Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pining for Feudalism as an Antidote for Modernity

I promised a cogent and careful review of Ayn Rand's ATLAS SHRUGGED: The Motion Picture. And I'll get to it soon.  But first, may I unleash an informal screed? One scribbled in rapid response to a manifesto that was posted online a few days ago - one that I found intellectually offensive.

It's an unbelievable essay, Not Last Long, Even as Slaves,  written - in apparent sincerity - by my colleague John C. Wright (a pretty good author (The Golden Age), by the way), in which he asserts that the long darkness called feudalism was admirable, and that - by dismal contrast - we now live in an age that is benighted by crudely materialistic modernity and a shabby shallowness of the soul.

Commenting on the specific stretch of abject misery and ignorance known as the European Dark Ages, Wright redefines it -- "or, as historians call it, ‘Late Antiquity’ or, as we Catholics call it, the ‘Lost, Glorious, Honorable, Ancient and Most Chivalric Golden Age of High Christendom...’"

He goes on:

"No one wants to die at thirty, half a mile from where he was born, unless of course he likes his home, and any patient would prefer antibiotics to leeches, I grant you. But man does not live by bread alone, or even by jet travel and space age medicine. We paid the price to enjoy the mixed blessings of the modern day, and something beyond the price we paid was lost, something precious.


"To look at mankind, who so clearly yearns for some sort of communion or reunion with nature that the pagans people the woods with nymphs and satyrs, or the nursery tales or Aesop fables with talking animals, and conclude the only possible relation between man and elf is mutual genocide is a Darwinian rather than sacramental view of life: it is simply blind to what in man, weak though it may be, is not devout to totalitarian modernism and ideas of total war. It is the world view of François de Robespierre, who guillotined the aristocracy of France like vermin, not the view of Francis of Assisi, who saluted the verminous wolf as his brother."

Woof. Naturally, I am torn.  I love a good contrarian!  And Wright clearly envisions himself in that role, leveling his lance to charge against the giant, clanking, soul-grinding mill called modernity...

...even though a mere glance at the last 6000 years shows which human phenomenon is standard fare - feudalism, serving the darwinian reproductive success of brutal men - and which type of society (modernity) is the brash upstart, with all odds stacked against it.

Okay, I love a contrarian. And yet, those who have read my denunciations of romantic nostalgia - (respectful denunciation, when I speak of the honest romantic Tolkien, but disdainful when it comes to the cosmic ingrate, George Lucas) - won't be surprised to learn that another part of me has no patience for this utter, counterfactual drivel.

Man, oh man. Where to start on this sophistry?? As if the pagan forest-lovers weren't vastly worse-off in the era Wright idolizes? Hounded and burned at the stake by medieval catholic bishops? (OMG, which era produced copious numbers of wistful, pastoral-loving fantasy novels?)

As if the aristocracy of 1790 France were prime examples of humanity, wisdom and charity, instead of monstrous persecutors who stupidly hand-crafted their own fates? Or as if 99% of the noble-born Assisi's peers were anything other than drooling-evil horrors, who only paused in their relentless reciprocal treachery long enough to join forces in a grand overall program of oppressing the serf-masses, cauterizing every low-born child's dreams?

Zoom in upon Wright's claim that those who criticize nostalgist romanticism "...conclude the only possible relation between man and elf is mutual genocide is a Darwinian rather than sacramental view of life: it is simply blind to what in man, weak though it may be, is not devout to totalitarian modernism and ideas of total war."

Oh cripes.  Where to begin.  First.  We owe absolutely nothing to $%#! elfs or wizards who clutch secret "wisdom" (what we moderns call "useful information about the world") to themselves for thousands of years, leaving men and women to flounder in miserable ignorance, when they might have opened a college in Lothlorien Forest, so we'd have flush toilets and palantirs on every desktop. Oh, thank God such creatures are mythological, because Tolkien himself opined that they were - in truth - the enemies of humankind.

Evidently, Wright swallows the romantic turd-wallow that things are better when knowledge is mysterious.  Or, as the wise authors of BORED OF THE RINGS put it:

                                          "Rings go better with hocus pocus."

(All right, you have to be over 50 to get that joke.  But trust me: Bored of the Rings is every bit as sagacious and insightful as the tome that it satirizes!)

Total war?  Oh man, John, you dare to lecture us about TOTAL WAR? Sorry, I do like you and you write well, but anyone who thinks we've gotten worse in our brutal savagery is simply a historical ignoramus.  I mean an ignoramus of historical proportions, who knows nothing of what the Assyrians did to the lost ten tribes of Israel, or the Romans to Judea, or the Mongols to Poland, or the Spanish to every native population they encountered. Or the Polynesians to each other, every year. Do you doubt that I could go on with this list? All day and all week? Can you cite counter-examples? Sure, but not many.

better-angels-of-our-nature By comparison, ever since the heroes of the democratic enlightenment conquered Mordor... I mean toppled Hitler's Nazi uber-romantics, who Tolkien himself diagnosed as super-examples of the nostalgic way... ever since George Marshall's brave men of the west pounded those monsters into dust, the per capita rate of violence on planet Earth has plummeted every single decade

Don't believe it? Watch this: Stephen Pinker on the Myth of Violence. Then ponder the most marvelous irony: that you think modernity is more violent and cruel only because modernity has succeeded in raising our standards of decent behavior, making us more self-critical about the travesties that remain.  Crimes that are so much milder than our ancestors commited routinely, without a twinge.

Oh, oh, the irony! Only... it gets richer:

"But we all know, or should all know, that modern society for all its hard and metallic glories and all its cold and soaring skyscrapers, and for the miracles of moonshots and penicillin shots, and the blessings of good plumbing and the opium of twenty-four-hour television, has lost something. Anyone who does not sense or suspect that modernity is missing something, something important, has no heart and no taste for High Fantasy."

No heart. What miserable donkey-hockey! John Wright suggests that everybody, across those dark  millennia, spent their time - while hunkering in frigid huts - thinking noble thoughts and experiencing wondrous insights of soul-expanding wisdom, instead of grunting like beasts and knifing each other for scraps.  What a reach! Based on what evidence?  Just because one priest per generation scribbled something poetical by candle light?

Good lord! Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Show us how grinding poverty and ignorance have ever elevated great numbers of human souls.  Ever.  And I mean ever. You don't have to prove it, just show us any correlation. Any at all!

Let's see. Who wrote - during those long, awful centuries - the fine, poetically wise things that John Wright admires?  From Augustine to Aquinas to Assisi... to Maimonides, Lao Tze and Buddha?  Aristocrats, all!  Men who had free time and plenty of food and access to every scrap of "media" available during their era.  And yes, the low-brow media too, that Aristotle and Archimedes and Socrates all enjoyed, attending every bawdy play they possibly could.  As did Shakespeare, Goethe and Voltaire.

So... because there is vastly more media crap around today, that means we should ignore how much more good stuff we also have at-hand? Every glimmer of wisdom that survived the burning of the Alexandrine Library or being hidden in wizard grimoires is now available.  And those who choose to explore it all now can.

Um, instead of proclaiming that poverty and ignorance made our ancestors wise... perhaps... might one venture to suggest an alternative, vastly more realistic hypothesis? That as we increase the percentage of humanity who have surfeited bellies and disposable incomes and free time, then perhaps we might also see a commensurate increase in the percentage who feel the stirring of God's Second Greatest Gift? 

What gift am I talking about? One that comes in close-behind compassionate love?  The attribute that comes nearest to making us just like God....

The gift called curiosity.

Oh, sure, the fraction who engage in wonder, while trawling today's internet, is far from a majority.  Perhaps it always will be. But to deny that the number who actually ponder and wonder and who compassionately care about the suffering of those who dwell very far away is vastly, profoundly, overwhelmingly greater than it used to be, during epochs of tooth-and-claw, is just plain pathetic.

