I have a long term and ongoing research project that continuously, if in slow-motion, has been unfolding in the background of my life since 2019. It means that the proportion of books that I read about Native American history is at its highest point since the topic was the subject of my undergraduate thesis back in my final year at Rutgers University. I just completed ‘The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America’ by Stephen Warren today and felt it was one of the stronger and more unique entries in the topic I have read for some time.
Warren is the author of multiple books about the Shawnee nation, but this is the one that goes back the furthest in time. Tracking the likely beginnings of the tribe as we know it in the Ohio River Valley as Fort Ancient people who saw rampant Eurasian diseases devastate their populations and settled lifestyle, the author takes us through the story of the dislocation of 17th and 18th Century Eastern Woodlands America. While the Shawnee are no doubt the primary focus of this work, they are taken to be an especially strong example of this time of chaos rather than the sole subject.
Warren shows how mass death and economic re-orientation around ‘Mourning Wars’ (the quest for population replacement captives) as well as access to European trade goods necessitated huge lifestyle and locational changes for many tribes. The Shawnee come in as the best example of this considering the sheer level of adaptability and willingness to travel that they encapsulated. From starting as one of the most sedentary cultures north of the Rio Grande to famously itinerant travelers across Eastern North America, they would be dubbed by their sometime rivals and sometime senior partners the Haudenosaunee as ‘the most traveled people’.
The Shawnee (and others) first traveled east in order to acquire guns to give them more of a defense against marauding bands of better armed nations such as the Haudenosaunee. They would then serve as mercenaries on the frontier for the colonies before retiring when settler pressure became too intense. Bands of Shawnee would go south to the Carolinas, east into Pennsylvania and Maryland, and west into Illinois. Divergent bands, likely descended from different Ohio River villages, would scout and acquire knowledge and goods. Then, after 50 years of wandering, begin the process of returning to the original Ohio Valley homeland in alliance with other displaced tribes to set up home again from a stronger position than it had been once they left. This was the core that first the French, then the British once the French left, tried to set up a Great Lakes Indian state around.
Warren does an excellent job showing how many tribes broken by European and Haudenosaunee power politics adapted and often coalesced into new formations. It is truly an underdog story of Darwin’s maxim that ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives but the one most responsive to change.’ Considering the sheer scale of epidemic die off in the region, not to mention the extinction of so many tribes, this is no small feat. It is for this reason, as well as the intrinsic historical value of the text, that the book is so useful.
I do have one complaint, however. The text feels like its building up to explaining the Northwest Indian experience when pan-Indian identity really started to take off with the attempt to have a sovereign Ohio valley native nation. The text, however, ends in the French and Indian War and stops there. Warren’s other book appears to pick up in 1796. That leaves out this most formative period of Shawnee history from Pontiac’s War up through the Northwest Indian War. I would hope the author would consider another book to cover this time period considering it is in some ways the culmination of many of the experiences talked about in this text. While the Shawnee became more sedentary again in this time (before being displaced by the U.S. government later and moving to Oklahoma), its a period I would have loved to have seen the author cover considering its importance in showing situational adaptation for an outnumbered and outgunned people. It was the Shawnee after all, along with their allies the Miami, Lenape, and others, who would score the biggest battlefield victory, proportionally speaking to forces engaged, over the U.S. army in all of history.
Warren’s book can be recommended to anyone interested in North American history as well as those interested in the history of migration and anthropological adaptation.
Running themes on this site are historical trickster figures, explorations of books on relevant subject matters in detail, and past parallels to present challenges. Here, I will bring you all three in addition to some original ‘artwork’ from myself at the end.
Despite being primarily interested in other eras and parts of the world, it should be obvious to regular readers that I have developed a recent fixation on 17th Century Europe and in particular Britain. This is not because it conflates with most of my actual historical interests, as it mostly does not, but because it is the time that is so culturally similar to our own and thus demands closer examination. Those with little to no historical knowledge have a tendency to reach for over-used and often ill-fitting periods, such as the Great Depression and World War II, but the world we live in looks nothing like the Inter-War era in actual substance. This is merely hyperbolic rhetoric from neoliberals who have no comparison point to the fairly regular occurrence of localism re-asserting itself against internationalism.
Today does, however, look a lot like Europe of the Thirty Years War and the Britain of the era of its civil wars. Indeed, the ideologies and struggles of that time plague us still. Our present era, I would argue, is a very Cromwellian one. For those of us who oppose this and find it the potential start of a new dark age, it becomes relevant to familiarize ourselves with how this happened before and how such a time was overcome and displaced. Having already dealt with the lessons that can be learned from the Thirty Years War before, I now wish to move towards the British origin point of so much of present ideological pathologies.
Since the analogy is obviously imperfect, (there is no conventional war yet, for one thing) it should be understood that I am more focusing on the cultural and philosophical life of political society rather than claiming an exact parallel in events. Nevertheless, you may find yourself surprised by the overlaps between then and now. Wokeness, Christian evangelism, universalist liberalism, creationism, and many of the other afflictions of the Anglophone world were born or revived in this time. And now, as the cultural dominance of that world begins to recede in our present era, it comes forth once again with full force and with a cacophonous death rattle…knowing the time to remake the world in its image has come to a close but seeking one last great push.
The Commonwealth and Protectorate’s Messianic Endeavor
‘If He that strengthens your servants to fight, pleases to give your hearts to set upon these things, in order to His glory, and the glory of your Commonwealth, besides the benefit of England shall feel thereby, you shall shine forth to other nations, who shall emulate the glory of such a pattern, and through the power of God turn into the like.’ ~Oliver Cromwell
The British Civil Wars began in Scotland and ended in Ireland, though they are often erroneously called ‘The English Civil War’. In the end it would be England dictating the peace for the others. The union of the crowns that had begun with James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England upon Elizabeth I’s death had finally brought inter-state warfare on the British Isles to a close, but sectarian and domestic political struggles would tear the country apart under his inept successor, Charles I’s rule. Parliament would emerge victorious in the resulting civil war, and then eject various other groups from power in Ireland and Scotland. Charles I would be executed, his family driven into exile, and an attempt to set up a republic would ensue. Cromwell himself would end up shutting down parliament and ruling as a dictatorial “Lord Protector” not long after this.
Paul Lay’s ‘Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of the English Republic’ is an Anglo-centric yet nevertheless engaging read about the state that existed between the fall of Charles I and the restoration of Charles II. He describes a state that began with so much experimental promise but descended into factionalism and moralistic hypochondria. Something akin to if the American Revolution had been immediately co-opted by an alliance of Cotton Mathers and Tipper Gores right after the Treaty of Paris.
Sadly, this could not have been a surprise. Even before the war was over it was soon apparent that, demographically, the Parliamentarians were far more puritan than ‘leveller’ (the term given to people who wanted a universal male franchise). In a situation that should strike familiarity with anyone who has followed the Syrian Civil War, what looks on the surface like a noble cause can in fact be nothing but a sieve for fanatics and sectarians. People throughout Britain soon learned this as a government that was supposedly committed to freedom of religion began to persecute anyone not clearly of the Puritan ilk, including former allies of theirs like the Quakers.
Messianic regimes, especially new ones, cannot justify themselves without outward expansion. And so, the powerful military edifice built to win the Civil War would be turned onto Spain. In particular, its enormous New World empire. But the invasion of Hispaniola ended disastrously amidst tropical disease and local Spanish soldiers who knew the terrain. As a consolation prize the defeated English swept into barely-defended Jamaica. It would be their only gain from an expedition with dreams of driving the Whore of Babylon out of the New World and introducing a new Protestant reign for Central America.
In a pattern all too familiar to moderns, failure abroad led to a bizarre rise of extremism at home. Cromwell entered a kind of existential crisis. He had not failed in such a way. Surely, it must have been the nation itself that had yet to repent for its wickedness. And so, loyal generals were appointed as satraps throughout the country with explicit instructions to crack down on irreligion, drinking, the arts (especially theater) and even folk festivals. A life simmering within unadorned churches would be the only publicly sanctioned form of culture for the masses. It was this that made the people turn against the government in large numbers. But living in a literal garrison state, there was nothing they could do but grumble. Lay has a particular section that describes the goals of this society which is designed to strike us today:
‘The concept of a tirelessly interventionist and inescapable God might be compared to social media, resulting in comparable levels of anxiety and paranoia. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are realms of round-the-clock surveillance, where one’s thoughts and actions, beliefs and appearance are posted and preserved for all to see and subjected to constant comparison and judgement. The shame, vindictiveness, and piety that social media generates would not have felt out of place among seventeenth Century Puritans. But one can opt out of social media, however addictive. There was no such option in the world God had created, nor in the next.’
The various sects denounced each other constantly. To borrow a phrase from Angela Nagle, ‘competing over a scarcity of virtue’ in order to prove who was the most humble and the most ideological pure. Cromwell himself cared only that people were Protestant, but the forces and style of governance he had unleashed catered to only the worst and most extreme of ideologues. Fortunately, this government did not survive Cromwell. His ineffectual failson and chosen successor fled the country as the disputes between Generals and ex-Parliamentarians threatened to tear the islands apart again. But no one wanted a sequel to full blown civil war. A compromise was reached, if the exiled son of the late king would sign on to acknowledging the existence of Parliament in government, he would be invited back to bring the country together and avoid calamity.
The Restoration Undoes the Era of Hysteria
‘The King spent most of his time with confident young men, who abhorred all discourse that was serious, and, in the liberty, they assumed in drollery and raillery, preserved no reverence towards God or man, but laughed at all sober men, and even at religion itself.’ ~James Butler, Duke of Ormond.
‘He spends all his days
In running in plays
When in his Shop he should be poreng;
And wastes all his Nights
In constant delights
Of Reveling, Drinking, and Whoreing.
~Anon, ‘Upon His Majesties’ Being Made Free of the Citty.’
