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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

The Game of Everything, Part 7: Civilization and Government I (Despotism, Monarchy, and the Republic)

Monarchy is like a splendid ship. With all sails set it moves majestically on, but then it hits a rock and sinks forever.

— Fisher Ames

In The Republic, that most famous treatise ever written on the slippery notions of good and bad government, Plato describes what first motivated people to willingly cede some of their personal freedoms to others. He writes that “a state arises, as I conceive, out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing, but all of us have many wants. Can any other origin of a state be imagined?”

Even in relatively primitive civilizations, the things that need doing outstrip the ability of any single individual to learn how to do them. From this comes specialization, that key marker of civilization. But for specialization to work, a civilization needs a marketplace — a central commons where goods and services can be bought, sold, and traded for. Maintaining such a space, and resolving any disputes that arise in it, requires a central authority. And then, as the fruits of specialization cause a civilization to rise in the world, outsiders inevitably begin to think about taking what it has. Thus a standing army needs to be created. So, already we have the equivalents of a Department of Justice, a Department of Commerce, and a Department of Defense. But now we have another problem: the people staffing all of these bureaucracies, not to mention the soldiers in our army, don’t themselves produce goods and services which they can use to sustain themselves. Thus we now need an Internal Revenue Service of some sort, to collect taxes from the rest of the people — by force, if necessary — so that the bureaucrats and the soldiers have something to live on. And so it continues.

I want to point out a couple of important features of this snippet of the narrative of progress I’ve just outlined. The first is that, of all forms of progress, the growth of government is greeted with the least enthusiasm; for most people, government is the very definition of a necessary evil. At bottom, it becomes necessary because of one incontrovertible fact: that what is best for the individual in a vacuum is almost never what is best for the collective. Government addresses this fundamental imbalance, but in doing so it’s bound to create resentment in the individuals over whom it asserts control. Even if we understand that it’s necessary, even if we agree in principle with the importance of regulating commerce, protecting our country’s borders, even collecting funds to help the young, the old, the sick, and the disadvantaged, how many of us don’t cringe a little when we have to pay the taxman our of our own hard-earned wages? Not for nothing do the people of almost all times and all countries feel a profound ambivalence toward their entire political class, those odd personality types willing to baldly seek power over their peers. Will Durant:

If the average man had had his way there would probably never have been any state. Even today he resents it, classes death with taxes, and yearns for that government which governs least. If he asks for many laws it is only because he is sure that his neighbor needs them; privately he is an unphilosophical anarchist, and thinks laws in his own case superfluous.

The other thing that bears pointing out is that, even though they make up two separate departments in a university, political science and economics are very difficult to pull apart in the real world. Certainly one doesn’t have to be a Marxist to acknowledge that it was commerce that gave rise to government in the first place. In Plough, Sword, and Book, his grand sociological theory of history, Ernest Gellner writes that “property and power are correlative notions. The agricultural revolution gave birth to the exchange and storage of both necessities and wealth, thereby turning power into an unavoidable aspect of social life.” The interconnections between government and economics can be tangled indeed, as in the case of a descriptor like “communism,” technically an economic system but one which, in modern usage at least, presumes much about government as well; a phrase like “communist democracy” rings as an oxymoron to ears brought up in the Western tradition of liberal democracy.

In this light, we can probably forgive the game of Civilization for lumping communism into its list of possible systems of “government” for your civilization, as I hope you’ll be able to forgive me for discussing it in this pair of articles on those systems. (The article that follows this pair will address other aspects of economics in Civilization.) Each of Civilization‘s broadly-drawn governments provides one set of answers to the eternally fraught questions of who should have power in a society, what the limits of that power should be, and whence the power should be derived. As such, they lend themselves better than just about any other aspect of the game to systematic step-by-step analysis. So, that’s what I want to do in this article and the next, looking at each of the six in turn, asking, as has become our standard practice in this series, what we can learn about the real history of government from the game and what we can learn about the game from the real history of government.

That said, there are — also as usual — complications. This is one of the few places where Civilization rather breaks down as a linear narrative of progress. You don’t need to progress through each of the governments one by one in order to be successful at the game. In fact, just the opposite; many players never feel the need to adopt more than a couple of the six governments over the course of their civilization’s millennia of steady progress on other fronts. Likewise, depending on which advances they choose to research when, players of Civilization may see the various governments become available for adoption in any number of different orders and combinations.

And then too, unlike just about every other element of the game, the effectiveness of the governments in Civilization can’t be ranked in ascending order of desirability by the date of their first appearance in actual human history. If that was the case, communism — or possibly, as we shall see, anarchism — would have to be the best government of all in the game, something that most definitely isn’t true. Government just doesn’t work like that, in history or in the game. Democracy, for example, a form of government inextricably associated with modern developed nations and the likes of Francis Fukuyama’s end of history, is actually a very ancient idea. Given this, I’ve hit upon what feels like a logical method of my own for ordering Civilization‘s systems of government here, in a descending ranking based on the power and status each system in its most theoretical or idealized form vests in its leader or leaders. If that sounds confusing right now, please trust that my logic will become clearer as we move through them.

I do need to emphasize that this overview isn’t written even from 30,000 feet, but rather from something more akin to a low orbit over a massively complicated topic. Do remember as you read on that these strokes I’m laying down are — to mix some metaphors — very broad. I’m well aware that our world has contained and does contain countless debatable edge cases and mangy hybrids. That acknowledged, I do believe that setting aside the details of day-to-day politics and returning to first principles of government, as it were, might just be worthwhile from time to time.

Despotism is the most blunt of all political philosophies, one otherwise known as the law-of-the-jungle or the Lord of the Flies approach to governance. It states simply that he who is strong and crafty enough to gain power over all his rivals shall rule exactly as long as he remains strong and crafty enough to maintain it. For whatever that period may be, the despot and the state he rules are effectively one and the same. Regardless of what the despot might say to justify his rule, in the end despotism is might-makes-right distilled to its purest essence.

“Every state begins in compulsion,” writes Will Durant. In the formative stages of any civilization, despotism truly is an inevitability. In a society with no writing, no philosophy, no concept of human rights or social justice, no other form of government could possibly take hold. “Without autocratic rule,” writes the philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer, “the evolution of society could not have commenced.”

So, it’s perfectly natural that the game of Civilization as well always begins in despotism. In the early stages of the game especially, absolute power has undeniable advantages. Aristotle considered all of the citizens under a despotic government to be nothing more nor less than slaves, and that understanding is reflected in the way the game lets you form them into military units and march them off to war without having to pay them for the privilege, nor having to worry about the morale of the folks left behind at the home front. The military advantages despotism offers are thus quite considerable indeed. If your goal in the game is to conquer the world rather than climb the narrative of progress all the way to Alpha Centauri, you can easily win while remaining a despot throughout.

Yet the game does also levy a toll on despotism, one which, depending on your strategy, can become more and more difficult to bear as it continues. Cities under despotism grow slowly if at all, and are terrible at exploiting the resources available to them. If you do want to make it to Alpha Centauri, you’re thus best advised to leave despotism behind just as quickly as you can.

All of which rings true to history. The economy of a society that lives in fear — a society where ideas are things hated and feared by the ruling junta — will almost always badly lag that of a nation with a more sophisticated form of government. In particular, despotism is a terrible system for managing an industrial or post-industrial economy geared toward anything but perpetual war. Political scientist Bernard Crick:

Most autocracies (and military governments) are in agrarian societies. Attempts to industrialize either lead to democratization as power is spread and criticism is needed, or to concentrations of power as if towards totalitarianism but usually resulting in chronic economic and political instability. The true totalitarian regimes were war economies, whether at war or not, rejecting “mere” economic criteria.

Although the economic drawbacks of despotism are modeled, the structure of the game of Civilization doesn’t give it a good way of reflecting perhaps the most crippling of all the disadvantages of despotism in the real world: its inherent instability. A government destined to last only as long as the cult of personality at its center continues to breathe is hardly ideal for a real civilization’s long-term health. But in the game, the notion of a ruler outside yourself exists not at all; you play a sort of vaguely defined immortal who controls your civilization through the course of thousands of years. Unlike a real-world despot, you don’t have to constantly watch your back for rivals, don’t have to abide by the rule of history that he who lives by the sword shall often die by the sword. And you don’t have to worry about the chaos that ensues when a real despot dies — by natural causes or otherwise — and his former underlings throw themselves into a bloody struggle to find out who will replace him.

For the ruthless power-grabbing despot in the real world, who’s in this only to gratify his own megalomaniacal urges, this supposed disadvantage is of limited importance at best. For those who live on after him, though, it’s far more problematic. Indeed, a good test for deciding whether a given country’s government is in fact a despotic regime is to ask yourself whether it’s clear what will happen when the current leader dies of natural causes, is killed, steps down, or is toppled from power. Ask yourself whether, to put it another way, you can imagine the country continuing to be qualitatively the same place after one of those things happens. If the answer to either of those questions is no, the answer to the question of whether the current leader is a despot is very likely yes.

It would be nice if, given the instability of despotism as well as all of the other ethical objections that accompany it, I could write of it as merely a necessary formative stage of government, a stepping stone to better things. But unfortunately, despotism, the oldest form of human government, has stubbornly remained with us down through the millennia. In the twentieth century, it flared up again even in the heart of developed Europe under the flashy new banner of fascism. Thankfully, its inherent weaknesses meant that neither Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, nor Franco’s Spain could survive beyond the deaths of the despots whose names will always be synonymous with them.

And yet despotism still lives on today, albeit often cloaked under a rhetoric of pseudo-legitimacy. Vladimir Putin of Russia, that foremost bogeyman of the modern liberal-democratic West, one of the most stereotypically despotic Bond villains on the current world stage, nevertheless feels the need to hold a sham election every six years. Peek beneath the cloak of democracy in Russia, however, and all the traits of despotism are laid bare. The economic performance of this, the biggest country in the world, is absolutely putrid, to the tune of about 7 percent of the gross national product of the United States, despite being blessed with comparable natural resources. And then there’s the question of what will happen in Russia once Putin’s gone. Tellingly, commentators have been asking that very question with increasing urgency in recent years, as “Putin’s Russia” threatens to become a descriptor of an historical nation unto itself not unlike Hitler’s Germany.

The inventors of monarchy — absolute rule by a single familial lineage rather than absolute rule by a single individual — appear to have been the ancient Egyptians. Its first appearance there in perhaps as early as 3500 BC marks an early attempt to remedy the most obvious weakness of despotism, the lack of any provision for what happens after any given despot is no more. It’s not hard to grasp where the impulse that led to it came from. After all, it’s natural for any father to want to leave a legacy to his son. Why not the country he happens to rule?

At the same time, though, with monarchy we see the first stirrings of a concern that will become more and more prevalent as we continue with this tour of governments: a concern for the legitimacy of a government, with providing a justification for its existence beyond the age-old dictum of might-makes-right. Electing to go right to the source of all things in the view of most pre-modern societies, monarchs from the time of the Egyptian pharaohs claimed to enjoy the blessing of the gods or God, or in some cases to be gods themselves. In the centuries since, there has been no shortage of other justifications, such as claims to tradition, to a constitution, or just to good old superior genes. But more important than the justifications themselves for our purposes is the fact that they existed, a sign of emerging sophistication in political thought. Depending on how compelling those being ruled over found them to be, they insulated the rulers to a lesser or greater degree from the unmitigated law of the jungle.

In time, the continuity engendered by monarchy in many places allowed not just a ruling family but an extended ruling class to arise, who became known as the aristocracy. Ironically for a word so overwhelmingly associated today with inherited wealth and privilege, “aristocracy” when first coined in ancient Greece had nothing to do with family or inheritance. The aristocracy of a society was simply the best people in that society; the notion of aristocratic rule was thus akin to the modern concept of meritocracy. We can still see some of this etymology in the synonym for “aristocrat” of “noble,” which has long been taken to mean, depending on context, either a high-born member of the ruling class or a brave, upright, trustworthy sort of person in general; think of Rousseau’s “noble savages.” (The word “aristocrat” hasn’t been quite so lucky in recent years, bearing with it today a certain connotation of snobbery and out-of-touchness.)