Is there more diversity in their glimpses of the sublime? Do these millions who are liberated by modernity contemplate -- and argue over -- a wider range of marvelous thoughts than just the virgin birth? Sure! Does that make us lesser beings, as John Wright presumes? Or does it perhaps make us incrementally more like the God who conceives an entire cosmos, filled with marvelous contradictions? The latter, you betcha.

Lost something? John are you serious?  Trotting out the old "lost something" cliche?

John Wright beckons us with the sweet-sick smugness of the Zero Sum Game.  The notion that we cannot gain the treasures of modernity without giving away something precious in return.  A sourpuss idee fixee that was well-distilled by Walt Whitman in his despicable poem: "When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer." As if the man of science does not also stare skyward, in wonder. Take it from this "learn'd astronomer": you can scrutinize the cosmos and stare at it in aesthetic joy. You can do both.

Pause. visit this brief symphony, this aria to science

It is this rejection of the Enlightenment's Positive Sum Game that makes an ingrate of John Wright.  And ingratitude -- toward the generations who strove so hard to lift their children, one rung at a time, to better and more sagacious lives -- is the most churlish human habit. This is not reverence of our ancestors, but the most atrocious way to insult them!

In contrast, I am the one here who honors the men and women of the middle ages, along with all the brutal centuries that both preceded and followed.  I honor them because I admit and avow that, amid all of that horror, some of them built more than they tore down, That - amid terror and ignorance - they succeeded at a grand and noble project. To conceive and labor and give birth - generation by slow generation - to a marvel. To a miracle.  To us.

We are the crowning glory - so far - of their hard strivings. Moreover, the geas that this lays upon us - to raise kids who are better still - is the greatest duty and burden we could possibly take upon our backs. It's what we owe them.

Oh, sure, I recognize this snarky grouchiness as what it is... part of today's viciously treasonous phenomenon called "culture war." It all fits into a tsunami of know-nothing rage expressed by the Murdochians, their anti-science, anti-progress rejection of all possibility of human improvability. Their hatred of this spectacular civilization that Ben Franklin and George Marshall and so many other heroes helped us build with our own hands. Their blatant putsch to re-establish feudalism.

But let me make plain that this is not a matter of mere politics alone. Indeed, there are anti-tech, pastoral-mystical troglodytes on the left, as well!

No, it goes far beyond mere politics. This fever is an immune response against modernity, by a portion of our genes that arose out of the harems of feudal lords. The dank, pitiable part of our human soul that yearns for hierarchy and prim order and mystically secretive gate-keepers of knowledge.  A spiteful grudge against modernity's level playing field and wide-open frontier of opportunity.

If I might borrow and adapt a metaphor from H.G. Wells -- although today's major villains are the murdochs, there is plenty of the same sickness among our eloi friends on the other side. This isn't left-versus-right. It is about personality.

The crime, the betrayal of hope, is identical at both extremes. It lies in their cultish mystifying and worshipping - without a scintilla's evidence or proof - a golden past that irrefutably wasn't, and a cruel darkness that only now is parting from before our eyes.

68 comments:

DJM said...

Your link to the Steven Pinker talk didn't work. Here's the correct link: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html

Stefan Jones said...

After watching coverage of Americans making utter fools of themselves yesterday -- losing a good night's sleep, trampling each other, and resorting to pepper spray and guns to secure shopping bargains -- it is hard not to feel that we've taken some kind of wrong turn along the way.

An interesting, perhaps profound, quote that seems to agree with the romantics' obsession with loss of connected, primeval innocence . . . but suggests a cosmic solution:

“Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe.”
― D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover

What an astonishing challenge and remedy . . . to "plant ourselves again in the universe!"

Not merely in the cheap, narcissistic "Gault's Gulch in space" L5-colony sense of relocating, but in growing wiser and growing up.

'kermer': Heart condition of frogs

TLBKlaus said...

I think you're right on, but I do want to point to myself as someone who really likes both your work and JRRT's... one can like LotR w/o wanting to escape the modern world and embrace feudalism. I am also a big Trek fan and love it for its positivism, but at the same time I respect Babylon 5 for being perhaps a bit more realistic about the future w/o giving in to nihilism. It's possible to embrace many things for many different reasons.

David Brin said...

Good thoughts Stefan.

TLBKlaus, do look at my essay about Tolkien. My disagreement with him is both deep and respectful. I enjoyed all his works immensely and I consider him to have been the truly honest romantic, who saw with clear eyes the faults and drawbacks of romanticism, and who argued fairly.

Heck, if I had witnessed half of my generation mowed down by tech-propelled death machines in WWI, I might have turned away from modernity too.

gwern said...

> Good lord! Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Show us how grinding poverty and ignorance have ever elevated great numbers of human souls. Ever. And I mean ever. You don't have to prove it, just show us any correlation. Any at all!

I ran into a nice Korean poem on the topic the other day, which was criticizing another poem arguing just that (or at least, that poverty is not so bad): http://jaypsong.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/poverty-by-moon-byung-ran/

TLBKlaus said...

...I have seen your LotR piece, so I do realize as you said above that you appreciate the "honest romantic" Tolkien. The Silmarillion is a much more nuanced look at the mythology and you can see that all of the world's history is a struggle to keep evil from overwhelming good and that in fact the result of the War of the Ring was one of the few bright spots overall. It's romantic in the "doomed romantic" trope, not just in Frodo's arc but in the whole world's.
And the longing for a "golden age" seems to run very deep... part of that is because it is the job of every generation to horrify the generation(s) before it, making it easy to argue that things used be so much better before people freed slaves/let women work/tolerated gays/talked on cellphones in public, etc.. Western religions' emphasis on suffering the travails of this world for reward in the next and the loss of Eden have also run the idea deeply into many cultures' psyches.

J said...

Why, why spend time on a "careful review of Ayn Rand's" anything? Far better to write about Leni Riefenstahl's oeuvre. Unless of course you have fun reviewing Randistry. In which case, I look forward to your review of "Plan 9 from Outer Space" and the rest of Ed Wood's oeuvre.

Z said...

I tend to look on nostalgic reflexes more charitably- provided said nostalgics don't proceed to legislate their historical pining. I, too, tend to suspect that the past uniformly sucked.

However, I think at least a fraction of the incessant turns over the shoulder are less to do with the mechanations of the genes of feudal lords, and more to do with the multivalent human mind occasionally securing resources or privileges that aren't actually desirable for the whole organism or mind-because it a previous age, securing them would have been impossible. Take depression- one of the quintessential modern diseases. Studies suggest that amongst the most efficacious treatments are rigorous exercise, sunlight, and producing tangible work with ones' hands- unavoidable daily inputs to the mind of a savannah ape that have disappeared from the daily lives of moderns thanks to equally useful ape problem solving and aversion to physical stress. Obesity follows a similar pattern, as does human sociability- the people that report the most life satisfaction are generally the most social, but there is evidence that the face to face socializing is somewhat rarer than in decades past, thanks to the tremendous ease with which we can entertain ourselves solo.

In short, I think a lot of fantasy lust isn't so much about a craving for despicable political structures or the like (though they would seem ever so more decent if they acknowledged the unfortunate nature of said structures,) but a simple desire for an environment where there are no choices but to consume a steady diet of good healthy ape stimuli- physical activity and interaction, time in nature, quiet, and so forth-the same forces that send people on monastic retreats and make them buy cabins and the like. Of course, much of this lust makes better sense if it was oriented towards primeval Africa than feudal Europe- some analyses have suggested that, barring infectious disease or mistreatment, hunter-gatherers had better markers of health than agrarian peoples up until the modern moment.

The issues with such a view are of course manifold- first, that "barring disease or grave mistreatment," part described a very narrow population, and secondly, that whatever activities have been removed from the "mandatory" list by modernity have been complimented by an unfathomable variety of other options that might tickle your particular cortex just right- and
those primal activities are still around for those who realize it's important to seek them out.