One would have expected had he lived the life planned for him King Charles II would have been a diffident, if witty, failson not unlike Richard Cromwell. At least he wasn’t that other and most cursed Charles II. The problem with monarchy is the sheer sheltered entitlement it breeds in those growing up expecting to inherit it. Due to the Civil War, however, Charles did not have this luxury. He fled the country, tried to rally support in Scotland only to be held hostage by the fanatic Covenanters and forced by Archibald Campbell, their de facto leader, to sign away much of his powers to them. Then, Cromwell had defeated the Scots (largely due to religious fanatics firing their most experienced commanders for ‘drinking and whoring’ on the eve of the Battle of Dunbar). Charles had to flee again. Crossing much of the country in disguise as a commoner and having many close calls, the heir to the monarchy slept outside, hid in trees, and developed a knack for socially integrating himself with common people he otherwise would not have. Once he made it out of the country, he would end up living an impoverished yet interesting young adulthood in the Netherlands, France, and Spain. Largely existing as leech on related aristocratic families in those countries.
When he returned to England he did so to a totally changed country. But not more changed than himself. In her book ‘A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game’, Jenny Uglow documents how Charles’ unconventional and roguish new skill set served him well to meet this particular moment as the restorer of the monarchy in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Charles II had a victory procession of sorts, but it was not simply pomp. As he disembarked in the country that had once tried to kill him, he was met by crowds of people relieved that there would be no civil war or continuation of Puritan rule. Formerly powerful general submitted to his authority, and he used his political capitol to disband the radical-infested army. This not only removed his most dangerous enemies, but also freed up immense amount of finance for the state. The regicide parliamentarians were hunted down for execution or driven into exile. Archibald Campbell found himself publicly executed in Edinburgh, and Cromwell’s body was disinterred for a mock execution and display.
But what followed this score-settling would be even more interesting. Charles was both a monarch who liked to throw massive court parties, indulge in the arts (which he of course re-legalized and came to patron) but also was an accessible ‘man of the people.’ He was at ease with people of all backgrounds and often struck up conversations with random people he met on the street when walking his dogs (of the breed now named for him). Rumors that he ‘rolled from whore to whore’ incognito as a commoner abounded and seemed to actually increase many people’s affection for him after the dour Cromwellian cultural revolution. When the Great Fire of London threatened to engulf the entire city, he not only led the response in an official capacity, but was smeared in ash and smoke, working the firebreaks and hauling buckets of water with the crowd at the worst of it. I can personally attest from years living in multiple locations in the United Kingdom that there are many pubs named after him to this day. And, of course, there is that Horrible Histories song.
But Charles was not simply a people’s partier. He was actually a fairly competent monarch in his own right. His diplomacy showed immense flexibility and his limited naval wars, though often considered indecisive or even losses by conventional historians, did encapsulate his move towards international trade access and naval power. The gains made in this conflict would, in fact, end up with the acquisition of New York and New Jersey, unifying the English colonies in North America into one band of coast-the first springboard for a future great power Britain. These pickups were made possible by the money he made selling indefensible colonial outposts in other places like Tangier and Calais. A keen eye for geography, and the centrality of the offshore stance in Europe but expansion elsewhere, showed the way of the future for an island nation. People back then didn’t know it yet, but Charles II’s reign would lay the seeds of Britain’s future at the expense of its (then) more powerful rivals in France, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Charles would make some major errors too, most importantly designating his thick-headed brother as his official successor knowing it would cause another sectarian crisis. Some people have said this sympathy for a Catholic brother stemmed from Charles’ own secret conversion. But Charles, it seems to me, cared little for religion and made this conversion to gain war subsidies from Louis XIV of France. After all, he did get the money and didn’t even convert until he was on his death bed. He never ended up converting the court, meaning he got one over on his superpower cousin. But the point here is not to say Charles II was a perfect ruler to whom we should aspire, but rather that he was a cultural force. The right counterbalance at the right time. He singlehandedly ended Britain’s first Woke-Evangelical Era not with frothing reactionary policies, but through levity, pragmatism, and disdain for all kinds of cultural extremes. In so doing, a hot mess of a country prone to regular bouts of rebellion and sectarian strife began to transform itself into a future financial and industrial powerhouse.
For a time anyway. All gains are, after all, temporary. Something the Puritan can never understand.
Accepting the Hobbesian Bargain
‘The obligations of the subjects to a sovereign is understood to last as long and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them…the end of obedience is protection.’ ~Thomas Hobbes
‘The losers are the real victors. The victims are the real winners.’ This was the sentiment of puritanism, and it is the dominant sentiment in the Anglophone world today. So much of our present-day culture war (which was declared by and waged in service of the right before it became the lefty cause du jour of the present moment) is an all-pervasive and multi-ideological trend. But it is a trend that can be defeated. This can be accomplished by the marriage of two things often not thought of as partners: the marriage of state power and the levity of humor.
Anyone who has ever interacted with ideological cliques such as anarchists knows that it is often the people who fear the state who are the most authoritarian and censorious people imaginable. Radical cliques often degenerate into cults where people psychologically abuse each other for clout and differences between people are not tolerated. Individualism is ineffective for every cause, so when one does not believe in the arbitration of the state, one must create a sect to compensate. The sect, ironically, often tolerates less dissent and divergence than does the state. This is because all they have is ideology, whereas the secular state (whatever form it takes) is a more situational and territorial arbiter. Its concerns (when it is working anyway) is to maintain the peace over its sovereign location and to maximize its autonomy vis-à-vis other states. This is true for all states and state-like entities no matter their internal ideological and traditional structure. Though states that forget this are very likely to degrade the sanity and effectiveness of their governing class and become more like those sectarian cults that spring up in their absence.
Let us return once more to the 17th Century. Thomas Hobbes was an intellectual and instructor who had royalist connections. He missed the civil war due to his job as a private tutor having taken him to France beforehand. When Charles II was in exile in France, Hobbes became his personal instructor. It was at this point that he published his most famous work, Leviathan. Leviathan’s blatantly irreligious, pragmatist, and materialist nature would cause scandal in the Stuart court-in-exile…despite the fact that it made an implicit argument for the Stuart style of governance. Fearing retaliation from religious cavaliers, he fled to Cromwell’s Protectorate. He reasoned, rightly as it turned out, none of the members of that government had yet read his works. He also made it clear that the necessity of government he wrote about could apply to any form of statecraft. Sovereignty was not held by divine right, but by power over the land and the execution of the prerogatives of the state itself.
When Charles was restored, he invited Hobbes to enter the court. It was there that the already old man, known today as a dour sourpuss due to the nature of his thought, made himself indispensable through his wit, jokes, and ability to disregard superstition and religious dogma (Hobbes himself was almost certainly an atheist in private). This is when people really began reading him.
Hobbes’ political thought lacks the subtlety of Han Feizi or even Confucius. In his concept of the mediating sovereign which protects individuals and groups from each other, he is far too supportive of the idea that the subject must support the sovereign no matter what-so long as their security needs are met. He wallows in constant fear of rebellion for obvious reasons given the times he lived in, but the long view of history shows plenty of rebellions that replace an inferior sovereign with a superior one. He does not grapple with the problem, innate to his thinking, of sovereign capriciousness from one head of state to another upon succession and which is particularly common in monarchies.
All of this being said, Hobbes is worth engaging with as his primary observation, that society can only thrive under conditions of sovereignty where a state is the primary mediating influence between actors, is correct for any society larger than that of the tribe. It is also, though this was not Hobbes’ intent, a better model of achieving freedom of conscience and securing the ability of divergent people to live with each other than more ideologically motivated models of conversion. Leviathan, it turns out, is a better guardian of private liberty than even the ideal of private liberty itself. Just ask any non-Islamist and non-liberal Syrian today, especially if they come from a minority group.
In his book ‘The Two Faces of Liberalism’, John Gray examines this lost liberationist aspect of Hobbes. Most useful to us today, he makes a case that the best of liberal values can be saved only by rejecting the worst of them. Specifically, the freedom to live one’s life as they please in the cultural and lifestylist sense by sacrificing liberalism’s tendency towards universalism and messianic behavior. These two impulses which are endemic in the philosophy are at war with each other, because universalism cannot abide competitors and those who opt out of it, and, on the other side, divergence requires a morally neutral pragmatist state to balance interests without adopting a mission of its own aside from the survival and maintenance of the state itself. This restricts communal projects to the realm of necessary material needs for a community like security and infrastructure.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a very liberal society. And so, to convince those in power to change policies, we must all be liberals to some degree. Gray’s reappropriation of Hobbes is a way to do that which makes the messianic culture war obsolete. Indeed, Gray admires Hobbes’ Leviathan as a model which could ‘Extend the benevolence of indifference’ to issues of private lifestylist and social spheres so long as the political order that upholds this indifference is not challenged by the subject. He points out that such arrangements were the norm in the ancient and classical worlds, before messianic religions took hold, and are often still the norm in places like East Asia, were they never came to be powerful at all. They also tend to exist in early modern states like the height of the Ottoman Empire, and, most obviously and perhaps at its greatest extent, in medieval states like that of the Mongols. For a modern example, he cites Singapore as a country that guarantees freedom of religion but bans missionary activity. The liberals did not invent toleration, they merely invented a form which was a successor to the Christian world it was rebelling against. But as such, this toleration inherited many preexisting problems.
Despite liberalism being the pervasive default setting in the Anglosphere, but not in these other examples, Gray wishes to learn from such arrangements as ways to have a collective civically minded state that does not engage in enforcing ideological or cultural uniformity but still maintains a civic unity. I contend that, in order to appeal internally to this Anglosphere’s tradition and common historical experience, that the reign of Charles II serves as a potential in-house model for such an arrangement. Not because I am a monarchist (I am definitely not) but because it came from a similar age of hysteria and ended up dissolving many of the problems it inherited. While Charles II is a bit too establishment to fit my mold of previous historical trickster figures, he had a similar personality as those past examples and thus can cross the bridge of communicating these issues between more outsider and insider persuasions. This, naturally, applies to the international system as well as the domestic. Whatever ways we find around our present impasse will differ from the solutions of the past, but we can certainly learn from events that preceded us nevertheless.