Aristocrats of the old school were one of the bedrocks of the idealized theory of government outlined by Aristotle in Politics; an “autocracy” ruled by true aristocrats was according to him one of the best forms of government, although it could easily decay into what he called “oligarchy.” Yet the fact was that ancient Greece and Rome were every bit as obsessed with bloodlines as would be the wider Europe in centuries to come, and it didn’t take long for the ruling classes to assert that the best way to ensure the best people had control of the government was to simply pass power from high-born father to high-born son. Whether under the ancients’ original definition of the word or its more modern usage, writes the historian of aristocracy William Doyle, “the essence of aristocracy is inequality. It rests on the presumption that some people are naturally better than others.” For thousands of years, this presumption was at the core of political and social orders throughout Europe and most of the world.

“Monarchy seems the best balanced government in the game,” note Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich in Civilization: or Rome on 640K a Day. And, indeed, the game of Civilization takes monarchy as its sort of baseline standard government. Your economy is subject to no special advantages or disadvantages, reflecting the fact that historical monarchies have tended to be, generally speaking, somewhat less tyrannical than despotic governments, thanks not least to a diffusion of power among what can become quite a substantial number of aristocratic elites. This is a good thing in economic as well as ethical terms; a population that spends less time cowering in fear has more time to be productive. But it does mean that the player of the game needs to pay more to maintain a military under a monarchical government, a reflection of that same diffusion of power.

Once again, though, Civilization‘s structure makes it unable to portray the most important drawbacks of monarchy from the standpoint of societal development. A country that employs as a philosophy of governance such a system of nepotism taken to the ultimate extreme is virtually guaranteed to wind up in the hands of a terrible leader within a few generations — for, despite the beliefs that informed aristocratic privilege down through all those centuries, there’s little actual reason to believe that such essential traits of leadership as wisdom, judgment, forbearance, and decisiveness are heritable. Indeed, the royal family of many a country may have wound up ironically less qualified for the job of running it than the average citizen, thanks to a habit of inbreeding in the name of maintaining those precious bloodlines, which could sometimes lead to unusual incidences of birth defects and mental disorders. The ancient Egyptians made even brother-sister marriages a commonplace affair among the pharaohs, and were rewarded with an unusual number of truly batshit crazy monarchs.

Thus even despotism has an advantage over monarchy in the quest to avoid really, really bad leaders. At least the despot who rises to the top of the heap through strength and wiles has said strength and wiles to rely on as ruler. The histories of monarchies tend to be a series of wild oscillations between boom and bust, all depending on who’s in charge at the time; if Junior is determined to smash up the car, mortgage the house, and invest the family fortune in racehorses after Daddy dies, there’s not much anyone can do about it. Consider the classic example of England during the Renaissance period. The reigns of Elizabeth I and James I yielded great feats of exploration and scientific discovery, major military victories, and the glories of Shakespearean theater. Then along came poor old Charles I, who within 25 years had managed to bankrupt the treasury, spark a civil war, get himself beheaded, and prompt the (brief-lived) abolition of the very concept of a King of England. With leadership like that, a country doesn’t need external enemies to eat itself alive.

The need for competent leadership in an ever more complicated world has caused monarchy, even more so than despotism, to fall badly out of fashion in the last century; I tend to think the final straw was the abject failure of the European kings and queens, almost all of whom were in family with one another in one way or another, to do anything to stop the slow, tragically pointless march up to World War I. Monarchies where the monarch still wields real power today are confined to special situations, such as the micro-states of Monaco and Liechtenstein, and special regions of the world, such as the Middle East.

In Europe, for all those centuries the heart of the monarchical tradition, a surprising number of countries have elected to retain their royal families as living, breathing national-heritage sites, but they’re kept so far removed from the levers of real political power that the merest hint of a political opinion from one of them can set off a national scandal. I confess that I personally don’t understand this desire to keep a phantom limb of the monarchical past alive, and think the royals can darn well turn in the keys to their taxpayer-funded palaces and go get real jobs like the rest of us. I find the fondness for kings and queens particularly baffling in the case of Scandinavia, a place where equality has otherwise become such a fundamental cultural value. But then, I grew up in a country with no monarchical tradition, and I am told that maintaining the tradition of royalty brings in more tourist dollars than it costs tax dollars in Britain at least. I suppose it’s harmless enough.

The notion of a certain group of people who are inherently better-suited to rule than any others is sadly less rare than non-national-heritage monarchies in the modern world. Still, because almost all remaining believers in such a notion believe the group in question is the one to which they themselves belong, such points of view have an inherit problem gaining traction in the court of public opinion writ large.

Of all the forms of government in Civilization, the republic is the most difficult to get a handle on. If we look the word up in the dictionary, we learn little more for sure about any given republic than that it’s a nation that’s not a monarchy. Beyond that, it can often seem that the republic is in the eye of the beholder. In truth, it’s doubtful whether the republic should be considered a concrete system of government at all in the sense of its companions in Civilization. It’s become one of those words everyone likes to use whose real definition no one seems to know. Astonishingly, more than three-quarters of the sovereign nations in the world today have the word “republic” somewhere in their full official name, a range encompassing everything from the most regressive religious dictatorships to the most progressive liberal democracies. Growing up in American schools, I remember it being drilled into me that “the United States is a republic, not a democracy!” because, rather than deciding on public policy via direct vote, citizens elect representatives to lead the nation. Yet such a distinction is not only historically idiosyncratic, it’s also practically pointless. By this standard, no more than one or two real democracies have ever existed in the history of the world, and none after ancient times. Such a thing would, needless to say, be utterly impossible to administer in this complicated modern world of ours. Anyway, if you really insist on getting pedantic about definitions, you can always use the term “representative democracy.”

I suspect that the game of Civilization‘s inclusion of the republic is most heavily informed by the ancient Roman Republic, which can be crudely described as a form of sharply limited democracy, where ordinary citizens of a certain stature were given a limited ability to check the powers of the aristocracy. Every legionnaire of the Republic had engraved upon his shield the motto “Senatus Populusque Romanus”: “The Senate and the People of Rome.” Aristocrats made up the vast majority of the former institution, with the plebeians, or common people, largely relegated to a subsidiary role in the so-called plebeian tribunes. The vestiges of such a philosophy of government survive to this day in places like the British Parliament, with its split between a House of Lords — which has become all but powerless in this modern age of democracy, little more than yet another living national-heritage site — and a House of Commons.

In that same historical spirit, the republic in the game functions as a sort of halfway point between monarchy and democracy, subject to a milder form of the same advantages and disadvantages as the latter — advantages and disadvantages which I think are best discussed when we get to democracy itself.

I don’t want to move on from the republic quite yet, however, because when we trace these roots back to ancient times we do find something else there of huge conceptual importance. Namely, we find the idea of the state as an ongoing entity onto itself, divorced from the person or family that happens to rule it. This may seem a subtle distinction, but it really is an important one.

The despot or the monarch for all intents and purposes is the state. Thus the royal we you may remember from Shakespeare; “Our sometime sister, now our queen,” says Claudius in Hamlet in reference to his wife, who is also the people’s queen. The ruler and the state he rules truly are one. But with the arrival of the republic on the scene, the individual ruler is separate from and — dare I say it? — of less overall significance than the institution of the state itself. He becomes a mere caretaker of a much greater national legacy. This is important not least because it opens the door to a system of government that prioritizes the good of the state over that of its leaders, that emphasizes the ultimate sovereignty of the state as a whole, in the form of all of the citizens that make it up. It opens the door to, as John Adams famously said after the drafting of the American Constitution, “a government of laws and not men.” In other words, it makes the philosophy of government safe for democracy.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The Story of Civilization Volume I: Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson, The Republic by Plato, Politics by Aristotle, Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History by Ernest Gellner, Aristocracy: A Very Short Introduction by William Doyle, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Crick, Plato: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas, Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by David Miller, and Hamlet by William Shakespeare.)

 
 

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The Game of Everything, Part 6: Civilization and Religion

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

— Albert Einstein

If you ever feel like listening to two people talking past one another, put a strident atheist and a committed theist in a room together and ask them to discuss The God Question. The strident atheist — who, as a colleague of the psychologist and philosopher of religion William James once put it, “believes in No-God and worships Him” — will trot out a long series of supremely obvious, supremely tedious Objective Truths. He’ll talk about evolution, about the “God of the gaps” theory of religion as a mere placeholder for all the things we don’t yet understand, about background radiation from the Big Bang, about the age-old dilemma of how a righteous God could allow all of the evil and suffering which plague our world. He’ll talk and talk and talk, all the while presuming that the theist couldn’t possibly be intelligent enough to have considered any of these things for herself, and that once she’s been exposed to them at last her God delusion will vanish in a puff of incontrovertible logic. The theist, for her part, is much less equipped to argue in this fashion, but she does her best, trying to explain using the crude tool of words her ineffable experiences that transcend language. But her atheist friend, alas, has no time, patience, or possibly capability for transcendence.

My own intention today certainly isn’t to convince you of the existence or non-existence of God. Being a happy agnostic —  one of what the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson called “the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flap around in the middle” — I make a poor advocate for either side of the debate.  But I will say that, while I feel a little sorry for those people who have made themselves slaves to religious dogma and thereby all but lost the capacity to reason in many areas of their lives, I also feel for those who have lost or purged the capacity to get beyond logic and quantities and experience the transcendent.

“One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony,” writes William James. “One must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd.” Richard Dawkins, one of the more tedious of our present-day believers in No-God, spends the better part of a chapter in his book The God Delusion twisting himself into knots over the Einstein quote that opens this article, trying to logically square the belief of the most important scientist of the twentieth century in the universe’s ineffability with the same figure’s claim not to believe in a “personal God.” Like a cat chasing a laser pointer, Dawkins keeps running around trying to pin down that which refuses to be captured. He might be happier if he could learn just to let the mystery be.

In a sense, a game which hopes to capture the more transcendent aspects of life runs into the same barriers as the unadulteratedly rational person hoping to understand them. Many commenters, myself included, have criticized games over the years for a certain thematic niggardliness, a refusal to look beyond the physics of tanks and trains and trebuchets and engage with the concerns of higher art. We’ve tended to lay this failure at the feet of a design culture that too often celebrates immaturity, but that may not be entirely fair. Computers are at bottom calculating machines, meaning they’re well-suited to simulating easily quantifiable physical realities. But how do you quantify love, beauty, or religious experience? It can be dangerous even to try. At worst — and possibly at best as well — you can wind up demeaning the very ineffabilities you wished to celebrate.

Civilization as well falls victim to this possibly irreconcilable dilemma. In creating their game of everything, their earnest attempt to capture the entirety of the long drama of human civilization, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley could hardly afford to leave out religion, one of said drama’s prime driving forces. Indeed, they endeavored to give it more than a token part, including the pivotal advances of Ceremonial Burial, Mysticism, and Religion — the last really a stand-in for Christianity, giving you the opportunity to build “cathedrals” — along with such religious Wonders of the World as the Oracle of Delphi, the Sistine Chapel, and the church music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Yet it seems that they didn’t know quite what to do with these things in mechanical, quantifiable, computable terms.

The Civilopedia thus tells us that religion was important in history only because “it brought peace of mind and the ability to get on with the work of life.” In that spirit, all of the advances and Wonders dealing with religion serve in one way or another to decrease the unhappiness level of your cities — a level which, if it gets too high, can throw a city and possibly even your entire civilization into revolt. “The role of religion in Sid Meier’s Civilization,” note Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich in Civilization: or Rome on 640K a Day, “is basically the cynical role of pacifying the masses rather than serving as an agent for progress.” This didn’t sit terribly well with Wilson in particular, who happened to be an ordained Baptist minister. Nor could it have done so with Sid Meier, himself a lifelong believer. But, really, what else were they to do with religion in the context of a numbers-oriented strategy game?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do feel compelled make the argument the game fails to make, to offer a defense of religion — and particularly, what with Civilization being a Western game with a Western historical orientation, Christianity — as a true agent of progress rather than a mere panacea. In these times of ours, when science and religion seem to be at war and the latter is all too frequently read as the greatest impediment to our continued progress, such a defense is perhaps more needed than ever.

Richard Dawkins smugly pats himself on the back for his fair-mindedness when, asked if he really considers religion to be the root of all evil in the world, he replies that no, “religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of everything.” And yet, he tells us:

Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian Wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as “Christ-killers,” no Northern Ireland “troubles,” no “honour killings,” no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money (“God wants you to give till it hurts”). Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it.