I know I'm not alone in spending a very happy working or scholastic life in scientific or technical realms and devote my equally happy free time to mountain climbing or martial arts or handicraft hobbies- caveman play, in other words. As you said, you can have it both ways- and *neither* vision of happiness is enabled by tyrannical lords, or rife neighbor-on-neighbor violence, or a superstitious view of nature, or primitive medicine, or any of the other tragedies we have overcome as a species.

Really, though, if all these people want in life is more friends, and more fresh air- take up kayaking, and stop trying to pretend that the past was Edenic.

Anonymous said...

Looking to the future there is an interesting post "Let's Talk About the Future We Want" at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-s-becker/lets-talk-about-the-futur_b_1111843.html about a UN-related effort to "launch a global conversation to learn what people want their communities to be like in 2030. We want everyone -- all ages, cultures, religions, genders and countries - in the conversation. If we finally confront head-on the economic, social and environmental challenges we face, and if we get busy building more just, peaceful, and sustainable communities, what would ours look like?" It's aimed at the UN's Rio+20 international conference next June on sustainable development.

Seems like people reading Contrary Brin would have thoughts to contribute to this effort.

David Brin said...

J - Ayn Rand has been Karl Marx's way of striking at western civilization from his grave. She is the enraged counterpart to Karl's blithe confidence. And just as he mesmerized millions into doing great harm, so does she, luring many thousands of very bright nerds down paths of betrayal to a civilization that gave them everything.

TLBK - watch my singularity youtube about the time flow of wisdom (cited in the article.) Yes, nostalgia is deeply imbedded in human nature. Odds are, it will assist other imbedded traits, like feudalism and delusion, to destroy our renaissance.

Z- that was a fascinating contrarian perspective on why some people have nostalgic-retro yearnings.

I agree that caveman play will always be with us. Indeed, I consider Baseball to be the greatest sport, because it develops three skills that would make you a winner in the neolithic. Always fed and always on top.

Mark Zug said...

I'd be fascinated to know what you thought of Kirill Yeskov's "The Last Ringbearer," David. It's a parallel novel to LOTR, like Maguire's "Wicked" in that it casts the original as propaganda, and we get the thrill of being rudely dis-illusioned. In a nutshell, Mordor was on the verge of a scientific Renassiance, which is why other forces needed it wiped out, and the deed made legend:

http://ymarkov.livejournal.com/270570.html?thread=1096170

The translation is clunky, but I say as a Tolkein fan, the concept is breathtaking.

Liane Allen said...

@Stefan Jones: I see the same behaviors as an indicator that in modern times, people living under oppressive conditions would behave the way their serf ancestors behaved.

I imagine that if you look into the daily lives of those who resorted to violence over "bargains," you'd see people living on the hairy edge of grinding poverty - the modern equivalent of serfdom.

Rather than exhibiting a wrong turn on the path away from feudalism, I see them as the canaries in the coal mine - an indicator of what we can expect if we choose to embrace feudalism moving forward.

Bluebottle said...

Perhaps you should also look at William Morris, a socialist medievalist fantasy writer.

Ashley Yakeley said...

I posted this to Wright's blog entry, but it's stuck in moderation. (I share some of your criticisms of Tolkien too, btw.)

--

(Following in from David Brin. Hello.)

I must disagree with you (and John H. above). The appeal of high fantasy comes not from Catholicism, nor from some celestial Zion. The appeal of high fantasy comes from ideas about pre-Christian paganism. High fantasy asks the question “what if the old heathen mythology were actually true, and Christianity never happened?”. And it gives an appealing answer.

This is where the elves and dwarves and wizards come from. This is also why the hobbits are so jolly: because joviality is a pagan virtue. You’ll notice there are no monastries in Middle Earth. There is no renunciation of worldly things, instead, “this world” is wonderful and magical. There are no churches in Middle Earth. Aragorn and Gandalf have a sense of right and wrong that comes from their own honour: they are a demonstration that we as humans are capable of coming up with our own values.

The kings of Middle Earth are not head of churches because there are no churches. When you have magic sort of oozing out of the landscape, why would you need churches?

Of course Narnia is rather the exception that proves the rule. Precisely because it has Christian themes, it is considered unusual as a fantasy setting, a bit too preachy.

Anonymous said...

If anybody here wants an amusing take down of Rand to read while waiting for Dr. Brin's, I can offer this link:

http://www.stonekettle.com/2011/11/who-is-john-galt-that-was-bumper.html

It is in response to NPR using her, Hayek, and Keynes as examples of influential economists.

David Friedman said...

I also prefer the modern world to the medieval, but your description of the Middle Ages sounds like parody, not history. There really are reasons that historians stopped calling it the dark ages.

For one antidote to the 19th century view of the Middle Ages as a period of darkness following the high noon of classical antiquity, it's worth looking at population estimates--in a very poor society, which describes most of the past, population growth is at least a crude measure of the standard of living of the masses.

European population peaks about 300 A.D., starts down. About 600, with the Roman Empire barely cold in its grave, it starts back up. By 800 it passes the previous high, and keeps growing faster and faster until the 14th century.

It was a considerably less attractive society to live in than modern society, but a good deal more attractive than in your imagination.

Z said...

David- It's a hypothesis that fits some facts better than others. Some people are plainly in the business of craving monarchy and putting tradition at the top of their intellectual dance card. There's been enough interesting, if somewhat fraught research into authoritarian personalities to suggest that there are people sufficiently intolerant of ambiguity that the rigid if frequently horrific moral confines of "he's in charge, because he's in charge/finders keepers/might is right/my country right or wrong," etc., are what get them through the day.

I just suspect there is a subset who, when they construct romantic visions of the past, are leaning more heavily on visions of filling every single day with "the simple pleasures," of tired muscles, good company, and pride of ownership- which I suspect it is defensible to say are both important to well-being and somewhat diminished of late. Sometimes that gets tangled up with a sense of the natural world being diminished as well. No one has a good notion of what kind of government the Shire possesses- we just know it seems exceedingly pleasant to live in.

However, as certain hobbits eventually point out, it is also exceedingly boring after one hundred and eleventy years. The world in which you have no choice but to live the elemental primate life, or some bastardized fuedal descendant, is one in which you have no choice to live the thousand other kinds of lives that primate brains are good at entirely by accident. The past isn't magical, it's just plentiful.

And eventually Merry keeps playing with fireworks, makes himself a capsule... and we're off to the races.

Ken Burnside said...

Dr. Brin:

I've got a degree in English, a degree in Medieval History (including a lot of documentation refuting many of the crazier Libertarian assertions about the 400 year span of the Icelandic Commonwealth that unraveled with the Sturlingalaga and a 90 year civil war).

I've been a member of the SCA. I've taught people how to use swords and been paid for my knowledge.

I also write science fiction board games, and win awards for them.

So - I know wherof what I speak when I write this:

You are right. Grinding feudalism has been the primary state of humanity for 6,000+ years of recorded history. It almost certainly predates the first scrawling on clay tablets.

It is a virulent memeset.

It is also an astonishingly EASY meme-set to fall back on when writing speculative fiction. Feudalism makes it every so much easier to have The Promised Hero Strive Against The Corruption Of The Old Order, with its handy delegation of 92% of the people to agrarian subsistence farmers, and 7.5% of the remaining 8% to people doing repetitive, smelly work in horrible conditions and eternally grateful that they're NOT the people wading through manure in the blistering sun...

Which leads me to my question:

What advice do you have for telling The Sweeping Epic with Sensawunda(tm) where every action is going to be viewed by people who have video recorders with nigh infinite storage capacity in their contact lenses, who don't have the problem of "not enough" information, but instead have the problem of "drowning in it."

How do you write a thrilling car chase scene when all the cars are driven by Google Maps and have no steering wheels? :)

Even writers who got their reps for writing about The Big Damned Future, like Bruce Sterling and Bill Gibson, have had problems with telling interesting stories when they have move from their comfort zone of cyperpunk serfdom.