Modus Vivendi, as Gray calls his proposal, is not only the acknowledgement that no one way of governance can work for everyone, but that the very idea of political hegemony through one ideology is a potential declaration of war upon much of the domestic population of a state and thus cannot exist in a world where pluralism is the natural state of things. Two Faces of Liberalism is a short book and worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t mass quote it here, but there are two passages in particular I wish to conclude with:
‘Modus Vivendi expresses the belief that there are many forms of life in which humans can thrive. Among these are some whose worth cannot be compared. Where such ways of life rivals, there is no one of them that is best. People who belong to different ways of life need have no disagreement. They may simply be different. Modus Vivendi is liberal toleration adapted to the historical fact of pluralism.’
‘…When liberals set up one regime as a standard of legitimacy for all the rest, pluralists and liberals part company. For pluralists, a liberal regime may sometimes be the best framework for modus vivendi. At other times a non-liberal regime may do as well or better.’
Context reigns. Acknowledging that means there is something we can learn from the experiences of all types of governments. When the chips are down I consider myself more in favor of republics than monarchies, but should I therefore dismiss the experiences of all monarchs or all kingly states? No. Just as it is no great scandal to learn strategy from thinkers of all backgrounds why not also governments? It is this intellectual flexibility that keeps us from falling into the farce of Manichean culture war. That and the right kind of King Charles style levity that acknowledges that while running the state might be serious business, there is no reason it has to be too serious. Platonic absolutes do us no favors here. And those who are interested in working out the practical can do so with anyone else, regardless of that other person’s inner life. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the only times I take part in culture war is defensively or where there is a codified legal imbalance that needs to be adjusted. If people do not seek to inflict their preferences on me then I have no need to do the same to them. But I have never been so insecure as to seek to convert others save on issues of real and pressing policy that affects the entire state. Those are the true structural issues that affect everyone-economic, foreign, and infrastructure policy. And those are the issues that supermajorities of people could, theoretically anyway, come together much more effectively if they were prioritized over the social. Obviously, those content with the status quo therefore have a vested interested in fueling rather than dousing the culture war and its attendant surveillance and cancelling network. But bad policies of the state cannot be challenged by disregarding the state itself, but by coopting or replacing it with another state.
And if for some reason you do think it would be nice to have a monarch once again with this personality type, may I recommend the fashionable and party boat owning King of Morocco?
For a people so committed to the ending of cultural and political divergence, you would think fanatics everywhere would at least pay attention to the failure of all the other times they attempted the same project. If the definition of madness is endlessly repeating the same project again and again and expecting different results, then the universal idealists among us are truly the maddest of the mad. Perhaps this is why they despise the value of history so much. Because the message of history is that there is no message in history, save perhaps never to ignore your resource base and never to trust the pledges of fanatics claiming to be ‘on the right side’ of history. And it is very telling that an obviously ridiculous phrase like ‘right side of history’ is so commonly used in progressive politics today.
We have seen more than our fair share of the use and abuse of history by conservatives. Usually in the form of some kind of pundit with a superficial Wikipedia-level knowledge of key events and an uncritical and uninterrogated sense of the past derived from high school education that they desperately wish to affirm from further scrutiny. I have written here about that specific phenomena many times before. But the problem is that most non-conservatives, of all stripes, effectively cede the field to the right entirely because they themselves have a deeply diseased relationship with the past.
This relationship can be found everywhere now, with the de facto merger of the neoliberal establishment in the Anglosphere countries with postmodern academia and far left rhetoric (if usually not actual far left policies). The past is bad to them. People in the past had attitudes different than people today and therefore were also bad. Works of literature and philosophy from anytime before the rise of post-colonial and post-modern thought are therefore haram and must be expunged. The university, supposed to at least be the place meant to encourage atypical and norm-questioning thought, has become a giant H.R. department meant to ensure the imposition of a presentist monoculture on the next generation of downwardly mobile administrators and media people. The media itself has mostly given up all pretense at journalistic muckraking and has merged subservient stenography with declarations of religious faith in the church of social justice. If present trends continue, the majority of Generation Z and no small amounts of my own generation of Millennials seem to be well on track to carry out this mission of building a monoculture that pervades the public square. Those who know their future prospects are bleak are often those most likely to lash out moralistically as this is a socially acceptable way to ‘rebel’ without actually taking risks or digging deeper into the root (material) causes of societal decline. It is striking that, in an era where climate change represents our most clear and omnipresent threat, so many of the supposedly educated adopt culture war instead. Once seen as the domain of ignorant rural evangelicals, culture war is now the plaything of the social elite. Even if one wishes to prioritize culture war, one cannot ignore how the counter-culture trends on social issues of the last few decades before the 2010s actually delivered more measurable gains in a more hostile environment than the present top-down attempts at cultural engineering do, something I wrote more about here. If one is not a reactionary, one would be wise to feel what the backlash to this will be if this continues.
While its true that to glorify the past is ridiculous (and also implies a weak understanding of how events and eras actually work) it is surely just as ridiculous to castigate it from the point of view of present day trends. There is a lot of knowledge and wisdom to be found in taking the long view, and it is impossible to take such a view with knowledge based only around the time one was alive or even based only around a century or two. One can always be surprised by how many fellow travelers one can find hidden in long gone eras. Even in civilizations which are since departed. There were once cultures with widely different concepts of intellectualism and cultural expression than those which exist today. They are all fascinating. Some, I would contend, were even preferable in many ways. Especially on the cultural front. With the destruction of polytheism in Europe in the Middle East being the most clear breaking point from a more vibrant and interesting culture to the start of the monolith many Arab, Spanish, and Germanic societies have since sought to force on everyone else. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was an attempt to bring this type of brain dead political historiography into a new region, but fortunately it was brief and had limited effect (though enough for Chinese history lovers like myself to still rue). The PRC, a state which once carried out this state sponsored campaign of cultural terrorism, soon came to officially recognize these policies as a mistake.
Would that it was so in the Anglosphere. Here, the Christian sentiment that damaged European art and philosophy for centuries never seems to die, but only gets perpetually reborn under new forms. From the obvious sequels of the Great Awakening and the evangelical revival, to the less obvious such as militarized human rights foreign policy, American Exceptionalism, critical race theory, queer theory, the quest for ever expanding realms of ‘safe spaces’, and the present day pro-censorship trend, the tribes change but the underlying psychology does not. All of these adopt the very monotheist view that to come into contact with something you don’t like infects your soul like a virus, and affirms the idea that what is good or bad for you must be good or bad for everyone else. And always, it comes a deeply disturbing affirmation that the past is sinful, and that ones soul can only be immaculate by rejecting all things contrary to what the good people of the present do. We can stop the tragicomedy of history, these people propose, by simply rejecting it outright. And by also contending that to engage with any figure’s opinion, past or present, is to affirm all of them. No nuance in this brave new world. And nothing fills me with more concern than this growing trend I see of the hard left, already prone to sanctimonious preaching, reconciling itself with Christianity, the inventor of universal scolding and messianism. Should such a convergence fully occur, it will create the most insufferable and absolutist outgrowths of philosophy and culture of all time. I think we can now safely say what the one thing to make me see the right as the lesser evil would be, should such a wretched alliance occur.
The most ridiculous aspect of this argument is also the one that is most telling as to why fanatics despise a nuanced and contextual understanding of history: that we have it right now unlike before. If there is one thing a thorough study of history should tell everyone, it is that morality is as faddish and ephemeral a concept as fashion is. And much of it always dates poorly. Eugenics was once a progressive cause, as was prohibition. The inference is obvious: if so much that seemed obvious and good once now looks so terrible…what things that look good today will seem terrible tomorrow?
Quite a bit of it, I would be willing to bet.
If big picture issues matter to you, it is best to be above and beyond trendy moralism in the first place. Understanding structural forces in politics you want to change is good. But don’t ever get it conflated with these tent-revivalist trends that periodically sweep the Christian and Islamic worlds. In order to see the future more clearly, it becomes necessary to see the past clearly first. And that will also give you insight into the present beyond that of your more intellectually challenged and fad-chasing peers.
It becomes important to set up informal networks for those of us who, despite this ever growing monoculture by and for moralistic simpletons, plan, network and discuss as a proper counter-culture. No longer interested in trying to change this bizarre and periodic rising of anti-history anti-context people, we should break into a separate but parallel group. Occupying the same society but offering alternatives. This is not just for our own sanity, but also a useful community service. Monocultures, be it of crops, bureaucratic hierarchies or ideologies, create blind spots and thus increase the odds of society-wide failure due to an inability to adapt. Evolution cannot work without constant differentiation. A society that seeks to expunge intellectual and cultural diversity is a society digging its own grave. One thing ignored by many radicals today as inconvenient is that the Islamic State’s very destruction of ancient works of art was motivated not just by Islam’s proscriptions on the human form in artwork, but also by a hatred of divergent societies and separate states preventing their religion from being universal. The Palmyrene Empire, so notable for its brief but spectacular challenge to Roman hegemony, pre-dated Islam and differentiated Syria from the rest of the region. And Allah forbid anyone acknowledge their local context might matter more than a universal ideology. We saw in contemporary history in Iraq and Syria just what a danger to any kind of minority or even culture of critical inquiry such people represent. And what it must have been like to live in various times in the past when such people were dominant.
Well, I suppose we got what conservatives in the U.S. always wanted: a workable Rome analogy. Too bad its one that shows that the religion they treasure was the past equivalent to the wokes they hate so much today. Even I can admit there are some things not worth conserving. The Galilean Ideology has to be at the top of that list.
It is up to us to create a counter-culture alliance that one day could set up escape valves in society for when these hysterical moments all to common to the Anglosphere arise. Not just so that people can tune out of greater society if they wish, but also receive education and training from an outsider perspective in order to better understand and critique it.
