Time for more upbeat historical memes

by | Aug 24, 2007

Another week, another comparison between the US and the last days of Rome. This week, the man full of woe about military overstretch and fiscal implosion is David Walker – the Comptroller General of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office, no less – who writes in the FT that:

America’s fiscal, healthcare, education, energy, environment, immigration and Iraq policies are in need of review and revision. Timely action is needed because Washington’s historical crisis-management approach to dealing with hard public policy choices is no longer prudent.

Rather than discussing whether America today is or isn’t like Rome’s last days in the late fourth century CE, I’ll just note how successfully the “US heading into a decline-and-fall scenario” meme continues to propagate itself (c.f. last week’s post about Thomas Homer-Dixon‘s latest book), not least among Americans themselves – and make two additional observations.

One is that the “decline and fall” meme of popular imagination – riots, starvation, conquest, a thousand years in the Dark Ages – rests on an incomplete, and rather Atlanticist, view of Rome. After all, there is the small matter of the eastern empire, i.e. Byzantium, as it became. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Rome runs for a full 1,045 years beyond Alaric’s conquest of Italy in 408CE, all the way to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Byzantium’s rise after the split of the Roman Empire provides a precise illustration of Homer-Dixon’s central point: if breakdown can lead to collapse, it can also be a springboard for transformation and renewal. This is a useful and important counter-meme to the riots / starvation / Dark Age meme – and one which deserves to be propagated more often.

The other observation is simply: we could do with some more constructive historical analogies than the ones we have today. Other than the decline-and-fall analogy, the other one most discussed today is Vietnam; another relentlessly gloomy reference point in the popular imagination. (Update: I have just remembered the subject of my last post – whether Iraq is at a ‘Weimar moment’. So I include myself in this criticism!)

Maybe we could do with some more hopeful historical analogies; so here are three starters for ten. Other suggestions welcome.

  1. The Renaissance. Hardly a period of prosperous stability, the Renaissance saw constant warring between rival cities (c.f. armoured suburbs), horrendous epidemics and a crash in the population of Europe. But it also saw the greatest cultural flowering of the last thousand years, a fundamental reappraisal of earlier paradigms, and a delicious intellectual emphasis on synthesis between disciplines that we’d do well to redisover today.
  2. Andalucia under the Moors. Like the Renaissance, this was no utopia: the terrible massacre of Jews in Granada in 1066 proves that. But it was, even so, a period of peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians (to the extent of it being possible for a Jew to be prime minister in a Muslim state). And for all the fault lines opening up in the Middle East today, the fact is that Muslims, Jews and Christians do live together peacefully in a way that was unimaginable after the fall of Spain in 1492. If you don’t believe me, then you haven’t been to Brooklyn or Clapton in East London lately.
  3. The Axial Age. This term, coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, refers to the six century period from 800BCE to 200BCE – which saw Platonism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, the Upanishads, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Socrates. The religious author Karen Armstrong – whose superb The Great Transformation is a terrific history of the period – argues that the Enlightenment was a second Axial Age. We could do a lot worse than to argue that the frontiers of science research – especially in cognition and psychology – augur the possibility of another Axial Age.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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