Fair points all; the record of religious — and not least Christian — atrocities is well-established. In the interest of complete fairness, however, let’s also acknowledge that but for religion those ancient statues whose destruction at the hands of the Taliban Dawkins so rightfully decries, not to mention his Jews being persecuted by Christians, would never have existed in the first place. Scholar of early Christianity Bart D. Ehrman — who, in case it matters, is himself today a reluctant non-believer — describes a small subset of the other things the world would lack if Christianity alone had never come to be:

The ancient triumph of Christianity proved to be the single greatest cultural transformation our world has ever seen. Without it the entire history of Late Antiquity would not have happened as it did. We would never have had the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Renaissance, or modernity as we know it. There could never have been a Matthew Arnold. Or any of the Victorian poets. Or any of the other authors of our canon: no Milton, no Shakespeare, no Chaucer. We would have had none of our revered artists: no Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, or Rembrandt. And none of our brilliant composers: no Mozart, Handel, or Bach.

One could say that such an elaborate counterfactual sounds more impressive than it really is; the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings somewhere in antiquity could presumably also have deprived us of all those things. Yet I think Ehrman’s deeper point is that all of the things and people he mentions, along with the modern world order and even the narrative of progress that has done so much to shape it, are at heart deeply Christian, whether they express any beliefs about God or not. I realize that’s an audacious statement to make, so let me try to unpack it as carefully as possible.

In earlier articles, I’ve danced around the idea of the narrative of progress as a prescriptive ethical framework — a statement of the way things ought to be — rather than a descriptive explication of the way they actually are. Let me try to make that idea clearer now by turning to one of the most important documents to emerge from the Enlightenment, the era that spawned the narrative of progress: the American Declaration of Independence.

We don’t need to read any further than the beginning of the second paragraph to find what we’re looking for: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” No other sentence I’ve ever read foregrounds the metaphysical aspect of progress quite like this one, the most famous sentence in the Declaration, possibly the most famous in all of American history. It’s a sentence that still gives me goosebumps every time I read it, thanks not least to that first clause: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” This might just be the most sweeping logical hand-wave I’ve ever seen. Nowhere in 1776 were any of these “truths” about human equality “self-evident.” The very notion that a functioning society could ever be founded on the principle of equality among people was no more than a century old. Over the course of that century, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Locke had expended thousands of pages in justifying what Thomas Jefferson was now dismissing as a given not worthy of discussion. With all due caveats to the scourge of slavery and the oppression of women and all the other imperfections of the young United States to come, the example that a society could indeed be built around equal toleration and respect for everyone was one of the most inspiring the world has ever known — and one that had very little to do with strict rationality.

Even today, there is absolutely no scientific basis to a claim that all people are equal. Science clearly tells us just the opposite: that some people are smarter, stronger, and healthier than other people. Still, the modern progressive ideal, allegedly so rational, continues to take as one of its most important principles Jefferson’s leap of faith. Nor does Jefferson’s extra-rational idealism stand alone. Consider that one version of the narrative of progress, the one bound up with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s eschatology of an end to which all of history is leading, tells us that that end will be achieved when all people are allowed to work in their individual thymos-fulfilling roles, as they ought to be. But “ought to,” of course, has little relevance in logic or science.

If the progressive impulse cannot be ascribed to pure rationality, we have to ask ourselves where Jefferson’s noble hand-wave came from. In a move that will surprise none of you who’ve read this far, I’d like to propose that the seeds of progressivism lie in the earliest days of the upstart religion of Christianity.

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote L.P. Hartley in The Go-Betweens. “They do things differently there.” And no more recent past is quite so foreign to us as the time before Jesus Christ was (actually or mythically) born. Bart D. Ehrman characterizes pre-Christian Mediterranean civilization as a culture of “dominance”:

In a culture of dominance, those with power are expected to assert their will over those who are weaker. Rulers are to dominate their subjects, patrons their clients, masters their slaves, men their women. This ideology was not merely a cynical grab for power or a conscious mode of oppression. It was the commonsense, millennia-old view that virtually everyone accepted and shared, including the weak and marginalized.

This ideology affected both social relations and government policy. It made slavery a virtually unquestioned institution promoting the good of society; it made the male head of the household a sovereign despot over all those under him; it made wars of conquest, and the slaughter they entailed, natural and sensible for the well-being of the valued part of the human race (that is, those invested with power).

With such an ideology one would not expect to find governmental welfare programs to assist weaker members of society: the poor, homeless, hungry, or oppressed. One would not expect to find hospitals to assist the sick, injured, or dying. One would not expect to find private institutions of charity designed to help those in need.

There’s a telling scene late in The Iliad which says volumes about the ancient system of ethics, and how different it was from our own. Achilles is about to inflict the killing blow on a young Trojan warrior, who begs desperately for his life. Achilles’s reply follows:

“Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.
And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am?
The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life
a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you,
death and the strong force of fate are waiting.
There will come a dawn or sunset or high noon
when a man will take my life in battle too —
flinging a spear perhaps
or whipping a deadly arrow off his bow.”

Life and death in Homer are matters of fate, not of morality. Mercy is neither given nor expected by his heroes.

Of course, the ancients had gods — plenty of them, in fact. A belief in a spiritual realm of the supernatural is far, far older than human civilization, dating back to the primitive animism of the earliest hunter-gatherers. By the time Homer first chanted the passage above, the pantheon of Greek gods familiar to every schoolchild today had been around for many centuries. Yet these gods, unsurprisingly, reflected the culture of dominance, so unspeakably brutal to our sensibilities, that we see in The Iliad, a poem explicitly chanted in homage to them.

The way these gods were worshiped was different enough from what we think of as religion today to raise the question of whether the word even applies to ancient sensibilities. Many ancient cultures seem to have had no concept or expectation of an afterlife (thus rather putting the lie to one argument frequently trotted out by atheists, that the entirety of the God Impulse can be explained by the very natural human dread of death). The ancient Romans carved the phrase “non fui; fui; non sum; non curo” on gravestones, which translates to “I was not; I was; I am not; I care not.” It’s a long way from “at rest with God.”

Another, even more important difference was the non-exclusivity of the ancient gods. Ancient “religion” was not so much a creed or even a collection of creeds as it was a buffet of gods from which one could mix and match as one would. When one civilization encountered another, it was common for each to assimilate the gods of the other, creating a sort of divine mash-up. Sumerian gods blended with the Babylonian, who blended with the Greek, who were given Latin names and assimilated by the Romans… there was truly a god for every taste and for every need. If you were unlucky in love, you might want to curry favor with Aphrodite; if the crops needed rain, perhaps you should sacrifice to Demeter; etc., etc. The notion of converting to a religion, much less that of being “born again” or the like, would have been greeted by the ancients with complete befuddlement.1

And then into this milieu came Jesus Christ, only to be promptly, as Douglas Adams once put it, “nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.” It’s very difficult to adequately convey just how revolutionary Christianity, a religion based on love and compassion rather than dominance, really was. I defer one more time to Bart D. Ehrman:

Leaders of the Christian church preached and urged an ethic of love and service. One person was not more important than another. All were on the same footing before God: the master was no more significant than the slave, the husband than the wife, the powerful than the weak, or the robust than the diseased.

The very idea that society should serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized became a distinctively Christian concern. Without the conquest of Christianity, we may well never have had institutionalized welfare for the poor or organized healthcare for the sick.  Billions of people may never have embraced the idea that society should serve the marginalized or be concerned with the well-being of the needy, values that most of us in the West have simply assumed are “human” values.

Christianity carried within it as well a notion of freedom of choice that would be critical to the development of liberal democracy. Unlike the other belief systems of the ancient world, which painted people as hapless playthings of their gods, Christianity demanded that you choose whether to follow Christ’s teachings and thus be saved; you held the fate of your own soul in your own hands. If ordinary people have agency over their souls, why not agency over their governments?

But that was the distant future. For the people of the ancient world, Christianity’s tenet that they — regardless of who they were — were worthy of receiving the same love and compassion they were urged to bestow upon others had an immense, obvious appeal. Hegel, a philosopher of ambiguous personal spiritual beliefs who saw religions as intellectual memes arising out of the practical needs of the people who created them, would later describe Christianity as the perfect slave religion, providing the slaves who made up the bulk of its adherents during the early years with the tool of their own eventual liberation.

And so, over the course of almost 300 years, Christianity gradually bubbled up from the most wretched and scorned members of society to finally reach the Roman Emperor Constantine, the most powerful man in the world, in his luxurious palace. The raw numbers accompanying its growth are themselves amazing. At the time of Jesus Christ’s death, the entirety of the Christian religion consisted of his 20 or so immediate disciples. By the time Constantine converted in AD 312, there were about 3 million Christians in the world, despite persecution by the same monarch’s predecessors. In the wake of Constantine’s official sanction, Christianity grew to as many as 35 million disciples by AD 400. And today roughly one-third of the world’s population — almost 2.5 billion people — call themselves Christians of one kind or another. For meme theorists, Christianity provides perhaps the ultimate example of an idea that was so immensely appealing on its own merits that it became literally unstoppable. And for political historians, its takeover of the Roman Empire provides perhaps the first example in history of a class revolution, a demonstration of the power of the masses to shake the palaces of the elites.

Which is not to say that everything about the Christian epoch would prove better than what had come before it. “There is no need of force and injury because religion cannot be forced,” wrote the Christian scholar Lactantius hopefully around AD 300. “It is a matter that must be managed by words rather than blows, so that it may be voluntary.” Plenty would conspicuously fail to take his words to heart, beginning just 35 years later with the appropriately named Firmicus, an advisor with the newly Christianized government of Rome, who told his liege that “your severity should be visited in every way on the crime of idolatry.” The annals of the history that followed are bursting at the seams with petty tyrants, from Medieval warlords using the cross on their shields to justify their blood lust to modern-day politicians of the Moral Majority railing against “those sorts of people,” who have adopted the iconography of Christianity whilst missing the real point entirely. This aspect of Christianity’s history cannot and should not be ignored.

That said, I don’t want to belabor too much more today Christianity’s long history as a force for both good and ill. I’ll just note that the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which led to the bloodiest war in human history prior to World War I, also brought with it a new vitality to the religion, doing much to spark that extraordinary acceleration in the narrative of progress which began in the eighteenth century. I remember discussing the narrative of progress with a conservative Catholic acquaintance of mine who’s skeptical of the whole notion’s spiritual utility. “That’s a very Protestant idea,” he said about it, a little dismissively. “Yeah,” I had to agree after some thought. “I guess you’re right.” Protestantism is still linked in the popular imagination with practical progress; the phrase “Protestant work ethic” still crops up again and again, and studies continue to show that large-scale conversions to Protestantism are usually accompanied — for whatever reason — by increases in a society’s productivity and a decline in criminality.

One could even argue that it was really the combination of the ethos of love, compassion, equality, and personal agency that had been lurking within Christianity from the beginning with this new Protestant spirit of practical, worldly achievement in the old ethos’s service that led to the Declaration of Independence and the United States of America, that “shining city on a hill” inspiring the rest of the world. (The parallels between this worldly symbol of hope and the Christian Heaven are, I trust, so obvious as to not be worth going into here.) It took the world almost 2000 years to make the retrospectively obvious leap from the idea that all people are equal before God to the notion that all people are equal, period. Indeed, in many ways we still haven’t quite gotten there, even in our most “civilized” countries. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine the second leap being made absent the first; the seeds of the Declaration of Independence were planted in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.

Of course, counterfactuals will always have their appeal. If, as many a secular humanist has argued over the years, equality and mutual respect really are just a rationally better way to order a society, it’s certainly possible we would have gotten as far as we have today by some other route — possibly even have gotten farther, if we had been spared some of the less useful baggage which comes attached to Christianity. In the end, however, we have only one version of history which we can truly judge: the one that actually took place. So, credit where it’s due.

Said credit hasn’t always been forthcoming. In light of the less inspiring aspects of Christianity’s history, there’s a marked tendency in some circles to condemn its faults without acknowledging its historical virtues, often accompanied by a romanticizing of the pre-Christian era. By the time Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 312, thus transforming it at a stroke from an upstart populist movement to the status it still holds today as the dominant religion of the Western world, the Roman Empire was getting long in the tooth indeed, and the thousand years of regress and stagnation that would come to be called the Dark Ages were looming. Given the timing, it’s all too easily for historians of certain schools to blame Christianity for what followed. Meanwhile many a libertine professor of art or literature has talked of the ancients’ comfort with matters of the body and sexuality, contrasting it favorably with the longstanding Christian discomfort with same.

