance, writing the History of the Political Institutions of Ancient France in which he challenged the notion that ancient Germans had introduced political innovations to a “racially stalling” nation.[52] Tragically, however, the works of individuals like Joseph Vogt became much more common. His “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) repeated the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome as an established fact. Those whose vision of antiquity was grounded in a search for truth rather than political expedience promptly found no place for themselves in the German university system.

Quo Vadis, Romanitas?


“Yours is the first barbarian army in history to have taken Rome from the South.” (An anonymous Roman, said to the Allied commander in June 1944.)[53]


Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Romanitas and the Latin language became cultural touchstones held in common by all educated citizens—in a sense, from Russians calling themselves czars to Victoria being crowned imperatrix, the course of the continent’s history can be described as a long series of interpretations and reinterpretations of the meaning of a classical past held in common by all Europeans. For the French in the late eighteenth century, “Rome” was a byword for Republican freedom; for Italy on the verge of the Second World War, it symbolized devotion to a dictatorial ideal. The breadth and diversity of Roman history armed every historical epoch, whatever its nature, with a rich array of symbols upon which to draw. So long as European education was grounded in the study of the Greek and Roman past, the Greek and Roman past continued to shape the youthful minds of students imagining themselves as ancient heroes. On the eve of World War Two, never did “Rome” become associated with “wickedness,” because all parties in the struggle were imperial, and all identified with the same ancient past.


Thus, seldom did the British draw unfavorable comparisons between Roman aggression and the actions of Mussolini; rarely did Italians dwell on reasons for Rome’s decline; never did the Germans accept responsibility as one of the forces that precipitated that collapse. Instead, we have seen that allusions to Roman history were almost universally employed to imbue contemporary beliefs about race, politics, and imperial conquest with an air of authenticity, with each fresh reinterpretation of the past serving to virtually supplant the true facts of the city’s rise and fall in the popular imagination.[54] Ultimately, much the same can be said of the collective European enthrallment with the imagery of Roman history as Frank M. Turner once wrote about the meaning of allusions to ancient Greek culture to the Victorian mind, which transferred a “moral outlook…to the ancient past and then, in accordance with their humanist aims, upheld that past as a source of wisdom for current ethical and cultural conduct.”[55] In this case, however, it must unfortunately be admitted that the aims of many of the men who appealed to the shadow of the Roman past were far from “humanist,” whether in the form of the British attempting to justify their Empire, Italians their hyper-nationalism, or Germans their xenophobia. Greek history once supplied an inexhaustible source of erudite, artistic references; Roman history, by contrast, came to serve as an inexhaustible trove of symbols able to be mass marketed for purposes of propaganda and pseudo-science.

[1] “Address of the President on the Fall of Rome,” June 5, 1944, 8:30 pm, E.W.T. Radio Broadcast, accessed at

[2] Winston Churchill, The Birth of Britain, His: A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (London,: Cassell, 1956).

[3] S. J. Bastomsky, “Rich and Poor: The Great Divide in Ancient Rome and Victorian England,” Greece & Rome 37, no. 1 (1990).

[4] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[5] Cyril Norwood and Arthur H. Hope, The Higher Education of Boys in England (London,: J. Murray, 1909). Pp. 343.

[6] Ibid. Pp. 344.

[7] Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain. Pp. 2.

[8] Raymond F. Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Victorian Studies 15, no. 2 (1971). Pp. 150.

[9] Ibid. Pp. 151

[10] Evelyn Baring Cromer, Ancient and Modern Imperialism (London,: J. Murray, 1910).

[11] Charles Prestwood Lucas, Cambridge University Library., and Adam Matthew Digital (Firm), “Class, Colour and Race.” (Marlborough, England: Adam Matthew Digital, 2007),

[12] Richard Faber, The Vision and the Need: Late Victorian Imperialist Aims (London: Faber, 1966). Pp. 25.

[13] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 154.

[14] John Robert Seeley, The Expansion of England : Two Courses of Lectures (London: Macmillan, 1883).

[15] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151-152.

[16] Ibid. Pp. 155.

[17] Catharine Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945 (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. 93-94.

[18] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 149.

[19] Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.).

[20] See the final chapter of Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939).

[21] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[22] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 205

[23] Kenneth Scott, “Mussolini and the Roman Empire,” The Classical Journal 27, no. 9 (1932). Pp. 656.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 189.

[26] Emilio Gentile, The Origins of Fascist Ideology 1918-1925 (New York: Enigma, 2005). Pp. 158-159.

[27] See Steven Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State (London ; New York: Phaidon Press, 2008).

[28] See Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Jerome Lectures (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988).

[29] Alexander Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity, Monographs on the Fine Arts (University Park: Published for College Art Association by the Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990). Page 10.