This will be the topic of a future writing project of mine. One which, if short, may appear here and, if long, may become a short book or pamphlet-like work I would try to publish. I think that increasingly just as the H.R.-Neoliberal-Academia alliance pushes harder and harder for monopoly, there will have to be a backlash. Such a backlash would inevitably be diverse but it should also have some degree of coordination. Someone has to stand against the new dark age of the meek inheriting the Earth.
Of course the possibility I neglected to mention when I last wrote about this subject here almost four years ago was that Azerbaijan would use its greater levels of diplomatic and economic connections to rebuild and re-launch its armed forces. It was a possibility I considered, but as my primary focus on writing was on the concept of small scale territorial disputes in general and not this one in particular, I didn’t bother to go into it. I should have.
The struggle over the ultimate fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, which broke out before the Soviet Union even officially fell between constituent republics of that late superpower, ended strongly favoring Armenia, putting the Armenian-majority part of Azerbaijan within the control of that nation, though the territory is still internationally recognized by almost everyone as a part of Azerbaijan. Though it is worth noting that in addition to the properly disputable Karabakh region, Armenia has also occupied some large parts of Azerbaijan that are not Armenian-majority in order to create a defensive perimeter and to negotiate from a position of greater strength.
In the time since the first fighting ceased in 1994, the balance of power has been slowly changing. Azerbaijan has sought closer ties with its patron Turkey whilst still retaining its relations with Russia, while Armenia has gone fully into Moscow’s camp. Though Armenia clearly won the first war and has had greater success building up its civil society, Azerbaijan’s economic growth and diplomatic efforts outside the region have borne fruit and made it a valuable trade partner to the region whose pace of development has been impressive. In the brief flare up in 2016 it was apparent that Azerbaijan could roughly equal Armenian military performance. In the current struggles so far in 2020, preliminary imports show that unless a major reversal now occurs that Azerbaijan holds the advantage.
But this may change should Azerbaijan be foolish enough to enter Armenia proper. They are winning, and they certainly don’t have to. They must not let victory disease go to their heads, especially as the problem of the disputed region still being majority Armenian isn’t going away anytime soon.
One of the more interesting things is how conflicted the U.S. establishment is on this issue. America has a large Armenia diaspora community with political clout, particularly in California. But this tilt is quashed by the fact that Azerbaijan has more connections with the U.S. through geopolitical alliances with those tilting away from the Moscow axis, notably Georgia and Turkey. This has led to a kind of awkward media silence. Normally, U.S. media dutifully drums up support for one side over the other in a bid to do its job preparing the public for intervention on someone’s side, but that is simply an impossibility here. Sadly, rather than get even-keel coverage, it basically means your average American gets none. It is also interesting because a similar calculation holds sway in Iran but in reverse. Despite Azeris being an enormous domestic part of Iranian politics, Tehran’s highest level policy makers are most likely more sympathetic to Armenia due to the Azeri-Turkish alliance. The more complicated things are for Turkey the less Turkish proxies have to be fought by Iran and Syria outside of Idlib. But Iran cannot take a position hostile to a country made up of its second largest ethnic group, where support for Azerbaijan is nearly universal. This is the most awkward position of any of the regional powers.
It also presents a great opportunity to re-open communications between Tehran and DC. Neither side wants a greater escalation-and what a great excuse this would be to get these two countries talking again. You can bring in Russia who clearly does not want to sever relations with Baku despite its pro-Armenian stance. But I won’t hold me breath.
The only logical way to make sense of this conflict is to hope that it remains entirely local and does not precipitate a greater crisis among larger powers and alliance networks. Any other opinions should be restricted to just the two combatants on the ground given all the above stated convolutions. Despite my ‘to the victor goes the spoils’ view of the 1994 war, I cannot help but have tilted more and more pro Azeri on this issue as this decade has unfolded. Azerbaijan has offered diplomatic solutions multiple times in recent history offering the full autonomy of Karabakh with a bonus connecting strip to Armenia proper in exchange for Armenian evacuation from all the many non-Karabakh territories it has occupied around the region. While it was logical for Armenia to occupy a cohesive defensive perimeter, there never was a reasonable solution to this conflict so long as so much of Azerbaijan-outside-of-Karabakh was under Armenian occupation. By refusing to bow to this reality as Azerbaijan’s international position grew and Armenia’s shrank, Yerevan effectively forced Baku’s hand by indirectly admitting that only a military option could bring them back to serious bargaining at the table. The fact that they started referring to the adjacent to Karabakh occupied territories as part of greater Armenia, if informally, didn’t really help. There isn’t much of an international market for Armenian Lebensraum.
The closest option I can see for a relatively equitable peace would be that Azerbaijan, showing foresight, offers this exact same deal again plus both sides recognizing some kind of regionally autonomous status. A weakened Armenia would have to acquiesce to such a fair deal. It would avoid Russian intervention against them while making Baku look magnanimous. Azerbaijan gets its core territories back sans Karabakh, but the Azeris forced out of Karabakh can return home. There is an international peacekeeping area of no-contact set up to oversee the territorial realignment. The danger to this scenario is of course that Turkey and Russia ramp up their involvement even more, or that Azerbaijan, seeing the winds in its favor, keeps the war going to the point where they lose control over it and can no longer appear as the magnanimous grievance settler. Just as Armenia’s annexation of Karabakh set off a never ending problem leading to sanctions and bloated military budgets, so too does fighting an Armenian insurgency in Karabakh and dealing with all the bad press from that threaten to undermine Azerbaijan’s recent gains. If the Azeris complete what looks like a clear victory with a peace that eschews chauvinism for a just redressing of grievance, they will gain much in the long run. Then they can join the Azeri-Iranians across the border in song. This is my hope. But real world experience shows me that knowing when to stop when one is winning is a rare thing in policy makers. I expect they will push for pre-Soviet breakup border delineation. It will be impressive if they actually get it, but it will be a poisoned victory that risks setting off internal problems or turning a victorious operation into a quagmire.
Almost everything we know about this war is through selective leaks and context-free combat footage. No doubt current attempts to analyze the battlefield situation will not hold up well. This being said, it is clear that we are seeing drones used at an unprecedented scale in conventional warfare. Probably even more for artillery spotting than for direct strikes, even though most of the footage out of Baku-linked sources are from attack drones. Vehicle casualties are high on both sides as the terrain largely favors infantry and drones that can hover over defensive positions. The Azerbaijani advances have been enormous in the south, where there is comparatively flatter terrain, and quite limited in the more mountainous north. What remains to be seen is what the plan of Azerbaijan was at the start of the conflict and what it has become. Did they think they could sweep over the region in one big offensive? Unlikely, but if so that clearly hasn’t quite worked out. Was this operation launched as a test of Armenian defenses a la the 2016 fighting and turned out to be unexpectedly successful so they went with it? Also unlikely, given the amount of logistics clearly involved in the offensive (though more likely than the grand blitzkrieg the Armenians are claiming to have heroically thwarted).
To me it seems the most likely option is that the Azeris went for a double envelopment that bogged down in the north and won big in the south. Given the terrain, this is probably what they expected at some level and they just wanted Armenian forces tied up in multiple places before they dumped their main focus on the south and the cutting of Armenia off from Iran and swinging Azeri columns behind the road connecting Karabakh to Armenia proper. If so, then the plan is working pretty close to intention. Here is hoping everyone can keep their heads and return to the negotiating table.
Sidenote: I cannot help but notice that so many of the people who love accusing those that disagree with them as being ‘Russian bots’ or ‘Kremlin stooges’ have taken a reflexively pro Armenian stance recently. Part of this is constituency (see Adam Schiff), but Armenia is a Russian ally nonetheless. Its almost as if evaluating conflicts on their own terms is a complicated place with no room for moralistic Manicheanism in how different countries’ alliance networks work. Shocker! So, of course backing Armenia doesn’t make you a Russian stooge. Just like my support of Syria’s right to crush its rebels and spare the world another jihadist enclave doesn’t make me a Russian stooge. This point is fundamental for conversations with people who try to turn geopolitical strategy into a morality play. All politics is first and foremost local, and unless someone is paying you to construct a grand strategy or you cannot divorce yourself from your home country when doing an analysis, you should first understand it on that level. It does not make me a Russian stooge to support Syria’s sovereignty nor does it make me a Turkish stooge to think Azerbaijan is owed at least some of its occupied territory back. Neither does it make me convoluted because on two separate issues I tilt towards different partners in two competing alliance networks. It simply is what it is, the tragicomedy of international relations. When things get that complex the only logical conclusion for those not directly involved is a desire not to become involved.
While my review for the last book of his on here was uniformly positive, this one will be more critical for reasons I will get to later. I will, however, start with the positives. I do insist that it is a very good read and I am glad I read it, personally.
Why ‘Escape From Rome’ is a work of serious scholarship and worth reading:
Despite the title, Scheidel is not primarily focused on Rome itself so much as its absence after it fell. Talking about Rome specifically is restricted to the very first chapters and the epilogue. In these sections, Scheidel makes a very strong case as to why Rome was so successful in a region where hegemonic empires are a rarity. No other state controlled such a large proportion of Europe’s territory and population directly save in ephemeral conquest periods like Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany. By showing that Rome faced no truly dangerous long term challengers to its north or west and a unique mass mobilization system, he makes the case that Rome’s singular commitment to mass armies and to long term expansion, coupled with the durable staying power of its alliance system, was something not seen before in European history and would not be seen again until revolutionary France-a state that would not arise until polycentrism (multiple unfriendly states in one region) was long established as the European normal. Polycentrism prevents one government from quashing innovation and allows dissident thinkers to migrate elsewhere if home turns into a sour environment. This in turn increases the contractual and mercantile orientation of a state, perhaps leading to constitutionalism.
