The history of collapsing societies and what the modern world needs to learn about them

THE experience of walking around Knossos on Crete and hearing a guide emphasize that the great palace of Minos was constructed more than 4000 years ago, and of listening to the prompt gasps of tourists that that information elicits can lull the supposedly sophisticated visitor – no mere tourist he – into the fond illusion that the solemnity induced by such a place is a sign of a deep intellectual reflection on the end of history, deeper than Francis Fukuyama’s now discredited views.

And yet! Knossos was a civilization and it collapsed. A history did end here, on Crete.

The archaeological savants tell us that the palace was first devastated by fire but recovered, only for the society to be later definitively wiped out by a tsunami emanating from the neighboring island of Santorini.

There are other theories about this end of history. Material made available at the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion states that the fall was “due to internal factors”, but does agree that “natural disasters socked the Minoan world”.

No doubt the word should be “shocked” but I prefer “socked”. It was knock-out blow.

The excavations were conducted by Sir Arthur Evans, a Victorian archaeologist who coined the phrase “Minoan” people, to the distress of later generations of professionals who would have preferred a more sober description to establish a distance between history and mythology.

The National: National Extra Scottish politics newsletter banner

Evans also upset them even more by his well-intentioned work of reconstruction, replacing and painting pillars that had crumbled over the centuries. It is now considered better to contemplate what is left of ruined civilizations than to attempt to breathe life back into them, but we will leave that debate to the antiquarians.

Our concern is with the fact that this once stable and admirable civilization, whose peace was so well established as to make ramparts and the manufacture of weapons unnecessary, where art flourished, where regular supplies of running water had been engineered, regressed. It was reduced to anarchy and the rule of mere strength.

So, our traveler will ask – could it happen again? Are there parallels with today? Russian forces have wreaked havoc in Ukraine, and the efforts of international leaders to ward off the apocalypse are limited to supplying such weapons to the invaded country as will not provoke the invaders to use what are oddly called “non-conventional weapons”. The employment of chemical and biological or even nuclear weapons would require, they say, a condign response, and that really would be the end of history.

But imagine if these weak efforts at warding off destruction were to fail. Imagine that some modern equivalent of Crete’s tsunami destroyed the whole superstructure of law, culture and civility. Is that unthinkable? It has happened before.

Fukuyama imagined history would end, or had actually ended, with the fall of totalitarian regimes and the rainbow settlement where peoples would reach the promised land they had aspired to, even if they did not know it.

A liberal-democratic work order would come into being, and peace and the tranquility of order would ensue.

It is time to face the fact that history keeps on ending, or crumbling, that the social contract can be shattered and substituted by the archaic rule of strength. Putin knows that. This obsession with final collapse has been the realm of not of politicians but of poets.

Shelley jeered at Ozymandias, the “king of kings”, of whom nothing remained but an empty boast. WB Yeats was more fearful of the prospect of things falling apart. Slightly more fancifully, or so he believed, and certainly less poetically, Thomas Babington Macaulay imagined in one of his essays a traveler from New Zealand arriving to experience pleasingly awe-struck feelings as he took a seat on London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.

But that is fantasy, of course it is. It could never happen, or could it? The balance of power, or terror, preserved harmony, even if nations had apocalyptic arsenals. Since 1945, the West has convinced itself that neither external force nor internal enemies of the liberal, tolerant society could really sock it to us. Internally intolerant voices are now raised, whether they are called cancel-culture fanatics or simply enemies of free speech. Externally, men like Putin scorn even the precarious mutual safety given by the balance of power.

We have been complacently free to savor Knossos, Pompeii, Carthage or Tire as something unrepeatable, but for the first time in recent decades the privileged West has to face the fact that it too is involved in history’s eternal returns.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.