11 November 2021

The cycles of darkness and light

A recent post on Cas d'Intérêt, citing a letter by Albert Camus during the Nazi occupation of France, posed the question: "Camus was able to write with such confidence about Germany's inevitable defeat. In recent times, lies have proven to be so maddeningly productive. Is the effectiveness of violence and falsehood ultimately doomed to failure?"

I believe it is, in the long run.  But the long run can sometimes be very long indeed.  After the great Greco-Roman civilization fell in the fifth century, enlightenment eventually won out again in the Middle Eastern revival of the ninth to early twelfth centuries; after that civilization was strangled by the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism, there was the European Renaissance hundreds of years later.  If the Nazis had won and dragged the entire Western world back into a new Dark Age, I think humane and enlightened civilization would have risen again eventually, but it would likely have taken several centuries before that happened, and no one alive in Camus's time would have lived to see it.

Petr Beckmann said that the thugs always win, but the thinkers always outlast them.  Galileo was forced to recant heliocentrism and spent the last nine years of his life under strict house arrest, his books banned, apparently defeated.  Yet today everybody knows who he was, while the name of the pope who threatened and silenced him is forgotten except among specialist historians.

I think, too, that those cycles of darkness and light are over -- the risk of another collapse is fading.  Yes, one or a few individual countries could conceivably slip back into the darkness, but not civilization as a whole, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to imagine a plausible scenario where it could happen even in one major country at the front rank of development.  Literacy and education are far more widespread than in the fifth-century Roman Empire or the twelfth-century Islamic world.  National power and a modern standard of living are totally dependent on technology, and technological progress in turn depends on science, free inquiry, and the free flow of information which non-democratic regimes cannot tolerate.  The gangster-states of today are essentially hangers-on, parasites battening on the achievements of the free societies whose ideas ultimately threaten the very survival of their regimes.  (Even in World War II this pattern was emerging -- the US built the atom bomb and the UK built the first radar-based national air-defense system and the first real computers, while the Nazis never really grasped the potential of radar or nuclear fission; see also the later Soviet embrace of Lysenkoist pseudo-science.)  Modernity is a complete package, and any nation which turns away from it will ultimately end up marginalized and irrelevant to the future.

The few remaining existential threats are quite different in character -- global warming, a giant meteor impact, a future super-pandemic -- and only advanced technology will be able to fend them off.

So, to those odd types (yes, they exist) who oppose the values of the Enlightenment and want a return to the Dark Ages -- sorry, but the Nazis were your last chance, and they failed.  It took time, but finally, Galileo has won.  Hypatia has won.  We have won.


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I want to believe you.
This pandemic has brought up the worst in human ignorance. And most of it is just stubbornness, privilege and entitlement. The willful denial of science is something I thought I'd never see, to be honest.
Now this: 'Petr Beckmann said that the thugs always win, but the thinkers always outlast them.'. I hope you're right, because those existential threats become more and more likely possibilities than just ideas.


11 November, 2021 02:37  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

None of the stuff going on in the US right now is even within telescope range of being a civilizational-collapse threat. The kind of stuff I'm talking about is on a completely different level of magnitude. Trump and the modern science-deniers barely qualify as a speed bump compared with the kind of threat to progress posed by the Nazis or the medieval Church.

11 November, 2021 03:47  
Blogger SickoRicko said...

As Sixpence said: "I want to believe you."

But the pessimist in me sees a huge amount of angst and suffering - including deaths on a large scale - before these "speed bumps" are eliminated.

(BTW, I really like that illustration of Alexandria.)

11 November, 2021 07:51  
Blogger Lady M said...

Climate change is certainly going to challenge our species in ways we never imagined. I hope we can rise to it rather than just squabble and blow ourselves up. You are a lot more optimistic than I am.

11 November, 2021 08:19  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ricko: Sigh.....see my response to Sixpence. None of those things are comparable to what I'm talking about here.

Lady M: It will certainly be a challenge, though not as dangerous as the kind of thing we were routinely faced with until a few centuries ago. We know how to deal with it. It's a matter of having the will to implement solutions.

11 November, 2021 09:28  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

PS: The Alexandria picture is of the Serapeum, a temple which may have housed part of the Library of Alexandria towards the end of the Roman period.

11 November, 2021 13:34  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

The Nazis were defeated, yes, but not until 50 million people were killed. And Hitler never had nuclear weapons; nor, as evil as he was, did he ever show signs of being as deranged as Donald Trump.

11 November, 2021 19:35  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The fact that the cost of defeating the Nazis was so high reinforces my point that they were a serious threat to civilization. Regardless of how deranged Trump was, he never reached that level.

OK, this comments thread has been completely derailed and I'm obviously never going to get any responses addressing what the post is really about. Comments closed.

11 November, 2021 20:00  

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