Following this is a case for why, in the long run, polycentrism is preferable to technological and economic advancement. This includes other parts of the world who often saw such periods, though they did not have the persistence that Europe’s polycentrism did. In International Relations speak the term for this is multipolarity, by the way. Geography naturally starts the calculation with the broken terrain of Europe playing a massive role in both facilitating naval power as a utility and reducing the effectiveness of land power.
Scheidel then gives us a comparison of the other regions and how large scale hegemonic empires were far more common an occurrence. Rightly ceding the Western Hemisphere and its enormous divergence from the Eurasian experience to Jared Diamond, he focuses entirely on Eurasia and predominantly on China. In the end, his case can be simplified to ‘Rome may have given Europe a common educated language and religion after its fall, but it was keeping Europe in a hegemonic trap and its full potential as a region could not be unleashed until centuries and centuries of polycentrism established themselves.’ This case is both rigorously made and lucid. It is worth reading and it will make you think about macro historic trends.
2. Questions I had:
Before getting to my criticisms of Scheidel, I want to pose the questions I have that aren’t critical so much as ‘why is this the way this text was done?’ Namely, Scheidel and I both love historical counter-factuals so long as they are neither sloppy nor over-simplified. They help us question our assumptions and show what moments actually were decisive in the world we have today. Yet Carthaginian victory over Rome is given quite a short shrift despite being more probable than some of the speculations he engages with in the book. While it is obvious that Rome had a massive manpower and logistical advantage in total war over Carthage, it could not have exercised that power outside of Italy without first winning some improbable victories over Carthage at sea. A theater it started out in with far less experience and many losses.
It seems to me that the ultimate counter-factual in discussing Rome’s impact (or lack thereof) on long term Roman history would be Carthage confining Rome to Italy through naval victories and subsequent alliances with Celtic tribes north of the Alps. A predominant Carthage would have played to Europe’s geographic strengths more than Rome. This is not to say that Carthage ever could have replaced Rome at all, a scenario Scheidel rightly dismisses given its societal model, but that by thwarting Roman hegemony and setting up urban mercantile enclaves throughout the coastal areas of Europe, Carthage could have strengthened the Celts in terms of both technology and institutions-not so much through direct policy but gradually by cross-pollination. It becomes plausible to see a medieval Europe of small states in the west but with a Gaulic-Punic-Germanic culture and Hellenistic Greek-Slavic states in the east, with Italy as a weird Latin outlier in-between.
This brings me to another question: Africa outside of the northern coast is barely mentioned at all. I get that its trajectory diverges from that of Eurasia pretty strongly, but nowhere near as strongly as the Americas. The Sahel was connected to the north through trade routes and the east coast strongly integrated into the Indian Ocean network (itself barely covered in the book despite its immense historical economic importance). Why is this? I feel some words on Sub-Saharan Africa are needed to round out the text.
3. My criticisms of Scheidel’s Thesis:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering my Central Asia focused historical background, but I didn’t take kindly to Scheidel joining the ranks of the many historians who have effectively dumped on the steppe for retarding the growth of more littoral civilizations. If I thought this thesis was true I would admit it, however. Nomadism is still cool even if its overall impact is being the cool loser guitar playing boyfriend who makes your sister drop out of high school to move to Reno. But its really not. Using Scheidel’s own examples only, in fact, I can prove it is not. How? Because he specifically cites the Song period and the Yuan (Mongolian) dynasty as examples of China-centered governments who were into technological experimentation and pushing the envelope. Indeed, his favorable treatment of Song history is admirable but is missing the vital ingredient of just how much of a multi-state system it is, with both the Liao and Jin successively providing counter-hegemonic multipolarity and the Tangut Xi Xia state clinging on throughout it all for good measure. The Liao barely gets mentioned at all for being a state far smaller in population and economic power but that equaled the Song in military and diplomatic power. Like a western European state in the modern era, it punched far above its weight, largely due to the contractual nature of its dual-system governing structure between nomads and farmers and its ruling elite’s interesting in poaching talent from the Song through brain drain.
If Scheidel thinks the steppe has a retarding influence on state innovation why does he admit that the Yuan was far ahead of the game in future oriented policy than the native Chinese and southern-born Ming Dynasty? He correctly points to the Ming as the true era where China began to fall behind, but seems to ignore that for most of Chinese history it was technologically more advanced the Europe. If vulnerability to steppe predation was such a long term problem than why did it only become a problem when the steppe began losing out to the littoral regions due to the rise of gunpowder and the greater levels of trade being conducted at sea? We can see how the steppe and pastoralist conquerors aided technological development in the African Sahel as well.
And there we have an alternative answer to Scheidel’s: technological change favoring the ocean as the primary trade conduit to the steppe. Before the massive improvement of shipbuilding and navigational techniques, it was the steppe that was the sea. The ultimate realm of trade, exchange, and military competitiveness. Thus, a case could be made that the steppe was once a formative engine of innovation, but due to the material factors of technological change eventually coming to favor ocean-born cargo this went away. Regions with well established naval traditions took the mantle. The nature of maritime exchange also lends itself to bureaucratization, considering the technicalities of running trade through a harbor system. So, most of the institutional uniqueness of European early modern history once again stems from a geographic and technological impetus. And a maritime culture, of course, would be the first to get to the Americas, infect it with Eurasian diseases, and exploit its vast resources-growing the trend to exponential levels.
Another criticism I have is putting the primary poles of comparison between macro-regions into a mostly Europe vs East Asia comparison. This is not to say it doesn’t make sense, those are the two areas with the most durable states and the most surviving records for pre-modern history overall. East Asia belongs in any comparison here. But, South Asia strikes me as a far closer analogue to the European experience. While hegemonic powers were more common in South Asia, they were less common than in East Asia and the proportion of their reach was often limited once you hit the Deccan. Southern Indian states like the maritime Chollas and the militarized Vijayanagar are mentioned by Scheidel but never elaborated on. One could argue that the classical Mauryas, while not lasting as long as Rome did, had a similar foundational impact on India and disseminated en elite language (Sanskrit) and a new religion (Buddhism) widely enough to have a comparable legacy. Furthermore, during the breakup of the closest thing to a post-Maurya hegemony and pre-British hegemony was the Mughal Empire. This empire’s decline caused many of the smaller states to enter into a dedicated arms race quite similar to early modern Europe in the same period. Could the military innovations of the Marathas and the mercantile expansion of the Bengal region have set off something akin to the industrial revolution a bit later in history had not the East India Company got in there first to run roughshod over the place? Its very possible. Ergo, I do not believe that something akin to the modern world could only have come from Europe.
Going further east, into Southeast Asia, Scheidel specifically brings the region up as the only other heavily populated section of Eurasia where balanced and anti-hegemonic state systems were the norm… but then never uses it as a thorough compare/contrast with Europe. I feel like this is a lost opportunity as this region, rather than the more northerly East Asia, is the best center-point for any compare/contrast. It is perhaps here that he could have best made his case that Rome at least gave a common intellectual language to Europe-something lacking in Southeast Asia. Still, as I showed in my Carthage Uber Alles scenario, I am no convinced that a once-off hegemony is necessary. Perhaps if India had really taken off Southeast Asia would have succeeded even more. Think of how the urbanization and renaissance in Northern Italy was the start of Europe’s breakout but it wasn’t these states but rather the North Sea powers of the Netherlands and England who really took it to the next level. I can see something similar going from south and east India to Southeast Asia, especially considering the mercantile capabilities of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Burma then gets to play the role of France as a semi-continental and semi-maritime hybrid country whose influence on the globe is somewhat thwarted but whose regional land dominance in the core region is hard to dispute.
My final and most substantial point of criticism builds off these prior points. And that is presentism. Where you to go back in time before the enlightenment or the takeover of the New World and the harnessing of it to Europe, not only would Europe not have been out in front, it would be lagging behind. Not just South and East Asia but the Middle East and potentially parts of western Africa too. No one then would have seen any kind of ‘European Divergence’ if they were somehow able to experience much of the globe. Marco Polo himself would write about how much more advanced the cities he traveled to in Asia (notably then under Mongol rule, ahem) were to most places he had experienced in Europe-and coming from Venice he was arguably from the most advanced city in the region of that era. But sure, if we are going to talk about the modern era from the benefit of hindsight that is all well and good.
But presentist bias does not just apply to the past, it applies to the future. And if Scheidel’s ‘great divergence’ is true than it represents not a permanent reorienting of the planet but rather a specific epoch that already belongs to the past. The last gasp of western Europe being in the drivers seat of world affairs ended in the First World War for everyone save Britain, and Britain was an empire continental in scope if not in shape, its crown jewel being India whose population outlclassed any European state. Britain too would exit the world’s relevance with the crushing losses to its colonial empire in the Second World War, paving the way for the continental empires of the United States and the Soviet Union to cannibalize the fates of many of its old colonies between them. This in turn would be followed by a brief period of American global hegemony which is now fading into something more akin to a high Byzantine period where America probably retains its overall top dog spot but as part of a multipolar system divided between other big powers like China and India. No European state matters outside of Europe anymore save for its economic trade influence and the French informal empire in parts of Africa. Only one of the major powers is a cultural descendant of the age of European expansion and it is not based in Europe and appears to be diverging, rather than merging, with its allies there. The continental empire is back and has been since long before anyone reading this was born. Scheidel does not see this and opts instead for a clean break of premodern to modern with nothing new after that. I think we should instead see continuity from predmodern, modern, on through now and the future. If no other time in history was set aside for being absolutely special, why should this one be?
So, multipolarity/polycentrism is back. But theres nothing at all European about it. In fact, for us to once again see the benefits of polycentrism in technology and civil society, its best to divorce from the era of Europe entirely and embrace a new era of new institutions reflecting new global-scale power poles. This is an era where the continental empire has become maritime-and the world has become small enough that they can no longer be complacent in their own specific regions but must compete, like early modern nation states, on a smaller planet. One doubts this is what Thomas Friedman meant when he said ‘the world is flat’, but the actual result of globalization turns out to be the super-state getting all Westphalian.