I am not looking for examples in your own work - I've got those, thanks.

I'm looking for advice on process - how do you keep the fiction working as fiction without The Big Damned Feudal Problem standing up like Clarke's monolith casting a shadow over everything?

This might make a good blog topic entry for when you're done skewering Atlas Shuffled...

Edward Miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
soc said...

@Ashley

Aragorn and Gandalf have a sense of right and wrong that comes from their own honour: they are a demonstration that we as humans are capable of coming up with our own values.

I question this. They both preside over a deeply unjust social and political order. Do they at any point deviate from that and come up with their own (better)values?

The "joyful" business is simply an attempt to make a nightmare look attractive. It's propaganda.

The kings of Middle Earth are not head of churches because there are no churches. When you have magic sort of oozing out of the landscape, why would you need churches?


But a priestly class does exist, they are called wizards. This magic that "oozes" from the landscape is controlled and limited to wizards and sorcerors. You may not have physical churches and monasteries, but I'm not convinced that the ideas that those buildings represent are absent from this world.

Edward Miller said...

Feudalism never died

http://embraceunity.com/economics/we-can-have-it-all-the-beauty-of-value-capture/

David Brin said...

David Friedman, sorry, but you are offering a piece of "evidence" for the high nature of the "dark ages" that has simpler explanations.

By 800 CE you had vastly greater farm production for simple reasons. Several breakthroughs in technology, the horse collar, water and wind mills and crop rotation, were accompanied by a huge replacement of Roman era forests by new farmland. This changed the basic carrying capacity.

Alas, a diagnostic that you especially neglect is the wild FLUCTUATIONS in population, during 800-1400. Fluctuation is a sign of a truly nasty era. What the Chinese called "interesting times." If we ever experience such rates of fluctuation, it will mean billions dying in short spans. Only... in this world they won't go with a whimper.

Besides... um... did you see me anywhere praise Roman society in contrast to the Middle Ages? Please show me where I did that.

Z- in fact I believe honest Tolkien considered modernization to be inevitable. He lamented it, while admitting it was probably necessary and just to replace the beautiful but corruptly oppressive old ways.

What he gave us was TWO alternative modernities. The clanking industrially despicable productivity of Mordor vs the amiable yeomanry of the Shire. Samwise Gamjee represented the kind of New Man Tolkien preferred and prescribed. JRRT gave a best-possible argument for that world. It is - in the end - a bad argument, but a sincere one with merits worth weighing.

Ken Burnside, thanks. Note that I did not even mention Joseph Campbell and the brutal conformalism of his decreed formula for fiction.

I have no answer to your overall question. In EARTH and in KILN PEOPLE and in EXISTENCE I have tried to portray adventure and excitement in a world that's more awash in light than this one. I think I succeeded, but it was really hard in every case. I don't see most authors having the patience, when older tropes are readily at hand.

Robert said...

For an interesting look at a world that includes magic in a more modern society, Ilona Andrews' Kate Andrews books are rather enjoyable (with a sardonic cynicism laced with dark humor that's quite fun to read). The background setting is that technology and magic are two sides of a pendulum... and it's in the process of switching back toward magic. Technology fails during magic waves and monsters come to life... and yet despite this apocalyptic setting, the United States of America is still intact and viable and trying to adjust to the existence of magic and all that.

In other words, you have sorcery, swordplay, guns (during tech periods), AND a democratic society which, while imperfect, is still far better than the feudal society that once existed. Further, the heroine of the series is striving to stop her father, Roland, who has been alive for the last seven thousand years... and was a King back then. He wants to rule the world once more, and she wants to stop him for several reasons. One of which is that as screwed up as the U.S. is, it's better than being ruled by some sorcerous overlord.

To be honest, feudal society was an odd mixture. While there were kings and nobles, the towns and villages often were not under an autocratic rule. Sometimes it worked well. Sometimes, corruption turned it into a pit. And with the rise of the witchcraft trials, things got rather hairy as people would accuse neighbors of being witches just to grab their land or get revenge for slights. (And sometimes the Inquisition, well known for burning so many women, told secular courts "let that person go, they're not a witch and you're being an idiot. Don't make us excommunicate you." Depending on the church officials, of course.)

Personally, I think one of the attractions of contemporary fantasy is the fact you have magic existing in a society that is NOT feudal in nature... and thus the story becomes more uplifting because it's about people bettering themselves in a society that is being bettered. (And have you ever noticed that more often than not the kings and queens of the "noble" nations are benign dictatorships that treat its people well? I suspect it's a need to allow for the illusion of the noble king, while ignoring the truth of corruption and detrimental behavior.)

I actually had one story I was telling, though I never got past the prologue... where the hero is helping the queen (who has lost most of her memories) regain her throne only for the two of them to realize she was an evil queen, and the man who overthrew here (while cursed to have an arm of a monster) is actually a decent and intelligent (and savvy) individual who is trying his best to avert the story-tropes that always occur so the queen doesn't regain power.

I probably should dust that story off someday. It had some fun concepts.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Ken Burnside said...

Dr. Brin:

A pity. You're one of the people who pull off writing fiction about a future-Enlightened society while keeping characters three dimensional and human, rather than becoming Disney Tour Guides. (This is one of the critiques I have of Rand...and all other Utopian Transitionalists.)

I was hoping to learn a few things. If there are techniques you can share on this, I suspect folks who'd like to learn them exist beyond myself - and perhaps we can broaden the base of readers who want something other than Ye Olde Feudal Concept. Heck, I suspect you'd enjoy having "David Brin" books to read that you didn't have to write yourself. :)

David Brin said...

Robert, Kate Andrews sounds fun. What's the best book?

I was just in Brussels, a classic guild town. The city hall, surrounding buildings, all guilds and burghers and such. Tyrants in their own right, compared to today, but a needed step.

Ken B... the best way to learn from a writer is to read once, letting the incantations work, then again watching how the story unfolds... and then choosing a few scenes that did the impossible and RETYPING just those scenes. It sends the incantation through a different part of the brain so you can see how he did it.

See also http://www.davidbrin.com/advice.htm

Prakash said...

Hi David(Brin),

I wanted to know what is your counter-argument to fellow enlightenment traveller, Eliezer Yudkowsky's point that a culture of ceaseless knowledge sharing has increased the existential risk to the world? (Point made in Harry Potter and the methods of rationality , the bayesian conspiracy)

Robert said...

Hmm. I'm not sure if the second or third book would be the best in my eyes (those being Magic Burns and Magic Strikes - the second involving Celtic sea-monsters invading Atlanta during a magic flare, while the third involves illegal combat games and rakshastas). The first book is useful in getting the background basics down, including the at-times adversarial relationship between Kate and the Beast Lord (the head of the Atlanta shapeshifters) and how Kate ended up working for the para-governmental group she's in in the second and third book, and is still a solid book.

There was some criticism about book 5 not continuing the meta-plot as much (it was about a home-grown terrorist group rather than anything about Roland) but I actually rather enjoyed it.

One interesting thing Andrews has done is provide free "alternative scenes" online from the viewpoint of the Beast Lord, Curran, when he's interacting with Kate. They're not as well-written as the novels, but they're still a fun glimpse into the mindset of one of the favorite main characters besides Kate.

Rob H.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin quotes John C Wright:

"But we all know, or should all know, that modern society for all its hard and metallic glories and all its cold and soaring skyscrapers, and for the miracles of moonshots and penicillin shots, and the blessings of good plumbing and the opium of twenty-four-hour television, has lost something. Anyone who does not sense or suspect that modernity is missing something, something important, has no heart and no taste for High Fantasy."


I couldn't help flashing on a line from Monty Python's Life of Brian:

But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health,...what have the Romans ever done for us?

LarryHart said...