But our foremost eulogizer of the ancient ways remains that foremost critic of the narrative of progress in general, Friedrich Nietzsche. His homage to the superiority of might makes right over Christian compassion carries with it an unpleasant whiff of the Nazi ideology that would burst into prominence thirty years after his death:

The sick are the greatest danger for the well. The weaker, not the stronger, are the strong’s undoing. It is not fear of our fellow man which we should wish to see diminished; for fear rouses those who are strong to become terrible in turn themselves, and preserves the hard-earned and successful type of humanity. What is to be dreaded by us more than any other doom is not fear but rather the great disgust, not fear but rather the great pity — disgust and pity for our human fellows.

The morbid are our greatest peril — not the “bad” men, not the predatory beings. Those born wrong, the miscarried, the broken — they it is, the weakest who are undermining the vitality of the race, poisoning our trust in life, and putting humanity in question. Every look of them is a sigh — “Would I were something other! I am sick and tired of what I am.” In this swamp soil of self-contempt, every poisonous weed flourishes, and all so small, so secret, so dishonest, and so sweetly rotten. Here swarm the worms of sensitiveness and resentment, here the air smells odious with secrecy, with what is not to be acknowledged; here is woven endlessly the net of the meanest conspiracies, the conspiracy of those who suffer against those who succeed and are victorious; here the very aspect of the victorious is hated — as if health, success, strength, pride, and the sense of power were in themselves things vicious, for which one ought eventually to make bitter expiation. Oh, how these people would themselves like to inflict expiation, how they thirst to be the hangmen! And all the while their duplicity never confesses their hatred to be hatred.

To be sure, there were good things about the ancient ways. When spiritual beliefs are a buffet, there’s little point in fighting holy wars; while the ancients fought frequently and violently over many things large and small, they generally didn’t go to war over their gods. Even governmental suppression of religious faith, which forms such an important part of the early legends of Christianity, was apparently suffered by few other other groups of believers.2 Still, it’s hard to believe that very many of our post-Christ romanticizers of the ancient ways would really choose to go back there if push came to shove — least of all among them Nietzsche, a sickly, physically weak man who suffered several major mental breakdowns over the course of his life. He wouldn’t have lasted a day among his beloved Bronze Age Greeks; ironically, it was only the fruits of the progress he so decried that allowed him to fulfill his own form of thymos.

At any rate, I hope I’ve made a reasonable case for Christianity as a set of ideas that have done the world much good, perhaps even enough to outweigh the atrocities committed in the religion’s name. At this juncture, I do want to emphasize again that one’s opinion of Christian values need not have any connection with one’s belief in the veracity of the Christian God. For my part, I try my deeply imperfect best to live by those core values of love, compassion, and equality, but I have absolutely no sense of an anthropomorphic God looking down from somewhere above, much less a desire to pray to Him.

It even strikes me as reasonable to argue that the God part of Christianity has outlived His essentialness; one might say that the political philosophy of secular humanism is little more than Christianity where faith in God is replaced with faith in human rationality. Certainly the world today is more secular than it’s ever been, even as it’s also more peaceful and prosperous than it’s ever been. A substantial portion of those 2.5 billion nominal Christians give lip service but little else to the religion; I think about the people all across Europe who still let a small part of their taxes go to their country’s official church out of some vague sense of patriotic obligation, despite never actually darkening any physical church’s doors.

Our modern world’s peace and prosperity would seem to be a powerful argument for secularism. Yet a question is still frequently raised: does a society lose something important when it loses the God part of Christianity — or for that matter the God part of any other religion — even if it retains most of the core values? Some, such as our atheist friend Richard Dawkins, treat the very notion of religiosity as social capital with contempt, another version of the same old bread-and-circuses coddling of the masses, keeping them peaceful and malleable by telling them that another, better life lies in wait after they die, thus causing them to forgo opportunities for bettering their lots in this life. But, as happens with disconcerting regularity, Dawkins’s argument here is an oversimplification. As we’ve seen already, a belief in an afterlife isn’t a necessary component of spiritual belief (although, as the example of Christianity proves, it certainly can’t hurt a religion’s popularity). It’s more interesting to address the question not through the micro lens of what is good for an individual or even a collection of individuals in society, but rather through the macro lens of what is good for society as an entity unto itself.

And it turns out that there are plenty of people, many of them not believers themselves, who express concern over what else a country loses as it loses its religion. The most immediately obvious of the problematic outcomes is a declining birth rate. The well-known pension crisis in Europe, caused by the failure of populations there to replace themselves, correlates with the fact that Europe is by far the most secular place in the world. More abstractly but perhaps even more importantly, the decline in organized religion in Europe and in North America has contributed strongly to a loss of communal commons. There was a time not that long ago when the local church was the center of a community’s social life, not just a place of worship but one of marriages, funerals, pot lucks, swap meets, dances, celebrations, and fairs, a place where people from all walks of life came together to flirt, to socialize, to hash out policy, to deal with crises, and to help those less fortunate. Our communities have grown more diffuse with the decline of religion, on both a local and a national scale.

Concern about the loss of religion as a binding social force, balanced against a competing and equally valid concern for the plight of those who choose not to participate in the majority religion, has provoked much commentary in recent decades. We live more and more isolated lives, goes the argument, cut off from our peers, existing in a bubble of multimedia fantasy and empty consumerism, working only to satisfy ourselves. Already in 1995, before the full effect of the World Wide Web and other new communications technologies had been felt, the political scientist Robert D. Putnam created a stir in the United States with his article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” which postulated that civic participation of the sort that had often been facilitated by churches was on a worrisome decline. For many critics of progress, the alleged isolating effect of technology has only made the decline more worrisome in more recent years. In Denmark, the country where I live now — and a country which is among the most secular even in secular Europe — newly arrived immigrants have sometimes commented to me about the isolating effect of even the comprehensive government-administered secular safety net: how elderly people who would once have been taken care of by their families get shunted off to publicly-funded nursing homes instead, how children can cut ties with their families as soon as they reach university age thanks to a generous program of student stipends.

The state of Christianity in many countries today, as more of a default or vestigial religion than a vital driving faith, is often contrasted unfavorably with that of Islam, its monotheistic younger brother which still trails it somewhat in absolute numbers of believers but seems to attract far more passion and devotion from those it has. Mixed with reluctant admiration of Islam’s vitality is fear of the intolerance it supposedly breeds and the acts of terrorism carried out in its name. I’ve had nothing to say about Islam thus far — in my defense, neither does the game of Civilization — and the end of this long article isn’t the best place to start analyzing it. I will note, however, that the history of Islam, like that of Christianity, has encompassed both inspirational achievements and horrible atrocities. Rather than it being Islam itself that is incompatible with liberal democracy, there seems to be something about conditions in the notorious cauldron of conflict that is the Middle East — perhaps the distortions produced by immense wealth sitting there just underground in the form of oil and the persistent Western meddling that oil has attracted — which has repeatedly stunted those countries’ political and economic development. Majority Muslim nations in other parts of the world, such as Indonesia and Senegal, do manage to exist as reasonably free and stable democracies. Ultimately, the wave of radical Islamic terrorism that has provoked such worldwide panic since September 11, 2001, may have at least as much to do with disenfranchisement and hopelessness as it does with religion. If and when the lives of the young Muslim men who are currently most likely to become terrorists improve, their zeal to be religious martyrs will likely fade — as quite likely will, for better or for worse, the zeal of many of them for their religion in general. After all, we’ve already seen this movie play out with Christianity in the starring role.

As for Christianity, the jury is still out on the effects of its decline in a world which has to a large extent embraced its values but may not feel as much of a need for its God and for its trappings of worship. One highly optimistic techno-progressivist view — one to which I’m admittedly very sympathetic — holds that the ties that bind us together haven’t really been weakened so very much at all, that the tyranny of geography over our circles of empathy is merely being replaced, thanks to new technologies of communication and travel, by true communities of interest, where physical location need be of only limited relevance. Even the demographic crisis provoked by declining birth rates might be solved by future technologies which produce more wealth for everyone with less manpower. And the fact remains that, taken in the abstract, fewer people on this fragile planet of ours is really a very good thing. We shall see.

I realize I’ve had little to say directly about the game of Civilization in this article, but I’m not quite willing to apologize for that. As I stated at the outset, the game’s handling of religion isn’t terribly deep; there just isn’t a lot of “there” there when it comes to religion and Civilization. Yet religion has been so profoundly important to the development of real-world civilization that this series of articles would have felt incomplete if I didn’t try to remedy the game’s lack by addressing the topic in some depth. And in another way, of course, the game of Civilization would never have existed without the religion of Christianity in particular, simply because so much of the animating force of the narrative of progress, which in turn is the animating force of Civilization, is rooted in Christian values. In that sense, then, this article has been all about the game of Civilization — as it has been all about the values underpinning so much of the global order we live in today.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The Story of Civilization Volume I: Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, The Iliad by Homer, Lectures on the Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World by Bart D. Ehrman, The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital by Robert D. Putnam, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.)


  1. There were just three exceptions to the rule of non-exclusivity, all of them also rare pre-Christian examples of monotheism. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten decreed around 1350 BC that his kingdom’s traditional pantheon of gods be replaced with the single sun god Aten. But his new religion was accepted only resentfully, with the old gods continuing to be worshiped in secret, and was gradually done away with after his death. Then there was Zoroastrianism, a religion with some eyebrow-raising similarities to the later religion of Christianity which sprung up in Iran in the sixth century BC. It still has active adherents today. And then of course there were the Jews, whose single God would brook no rivals in His people’s hearts and minds. But the heyday of an independent kingdom of Judah was brief indeed, and in the centuries that followed the Jews were regarded as a minor band of oddball outcasts, a football to be kicked back and forth by their more powerful neighbors. 

  2. The most well-documented incidence of same occurred in 186 BC, and targeted worshipers of Bacchus, the famously rowdy god of wine. These drunkards got in such a habit of going on raping-and-pillaging sprees through the countryside that the Roman Senate, down to its last nerve with the bro-dudes of the classical world, rounded up 7000 of them for execution and pulled down their temples all over Roman territory. 

 
 

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The Game of Everything, Part 5: Civilization and War

War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention.

— Henry Maine

As soon as they decided to bring rival civilizations into their game of Civilization to compete with the one being guided by the player, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley knew they would also have to bring in ways of fighting wars. This understanding may be a depressing one on some level, but it squares with the realities of history. As far back as we can observe, humans have been killing one another. Even the possibility of long-term, lasting peace in the world is, as the Henry Maine quote above says, a very recent idea.

Tellingly, The Iliad, the oldest complete work in the Western literary canon, is a story of war. Likely written down for the first time in the eighth century BC, it hearkens back to the Trojan War of yet several centuries earlier, a conflict shrouded in myth and legend even at the time the supposed blind poet Homer first began to chant his tale. The epic does devote space to the ultimate pointlessness of being pawns in the sport of the gods that was the Bronze Age Greeks’ conception of war, as well as the suffering engendered by it. Yet that doesn’t prevent it from glorying in all the killing, thus illustrating that ultra-violent popular entertainments are anything but a modern phenomenon. The goriest videogame has nothing on Homer:

He hurled and Athena drove the shaft
and it split the archer’s nose between the eyes —
it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze
cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw
and the point came ripping out beneath his chin.
He pitched from his car, armor clanged against him,
a glimmering blaze of metal dazzling round his back —
the purebreds reared aside, hoofs pounding the air
and his life and power slipped away on the wind.

Just as Homer looms large in the early Greek literary tradition, one Heraclitus does the same in early Greek philosophy; legend tells us he wrote around 500 BC. Only fragments of his works remain to us today, mostly in the form of quotations lifted from them by later philosophers. Those fragments and the things those later commentators wrote about him identify Heraclitus as a philosopher of flux and change; “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” goes his most famous aphorism. He was apparently the first to identify the tension between physis, the reality of being in all its chaotic, ever-changing splendor, and logos, meaning literally “word” or “speech” in Greek — all of the rules of logic and ethics which humans apply in the hopeless task of trying to understand and master physis. A disciple of Heraclitus would call the narrative of progress a pathetic attempt to bridle the physis of history by forcing a comforting logophilic structure upon it.