[30] Lewine, Annie Esmé (2008) “Ancient Rome in Modern Italy: Mussolini’s Manipulation of Roman History in the Mostra Augustea della Romanitá,” Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity and Classics: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 5. Available at:

[31] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 28.

[32] Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century.” Pp. 288.

[33] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 9.

[34] Nelis, Jan, “Constructing Fascist Identity: Benito Mussolini and the Myth of Romanitá,” Classical World 100.4 (2007). Pp. 408.

[35] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 290.

[36] Ibid. Pp. 209

[37] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals : Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939, 1st ed. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006). Pp. 21-22.

[38] Henry Ashby Turner, Reappraisals of Fascism, Modern Scholarship on European History (New York: New Viewpoints, 1975). Pp. 73.

[39] See Adolf Hitler, Alvin Saunders Johnson, and John Chamberlain, Mein Kampf, Complete and Unabridged, Fully Annotated (New York,: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1940). Chapter 2, Volume 2.

[40] Milan Hauner, India in Axis Strategy : Germany, Japan and Indian Nationalists in the Second World War, 1. Aufl. ed., Veröffentlichungen Des Deutschen Historischen Instituts London = Publications of the German Historical Institute London (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981). Pp. 25.

[41] Ibid. Pp. 20-21.

[42] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 14.

[43] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 2.

[44] Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State.

[45] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs (New York: Macmillan, 1970). See the chapters Our Empire Style and The Globe.

[46] Institute of Jewish Affairs. and Boris Shub, Hitler’s Ten-Year War on the Jews (New York,: Institute of Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Congress, World Jewish congress, 1943). Pp. 283.

[47] Christopher Hale, Himmler’s Crusade : The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2003). Pp. 87.

[48] For this quote, see the introduction to Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity.

[49] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 225.

[50] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151.

[51] For a summary of early twentieth century historiography on Roman history, see Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition; Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, A Galaxy Book, (New York,: Oxford University Press, 1957). Pp. 472-479.

[52] See Coulanges Fustel de and Camille Jullian, Histoire Des Institutions Politiques De L’ancienne France, 6 vols. (Paris,: Hachette et cie, 1888).

[53] Wiseman, T. P. (1992) ‘Of grammar and grandeur’, TLS (May 29). Pp. 11- 12.

[54] Kevin Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 34, no. 2 (2001). Pp. 288.

[55] Frank M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981). Pp. 51.

Glittering Translucence: The Glass Menagerie in Previews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway


The stage at the Belasco Theater was so empty it was naked. The set amounted to an ugly table with chairs, some cluttered shelves, and a phonograph. The backdrop was the stark brick wall of the theater itself. When Joe Mantello first appeared onstage, I mistook him for a techie until he began delivering his opening monologue, tackling a role usually played by a much younger man in a much better costume. I already found myself mulling over inevitable comparisons with the production of The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theater in 2013 starring Cherry Jones (Amanda), Zachary Quinto (Tom), and Celia Kennan-Bolger (Laura). I wondered whether it was worth revisiting the play so soon after that great success, which was the first production I’d seen to portray Tom as a gay avatar of Tennessee Williams himself, adding new and unexpected dimensions to the proceedings; his arguments with his mother about where he was sneaking off to at night were never quite so poignant.


In that production, the tragedy of the Wingfield family played out on a literal island circumscribed by rippling ebony ooze. Laura seemed to materialize out of thin air, unexpectedly popping out of a couch with all of the suddenness of a half-forgotten memory that somehow intrudes on the consciousness again. This time, though, there was nothing but emptiness. In the shadows, Sally Field (Amanda) and Madison Ferris (Laura) were already visible as they waited in the orchestra to climb onstage. Bracing myself with the reminder that this was still in previews, I had no idea that I was about to be totally transported and enthralled.


A long silence ensued as the performers went through the cumbersome process of lifting Ferris’ wheelchair onto the stage. My heart skipped a beat. I had no idea that a performer with muscular dystrophy had been cast as Laura, who is described in the script as “crippled.” Out of her chair, back arched, and down on all fours, she moved with an indescribable elegance, flowing like water across the stage. I’d never seen a production before where the physical components of Laura ‘s handicap were explored with such nuance. Both the challenges and elegances of physical movement are so central to Ferris’ characterization that it almost feels at times like a dance performance (I was not at all surprised to read in the program that the Broadway newcomer has dance experience.) There is no awkwardness on display here, usually par for the course in performers’ interpretations of the shy and fragile character. Ferris’ Laura is long acclimated to the challenges of her difference. She owns them. And in her space, Laura moves confidently, uniquely, and even elegantly. Rather than her own inner demons, it is largely society’s cruel pigeonholing that forces her into the role of a pariah.