Ken Burnside:

Heck, I suspect you'd enjoy having "David Brin" books to read that you didn't have to write yourself. :)

Your comment reminded me of a flash of insight I had as a young lad of sixteen, more years ago than I prefer to acknowledge. I always felt that I had the sensibility (though alas not the patience) of a writer--that I viewed the world the way a writer did--and quite often when I read a book or saw a film that I found disappointing (say, "Return of the Jedi"), my unformed thought was that I had been cheated because I had at least indirectly paid a professional to write something that (I felt) I could have written a better version of myself.

On the other hand, when coming across something really well put-together--a work which required a writer to demonstrate skill, perserverence, and at least a sort of genius, I could think even at the tender age of sixteen that "THIS is something WORTH paying a professional for, because I couldn't have written this if I lived to be a million, and I'm grateful that SOMEBODY did and shared it with the world."

I don't even mean that the good sort of work is a trancendent classic. The first time I remember feeling that way about a work of fiction was when I saw the play "Deathtrap" (from which a not-nearly-as-good movie was made with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve). On the grand scale of things, it's no more momentous than any whodunnit murder mystery. But it worked on so many levels to subtly suggest that the fictional play "Deathtrap" WITHIN the play on stage WAS ALSO the play on stage...I just marvelled at the fact that someone was able to pull it off.

To keep this on topic, our host Dr Brin scores highly on that scale. "The Postman", "Earth", and short story "Thor Meets Captain America" are the some examples of works that continue to inspire that sensation of "I could never have written this, and I'm honored to pay somebody who can." It's why, despite having been recently notified that my job is being outsourced, I have declared that neither hell nor high water will prevent me from buying a copy of "Existence" when it finally becomes available.

Rob Perkins said...

If you need evidence that guilds are still alive and in power today, look no further than the National Education Association, and then try to get a school reform that gives their members no net gain (but also no net loss) past them.

Dave Rickey said...

The draw of secret "wisdom" is essentially a demystified version of magic: If you can get in on the joke, you too will be one of the Elect.

It's a natural fantasy for a modern geek to fall into, most of us are on an never-ending treadmill of trying to get to the next idea just a little ahead of the crowd, the idea that there might be a plateau of knowledge that, once achieved, would be our exclusive province, is very seductive.

On the other hand, there's no point in being the smartest person in the room if you're the only one who knows it, so we have the counter-trend to proclaim every good idea we come up with so others can appreciate our brilliance. For that, we can thank the Enlightenment, which I agree with you about: It "changed the game" on how intellectual skill was measured, it was no longer what secrets you kept, but the new ideas you shared. Every improvement in the human condition of the last 300-500 years stems from that sea change.

--Dave

Lorraine said...

client=safari, eh?

Alex said...

I think fantasy and feudalism are not at all the same thing. By definition, fantasy allows an author to use world-building axioms that can explore utopian social systems while avoiding the socially nasty or just practically icky bits that were part of the historical feudal age.

I would also say the "feudal" age was not as bad or as good as is argued by others, but it was certainly not static or anti-modern. There was plenty of social and economic progress throughout those centuries, and societies embraced technological and social change. Chivalry itself was a progressive meme to promote respect for other individuals and classes and to self-limit the abuses of the privileged class, and even before that, the rule of law built into simpler forms of monarchism and feudalism were attempts to offer basic safety and protection from barbarism. The Roman empire succeeded where it made people's lives better, and then began to fail when it overreached into a form of imperialism that tried to prevent a large population from benefiting from the technological superiority of its ruling class. The point being that there was a striving for progress in most societies through most of the "medieval" period. In every era, some leaders cared about the citizenry at large, some only cared about their own personal advantages, and really most were along a spectrum between compassion and corruption. The Magna Carta and the rise of free city states happened because educated classes drew on the lessons of Greek and Roman democracy that were not forgotten. I don't think there's such a sharp distinction between periods either. Today we see leadership that panders to ignorance and short-term bread-and-circuses policies that are similar to the problems and policies that leaders dealt with during the Roman republic or even earlier, and future historians will tut-tut about why people of our era chose to live in societies of such benighted ignorance as we commonly see today.

We have made progress in every century, but we have a long way to go before we achieve the kind of utopia of respect, liberty, and self-actualization that the Founding Fathers were hoping for. "Feudalism" doesn't describe a static condition and "modernity" doesn't either; it's a very false dichotomy to suggest as being any sort of conflicting social ideals.

David Brin said...

Prakesh asked: "I wanted to know what is your counter-argument to fellow enlightenment traveller, Eliezer Yudkowsky's point that a culture of ceaseless knowledge sharing has increased the existential risk to the world? (Point made in Harry Potter and the methods of rationality , the bayesian conspiracy)"

Well, I cannot guarantee that there aren't runaway, nonconvergent series answers to the "Ratio of Sanity" solution to existential risk.

The "Ratio of Sanity" suggests that, as technology advances, more and more destructive power will become available to insane individuals, but so long as there are ten thousand sane and skilled geneticists (say) for every lunatic/skilled one, then solutions will cancel out the damage quickly, or deter the loons in the first place.

This ratio must converge, always, or we're screwed. If antimatter-from wall-current becomes common, it may explain the absence of extraterrestrials, all right.

But I look across human history and I see a far more common failure mode. Cowardice. Secrecy. delusional hierarchy. I am no anarchist... I believe enlightenment nations have a role to play, still. But the secular trend toward ever greater transparency must be our top priority. Because it is the only way enlightenment methods can possibly work.

Rob Perkins, I have absolutely no problems with throwing the teachers' unions off the sleigh as a propitiation... if that is what it would take to win over a whole bunch of ostriches to wake up and rejoin the light. They are among the few tight wing bogey men who really are a bona fide Bad Force on the left. Not totally bad! But in need of severe correction.

But I'll not offer such a bargaining chip under present circumstances of endless rightist bad faith. Of taking whatever moderates and liberals offer and then savagely mauling the hand that holds the olive branch.

Alex, chivalry was an attempt to instill noblesse oblige upon a grotesquely horrible oppressive butcher caste. Confucianism had a similar aim, to preach the elites into ruling well. It doesn't work very well. Nowhere near as well as the Enlightenment method of openness and accountability.

Gee whiz, you think pre-Florentines admired Athenian Democracy or Republican Rome? Show me the documents! Plato and others made sure that Pericles and the Gracchi and all democratic events were interpreted as foul deviancy. ESPECIALLY during the Middle Ages. That reputation was so low that when the venetians re-established some, they did their best to disguise it.

But yes, your overall point: progress is fitful and constantly threatened by the dark side of human nature.

LarryHart, that is the nicest and best compliment I have received in some time. I have the smartest, wisest readers.

Edward James said...

What on earth in John C. Wright doing, apparently equating "Late Antiquity" with "the Dark Ages" and both with "the MIddle Ages"? They are three totally different things, and Late Antiquity (normally considered as being between 250 and 700 or so) is far from being a golden age for Christianity. For perhaps the whole of that period, pagans outnumbered Christians, for a start. The golden age of Catholicism, in his terms, would be from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, the High Middle Ages. As for "the Dark Ages", it is a term only used by English speakers, and only by those who still have the weird idea that the period (from 500 to 1000, usually, in other words the first half of the Middle Ages) was "Dark", whatever that means...

David Friedman said...

A bit of a tangent, but Ken Burnside writes:

“I've got a degree in English, a degree in Medieval History (including a lot of documentation refuting many of the crazier Libertarian assertions about the 400 year span of the Icelandic Commonwealth that unraveled with the Sturlingalaga and a 90 year civil war)”

The Icelandic Commonwealth lasted for 333 years—334 in the Northern quarter. The Sturlung period as generally dated lasted for a little less than fifty years.

I’m not sure if your “crazier Libertarian assertions” is aimed at my old Journal of Legal Studies article or at misrepresentations thereof, but you might at least get your historical facts right. For a view of the Commonwealth more expert than mine, I recommend the work of Jesse Byock.

“Grinding feudalism has been the primary state of humanity for 6,000+ years of recorded history.”