That does, however, leave plenty of regions between the major power poles that can make use of the polycentrism that Scheidel rightly praises. You can turn your diplomacy further afield than even before even as a small country now. You can always recruit technocrats and appeal to scientists by offering an alternative to the increasingly invasive surveillance states of America, India, and China. Only time will tell if the resources of smaller states could again outperform big ones, but they can always offer refuge to the dissident and the misfit. If there is one real lesson of European history (after the utility of naval power) it has to be that such states offer immense cultural and economic value to human development.
P.S. Someone tell Scheidel that as a fan of Hellenistic successor kingdoms and not a huge Roman fanboy, I am always grateful for more ammunition for my case that Rome replacing Pontus, Ptolmaic Egypt, and Seleucia was a net negative trend in history. He even at one point mentions that they were more technologically innovative than Rome as a point in his cases favor.
Continuing the trend of using my own illustrations for the blog for the time being. It just so happens that I had a picture of a plague doctor in a modern subway station from a few years ago and that just works for this post.
In times of crisis and breakdown there is a tendency to turn to religion and philosophy for context and meaning. I disagree that these should come first. It is history that should come first because it is only in history that the experiences of the present can be directly shown to be outgrowths and inevitable processes of the past. A past that rhymes with often surprising regularity and binds experiences across generations.
This is not to demand the divorcing of history from other concepts in the humanities-indeed that would be foolish. I simply want to prioritize events over interpretation even while I acknowledge that both working in tandem is necessary. Why? Because an un-anchored interpretation on its own is simply editorialism and a concession to postmodern solipsism. Religion on its own is an even more extreme version of this. History, even vague and disputable history, is by definition based around clear cut events and therefore sets limits on just how much editorializing can come from studying it (even if as a humanities discipline there is still quite a lot to editorialize).
Most likely, just like after 9/11, we are about to see an uptick in religious fervor, cult activity, and large groups of people retreating into idealist and individualist-affirming philosophies. This is exactly the wrong path forward, especially considering that it is materialism, science, community response, and state policy alone that are going to curb pandemics and climate change.
If you wish for consolation in the grand scheme of things coming from the humanities, it is to be found in the past experiences of those who came before. Because history shows a few big things quite definitively:
-Pandemics are normal.
-Tragedy is normal.
-Social breakdowns fueled by decaying orders staffed by complacent ghouls are normal.
-These things happening in tandem with each other is not unheard of.
-Practical collective action can matter, atomized individual responses do not. True leadership, such as we see from Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand, comes from governments integrated with oligarchies of proactive expertise rather than defensive ass-covering such as we see among the great powers.
Above all, history shows something that was once summed up perfectly in a phrase from Battlestar Galactica, ‘All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.’ Fictional though the setting is, its a sentiment that could have been written by Kautilya, Thucydides, or Sun Tzu. It is also a sentiment that is deeply alienating to the western European/Christian mind, where history serves as a sort of teleological exercise where life is just a practice run to sort out who gets to go to the good place or the bad place forever.
No doubt this view brings comfort to the moral absolutists and scolds that makes up a noticeable sub-section of humanity. But we shouldn’t indulge such people any longer. They have proven themselves in their eras of dominance (christianized rome, late caliphate, the neoconservative-neoliberal present) to be unfit to hold the reigns any longer. Its time to use history as a far more accurate counter-narrative…the one of connecting us to the greater picture of our past through the shared sufferings and occasional triumphs that make up the story of life.
As evidence for this allow me to use a somewhat strange example. I have generally have nothing but scorn for the phrase ‘conservative intellectual.’ Not as a general principle but certainly applying to the 19th, 20th, and above all 21st Centuries. So-called conservative intellectuals are usually nothing but fearful rubes riddled with sexual pathologies who use eloquent language to deny that problems caused by the powerful are bad and to shift blame onto the powerless as much as possible. While I have massive disagreements and often outright disdain for many leftist and progressive thinkers, they are usually critics of entrenched systems which makes a far greater percentage of them intellectually useful.
But there are two conservative intellectuals from the modern time period that I do have respect for…one is John Gray but if he is even conservative in any way outside of general philosophical disposition anymore is debatable. The other, who I wish to talk about, is Oswald Spengler, even though my disagreements with many of his central thesis are legion.
Despite claims to the contrary, Spengler is a bit of a romantic. He is definitely a Germanic idealist, that most cursed class of philosophers. The central argument of his most famous work ‘The Decline of the West’, takes a great framework (cultures growing, flowering, and dying as part of a natural life cycle), and corrupts it with anti-material assumptions about the intrinsic and platonic nature of culture. In a way, he was a (much smarter) precursor to Samuel Huntington.
What sets him apart, however, is that he was a historian before he was a theorist. Even with his misguided focus on KULTUR, his curiosity about the world, of actual events that occurred make him a fascinating and engaging read. While his interpretation of the past was often questionable, the fact that he engaged with it to construct his world view (rather than the usual opposite of selectively harvesting the past to suit a pre-constructed theory) meant he was way ahead of most of his contemporaries when it came to understanding the present and the future. His predictions were often spot on, seeing the social and environmental effects of mechanization long before that was a normal conservation to have, calling both world wars as inevitable before they happened, and how decolonization would soon occur.
Despite Spengler’s love of culturally-focused relativism, he still manages to outclass his ideologically similar thinkers by the mere fact of treating history as an ever-unfolding story that may not repeat itself but definitely rhymes. A grand tragicomedy where we all have roles to play and little control over the stage directions or even casting calls. And, to steal a line from a Thomas Ligotti story, ‘there is no one behind the camera.’
We know by looking at the past that our sufferings are not unique and that our individual influence over grand events is actually quite small. In acknowledging how little control we really do have over vast systemic processes we can become immunized to the paralyzing fear of uncertainty. The Resistance Liberal mantra of ‘this is not normal’ was always entirely wrong. It is the very definition of normality when living in times of uncertainty. Others did it before, we have to do it now. Endure stoically and your odds are making it through with less damage increase. You might even learn something in the process.
Weirdly enough this now leads me to conclude with an example that is not historical, but in the realm of popular (ostensibly) children’s entertainment. Much as its rare to find a conservative intellectual worth reading, its also rare to find popular entertainment that can engage with the general themes of history as a continuous process with no predetermined beginning or end. It is no accident that the show I am watching continuously through lockdown is Adventure Time. Why? Well, having caught most but not all of the episodes and often out of order in the past I finally had the chance to go through it all in order. But, more importantly for our purposes here, because Adventure Time does something I love to see but that is rarely done well…it presents a world where apocalyptic events are normalized into a historical context.
The nuclear analogue ‘Mushroom War’ did not end the world except for those directly killed by it, it merely started a new cycle. Everything changed but by the time of the show’s present era all those changes are now normalized. The past is tragic but also enabled the present in much the same way that the extinction of dinosaurs made way for the rise of mammals. You can never go back and it would be weird to want to. At the same time, the past is what made the present and therefore the future. While Spengler could only see civilizations dying in the absolute, Adventure Time sees civilizations as dying but still contributing to a great compost heap of context that the entire future is built upon. This theme is carried continuously forward as multiple episodes contain not only flashbacks of thousands of years but also flash-forwards where we see ruins of the (usually present-tense) Candy Kingdom. The Kingdom had a technologically advanced future beyond that shown by the present-era episodes of the show, but apparently met a similar fate to the human civilization of the ancient past (our present) and left behind only its ruins. Though this looks pessimistic since we have been conditioned to identify with the Candy Kingdom, new life forms have taken their place and the world continues on-different, but not in the end worse.
In the sense of world building, Adventure Time is actually a deeply historical and historiographical setting, even if its connection to real world history is nonexistent. Compared to most of the anglo-protestant morality plays we get in mainstream fiction as the primary output of our culture that is refreshing. It sells the idea that the study of real world history could propagate to an even greater degree: all of this is normal, and even the weird bits will one day become normal, perhaps even the start of something endearing. You are part of a of a context that started before your birth and will not conclude after you die. The personal discomforts and tragedies you face are events to bind you to the experience of the species, not alienate you from them.
If you have been following this blog for a while, you probably know I have nothing but disdain for so much of the fashionable woke causes of today. We are bombarded on a daily bases by performative virtue signalling largely sold as snake oil by grifters to the guilt-ridden white bourgeoisie and those over-eager to have passionate opinions without doing the necessary work to justify such strongly held views. No doubt today you are seeing many of those very people loudly proclaiming their inheritance to replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Be not afraid though, broken clocks are right twice a day after all.
From the undeniable fact that the largest mass human die-off in recorded human history was due to Eurasian pathogens made short work of much of the Native American population, to the subsequent enslavement, murder, and conquest of these then-weakened communities (I maintain that direct European conquest would likely not have happened in that era save for certain coastal and island areas were it not for the full-fledged apocalypse of smallpox and company creating a literal post-apocalypse-but that is a big enough topic to be the subject of another post), the reasons for replacing a Holiday celebrated in the United States, a (future) country Columbus never set foot it, are obvious. Even leaving aside that Columbus was a grifter, fanatic, and died convinced he had found the edge of Southeast Asia despite everyone else realizing it was clearly something else which was a direct result of him believing the world was much smaller than it actually was-a fringe view even in his time- there are plenty of reasons to neither give up a holiday nor continue it in its present form.
The mass destruction of indigenous culture goes beyond the human toll. It robbed the world of art, thought, philosophy, biodiversity, and language. While I am hardly one to use ‘imperialism’ as a catch-all phrase of bad things, the specific form of Spanish and English colonialism towards the New World resulted in positively ISIS-levels of cultural vandalism where the pathologies of the present rob the future generations of Earth from its material heritage. If the conquest in hindsight seems inevitable, the mass destruction, Palmyra style, of religions and cultures surely was not as it was fueled purely by ideology. Conquistadores cared little for converts, but the people that came after them did. And from Torquemada’s ideological children to Cotton Mather’s bastards, a varied mosaic of thought was swept away for the barren and monolithic desert of Christian fanaticism. A legacy that very much infects almost everything today in contemporary North America.