As a philosopher of unbridled physis, Heraclitus was also a philosopher of war, of conflict in all its forms. “We must know that strife is common to all and strife is justice,” he wrote, “and that all things come into being through strife necessarily.” Neglected for a long time in favor of the cooler metaphysics of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Heraclitus burst back into prominence at last in the early nineteenth century AD, when he was rediscovered by the German school of idealist philosophers. Later in the same century, Friedrich Nietzsche, who loathed the rationality of the Enlightenment and the narrative of progress it inspired, saw in Homer and Heraclitus alike a purer, more essential reflection of the reality of existence.

But we need not agree with Nietzsche that the Greeks of the Bronze Age had everything right and that it’s been all downhill from there to find something of value in Heraclitus. Consider again this assertion that “all things come into being through strife.” There is, it seems to me, some truth there, perhaps more truth than we’d like to admit. As Nietzsche’s contemporary Charles Darwin taught us, this is how biological evolution works. Strife is, in other words, what made us, the human race, what we are as a species. And it would certainly appear that our earliest civilizations too came into being through strife.

During the Enlightenment era, two dueling points of view about the nature of primitive peoples dominated. The Swiss/French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the cliché of the “gentle savage,” who lived in a state of nature with his companions in an Eden of peace and tranquility, untouched by the profanities of modern life; progress in all its guises, Rousseau asserted, had only led humanity to “decrepitness.” Rousseau saw the narrative of progress as a narrative of regress, of civilization and all its trappings serving only to divorce humanity more and more from the idyllic state of nature. But Thomas Hobbes, whom we already encountered in my previous article, took the polar opposite view, seeing the lives of primitive peoples as “nasty, brutish, and short,” and seeing the civilizing forces of progress as the best things ever to befall his species. He believed, in other words, that humanity’s distancing itself more and more from the primitive state of nature was an unalloyed good thing.

This duality has remained with us to the present day. You can see much of Rousseau in the Woodstock Generation’s claim that “we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden,” as you can in some aspects of the modern environmental movement and our societies’ general fetish for all things “natural.” Meanwhile Hobbes’s ideology of progress is, of course, the core, driving idea behind the game of Civilization, among other signs of the times.

So, we have to ask ourselves, who’s right — or, at the very least, who’s more nearly right? There are few if any human communities left in the world today who live in so complete a state of nature as to conclusively prove or disprove the theory of the gentle savage. We can, however, turn to the evidence of archaeology to arrive at what feels like a fairly satisfying answer.

Almost all of the most famous finds of Stone Age corpses show evidence at the least of having suffered violent trauma, more commonly of having died from it. Indeed, the fact that it can seem almost impossible to turn up any human remains that don’t show evidence of violence has become something of a running joke among archaeologists. Ötzi the Iceman, as a 5000-year-old body discovered in the Austrian Alps in 1991 became known, turned out to have been shot with a bow and arrow and dumped into the crevasse where he was found. Kennewick Man, a 9500-year-old body discovered in Washington State in 1996, had been shot in the pelvis with some sort of stone projectile that remained embedded there. Lindow Man, a 2000-year-old body discovered in rural England in 1984, had been bonked on the head with a blunt object, had his neck broken with a twisted cord, and then, just to make sure, had his throat cut. Another 2000-year-old body found more recently in England had been beheaded, probably in a form of ritual sacrifice. Yet another recent discovery, a 4600-year-old family consisting of a man, a woman, and their two children, showed evidence of having been killed in a raid on their encampment. The Garden of Eden theory of early human history, it would appear, is right out.

Rather than being their antagonist, violence — or, often, the threat of violence — was a prime driver of early civilizations. Sentiment may have sufficed for primitive humans to keep their family and perhaps their friends close, but it was the logic of survival that pushed them to begin to enlarge their circles of concern, to band together into the larger communities that could form the basis for civilization. Long before humans had any inkling of a narrative of progress, the most important, tangible benefit of civilization was protection from the depredations of hostile neighbors. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant called this development, which paradoxically arose out of the impulse toward conflict rather than cooperation, “asocial sociability”:

In a sense, this reality that civilizations are born in violence is baked into the game of Civilization. From the mid-game on, it’s possible to make a very good go of it as a peaceful democracy, to be a good global citizen not declaring war unless war is declared on you, striving to trade and research your way to Alpha Centauri. Before you reach that stage, however, you have to be a despotic state no better than any of the others. As every Civilization veteran knows, it’s absolutely vital to establish sovereignty over your starting continent during this early stage in order to have enough cities and resources to be competitive later on. Thus you can’t afford to play the gentle savage, even if you believe such a person ever existed. If, as is likely, there are rival civilizations on your starting continent, you have to conquer them before you can think about peaceful coexistence with anyone else.

But the debt which the narrative of progress owes to war and the threat of war extends far beyond a civilization’s early stages, both in real history and in the game. In fact, the modern world order, built around fairly large nation-states with strong centralized governments, is, along with all of the progress it has spawned on so many fronts, a direct outgrowth of the need to project military power effectively.

Early twentieth-century writers, reacting to the horrible wars of their times, concocted the legend of war as a more honorable affair during earlier ages, one in which civilians were spared and soldiers comported themselves as civilized men. One has only to read The Iliad to know what a load of bunk that is; war has always been the nastiest, most brutal business there is, and codes of behavior have seldom survived an army’s first contact with the enemy. And if one was unfortunate enough to be a civilian caught between two armies… well, raping and pillaging were as popular among soldiers of earlier centuries as it was among those of the twentieth, as the stories of same in The Iliad once again cogently illustrate.

Still, there were important differences between the wars that were fought prior to the eighteenth century and those that came later. It’s easy today to overlook how differently societies were organized prior to the Enlightenment era. Such modern countries as Germany and Italy were still collections of small independent states, cooperating at best under a framework of uneasy alliances. Even where there existed a centralized government, the monarch’s power was sharply limited under the feudal systems that held sway. If he wished to go to war, he was often reduced to begging his nobles for the money and manpower necessary to do so. In addition, economies in general had very limited resources to set aside from the basic task of feeding themselves in favor of waging war. It all added up to make wars into hugely inefficient businesses, where months or even years could go by between significant battles. In many ways, of course, that was good for the people of the countries fighting them.

It was the unification of England and Scotland as Great Britain in 1707 that marked the beginning of the modern nation-state. Thirty years before said unification, the entire English army consisted of no more than 15,000 soldiers, a number that could be packed into a typical modern sports arena and leave plenty of seats to spare. The historian John Brewer describes what followed:

The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw an astonishing transformation in British government, one which put muscles on the bones of the British body politic, increasing its endurance, strength, and reach. Britain was able to shoulder an ever more ponderous burden of military commitments thanks to a radical increase in taxation, the development of public-debt finance (a national debt) on an unprecedented scale, and the growth of a sizable public administration devoted to organizing the fiscal and military activities of the state.

This radical remaking was driven by two principal factors. One was advances in technology and engineering that freed up more and more people to work at tasks other than food production; this was, after all, the period of the Enlightenment, when the narrative of progress went into overdrive. The other was the need to efficiently project military power to ever more far-flung locales in the world — the need of a burgeoning British Empire.

Alongside a centralized government bureaucracy and standing military grew that necessary evil for funding it: taxes. The effective average British tax rate rose from 3.5 percent in 1675 to 23 percent a century later, to no less than 35 percent at the height of the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century. And, what with the people from these earlier centuries not being all that different from us at bottom, lots and lots of them didn’t like it one bit. One William Pulteney spoke for them:

Let any gentleman but look into the Statute Books lying upon our Table, he will see there to what a vast Bulk, to what a Number of Volumes, our Statutes relating to Taxes have swelled. It is monstrous, it is even frightful to look into the Indexes, where for several Columns together we see nothing but Taxes, Taxes, Taxes.

The modern developed nation-state — bureaucratic, orderly, highly centralized, and absurdly highly taxed in comparison to any other era of human history — had been born, largely to meet the needs of the military.

With one country having remade itself in this more militarily efficient image, the other countries of the world felt they had no choice but to follow in order to remain competitive. In Europe, France and Spain concentrated more power than ever before in the hands of a central government, while the various small kingdoms that had traditionally made up Italy and Germany finally felt compelled to unify as centralized nations in their own right. The Ottoman Empire too remade itself after suffering a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the ultra-modern nation-state of Napoleonic France, as did faraway Japan after the American Commodore Matthew Perry waltzed into Edo Bay with a small fleet of modern warships and held the shogunate hostage at gunpoint; “rich country, strong army” became the slogan for Japan’s economic, bureaucratic, social, and of course military modernization.

The game of Civilization does a rather remarkably clever job of depicting most of the factors I’ve just described. The deeper into the game you play, the more your maintenance costs go up, meaning that you have to tax your people more and more to maintain your civilization. And the game also captures the spur which the threat of war constantly gave to the progressive impulse; if you let your civilization fall too far behind its rivals in military terms, they will pounce. This alone provides a strong motivation to keep researching the latest advances, exactly as it did historically. The narrative of progress, in the game and in history, owes much to war.

But when we come to the second half of the twentieth century of our own planet’s history, the notion of war and/or the threat of war as a prime driver of the narrative of progress becomes more fraught. It has long been commonplace for critics of progress to contrast the bloody twentieth century with the relatively peaceful nineteenth century, using a range of seemingly telling statistics about death and suffering to anchor their contention that the narrative of progress has really only made us better at killing one another. Yet their insistence on passing their statistical judgment on the twentieth century as a whole obscures something rather important: while the first half of the century was indeed inordinately, almost inconceivably bloody, the second half was vastly less so. The statistics for the century as a whole, in other words, are hopelessly skewed by what we can all agree to hope were the historical anomalies of the two biggest wars ever fought.

Since the end of World War II, the situation has been much different. While small wars have certainly continued to be fought, two proverbial “great powers” haven’t met one another directly on a battlefield since 1945: that’s 73 years as I write these words, a record for all of post-classical human history. As the political scientist Robert Jervis could write already in 1988, “the most striking characteristic of the postwar period is just that — it can be called ‘postwar’ because the major powers have not fought each other since 1945. Such a lengthy period of peace among the most powerful states is unprecedented.” The change is so marked that historians have come up with a name for the period stretching from 1945 to the present: “The Long Peace.” This is the aspect of the Cold War which was overlooked by a public justifiably worried about the threat of nuclear annihilation, which was obscured by the small-scale proxy wars and police actions fought by the Americans in places like Vietnam and by the Soviets in places like Afghanistan. And yet the Long Peace has now outlasted the Cold War with which it overlapped by more than a quarter of a century.

If we want to identify what changed in the nature of warfare itself at the end of World War II, the answer is blazingly obvious: the atomic bomb entered the picture. The idea of a weapon so terrible that it would bring an end to war wasn’t, it should be noted, a new one at the time the bomb entered the picture. In 1864, Victor Hugo, looking forward to a future replete with flying machines, proposed that their potential on the battlefield would be sufficient to make armies “vanish, and with them the whole business of war.” Even the logic of mutually-assured destruction wasn’t really new at the dawn of the Cold War. In 1891, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, suggested to an Austrian countess that “perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”

Still, nuclear weapons, with their capacity to mutually destroy not just opposing armies but opposing civilizations — and, indeed, the entirety of the world that built them — were clearly something new under the sun. It’s thus not hugely surprising to find that the game of Civilization doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with them when they finally appear so late in the day. After doing a credible job in the broad strokes, all things considered, of portraying the global balance of military power through World War II, the edges really begin to fray at the advent of the nuclear age. The game makes no space for the total destruction of an all-out nuclear exchange. Nuclear strikes come at a considerable cost to the environment, but it is possible in the game to win a nuclear war, sending what some critics regard as a regrettable message. To be fair to Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley, it would be very difficult indeed to implement nuclear weapons in a way that feels both true to history and satisfying in the game. Thus Civilization fell victim here to Meier’s old maxim of “fun trumps history.” That said, the designers did make an obvious attempt to simulate what a Pandora’s Box nuclear weapons really are in at least one way. When one civilization builds the Manhattan Project Wonder, all civilizations in the game who have researched the Rocketry advance get instant access to nuclear weapons.

This side of the game serves as a fine illustration of an aspect of strategy-game design that’s very easy to overlook. Many players believe that the ideal artificial intelligence plays just like a human would, but this isn’t always the case at all. If the more militaristic civilizations in the game were to start wildly nuking the player, ruining the civilization she’d spent so long building, she wouldn’t feel pleased that the artificial intelligence was so smart. Not at all; she’d feel like she was being punished for no good reason. Fun, it seems, also trumps perfect artificial intelligence. Your opponents in Civilization are notably reluctant to employ nuclear weapons in light of this maxim, only doing it to you if you start doing it to them.