The Roman Empire, the Persian Empire, the Egyptian kingdoms, the Incas, … feudal all? Amazing what you learn with a history degree. Feudalism has developed in times and places other than the European middle ages, but it’s far from having been “the primary state of humanity.”

Tony Fisk said...

Another rep. from the SCA, George R.R. Martin, makes it quite clear in his ASOIAF novels that feudal life was a pretty squalid affair, even without civil wars!

Then there's *this* chappie, come to whip us back into line! Seems that seeking enlightenment through meditation will open you to an inner truth: you are possessed by the Devil!
I'm too scared to go to bed now!

pedidsol: an alcohol rub for sore and possessed feet.

David Friedman said...

David Brin writes, responding to my comment:

“David Friedman, sorry, but you are offering a piece of "evidence" for the high nature of the "dark ages" that has simpler explanations.”

I said nothing about the high nature of the early middle ages—my point was merely that they were less bad than your parody suggested.

“By 800 CE you had vastly greater farm production for simple reasons. Several breakthroughs in technology, the horse collar, water and wind mills and crop rotation, were accompanied by a huge replacement of Roman era forests by new farmland. This changed the basic carrying capacity.”

And for some reason technological progress doesn’t count in evaluating how well off societies were? The result of those changes was an increase in standards of living which resulted in the population increase I described. Similarly, our much higher standard of living is in large part the result of later technological improvements.

“Alas, a diagnostic that you especially neglect is the wild FLUCTUATIONS in population, during 800-1400.”

I don’t know what your source of population data is. Mine is the Atlas of World Population History from Penguin. For Europe as a whole it shows smooth growth from 600 to the early 14th century. Checking the graphs for individual countries, they show the same pattern, save that “Russia in Europe” starts down a little earlier.

It’s true that population drops in the 14th century, due in part to the plague, but that’s after the end of what used to be called the dark ages, and it hardly counts as “wild fluctuations” through the longer period you define.

“Besides... um... did you see me anywhere praise Roman society in contrast to the Middle Ages? Please show me where I did that.”

You didn’t. But you did write:

“even though a mere glance at the last 6000 years shows which human phenomenon is standard fare - feudalism, serving the darwinian reproductive success of brutal men.”

The Roman empire wasn’t feudal—indeed not all that much of the past 6000 years was feudal. The population evidence suggests that European feudalism was probably an improvement on the systems it replaced.

On the subject of your discussion of “total war.” Isn’t it a bit disingenuous to base your defense of the modern world on a period that you define as starting just after the end of the last major war? It’s probably true, as Keeley argues, that the wars of primitive societies were bloodier, on average, than modern wars. But post-feudal wars, from the thirty years war through WWII, have been more nearly total than most of the wars of the feudal period.

David Friedman said...

Also, Brin writes:

“By 800 CE you had vastly greater farm production for simple reasons. Several breakthroughs in technology, the horse collar, water and wind mills and crop rotation, were accompanied by a huge replacement of Roman era forests by new farmland. This changed the basic carrying capacity.”

The horse collar, the shift from the two field to the three field system of rotation, and the windmill are all (in Europe) later than 800 A.D. Water mills go back well into classical antiquity, so don’t count as a medieval breakthrough, but it’s true that they became more common in the post-Roman period.

Tim H. said...

I still find your take on Tolkien a bit shallow, but that could be fairly attributed to differing tastes, not as I would want to physically go to middle earth, Tertius would be more to my taste. And Mel Brooks really should get the movie rights to Bored of the Ring, BTW, who would you like for Tim Benzedrino & Hashberry?

Ken Burnside said...

Dr. Friedman:

One way to describe feudalism is that the work of 7/8th to 11/12th of the population of a community goes to support a noble class; the Feudal period (as opposed to the Feudal state) ran from the late Roman period to about 1500, with the rebirth of a significant middle class.

The Greece of Athens, with debt peonage, is a feudal state. The Helots of Sparta were an example of a particularly brutal feudal state. The serfs of Akkad are a feudal state.

The Sturlinga period, and the resulting civil war, are seen by some as an extension of the Commonwealth period of Icelandic history; with it added in, it's about 400 years total. The Sturlingalaga and the conditions that allowed it to precipitate may be a vigorous discussion for us, but probably not for the rest of Dr. Brin's posters. (It is also a discussion that you and I have had in person, quite amicably.)

François Marcadé said...

Dr. Friedman, I was going to make the same points as you do, that the XIX century have painted the Middle Age much darker It was were in reality*. I think that it Régine Pernoud that argued that the in XII and XIII centuries, the city had a better life quality (in terms of Hygiene, personal Freedom especially for women), than in "Modern" period (After the plague to the Revolution). However, David Brin would argue that it is because the charter cities were emancipated from the Feudal System and that the countryside was no faring so well. Worse after the plague, Feudal Compact was becoming obsolete, the lords was not protecting their subjects because the power was being concentrated in the hand of the central Government (the King), the Aristocrats in France, because they always refused to pay taxes, became nothing more than parasites.

I was uneasy when reading John C. Wright, I could not believe that any modern Catholic could long for the "High Spirituality of the Dark ages". I embrace Vatican II and I am glad that my church is evolving, maybe to slowly to my taste but what can be expected from an organization that spans over 3 milleniums. I strongly believe that there never was a better time to explore your spirituality if you are so inclined (spare time, access to multitude of text). But you are under no obligation to do so and it is fine too.

* If I remember correctly witch burning was almost unheard of before the XVI century, the inquisition before that time was mainly concerned in supressing the Heretics.

David Brin said...

David Friedman... I confess that I use "feudalism" rather broadly to include all hierarchical oligarchies in which power was mostly determined by inherited status and in which social mobility was deliberately squelched for the vast majority, by a conniving owner caste.

Yes, that is more broad than "feudalism" usually is defined. Do you have a better word for that broad generality? Because what I just described certainly was that "primary state of humanity" and the great failure mode that destroyed freedom and markets. The failure of libertarians to recognize this huge, huge and glaring historical fact underlies most of the problems of the movement and most of their failure to deliver on the movement's great potential.

Adam Smith, who founded both liberalism and libertarianism, knew well that the enemy of freedom is not civil servants or bureaucracy. He prescribed both as (guardedly) helpful counter-weights to the real enemy.

Re fluctuations, you are looking on a century by century basis, ignoring the frequent famines and civil depredations that were often rapidly compensated by high birth rates.

"On the subject of your discussion of “total war.” Isn’t it a bit disingenuous to base your defense of the modern world on a period that you define as starting just after the end of the last major war?"

No it is not disingenuous at all. Western civilization knew a long stretch of general peace from 1815 through 1914... at which point we tumbled into a long crisis when a dire confluence of factors tested us harshly... the combination of pseudo-religious, anti-enlightenment dogmas with modern propaganda tools and charisma enhancers (radio and loudspeakers) -- exacerbated by stunning new machines of war.

The resulting conflict was not INTERNAL to western civilization. It was a battle of survival BY western civilization against fiercely troglodytic religions - Nazism, communism.

Even so, the true horror spanned just TEN YEARS of the span from 1815 through today. Geez, David, have you read or watched Steven Pinker at all?


Ken B, I agree that Periclean Athens was way imperfect by our standards. But the core ethos was the only bright light against pyramidal social structures in a long darkness. And boy did the vile oligarchic meme pile in to diss Pericles, after he was dead. 2000 years of Platonic propaganda.

Francois, the brutal suppression of Catholic heresies spanned many centuries, and you can bet that pagans were included in the slaughter.

lakrids404 said...