But Indigenous People’s Day is not mainly a marking of the past but first and foremost a statement of the future. The Natives are still here. Despite everything many still keep their cultures as intact as reasonably possible. They aren’t going anywhere. And of equal importance, it is about time that we who dwell in North America recognize how much they contributed to us. Half of the vegetables commonly used in cooking today in the world have a New World origin. Most spices come from Mesoamerica originally. Languages used as codes to baffle the Axis Powers and vital contributions especially welcome in our benighted postmodern age towards contemporary art still pour out from Native artists who are both cutting edge and traditional alike. Even our urban legends and modern myths increasingly adopt the fantastic creatures who were spoken of in these lands long before the Europeans came.
We might also do well by recognizing what they have still to give. There are ways of thought that would be a welcome break from the endless Alt-Protestant shrieking that almost all sides of our culture have degenerated into. No one is more suspicious of that famously ambiguous and mealy-mouthed phrase ‘decolonization’ than me, but we sure as hell could use some decolonization in our politics and philosophy on this front when it comes to anthropocentrism, economic priorities, and the dominant sects whose theology holds sway over much of the populace. So much of the intellectual legacy of Northern Europe is a stain on the thoughtful, including even in strategic culture. There are histories whose very concept of strategy remains to be explored as political theory. More on this later at some point, I promise.
Anyway, if you would like to explore something contemporary and native I recommend starting with Nechochwen:
I just finished reading Speculative Annihilationism by Matt Rosen, the newest entry of note in the growing canon of speculative realist philosophy. I have posted on this subject before, in particular about my working side quest of integrating Object-Oriented Ontology and adjacent thought into geopolitics. But Speculative Annihilationism (let’s use SA from here on out) is something that works with macro-level history in general at least as well.
A short summary of Rosen’s argument is that materialist archeology shows the way to handle the snuffing of anthropocentrism in philosophy across the board. So much of what we study at the archeological level is already extinct. Australopithecus, the dinosaurs, civilizations whose genetic descendants may still live but whose cultures, languages, and cities do not. The extinct lack the ability to engage with correlationism and phenomenology, yet their existence is undeniable if there is enough evidence for the archeology of their past to even happen. Therefore, we are forced to reckon with extinction, no matter our feelings about it. To quote the author:
‘SA’s dark perversion is this: deterritorialization always has the upper hand over reterritorialization. At the core of every assemblage-materiality is an unavoidable fragility, a tendency towards discontinuity, disparity, and extinction, a becoming-nothing at the core of every becoming-something-this is what it means for a species to be a species-towards-extinction. Cataclysm, annihilation, and extinction are the rules; assemblage, coming-together, and being-something are the strange, uncanny, and interruptive exceptions.’
Rosen’s argument has many facets and subtleties that someone like me who views metaphysics are largely back burner stuff to policy and scientific questions is inadequate to fully explain. Suffice to say that it is worth reading in its entirety and also a powerful case that extinction, entropy, and the like is the ultimate reality. If one takes casual time as a measuring stick we are all already dead in a sense, since death is the inevitable end process of life. So too is it for species and the self, all of which are in fact reducible to breaking down physical processes whose intangibles we construct outside of science as the humanities. Whereas much of currently existing speculative realism is constructive, hearkening to process theory and seeing a culmination of material events, SA brings us back to decay as the norm and construction as the outlier. Extinction, in the end, for everything. In truly and unambiguously material terms.
I believe this is incredibly useful as a philosophical and linguistic tool for deep history, particularly for the materialist. If we view all states, nations, cultures, cities, religions, and artforms as dead on arrival-or more practically always living on borrowed time-with extinction the only given, we are liberated from the curse of teleology and trying to make sense of every societies place in history and better able to appreciate it on its own terms. Terms that do not need to be those of the purely subjective and idealistic such as found in postmodern schools of thought. It also levels the playing field between long-dead states and currently living ones for the purposes of study. They are subject to the same overall experience of unexpected rise (most attempted state formations fail after all) and predictable decline and fall so it is just as enlightening to study civilizations across the world that lie in different ecologies and time periods no matter where they are. A wide knowledge base across the board gives you a vaster repertoire of case studies and minutia even if you know how it all turns out.
It is also worth noting that SA, much as it does on the individual level, provides a great counter-example to the hubris of presentism. Something all too common in current dominant cultures, as well, no doubt, as future ones. I often speak of my favorite historiographer, Ibn Khaldun. One thing about his evolution of thought that is often overlooked is that he grew up in North Africa in the late Middle Ages. North Africa’s heydey of global relevance had already come and gone. The Sahara was already growing and the crop yields shrinking, even then. In such a setting there were as many ruins as there were currently occupied cities and buildings. The leftovers of numerous cultures dotted the countryside and signs of a glorious past leered mockingly through the dust of time at the less prosperous present. It is easy to see how Khaldun was molded by this experience to help him come up with a cyclic theory of state formation and state death. One I think is still among the most accurate macro-historical thesis of all time. In his works is implicitly a shared assumption with SA-that construction is more the outlier, and degeneration the more common norm. Entropy is ever present and can only accelerate due to time unless a very unlikely event interrupts it. State formation is so fascinating and impressive precisely because it is so rare compared to state degeneration, be it dramatic degeneration or slow motion.
Unlike many other speculative realist philosophers, who betray their continental roots by more often being Eurocentric to the extreme, Rosen draws some direct comparisons to Hindu thought in his conclusion. This is long something I have advocated. Though I am neither Hindu nor Buddhist, certain branches of these religions philosophies overlap with many trends in speculative realism. Over the past few years-my most intense time brushing up on that philosophy-I have also been re-engaging with reading about these religions as well.
The figure that best shows the overlap of Speculative Annihilationism in particular with these thoughts is Mahakala. In Hinduism, Mahakala is Shiva’s most wrathful form, the ultimate destroyer, and consort of Kali. In Vajrayana Buddhism, he is the ultimate meditative figure for contemplating the void and the eminent entropy of all through time. Whether taken as a literal god or a symbolic figure of a process, Mahakalan History (I’m now coining this term) is applying the concepts of SA to macro-history. Especially, in my case anyway, to the macro history of states and civilizations. The end point is taken as an unavoidable extinction, but the process of getting there, of engaging, in Rosen’s terms, with ‘the putrifying other’ is always enlightening. Beneath the facade is the degenerating process, past, present, future, other and self. We are, after all, along for the same ride they once were.
When looking at the potential for future multi-polarity in world affairs it becomes important to consider what kind of multi-polarity is preferable and what is not. Surely, no one but the most diseased wiki-youtube edgelords of the alt right and neoreactionary movements pine for the days before World War II, where the entire planet was either exploited by rapacious colonial powers or had to live in fear from the periodic eruptions of late-comer powers with a world war or two in tow. But between the endless devastation of the first half of the Twentieth Century and the increasingly schizoid overreach of the dying post-9/11 neoliberal consensus, and the foul upswing in religious and ethnic identitarian non state actors it has unintentionally spawned, lies a far more instructive period of history to what our near future could learn from.
The Cold War, like any era, was a time filled with horrors of its own. It should never be the point of the serious historian or strategist to grow sentimental, idealistic, or above all become afflicted with that disease of critical thinking…nostalgia. But some time periods are simply more constructive for examples of this issue than others. Then, as now, the world lived under the threat of nuclear weapon armed powers. Now, perhaps as then, such enforced great power stability could give smaller and more independent countries the room to grow both diplomatically and developmentally. If they are up to the task anyway.
There were epic disasters in that time period, of course. The Khmer Rouge, the multiple attempts by outside powers to subjugate and divide Vietnam, the rule of Idi Amin in Uganda, Apartheid South Africa, Pakistan’s attempt to retain Bangladesh, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and many more. But none of that outshines the vast achievements in human economic development made across the planet in this time-achievements that would slow or even reverse with the end of the Cold War and the triumph of neoliberalism. This is because the end of the Cold War also led to a diminishing in the power of small states diplomacy for the omnipresent dictatorship of a globalized market. We see the results of this now.
In countries like America and Britain we sigh at the decadent boomers who think with hard work and gumption you can get a college degree for the price of a used car and view hoarded wealth as a sacred entitlement. We rightly condemn that generation’s war on the postwar consensus of their actually hard working forefathers for the sake of tax breaks while gutting civil society and the planet itself with no regard for future generations This effect, however, is still restricted to the victory addled Anglosphere more than the rest of the world. While North America and the North Atlantic lived off the accumulated fat of times past, and even made some gains with it, other places actually did have to build from nothing. Many succeeded.
In much of the rest of the world the destruction of the final colonial powers (Japan, Britain, France) as well as the large scale stability of the situation between the United States and the USSR and the removal of the perennial German threat saw a massive wave of development guided by various modernist visions of a future for newly independent states. Perhaps more importantly, the ability to extract aid, technical advisers, and good deals from the major powers was increased by the fact that they were in a constant state of rivalry. Egypt under Nasser was particularly adept at using diplomacy to aid development and to grow living standards, but others would soon follow suit.
When the paranoia of the immediate post-Stalin Soviet Union and post-McCarthy United States started to peter away, more and more of the astute started to realize that this too was simply more of a great power competition than any ideological battle. In addition to the loosely affiliated nations of the so-called Non-Aligned League, it became more and more possible with time to seek a more fluid status in the international realm by rejecting the thinking of binaries. France, despite its pro-western tilt, made concerted efforts to reach out and develop connections with Eastern Bloc nations, while communist Yugoslavia maintained both NATO and the Warsaw Pact at equal distance-which in turn helped it extract better aid and trade deals from both as well as boost its international position with other independent states. Technological developments too were spread not just from the defense budgets of the competing powers (a la space exploration) but also in a desire to show off what they could do and how they could be of use to the Third World. Nowhere was this more apparent than the Green Revolution in agriculture whose spread was assisted by experts being encouraged to come to other nations. While both Washington and Moscow often tried to compete with technologies and aid in a way framed as a competition between capitalism and communism, the truth was they were using their technological advantages to buy influence and allies. And this was often a net boon for many newly independent countries. This was not a company hiring a few locals as it extracts raw materials for profit. This was genuine developmental assistance.