The one memorable exception to this rule is down to a bug. Gandhi, the leader of the Indian civilization, is coded to be extremely non-aggressive. Problem is, his “aggression” setting is so low that it can actually loop back around to the maximum value when modifiers get subtracted. The upshot of all this is that he winds up being passive-aggressive rather than non-aggressive, avoiding all conflict until he acquires nuclear weapons, then letting the nukes fly with abandon. One can see this behavior as an unfortunate if unintentional bit of ethnic stereotyping. But one can also, of course, see it as kind of hilarious.

At any rate, there is nothing like the Long Peace accounted for in the game. (Admittedly, the Long Peace was much shorter at the time that the original Civilization was made.) As for historians: their points of view on the subject can be broadly sorted into two opposing camps, which I’ll call the realpolitik view and the globalist-idealist view. Both camps give due deference to the importance of nuclear weapons in any discussion of postwar geopolitics, but they diverge from there.

Those who fancy themselves the sober realists of the realpolitik school believe that the fundamentals of war and peace haven’t really changed at all, only the stakes in terms of potential destruction. From the first time that a primitive tribe armed itself with spears to make a neighboring tribe of warlike neighbors think twice before attacking its camp, weapons of war have been as useful for preventing wars as for fighting them. Nuclear weapons, the realpolitik camp claims, represent only a change in degree, not in kind. From this point of view arose the rhetoric of peace through strength, deployed liberally by steely Cold Warriors on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Safety, went the logic, lay in being so militarily strong that no one would ever dare mess with you. The Long Peace was a credit to the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union — and, after the Cold War, the United States alone — were so thoroughly prepared to kick any other country’s ass, with or without employing nuclear weapons.

The globalist-idealist view doesn’t ignore the awesome power of nuclear weapons by any means, but sees it through a more nuanced framework. Many people at the dawn of the nuclear age — not least many of scientists of the Manhattan Project who had helped to build the bomb — hoped that its power would lead to a philosophical or even spiritual awakening, prompting humanity to finally put an end to war. Some went so far as to advocate for the sharing of the technology behind the bomb with all the countries of the world, thus placing the whole world on a level playing field and ending the dominion of strong over weak countries everywhere. Such a thing wasn’t done, but there may be reason to believe that the idealistic impulse which led to proposals like this one found another outlet which has done the world an immense amount of good.

Looking back to the actual horrors of the previous few decades and the potential horrors of nuclear war, countries across the world after World War II instituted an international system of order that would have sounded like a utopian dream five years before. Its centerpiece was the United Nations, a forum unlike any that had existed before in human history, a place to which disputes between countries could be brought, to be hashed out with the help of neutral peers before they turned into shooting wars. Meanwhile an International Court of Justice would, again for the first time in history, institute a binding, globalized system of law to which all of the United Nations’s signatories, big or small, would be bound.

These are the major, obvious institutions of the globalized postwar order, but the spirit that spawned them has led to countless other international organs of communication and dispute resolution. Perhaps the most amazing of these — and an institution whose amazingness is too often overlooked — is the European Union. Known throughout most of history as the world’s preeminent powder keg of war, Europe, with its dozens of culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse countries packed together more closely than anywhere else in the world, has at last managed to set aside ancient rivalries and the many wars to which they historically led in favor of a grand continent-spanning cooperative project that’s made the idea of another general European war all but unimaginable. Even the recent decision by Britain to withdraw from the European Union hasn’t, as was breathlessly predicted by so many Cassandras, led to the dissolution of the project. Instead the latest polling shows substantially increased support for the European Union among the citizens of its remaining member states, as if the blow that was Brexit caused many to wake up to just how precious it really is.

To the extent that it takes a position, the game of Civilization winds up pitching its tent with the realpolitik school, although one does sense that this is done almost by default. Its mechanics are suited to depicting a global order based on the military balance of power, but, while the United Nations does make a token appearance, the game has no real mechanism for transcending nationalism and the wars that tend to accompany it. Only limited cooperation between rival civilizations is possible, and, especially at the higher difficulty levels, it’s a careful player indeed who manages to avoid wars in the climactic stages of the game. All of this is perhaps unfortunate, but forgivable given the long arc of history the game has to cover.

In the real world, however, your humble writer here does see reason to believe that we may be edging into a new, post-national, postwar-in-the-universal-sense era. Of course, we need to be very careful when we begin to assert that we’re privileged to live in a unique time in history. Many an earlier era has been foolish enough to regard itself as unique, only to learn, sometimes painfully, that the old rules still apply. Yet recent decades really do seem to have altered our attitudes toward war. The acquisition of territory by military force, once considered a matter of course, is now looked upon so unfavorably by the world at large that even as established a bad actor on the world stage as Vladimir Putin’s Russia felt compelled to justify its annexation of the Crimea in 2014 with a sham referendum. The United States, widely regarded with some justification as the last remaining warmonger among the well-developed Western nations, nevertheless goes to lengths that would have been inconceivable in earlier eras to avoid civilian casualties in its various military adventures. The same reluctance to accept war for the ugly business it is does everything to explain why, despite having the most powerful military the world has ever known, the same country tends to clearly win so very few of the wars it starts.

Changing attitudes toward war in the West can also be charted through our war memorials. London’s Trafalgar Square, a celebration of a major naval victory over Napoleon, is almost a caricature of extravagant triumphalism, with an outsized Admiral Horatio Nelson looking proudly down on the scene from the top of a 170-foot column. The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., on the other hand, engages with its subject — one of those recent wars the United States failed to win out of an unwillingness to behave as brutally as was necessary — not as a triumph but as a tragedy, being a somber roll call of the ordinary soldiers who lost their lives there. But perhaps nowhere is the transformation in attitudes more marked than in Germany, which, after instigating the most terrible war in history well under a century ago, is now arguably the most fundamentally pacifistic nation in the West, going so far as to anger free-speech advocates by banning blood in videogames and banning right-wing political parties that venture anywhere close to the ideological territory once occupied by the Nazi party.

This notion that we are on the cusp of a new era of peaceful international cooperation, that soon the brutality of war might be as unthinkable to the modern mind as that of slavery or institutionalized torture, was a key component of Francis Fukayama’s assertion that humanity might be reaching the end of its history. A quarter-century on from that audacious thesis, the international order has been shaken at times, particularly by events in recent years, but the edifices built in the aftermath of World War II still stand. Even if we can only partially agree with the statement that humanity has finally found an orderly alternative to war through those edifices — reserving the other half of the Long Peace equation to the old realpolitik of might makes right, in the person of the peace-guaranteeing power of the United States and that ultimate deterrent of nuclear weapons — we might be slowly leaving behind the era of nationalism that began with the emergence of strong, centralized nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and led eventually to so much bloodshed in the first half of the twentieth. Even more optimistically, we might soon be able to say farewell to war as humanity has always known it. “Last night I had the strangest dream,” goes a lovely old folk song. “I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.” Today we are, by any objective measurement, closer to achieving that strange dream than we’ve ever been before. War has defined our past to a disconcerting degree, but perhaps it need not do the same for our future.

What would and should a postwar world really be like? Many have looked askance at the idea of a world free of war, seeing it as a world free as well of the noble virtues of honor, sacrifice, and courage, a world where people live only to selfishly gratify their personal needs. Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche is counted among the critics, painting a picture of a world full of “men without backs” who are no better than slaves to their creature comforts. More surprisingly, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, that original architect of a narrative of progress climaxing in a peaceful and prosperous end of history, shared many of the same concerns, going so far as to state that nations at the end of history would need to continue to require military service of their citizens and continue to fight the occasional war in order to keep the noble virtues alive. Modern critics of the lifestyle of developed Western nations, speaking from both inside and outside those nations’ umbrellas, decry their servile “softness,” decry the way that the vicissitudes of fashion and consumerism take the place of the great feats that once stirred men’s souls. Peace and prosperity, goes another, related argument, are ultimately boring; some theories about the outbreak of World War I have long held that its biggest motivator was that countries just got tired of getting along, wanted a little mayhem to break up the monotony. Certainly our fictions — not least our videogame fictions — would be a lot duller without wars to relive.

I can understand such concerns on one level, but feel like they reflect a profound lack of imagination on another. I can’t, alas, count myself among the younger generation or generations who must put the finishing touches on a post-national, postwar world order, if it should ever come to be. Yet I can say that our current younger generation’s greater tolerance toward diversity and marked disinclination toward violence don’t strike me as being accompanied by any deficit of idealism or passion. And there is much that can replace war in their souls that is even more stirring. They could finally get serious about cleaning up this poor planet which their elders have spent so many centuries trashing. They could do something for the poorest regions of the world, to bring the benefits of the prosperous postwar international order to all. They could follow the example of humanity’s grandest adventure to date — the Apollo Moon landing, which truly was shared by the entire world thanks to the progressive technology of television — and look outward, first to Mars, perhaps eventually all the way to Alpha Centauri. For that matter, my own generation could make a solid start on many of these things right now. With all due respect to Hegel and Fukuyama, the end of war need not mean the end of history. It could mean that our real history is just getting started.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The Story of Civilization Volume I: Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant, The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal, The Sinews of Power by John Brewer, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, The Iliad by Homer, Fragments by Heraclitus, The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Lectures on the Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, Basic Writings of Kant by Immanuel Kant, and Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction by Steven Grosby; the article “Strategic Digital Defense: Video Games and Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ Program, 1980-1987” by William M. Knoblauch, found in the book Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History.)

 
 

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The Game of Everything, Part 4: Civilization and Geography

Most of history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.

— Will Durant

Every veteran Civilization player has had some unfortunate run-ins with the game’s “barbarians”: small groups of people who don’t belong to either your civilization or any of its major rivals, but nevertheless turn up to harass you from time to time with their primitive weaponry and decided aversion to diplomacy. More of a nuisance than a serious threat most of the time, they can spell the doom of your nascent civilization if they should march into your capital before you’ve set up a proper defense for it. What are we to make of these cultural Others — or, perhaps better said, culture-less Others — who don’t ever develop like a proper civilization ought to do?

The word “barbarian” stems from the ancient Greek “bárbaros,” meaning anyone who is not Greek. Yet the word resonates most strongly with the history of ancient Rome rather than Greece. The barbarians at the gates of the Roman Empire were all those peoples outside the emperor’s rule, who encroached closer and closer upon the capital over the course of the Empire’s long decline, until the fateful sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in AD 410. Given the months of development during which Civilization existed as essentially a wargame of the ancient world, it’s not hard to imagine how the word “barbarian” found a home there.

Civilization‘s barbarians, then, really are the game’s cultural Others, standing in for the vast majority of the human societies that have existed on our planet, who have never become “civilized” in the sense of giving up the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, taking up farming, and developing writing and the other traits of relatively advanced cultures. One of the biggest questions in the fields of history, archaeology, anthropology, and sociology has long been just why they’ve failed to do so. Or, to turn the question around: why have a minority of peoples chosen or been forced to become more or less civilized rather than remaining in a state of nature? What, in other words, starts a people off down the narrative of progress? I’d like to take a closer look at that question today, but first it would be helpful to address an important prerequisite: just what do we mean when we talk about a civilization anyway?

The word “civilization,” although derived from the Latin “civilis” — meaning pertaining to the “civis,” or citizen — is a surprisingly young one in English. Samuel Johnson considered it too new-fangled to be included in his Dictionary of the English Language of 1772; he preferred “civility” (a word guaranteed to prompt quite some confusion if you try to substitute it for “civilization” today). The twentieth-century popular historian Will Durant, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most readable holistic chronicler of our planet’s various civilizations, proposed the following definition at the beginning of his eleven-volume Story of Civilization:

Civilization is a social order promoting cultural creation. Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions, and the pursuit of knowledge and the arts. It begins where chaos and insecurity end. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man has passed by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.

“Civilization” is a very loose word, whose boundaries can vary wildly with the telling and the teller. We can just as easily talk about human civilization in the abstract as we can a Western civilization or an American civilization. The game of Civilization certainly doesn’t make matters any more clear-cut. It first implies that it’s an holistic account of human civilization writ large, then proceeds to subsume up to seven active rival civilizations within that whole. In this series of articles, I’m afraid that I’m all over the place in much the same way; it’s hard not to be. But let’s step back now and look at how both abstract human civilization and the first individual civilizations began.