When I read the quotes here from John C. Wright, my thoughts went to the book "Surface Detail" by Ian M, Banks and the super capitalist character Joiler Veppers rant over the hyper egalitarian civilization called Culture
quote:
There was nothing worse, Veppers thought, than a loser who’d made it. It was just part of the way things worked – part of the complexity of life, he supposed – that sometimes somebody who absolutely deserved nothing more than to be one of the down-trodden, the oppressed, the dregs of society, lucked out into a position of wealth, power and admiration. ..... Still, at least individual losers were quite obviously statistical freaks. You could allow for that, you could tolerate that, albeit with gritted teeth. What he would not have believed was that you could find an entire society – an entire civilization– of losers who’d made it. And the Culture was exactly that.

Rob Perkins said...

[Teachers unions] are among the few [right] wing bogey men who really are a bona fide Bad Force on the left. Not totally bad! But in need of severe correction.

But I'll not offer such a bargaining chip under present circumstances of endless rightist bad faith. Of taking whatever moderates and liberals offer and then savagely mauling the hand that holds the olive branch.


I'm always ambivalent about this. On the one hand, they're obstructionist and annoying. On the other, there isn't any way for a public school teacher to break $80k/year where I live, even after a 45 year career managing everyone's bratty kids.

I think in the main, they're a force for civilization rather than against it, but their mode is certainly entirely guild-like.

The Vagabond said...

"Heck, if I had witnessed half of my generation mowed down by tech-propelled death machines in WWI, I might have turned away from modernity too."
I need to find the quote again somewhere; one of my hobbies is military hardware from the late 19th through mid 20th centuries, (though I'd hardly call myself a militarist)and somewhere, a general was praising the development of the tank as being the singular reason that more men were not lost during the Great War (or World War II, Act I, Where Alliances Buggered Us All).

David Brin said...

The tank restored maneuver and tactics as factors in battle. Till then, both WWI and the US Civil War were perfect examples of when defensive weaponry outstripped all other factors, ironically leading to horrific death tolls.

Mel Baker said...

Ken Burnside asks about what Science Fiction authors other than David do a good job of exploring a more egalitarian future that is still interesting and exciting.

I'd have to nominate Kim Stanley Robinson. The Mars Trilogy does just that as humans try to remake civilization into some version of post capitalism all while terraforming a new world and the conflicts that arise over doing so.

His Galileo's Dream also does a great job, focusing on what he feels was the start of science and how future human civilization tries to reach back in time and make the middle ages less dark.

David Brin said...

Okay, now the fit is gonna hit the shan...

I just posted about Rand...

David Brin said...

onward...

The Ubiquitous said...

Methinks you have confused Intelligence with Wisdom, a distinction any DnD geek knows. I read a story about the Head of Vecna once which has that particular side effect.

I think your claim that there is greater wisdom now rather than then is a far more extraordinary claim and needs far more extraordinary evidence. When was the last time you talked to someone who doesn't read science fiction?

Among the literati, literati were wiser in the days of Christendom. Who among men today is trained in logic? Assuredly, there are programmers and the like --- but all literati in pre-Renaissance Christendom were trained in this, compared to a select few today, in addition to their classical-liberal quodlibets. And even today's select few are engineers more than philosophers, lovers of utility rather than wisdom.

Turning the question on its head, we see more substance in Wright's admittedly wistful reflection and less in what you rightly call screed.

David Brin said...

Oy, what utter nonsense.

Did any other generation study the harm that it does to the Earth we'll leave our kids? That's wisdom.

We have fought down ruthlesslyu cruel and stupidly unwise habits that EVERY preceding generation took for granted, cliches about women or other races or nationalities that cauterized hope.

We have fought down the filthy habit of assuming that children inherit the character and worth of their parents, in favor of the notion that each person might create himself anew.

Every decade our cops are forced to behave more like circumspect professionals than thugs with clubs and guns. And this will accelerate as cameras spread.

I could go on forever. But it is wasted time. Nothing convinces grouches. They are addicted to smug-retro thinking. Denying the possibility of progress is far easier than admitting it has happened.

The latter admission behooves us to keep trying hard. Because it works.

P.F. Bruns said...

Dr. Brin, your analysis seems to indicate that Wright suggests that we're all poorer for the fact that so much history has come before us, and that one way to make ourselves better is to ignore a whole bunch of it.

I think my word for that is "yikes."

Mr. Friedman, I think you might be mistaking Wright's viewpoint quoted above as Dr. Brin's. I think his entire point was that going back to feudalism is a nonstarter. Maybe he overstated some of the technological advances, and possibly the cultural ones, that have come since the pre-Renaissance era, but regardless, I think we must arm ourselves with the knowledge of the past only so we can cast a clearer view forward.

The Ubiquitous said...

Mr. Brin: If by we, you mean Christendom, then I agree. The Modern Era, however, beginning with the Renaissance, was largely a regression into Classical vices. For example, before Italians rediscovered Roman Civil law, Women had phenomenal liberties.

Fearing that you missed the point distinguishing intelligence with wisdom, I note environmentalist impulses chiefly measure human utility from a thing, or at least the case for environmental causes uses such language. Perhaps this illustrates my noted distinction between a love of truth and a love of knowledge of utility.

This denial of a distinction between wisdom and utility is indeed a fruit of the Enlightenment, but the distinction is crucial to understanding what Wright actually means.

You attribute the better behavior of cops to technology. It seems to me that does not so much turn down the heat as much as put a lid on a boiling pot. Cops will behave better, but it does not necessarily follow that they want to. Also, the essential worth of each human being was, if nothing else was, the central contribution of Christian theology to the West.

Though I admire several of your books, based on how you responded to me you could not be more wrong. If I here wrote something false, I hope you would correct me. (Please note each of my attributable claims has something to back it up, if only as further reading.)

Marino said...

being a contrarian myself, I have some objections.

Fantasy writers and those who crave for the fairytale Middle Ages had it wrong, because at least late Middle Age was a period of technological development, from the humble wheelbarrow to the water mill, the rudder, etc. Nor feudal ideology or Platonism ran unchecked, as civil law or Aristotelian philosophy were also major intellectual forces, and university teaching was based on debate. Read Eco's The Name of the Rose, where his William of Baskerville quotes verbatim Marsilius from Padua on purely human and secular nature of political power. Perversely, chivalric ideals of love were even turned from within into an ideology for the growing "burgeois" urban élites (Think about Italian Stil Novo poetry). Oh, and late Middle age developed the tools for modern capitalism, from double entry bookkeping to cheques, IOWs, loans and limited liability companies.
I prefer living in early 21. century,and if any, my longing for past goes back to the post-WWII keynesian&FDR labor/capital compromise but late middle age wasn't a dark age.

Btw, I found out a desire for closely-knit communitarian values even in sci fi authors where one doesn't expect it. I'm a devoted reader of the late Poul Anderson, but his apology for feudalism in No Truce with The Kings deserves a similar treatment.

Second, "feudalism" is a well defined historical society, not a sweeping catch-all. It doesn't change the fact that most civilizations before capitalism extorted wealth by force on account of a small élite.

third, modern politics: current EU woes are not related with nanny state,or eight weeks of vacations (sorry for being nasty, but it sounds like the old Fascist propaganda against the Brits who ate five times a day): Greece and Italy haven't the welfare networks Scandinavian countries of Germany have, and are deeper in trouble.

fourth: yes, Rand is a mirror image of Marxism, but a very poor, low resolution image of it, too, with none of its analytical merits. In fact, Atlas Shrugged resembles a lot more a novel by our (may burn in hell) D'Annunzio, Virgins from the Rocks, whose main character makes longwinded speeches against democracy and common people on behalf of the oligarchy...or a London's Iron Heel in reverse.

John said...

"The attribute that comes nearest to making us just like God.."

Based on this video either you know a whole lot about the LDS position and are pretending you don't (based on the comments toward the Book of Mormon) or you have by chance come to the exact same interpretation of most of those scriptures.

Either way, if one happens to be trying to use those scriptures in the way you suggest one should be aware that there is extensive evangelical literature to the contrary and that, based on the LDS experience, one is more likely to get burned at the stake, not less.

Unknown said...

