Winston Churchill (and others it appears) famously said,
Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.
I have been studying H. Kitto’s The Greeks, a very good book about ancient Greek civilization. This civilization reached a glorious pinnacle, had a brief 100 years of production worthy of the gods which profoundly impacted the direction of Western civilization, and then quickly came unravelled.
In my ‘Cliff Notes’ version, it boils down to a tale of two city-states, Athens and Sparta. In very broad outline, ancient Greece was a contest between oligarchs and democracies to become the dominant form of government. Sparta was an oligarchic city-state, Athens was a democracy much of the time, at least for men, especially so at the height of its achievements, though it had fits of oligarchy here and there.
Sparta and the oligarchic way won in time, but not before the democratic polis of Athens scaled dizzying civilizational heights, the result of good fortune and its liberal democratic environment. It was, apparently, incessant war that unravelled them, or perhaps, a civilization blazing so bright can last at their pinnacle only so long.
This history is interesting to me because it echos the moment we are at, in the United States and around the Globe. There is an intense struggle between oligarchic/authoritarian actors and democratic actors and the o/a side of the struggle seems to be positioned to seize control of the world order. I can easily imagine them running the table with the United States turning oligarchic or authoritarian in the near future. In the liberal community of the United States there is a five alarm fire going on. The threat to democratic institutions is so clear and present to us.
I am beginning to wonder if there ever could be a learning-from-history sufficient for a civilization to avoid repeating it. It seems to me that there has long been a struggle between oligarchs/authoritarians and the democratic/egalitarian instincts of the people. There is something about the human civilizational psyche that makes this a continuous back and forth struggle. Is it the masculine/feminine thing? Is it the yin/yang thing? Is it the pendulum thing?
We can read about it in histories of past civilizations and recognize the signs of the pendulum swing in our own, but there seems little that humans consciously manage that predictively determines an outcome. Circumstances are favorable or not. Leadership is great or not. A citizenry has a strong and cohesive ethos or not. Luck is on your side or not.
A friend of mine recently told me they were reading about Sparta and that they admired their conservative ideology which also made room for homosexuality, abortion, and education for women (not at all common at the time). An oligarchic society that worked in its own way. I, of course, prefer the Athenian democracy. It will come as no surprise that this friend is a life long conservative and that i am a life long liberal.
From my point of view, the present oligarchic/authoritarian side of things in this country is populated by fanatics who are barely shy of mentally disturbed if shy at all, but, I am coming to realize that this is their revolutionary moment and they are pursuing it with all the determination that one expects revolutionaries to posses. Because they are seeking to undo the world order I believe in, they look crazy and evil to me. The liberal news media keeps trying to assess them as shockingly aberrant in the context of ‘this great democracy,’ but they don’t believe in democracy and will only be aberrant until they are the dominating ideology, which is when those of us who believe in government by, for and of the people will become shockingly aberrant.
I don’t know which way this struggle is going to go. I intend to pull for the democratic side, but history has taught me that the pendulum swings and that I should prepare myself for the possibility of a new civic order.