With the end of the Cold War, this favorable conjunction for national development would also end. While new opportunities would open up to a select few who had reached a level of development strong enough to take advantage of the changes that came in the late 80s and through the 90s (mostly, and perhaps tellingly, in already partially developed post Soviet countries such as Kazakhstan and Estonia), the majority of the Third World effectively lost its bargaining power. Even leaving aside that the collapse of living standards in much of the former USSR was the largest peacetime loss of human development in recorded history, the consequences for the Third World would often be quite dire as well.
Much aid dried up almost immediately. The US lacked a need to compete with anyone. Meanwhile, the type of economic exchange between the North Atlantic plus Japan and the rest of the world moved towards a more unchecked and predatory phase. Many developmental and technological advisers were replaced by voluntourists and vulture capitalists. While trade increased, development often slowed or stopped at the same time more and more resources were extracted. While the most extreme forms of poverty has continued to reduce since 1991, the majority of the people who experience that boon are in China, a country far less tied to neoliberalism than most others. Many other successes come from nations who had already set up a path to success before ’91. Meanwhile, the countries targeted for regime change such as Libya and Syria have seen an utter collapse of living standards in systems that once two were somewhat independent and working towards developmental success. To further this, the very pioneers of the present economic order are now facing rising poverty rates, especially in rural and post-industrial areas.
In a world were all gains are temporary but can at least be made somewhat long term in the right circumstances, it behooves us to think about what opportunities could be returning to developing countries as the Chinese economy reaches out to challenge America’s. For all the various dangerous multi-polarity can bring, there could be a bounty of opportunities for the independent nations of the world…ready to open a bidding war of experts and assistance between the great powers.
Its either that or give in to nostalgia as the only refuge.
Victorian death portraits, like those above, are always so full of melodrama. But in the case of the historical figure of Alcibiades he would surely have appreciated such portrayals.
One of my original objectives was to regularly have a historical figure who meets the description of the mythological trickster as an entry. Well, it hasn’t been quite regular at all…in fact I believe the last time I properly did this was in 2015, but there is no one more deserving of coming back to the theme than Alcibiades.
I just recently finished David Stuttard’s excellent ‘Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens’ , which is a book I have been waiting for years to be written by someone. The book is chock full of citations and facts as you might expect from a university publication, but reads like a page turning biography. What Stuttard doesn’t know he doesn’t tell us and he leaves the many ambiguities of this famously amorphous figure as they are. What is known though, or can be surmised, is written up in both an educational and accessible manner. You really do get a feel for both the strangeness and later fascination for this most mercurial Athenian. In his time it was said that ‘in youth he enticed husbands from their wives, as a young man wives from husbands.’ He still entices historians to this day, if in a different way.
For a full biography read the book, but in what follows I wish to touch upon Alcibiades trickster like attributes as illustrated by key themes in his career.
Born into a wealthy if declining family of the Athenian aristocracy , Alcibiades was hardly someone who scrapped up from nothing at first but with his many massive changes of fortune he would come to prove his immense ability (and immense flaws) time and time again. Meritorious service with his mentor Socrates in the Peloponesian War would cause his star to rise as many of Athens’ elected and older warriors stumbled into death or obscurity. The war itself was a time for all kinds of varied fates, as Athens and its allies and vassals struggled with Sparta and its allies and vassals for mastery over Greece. The common front posed by a Persian threat had long since departed (or so was thought), and Athens had benefited the most from their withdrawal from Europe, building its own wealthy commercial empire founded on a core of naval prowess. Eventually, Athens overreached, and the city states not wanting to bow her way looked to Sparta.
Most of the history of the war was a stalemate, but as the Greek city states in Sicily began to enter the periphery of the conflict (especially by supplying food to Sparta) many of the leaders came to imagine a knockout blow against the Spartans. An invasion of Sicily, a seizure of Sparta’s biggest trade partner, and the empowerment of Athenian allies. Sparta could then be starved and blockaded into submission and the groundwork for expansion into the western Mediterranean would be laid. Overly ambitious perhaps, but the only navy that could challenge Athens at this point was Carthage, who also hated Syracuse was was too far west to yet matter.
Alcibiades had proven himself a strongly divisive figure, a hateful hot head to his enemies and a great benefactor of his friends. He was known for stealing fancy silverware to pass as his own and then sneaking it back to the owners once an esteemed guest was gone. His bravery on the battlefield was matched by his legal and social perfidy. Not everyone wanted him in command of the attack on Syracuse, and furthermore, not everyone wanted a risky attack on Syracuse in the first place.
Before he left, various statues of Hermes were vandalized. People whispered he, as a notorious indifferentist to the gods, had done so. Most likely it was either someone trying to stop the invasion in general (be it Spartan agent or Athenian who feared the results) or trying to sabotage Alcibiades in particular. Of course, there really is no real known motive here. A bad omen is bad for him as well as the city, but the tongues flapped. Before more could be made of it, Alcibiades left Athens with fleet and invasion in tow, seized a coastal town in Sicily, and began to lay out a plan to take Syracuse and link up with her enemies on the island. That is when the news came that he was going to be recalled for trial. If found guilty he would be executed, if not he would still lose command and possibly never be given another one. He escaped.
He was an outlaw on the run now. And at this point when most might give up and disappear into obscurity, that he really began to shine. He defected to Sparta. He had, after all, intimate knowledge of the Athenian plans and dispositions in Sicily. The Spartans sent a general, armed with this information, to aid the Syracusians, and soon the entire Athenian force of troops and ships alike was killed or captured.
Alcibiades was a dashing presence at the rustic Spartan court and soon he seduced the Spartan King’s wife and fathered a son by her (not as bad a thing to have happen in Spartan culture as you might think, but Alcibiades rankled many nonetheless). He was able to recommend ways to best use Sparta’s fledgling navy to conduct raids on Athenian holdings that just so happened to belong to his wealthiest rivals back home.
This gave him Persian contacts with local satraps in Anatolia as Sparta and Persia were now growing closer as the war dragged on. Once the tide of ruling class opinion in Sparta turned against Alcibiades, he was able to escape once again to Persia, where he befriended the satrap Chiththarna. For over a year he tended gardens and lived in luxury while advising the Persians on how to drag out the war as long as possible to weaken both parties to the point that Persia could get its lost coastal and island provinces returned.
The Athenians, meanwhile, made moved from disaster to disaster. They had finally seen how effective Alcibiades was as a commander but mostly from the wrong side. Internal turmoil enabled some to put out feelers to him about returning. When the Athenian navy off the coast of Anatolia broke out in revolt against the government Alcibiades rode to take command of them and proceeded to defeat the Spartan navy and seize several ports from them. When the regime changed at home he could sail back, a hero. Naturally, he had waited to see which faction came out on top.
Back in Athens he would alternate between naval command (and taking back and securing the Bosporus to secure grain supplies) and living his decadent life back in the city. He campaigned with and secured an alliance from Thrace as well. All this made him more popular than ever before-and this bothered his enemies whom he had both humiliated and also directly attacked before with the Spartans. He was so popular people would beg him to the street to take charge of the city as a tyrant. The forces against him would surely act the second a chink in his armor was made. Finally, luck swung their way. Alcibiades’ led a campaign that deadlocked for him and ended in catastrophe for his subordinate. The war had swung back in the Spartan’s favor now that Persian gold flooded into their coffers. Alcibiades was banished-again.
He had come to hate the buzzkill Spartans and could not trust the Persians who were now firmly in their camp, but he still had one last trick up his sleeve. He now defected as a mercenary commander to Thrace, the one kingdom that still had love for him. He proceeded to expand the kingdom and take some fortresses for himself, amassing great wealth at the expense of conquered tribes there. The situation was ripe for a perfectly solid retirement. Many of his friends, lovers, and family had joined him and the government was friendly. He even got to see Athens final naval humiliation from one of his forts in a battle where he either rode down and offered to take command or just to give advice. He was jeered off and the Athenians would go on to lose.
But with the end of the war others turned to settling scores. The Athenian puppet government under Spartan command demanded the death of anyone who would rally opposition, and Sparta obliged by sending a request to the Persians as it had been learned he was traveling in their territory. He was set upon and killed in the night.
Later figures, especially in the future Roman Empire, would take quite a shine to this bizarre figure. The reasons I take a shine to him are as follows:
Balls of Steel: Trickster type figures are often stereotyped as cowards, but this is not always the case. Alcibiades personified this with his commended service as a hoplite and then as a cavalry commander who always led from the front. He developed a loyal following based of his ability to take personal risks, including diplomatically. Often, he would take a city by offering to negotiate solo within their walls and convince the place to surrender without a fight. One time he stormed a city with an inferior force. Realizing as the enemy bore down that they outnumbered him he pretended to issue orders to units in the dark which were not there and then called on the enemy to surrender for they were surrounded. It worked.
Loyalty to the Art First: Considering he only left Athens when he had to and was still willing to come back to it, one cannot consider him a straight out traitor per se. He was Athenian first but flexible. He followed his skills-the art of strategy-above regional loyalty. This was a practice common among many talented generals and diplomats all the way up to the 19th Century. It barely exists today. The trickster is always ‘moving along’ and retains few if any loyalties that get in the way of personal gain or getting one up on one’s enemies.
Undone by Appetite: Alcibiades was often undone, like most tricksters, by a voracious appetite. Be it sex, food, luxury goods, fame, revenge. He checked all the boxes.