If Eugene O’Neill is the American Aeschylus and Arthur Miller some iteration of Sophocles, then Tennessee Williams is our Euripides. Both were celebrated for their multi-dimensional female protagonists, their powerful abilities as storytellers, their lines dripping with poetry, and their exploration of the forces of Bacchanalian wildness that always lurk just beneath the veneer of polite society. Needless to say, all of this is pure dynamite for actors. The Glass Menagerie is one of the great ensemble pieces in American theater, and the synergy between the members of this cast was particularly electric. I was initially unsure about Mantello’s interpretation of Tom, which in some ways couldn’t help but disappoint after Quinto’s revelatory queer reading of the role. Over time, though, the dichotomy between Tom’s maturity and the relative youth of his sister and mother highlighted that shimmering, slightly unreal quality that William hoped to capture in the play. If Quinto played Tom as the play’s author trapped claustrophobically in his own memories, Mantello portrays him something like the play’s director, separated from the past in time and space but putting on a show for us in the audience in which he selectively interacts with his former ghosts. The understatement of his performance attractively highlights both the intensity of Fields and the subtlety of Ferris.


Speaking of Fields, she is a force of nature as Amanda, a caged eagle. In her blind rage against the bars of her enclosure, she wounds herself and everyone around her. Now she is driven by a sense of rage over the isolation of her daughter and the selfishness of her son; a moment later, she is soft and maternal; at still other times, she’s lost in obsessive memories of better days. Fields’ Amanda channels the great heroines of world theater, echoing the rambling desperation of Blanche, the imperiousness of Lady Macbeth, and the spiteful wit of Hedda. There is a dangerous undercurrent to Field’s performance bound to her acute awareness of the desperation of her position. Her Amanda is nostalgic for the past but far from delusional about her present. She realizes that she is burdened with an alcoholic son who is about to abandon her and a handicapped daughter she cannot support. The prospect of a gentleman caller is the only hope that can save the Wingfields from themselves. But when her daughter balks in terror at this caller when he finally arrives, Amanda herself becomes the flirtatious center of attention. While she hosts him at dinner with her daughter quivering with embarrassment in the other room, there is an effect such as I have never seen before in any theater. The emptiness of the stage is suddenly revealed to be translucence, a fitting quality for a play named for glass sculpture. Without giving it away, I’ll say that it conveys the same idea of symbolic gulfs evoked in the previous production at the Booth Theatre where the family was literally trapped on an island.


The entire final act was illuminated by true candlelight, providing the scene with an ethereal, almost ghostly ambiance. Earlier in the play, Ferris portrayed Laura as a slightly spoiled young woman whose life’s meaning was reduced to subtle shows of rebellion against her mother’s will. Ferris obsessed over her glass figurines not with an air of insanity but one of triumph, lording over an imaginary world in which, for once, she could be in control and ignore the admonishments of the world around her. At last, though, she invites the gentleman caller into this world, where he finds that he has been set up as a kind of idol deified since high school. In this space, the way Laura moves and the way she uses her imagination are completely natural, and at least for a fleeting moment, he sees the beauty in her existence and not the stigma associated with it. The chemistry between Laura and her “suitor” (a bright eyed and bushy tailed Finn Wittrock) is sizzling, the most sexual of any interpretation I’ve seen. Their tender dance was the emotional climax of the night, symbolic of the themes of the entire production.


Like the casting of deaf actor John McGinty in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ferris’ casting proves that physical difference or disability not only should be no bar to the display of talent, but can even bring new life to classic roles. As wonderful as Michael Arden was as Quasimodo and Celia Kennan-Bolger was as Laura (a sublime performance, in fact), there is something special about the truth that actors bring to parts when they share aspects of that character’s identity in real life. Many actors can try to imitate a limp, but few can move with the combination of grace and dexterity required by someone with muscular dystrophy, let alone one as gifted in physical storytelling as Madison Ferris.


Famously, The Glass Menagerie ends with Tom’s injunction for Laura to “blow (her) candles out.” Perhaps fittingly, this performance was the first I’ve seen in which she flat out shakes her head and refuses to do so. This production will linger in my imagination for a long time.


So That It Burns


Upon the cusp of evening shade suffused

with rays of twilight sleek and luminous

my love lingers beyond the ashen span

which glistens on the bed of Tithonus.

As summers wane and dusk invidious

imbues the wilting arch of firmament,

so equally my nimble ardor swells

to drench the stars, gleaming and permanent.

When autumn showers form a breathless mist

which clings upon the face of cobblestones,

the lovestruck poet should not hope to list

what nature and imagination loan.

He drafts within his heart unspoken songs

of boundless pitch which no page could abide,

when transient moments grow a bit more long

and deathless beauty walks along his side.

These subtle metamorphoses run deep

inside our souls before we get too old,

when kindred hearts both skip a single beat

and friendly glances grow a bit more bold.

But little else is crueler to discern

than gusty changes once their course has run,

that fan one feeble heart so that it burns,

but blow out fire in the other one.