Homo sapiens — meaning genetically modern humans roughly our equals in raw cognitive ability —  have existed for at least 200,000 years. Long before developing any form of civilization, they had spread to almost every corner of the planet. Human civilization, on the other hand, has existed no more than 12,000 years at the outside. Thus civilization spans only a tiny portion of human history, which itself spans a still vastly tinier portion of the history of life on our planet.

How and why did civilized societies finally begin to appear after so many centuries of non-civilized humanity? I’ll tackle the easier part of that question first: the “how”. Let me share with you a narrative of progress taking place in the traditional “cradle of civilization,” the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, seat of the earliest known societies to have developed such hallmarks of mature civilization as writing.

For hundreds of thousands of years, the Fertile Crescent and the lands around it were made up of rich prairies, an ideal hunting ground for the nomadic peoples who lived there from the time of the proto-humans known as homo erectus, 1.8 million years ago. But around 12,000 to 10,000 BC, the Middle East was transformed by the end of our planet’s most recent Ice Age, turning what had been prairie lands into steppes and desert. The peoples who lived there, who had once roamed and hunted so freely across the region, were forced to cluster in the great river valleys, the only places that still had enough water to sustain them. With wild game now much scarcer than it had been, they learned to raise crops and domesticated animals, which necessitated them staying in one place. Thus they made the transformation from nomadic hunting and gathering to sedentary farming — a transformation which marks the traditional dividing line between non-civilized and civilized peoples. “The first form of culture is agriculture,” writes Will Durant.

Early on, the peoples of the Fertile Crescent developed what is, perhaps counter-intuitively, the most fundamental technology of civilization: pottery, an advance whose value every Civilization player knows. As is described in the Civilopedia, the pots they made allowed them to “lay up provisions for the uncertain future” out of the crops they harvested, sufficient to get them through the winter months when other food sources were scarce.

One might say that the invention of pottery — or rather the onset of the future-oriented mindset it signifies — marks the point of fruition of humanity’s psychological transition from a state of nature to something akin to the modern condition. Some of you might be familiar with the so-called “worker placement” school of modern board games — a sub-genre on which the city-management screen in the original Civilization has been a huge hidden influence. In a game like Agricola, you know that you need to collect enough food to feed your family by the end of the current round, and then again by the end of every subsequent round. You can rustle up a wild boar and slaughter it to deal with the problem now and let the future worry about itself, or you can defer other forms of gratification and use much more labor to plow a field and plant it with grains or vegetables, knowing that it will really begin to pay off only much later in the game. Deferred gratification is, as you’ve probably guessed, by far the better strategy.

It was, one might say, when humans developed the right mindset for playing a game like Agricola that everything changed. Something precious was gained, but something perhaps equally precious was lost. I use a lot of loaded language in this article, speaking about “primitive peoples” and “barbarians” as I do, and, good progressive that I am, generally write it under the assumption that civilization is a good thing. So, let me take a moment here to acknowledge that people do indeed lose something when they become civilized.

It is the fate of the civilized human alone among all the world’s creatures to have come unstuck in time. We’re constantly casting our gaze forward or backward, living all too seldom in the now. What the ancient Greeks called the physis moment — the complete immersion in life that we can observe in a cat on the prowl or a toddler on the playground — becomes harder and harder for us to recapture as we grow older. To think about the future also means to worry about it; to think about the past means to indulge in guilt and recrimination. “Of what are you thinking?” the polar explorer Robert Peary once asked one of his Inuit guides. “I do not have to think,” the Inuit replied. “I have plenty of meat.” An argument could be made that the barbarians are the wisest of all the peoples of the earth.

But, for better or for worse, we progressives don’t tend to make that argument. So, we return to our narrative of progress…

Cities and civilizations are inextricably bound together, not only historically but also linguistically; the word “city” is derived from the same Latin root as “civilization.” Cities provide a place for large numbers of people to meet and trade goods and ideas, and their economies of scale make specialization possible, creating space initially for blacksmiths and healers, later for philosophers and artists, as well as for hierarchies of class and power. They mark the point of transition from Karl Marx’s “primitive communism” to his so-called “slave society” — “Despotism” in the game of Civilization. On a more positive note, one might also say that the first cities with their early forms of specialization mark the first steps in Hegel’s long road toward a perfect, thymos-fulfilling end of history.

By the time a game of Civilization begins in 4000 BC, the Age of Stone was about to give way to the Age of Metal in the Fertile Crescent; people there were learning to smelt copper, which would soon be followed by bronze, as described by another pivotal early Civilization advance, Bronze Working. At this point, small cities had existed up and down the Fertile Crescent for thousands of years. The region was now rife with civilization, complete with religion, art, technology, written documents, and some form of government. Multi-roomed houses were built out of compressed mud or out of bricks covered with plaster, with floors made out of mud packed over a foundation of reeds. Inside the houses were ovens and stoves for cooking; just outside were cisterns for catching and storing rainwater. When not farming or building houses, the people carved statues and busts, and built altars to their gods. Around Jericho, one of if not the oldest of the settlements, they built walls out of huge stone blocks, thus creating the first example of a walled city in the history of the world. By 2500 BC, one of the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent would be capable of constructing the Pyramids of Giza, the oldest of Civilization‘s Wonders of the World and still the first thing most people think of when they hear that phrase.

But in writing about the Fertile Crescent I am of course outlining a narrative of progress for only one small part of the world. Elsewhere, the situation was very different, and would remain so for a long, long time to come. By way of illustrating those differences, let’s fast-forward about 4000 years on from the Pyramids, to AD 1500.

At that late date, much of the rest of the world had still not progressed as far as the Fertile Crescent of 2500 BC. The two greatest empires of the Americas, those of the Aztecs and the Incas, were for all intents and purposes still mired in the Stone Age, having not yet learned to make metals suitable for anything other than decoration. And those civilizations were actually strikingly advanced by comparison with many or most of the other peoples of the world. In Australia, on New Guinea and many other Pacific islands, over much of the rest of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, people trailed even the Aztecs and the Incas by thousands of years, having not yet learned the art of farming.

Consider that in 11,000 BC all peoples on the earth were still hunter-gatherers. Since then, some peoples had stagnated, while others — in the Middle East, in Europe, in parts of Asia — had advanced in ways that were literally unimaginable to their primitive counterparts. And so we arrive back at our original question: why should this be?

For a long time, Europeans, those heirs to what was first wrought in the Fertile Crescent, thought they knew exactly why. Their race was, they believed, simply superior to all of the others — superior in intelligence, in motivation, in creativity, in morality. And, as the superior race, the world and all its bounty were theirs by right. Thus the infernal practice of slavery, after having fallen into abeyance in the West since the Middle Ages, reared its head again in the new American colonies.

In time, some European attitudes toward the other peoples of the earth softened into a more benevolent if condescending paternalism. As the superior race, went the thinking, it was up to them to raise up the rest of the world, to Christianize it and to provide for it the trappings of civilization which it had been unable to develop for itself. Rudyard Kipling, that great poet of the latter days of the British Empire, urged his race to “take up the white man’s burden” as a moral obligation to the benighted inferior peoples of the world.

If there was any objective truth to the racial theories underlying Kipling’s rhetoric, we progressives would find ourselves on the horns of an ugly dilemma, split between our allegiance to rationality and science on the one hand and the visceral repugnance every fair-minded person must feel toward racism on the other. Fortunately for us, then, there is no dilemma here: racism is not only morally repugnant, it’s also bad science.

Any attempt to measure intelligence is a problematic exercise on the face of it; there are many forms of intelligence, such as empathy and artistic intelligence, about which the standard I.Q. test has nothing to say. And even within the limited scope of I.Q., cultural factors are notoriously difficult to remove from the testing process. Nevertheless, to the extent that we can measure such a thing there seems little or nothing to indicate that the overall cognitive ability of, say, a primitive tribesman from New Guinea suffers at all in comparison to that of a “civilized” person. Indeed, in some areas, such as spatial awareness and improvisational problem-solving, primitive people are quite likely our superiors. When we think about it, this stands to reason. For a tribesman on a jungle hunt, an error in judgment could mean that he and his family won’t have anything to eat that night — or, in the worst case, that he won’t get to return to his family ever again. Against that sort of motivator, the threat of failing to get into one’s favored university because of an SAT score that wasn’t all it might have been suddenly doesn’t feel quite so motivating.

All of which is good for our consciences, but it still doesn’t answer the question we’ve been dancing around since the beginning of this article. If racial differences don’t explain why the narrative of progress takes root in some peoples and not in others, what does? Plenty of other possibilities have been proposed, all centering more or less around geography and ecology.

Climate is one proposed determining factor, upon which the citizens of Germany, Scandinavia, the United States, and Canada among other places have sometimes leaned in order to explain why their countries’ economies are generally more dynamic than those of their southern counterparts. The fact that residents of more northerly regions had to work so much harder to survive — to find food and to stay warm in a much harsher climate — supposedly instilled in them a superior work ethic — and perhaps, necessity being the mother of invention, a greater intellectual flair to boot. Will Durant expressed a similar sentiment on a more universal scale in his Story of Civilization, claiming that the “heat of the tropics,” and the “lethargy” it breeds, are fundamentally hostile to civilization. But such claims too often find their evidence in ethnic stereotypes almost as execrable as those that spawned the notion of a white man’s burden, and of equally nonexistent veracity.

The fact is that the more dynamic economies of Northern Europe and the northernmost Americas are a phenomenon dating back only a few centuries at most, not the millennia that would make them solid evidence for the climate-as-destiny hypothesis; ancient Rome, the civilization that still springs to mind first when one says the word “civilization,” was itself situated in the warm, lazy, lethargic, fun-in-the-sun region of Europe. Indeed, the peoples of Northern Europe are comparative latecomers to the cultural party. Until not that many centuries ago, Northern Europe was quite literally the land of the barbarians; the Visigoths who so famously sacked Rome, it must be remembered, were a Germanic people. In the Americas as well, the most advanced native societies, the only ones to develop writing, were found in present-day Mexico and Peru rather than the United States or Canada.

The credence given to the climate-as-destiny theory for many years in the face of such obvious objections, combined with the way that evidence of civilization decays much faster in tropical environments than it does elsewhere, caused archaeologists to entirely overlook the existence of some tropical civilizations. A dry desert environment is, by contrast, about as perfect for preserving archaeological evidence as any natural environment can be, and this goes a long way in explaining why we know so much about certain regions of the world in comparison to others. Michael Heckenberger caused a sensation in archaeological and anthropological circles in 2009 when he published an article in Scientific American about the ancient Xingu people of the Amazon rain forest, who lived in well-developed, orderly communities which Heckenberger compared to the Victorian architect Ebenezer Howard’s utopian “garden cities of tomorrow.”

Another proposed determining factor for civilization or the lack thereof, also prevalent among scholars for many years, is even more oddly specific than the climate-as-destiny hypothesis. Civilization develops, goes the claim, when people find themselves forced to settle in river valleys of otherwise arid climates — i.e., exactly the conditions that prevailed in the Fertile Crescent. The only way for a growing population to survive in such a place was to develop the large-scale systems of irrigation that could bring the life-giving waters of the river further and further from their source. Undertaking such projects, the first ever examples what we would call today public works, required a form of government, even of bureaucracy. Ergo, civilization.

In addition to the example of the Fertile Crescent, proponents of the “hydraulic theory” of civilization have pointed to other examples of a similar process apparently occurring: in the Indus Valley of India, in the Yellow and Yangtze Valleys of China, in the river valleys of Mexico and Peru. The hydraulic theory was very much still a part of the anthropological discussion at the time that Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley were making Civilization, and likely informs the way that food-producing river squares are such ideal spots for founding your first cities, as well as the importance placed on irrigating the land around your cities in order to make them grow.

But more recent archaeology, in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere, has cast doubt upon the hydraulic theory. It appears that the first governments developed not in tandem with systems of irrigation but rather considerably before them. The assertion that a fairly complex system of government is a prerequisite for large-scale irrigation remains as valid as ever, as does the game of Civilization‘s decision to emphasize the importance of irrigation in general. Yet it doesn’t appear that the need for irrigation was the impetus for government.