I have a purely technical nitpick: The Buddha didn't write anything, and (in spite being called a prince) he was barely even an aristocrat.

Regarding the writing, like all the holy men of his day his legacy was entirely oral. (Some time after his death, Buddhists started a brief fad for writing stuff down, but it didn't catch on).

Also he hailed from a kind of "republic". In his country for birth, all adult males of warrior caste were the title "Raja" and held an equal vote. I think this makes it roughly as democratic as ancient Athens (i.e, a little bit).

David Brin said...

Various late responses. BUT FOLKS! If you want to continue any of these topics, do come to the MOST RECENT COMMENTS SECTION for the latest Contrary Brin blog. I seldom come back here to old comments sections.

PF Burns said "Dr. Brin, your analysis seems to indicate that Wright suggests that we're all poorer for the fact that so much history has come before us, and that one way to make ourselves better is to ignore a whole bunch of it."

Whaaaaaaaa?

Ubiquitous, there is really very little you and I can discuss. You may be a nice person, with very good taste in literature ;-) but your obdurate retro-mythologization appears so strong that I cannot penetrate.

Trying anyway: Christianity did almost nothing to end racism or sexism or the assumption that children inherit the sins and condition of their parents. Indeed, the latter is THE core tenet of Paulian christianity (not what Jesus taught.)

Yes, I know that Wright and others maintain that ONLY christianity can persuade people to behave well. This is an assertion. It is an assertion clutched-to but entirely contrary to every scintilla of evidence.

I have referred to how this most recent generation has driven off so many horrific habits that plagued our ancestors. You cannot see this, though it is simply and starkly true.

Likewise the plummeting of violence since 1945. This should be cause for celebration... or at least grudging admission that something is going right. Can you see why I see so little hope in arguing with folks who can ignore one of the greatest achievements of all of human time? Indeed, who can talk themselves into ignoring the palpable reality of human-wrought progress?

Marino: "feudalism" is a well defined historical society, not a sweeping catch-all."

Yes, but there should be a name for what feudalism is part of, the relentlessly ferocious maintenance of cruel top-down oppression by owner-castes, who use society to crush the hopes and ambitions of poor kids. 99% of human societies. We are the rebels and heroes in this story. We need a name for that.

John, I am indeed, well read in LDS eschatology etc. I have spent hours with the young men who ring my doorbell and I like some of the aspects that Joseph Smith raised, from his perspective as a post-galilean prophet. Thus, his Judaeo-Christian offshoot naturally includes plurality of worlds and the prospect that Heaven consists of more "work" rather than lobotomized hymn-screaming for eternity.

Nevertheless, I am also aware of many darker aspects, which I'll not relate here. Except to say that the Tower of Babel story is called an example of God's wrath, rather than (as I see it) a small inconvenience to delay us from out inevitable ambitions.

I think Smith misinterpreted. It's okay, everybody does. (Brin arrogantly asserts! ;-)

Unknown, the point was that Buddha grew up with adequate food, time and books.

P.F. Bruns said...

Dr. Brin,

Sorry, what I meant to say was that your analysis of Wright suggests that that's what Wright believes, not that that's what you believe. And I do think he's wrong.

Also, it's "Bruns." Frequent error.

David Brin said...

Mr. Bruns sorry. I believe I did that to you before?

I still find it hard to parse your view of what Wright believes, since he clearly is a Look-Back mind obsessed with a past golden age. Of course (if I get your drift) to do so he must ignore most historical fact.

Sean the Sorcerer said...

I’m sympathetic to the spirit of Mr. Wright’s post, even though I disagree with him about most things. It seems to me that what has been lost during this process of “Enlightenment” is a sense of meaning and magic – the feeling that we are part of a larger mythic narrative, a divine drama or a magical world which all cultures had prior to modern times. In a materialistic, atheistic, existentialist, individualistic, postmodernist milieu, all that is delusion, and each of us must create our own meaning – or to fall into an abyss of nihilism, isolation and despair.

We have our own religion of progress, of which you are one of the more passionate proponents, but somehow this doesn’t seem to be enough. People like Sagan and Clarke made valiant attempts to create a modern cosmic religion, but it never really caught on. I myself came up with “Cosmism” (thecosmist.com) because I believe religion, ritual, higher purpose, mysticism, etc. are human needs, which the more militant atheists have been trying to eradicate without offering a satisfactory replacement or fully understanding the consequences of their campaign.

So I think this is at the core of Mr. Wright’s complaints against modernity, and explains the popularity of everything from Lord of the Rings, Joseph Campbell, Star Wars, the New Age to the Nazis: human beings desperately need myths and magic!

My own feeling is that the modern world actually is increasingly magical, being full of wizards in tall towers of glass and steel spinning worldwide webs of cybernetic logic, and palantirs in every home which work in mysterious ways. What was Steve Jobs if not a sorcerer? So I’d like to see modern culture continue moving in the direction of “post-industrial techno-magic” if at all possible. If we’re smart, I don’t see why we can’t have the best of both worlds: Tolkien’s romantic wizards and comfortable Shires and modernity’s technological wonders and vast horizons.

David Brin said...

Sean your earnest answer is respect-worthy. But the fact that you call Sagan et al pushers of a religion shows how hard it is for millions of very bright people to grasp what science is about.

Hence the right's lie that scientists are meek money grubbing lemmings, instead of the most competitive and most free spirits the world has ever known.

Read my Tolkien essay at http://www.davidbrin.com
I make clear that I grasp how hard the magical impulse pulls on people! I don't mind magic. I am magician!

But magic belongs in the arts, where we can get a high off it without imposing its down-deep unfairness and tyrannical aspects on anyone else.

When magic take a hand in public policy - as in culture war - then we are in big trouble. That is the realm for adults. And progress consists of us finally growing up.

David Brin said...

I hope the preceding answer helped.

Please bring any further comments to me under the LATEST entry at http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ ?

David Friedman said...

Ken Burnside writes:

"One way to describe feudalism is that the work of 7/8th to 11/12th of the population of a community goes to support a noble class;"

Not, however, a description one would expect from someone with a degree in medieval history. Words mean something, and "feudalism" describes a particular sort of political structure, not any structure where income is sufficiently unequal. The Ancien Regime in the 18th century was a very unequal society, but it wasn't feudal.

...

Ken writes:
"The Sturlinga period, and the resulting civil war, are seen by some as an extension of the Commonwealth period of Icelandic history; with it added in, it's about 400 years total."

In which case your "90 year civil war" would still be wrong.

But that's like claiming that the U.S. Civil war lasted for almost a century, and then explaining that you've decided to date its beginning from the revolution. The Sturlunga period is a reasonably well defined period in Icelandic history—you aren't entitled to redefine it to whatever you like in order to avoid conceding that what you wrote wasn't true.

David Friedman said...

Brin writes:

"Yes, that is more broad than "feudalism" usually is defined. Do you have a better word for that broad generality?"

I don't have a single term to describe what you want, but calling it "feudalism" makes no more sense than calling it "absolute monarchy."

As it happens, I also sometimes redefine "feudalism," but in a way designed to includes the historical feudal societies and societies with the same essential political structure. My preferred definition is a society where the key resource is controlled far enough down the hierarchy so that the people at the top are basically coalition leaders rather than absolute rulers.

In feudal Europe the key resource was heavy cavalry--and, as one historian pointed out, at one point the levy of Normandy was bigger than the levy of France. In the SCA, the key resource is volunteer labor. In New York under Tammany, as described by Plunkett, the key resource was the ability to deliver votes. All of those systems were feudal, broadly defined--and the ancien regime was not.

Which may help to explain why I object to seeing a useful descriptive term converted into a pejorative.

neil craig said...

The "Most Chivalric Golden Age of High Christendom" was not the dark ages (app 500 to 900) but the Medieval Warm Period (app 1,000-1340). Because the world was warmer people had more comforts and it was possible for Elinor of Aquitaine to invent chivalry (well not entirely alone).

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