In 1997, a UCLA professor of geography and physiology named Jared Diamond published a book called Guns, Germs, and Steel, which, unusually, created an equal sensation in both the popular media and in academic circles. I described in my previous article the theory of technological determinism to which the game of Civilization seems to ascribe. In his book, Diamond asserted that, before there could be technological determinism, there must be a form of environmental determinism. One could of course argue that both the climate-as-destiny and the hydraulics-as-destiny theories I’ve just outlined fall into that category. What made Diamond’s work unique, however, was the much more holistic approach he took to the question of environmental determinism.

We tend to see the development of civilization through an anachronistic frame today, one which can distort reality as it was lived by the people of the time. In particular, we’ve taken to heart Thomas Hobbes’s famous description of the lives of primitive humans as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” just as we have the image of the development of agriculture, pottery, and all they wrought as the gateway to a better state of being. What we overlook is that nobody back in the day was trying to develop civilization; for people who have no experience with civilization, the very idea of it is, as I’ve already noted, literally unimaginable. No, people were just trying to get to the end of another day with food in their bellies.

We moderns overlook the fact that primitive farming was really, really hard, while hunting and gathering often wasn’t all that onerous at all when the environment was suited to it. Being a primitive farmer in most parts of the world meant working much longer hours than being a hunter-gatherer. Even today, the people of primitive agricultural societies are on average smaller and weaker than those of societies based on hunting and gathering, tending to die much younger after having lived much more unpleasant lives. The only way anyone would make the switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture was if there just wasn’t any other alternative. The first civilizations, in other words, arose not out of some visionary commitment to progress, but as a form of emergency crisis management.

With this wisdom in our back pocket, we can now revisit our narrative of progress about those first civilizations from a new perspective. Until roughly 12,000 years ago, it just didn’t make sense for people to be anything other than hunter-gatherers; the effort-to-reward ratio was all out of whack for farming. But then that begin to change in some part of the world, thanks to a global change in climate. The end of the Ice Age in about 10,000 BC caused the extinction in some parts of the world of many of the large mammals on which humans had depended for meat, while the same climate change greatly benefited some forms of plant life, among them certain varieties of wild cereals that could, once clever humans figured out the magic of seeds and planting, become the bedrock of agriculture. By no means did all tribes in a given region adopt agriculture at the same time, but once any given tribe began to farm a positive-feedback loop ensued. An agricultural society makes much more efficient use of land — i.e., can support far more people per square mile — than does one based on hunting and gathering. Therefore the populations of nascent civilizations which adopted agriculture exploded in comparison to those neighbors who continued to try to make a go of it as hunter-gatherers despite the worsening conditions for doing so. In time, these neighboring Luddites were absorbed, exterminated, or driven out of the region by their more advanced neighbors — or they eventually learned from said neighbors and adopted agriculture themselves.

All of these things happened in some places that were adversely affected by the change in climate, beginning with the Fertile Crescent, but in other, equally affected places they did not. And in some of these places, the reasons why have long been troublingly unclear. For example, the African peoples living south of the Fertile Crescent suffered greatly from the shortage of wild game caused by the ending of the Ice Age, and had available to them the wild cereal known as sorghum, one of the most important early crops of their counterparts to the north. Yet these peoples, unlike said counterparts, failed to develop agriculture. Similarly, the peoples of Western Europe had flax available to them, while the peoples of the Balkans had einkorn wheat, both also staple crops of the Fertile Crescent. Yet these peoples as well failed to adopt agriculture until having it imposed upon them millennia later by encroachers from the south and east.

What made the Fertile Crescent and a select few other regions so special? It was this confusing mystery that prompted many an archaeologist to reach for ideas like the climate hypothesis and the hydraulic hypothesis.

But what Jared Diamond teaches us is that there’s very little mystery here at all when one looks at the situation in the right light. What made the Fertile Crescent so special was the fact that all of the plants I’ve just mentioned were available, just waiting to be domesticated. A civilization can’t live by sorghum, flax, or einkorn wheat alone; it requires the right combination of crops in order to sustain itself. Agriculture in the Fertile Crescent sprang up around eight staples that have become known as the “founder crops” of civilization: emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, barley, lentils, peas, chickpeas, bitter vetch, and flax. This combination alone provided enough nutrition to sustain a population, if need be, without any form of meat. No other region of the world was so richly blessed.

So, it was only in the Fertile Crescent that the people of approximately 10,000 BC had both a strong motivation to change their way of life from one based on hunting and gathering to one based on agriculture and the right resources at their disposal for actually doing so. In time, some peoples in some other parts of the world would encounter the same combination of motivation and opportunity, and civilizations would take root there as well. Many other peoples would remain happily committed to hunting and gathering, in some cases right up until the present day. One thing, however, would remain consistent: when civilizations which had developed agriculture encountered more primitive people and strongly wished to destroy them, absorb them, or just push them out, they would have little trouble doing so.

With this new way of looking at things, we understand that the reason so many of the first civilizations started in river valleys wasn’t due to the hydraulic hypothesis, or indeed to anything intrinsic to river valleys themselves. People rather moved into river valleys as their last remaining option when the environment outside them became uncongenial to their sustenance. And once they were there, circumstance forced them to become civilized. Thus the climate hypothesis of civilization is correct about one thing, even if it applies the lesson far too narrowly: civilization doesn’t arise in places of plenty; it arises in places where life is hard enough to force people to improvise.

But of course the development of civilization isn’t simply an either/or proposition. Even those civilizations which learned to farm and thus started down a narrative of progress didn’t progress at the same rate. Consider perhaps the most infamous example in history of a more advanced civilization meeting one that was less so: Hernán Cortés’s conquest of the Aztec Empire in the early 1500s with a tiny army that was vastly outnumbered by the native warriors it vanquished. The Aztecs had spotted about a 5000-year head start on the narrative of progress to the Spaniards, who could trace the roots of their civilization all the way back to those earliest settlers of the Fertile Crescent. Yet the timeline alone doesn’t suffice to explain why the Aztecs were so very much less advanced in so many ways. Jared Diamond asserts persuasively that, not only was the Aztec Empire not as advanced as Spain and other European nations in 1500, but it would never, ever have reached parity with the Europeans of 1500, not even if it had been given many more millennia to progress in splendid isolation. The reasons for this come down not to race, to climate, or to some sort of qualitative difference in river valleys, but to a natural environment that was very different in a more holistic sense.

Europeans had been blessed with thirteen different species of large mammals that were well-suited for domestication; these provided them with meat, milk, clothing, transportation, fertilizer, building materials, and, by pulling plows and turning grindstones, the industrial power of their day. In all of these ways, they spurred the progress of European civilization. Central America, by contrast, had no large mammals at all that were suitable for such roles. And in terms of plants as well, luck had favored the Europeans over the Aztecs; the latter lacked the wide assortment of nutrition-rich grains available to the former, having to make do instead with less nourishing corn as their staple crop. All of these factors meant that the Aztecs had to work much harder than the Europeans to feed and otherwise provide for their people. And so we come again to this idea of specialization, and the efficiencies it produces, as a key determinant of the narrative of progress. Will Durant noted that in a well-developed civilization “some men are set aside from the making of material things, and produce science and philosophy, literature and art.” The Aztecs could afford to set far fewer of their citizenry aside for such purposes than could the Europeans — a crippling disadvantage.

And there were still further disadvantages. The wider variety of animal life in Europe had led to the evolution of far more microbes hoping to infect it. European humans had in turn developed resistances to the cornucopia of germs they carried with them to the New World, resistances which the native inhabitants there lacked. And then the fact that Europe’s habitable regions were smaller and more densely populated had resulted in much more intense competition for land and resources, spurring the development of the technologies of warfare. Between Cortés’s guns, germs, and steel, the Aztecs never had a chance. The inexorable logic of environmental determinism ruled the day.

Civilization can hardly be expected to capture all of the nuances of Guns, Germs, and Steel, not least because it was made six years before Jared Diamond’s book was published. Yet to a surprising degree it gets the broad strokes of geography-as-destiny right. Barbarians, for instance, are spawned in the inhospitable polar regions of the world — regions in which agriculture, and thus civilization, is impossible. (Maybe all those barbarians who are constantly encroaching on your territory are really just trying to get warm…) In our real world as well, the polar regions have historically been populated only by primitive hunter-gatherer communities. Thankfully, Civilization has no interest in race as a determining factor in the narrative of progress. The game has occasionally been criticized for stereotyping its various civilizations in its artificial-intelligence algorithms, but one could equally argue that it’s really the individual civilizations’ chosen historical leaders — Abraham Lincoln, Josef Stalin, Napoleon, etc. — that are being modeled/stereotyped.

Jared Diamond’s theory of environmental determinism remains widely respected today if not universally accepted in its entirety. Some have objected to the very spirit of determinism that underlies it, which seems to assert that all of us humans really are strictly a product of our environment, which seems to imply that human history can be studied much as we do natural science, can be reduced to theorems and natural laws. This stands in stark contrast to an older view of history as driven by “great men,” as articulated by Thomas Carlyle: “Universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” This approach to history, with its emphasis on the achievements and decisions of individual actors and its love for stirring narratives, has long since fallen out of fashion among academics like Diamond in favor of a more systemic approach. It’s certainly possible to argue that we’ve lost something thereby, that we’ve cut the soul out of the endeavor; we do suffer, it seems to me, a paucity of great tellers of history today. Whatever else you can say about it, Diamond’s approach to history doesn’t exactly yield a page-turner. Where is our time’s Will Durant?

Alexis de Tocqueville, that great French chronicler of early American democracy, mocked both politicians, who believe that all history occurs through their “pulling of strings,” and grand theorists like Jared Diamond, who believe all of history can be boiled down, science-like, to “great first causes.” He wrote instead of “tendencies” in history which nevertheless depend on the free actions of individuals to come to fruition. Maybe we too can settle for a compromise, and say that the conditions at least need to be right in order for our proverbial great persons to build great civilizations. Such a notion was articulated long before current academic fashion held sway by no less august a nation-builder than Otto von Bismark: “The statesman’s task,” he wrote, “is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try to catch on to His coattails as He marches past.” “It remains an open question,” allows even Jared Diamond, “how wide and lasting the effects of idiosyncratic individuals on history really are.”

For those of us who believe or wish to believe in the narrative of progress, meanwhile, Diamond’s ideas provide yet further ground for sobering thought, for they rather cut against the game of Civilization‘s spirit of progress as an historical inevitability. Consider once again that homo sapiens roughly equal to ourselves in intelligence and capability have been around for 200,000 years, while human civilization has existed for only 12,000 years at the outside. The auspicious beginning to the game of Civilization, which portrays the entire natural history of your planet leading up to the moment in 4000 BC when you take control of your little band of settlers, rather makes it appear that these events were destined to happen. Yet the narrative of progress was anything but an inevitability in reality; its beginning was spurred only by a fluke change in climate. On the shifting sands of this random confluence of events have all of the glories of human civilization been built. Had the fluke not occurred, you and I would likely still be running through the jungle, spears in hand. (Would we be happier or sadder? An interesting question!) Or, had that fluke or some other spur to progress happened earlier, you and I might already be living on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The Story of Civilization Volume I: Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, The Face of the Ancient Orient: Near-Eastern Civilization in Pre-Classical Times by Sabatino Moscati, A Dictionary of the English Language Samuel Johnson, The Spirit of the Laws by Montesquieu, Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History by Ernest Gellner, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study in Total Power by Karl Wittfogel, The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism by Fernand Braudel, Souvenirs by Alexi de Tocqueville, and Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction by Steven Grosby; the article “Phantasms of Rome: Video Games and Cultural Identity” by Emily Joy Bembeneck, found in the book Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History; Scientific American of October 2009.)

 

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The Game of Everything, Part 3: Civilization and the Narrative of Progress

You can’t say civilization don’t advance. In every war, they kill you in a new way.

— Will Rogers

Civilization is a game for all time, but the original version of Civilization, as created by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley and published by MicroProse in 1991, is also a game thoroughly of its time. When you finish guiding your civilization’s history, whether because you’ve conquered the world, been conquered by the world, flown to Alpha Centauri, or simply retired, you’re ranked on a scale of real history’s leaders. If you’ve played really, really badly — as in, closing-your-eyes-and-clicking-randomly badly — you find yourself equated to Dan Quayle, the United States’s vice president as of 1991.

Quayle has long since slunk out of public life, meaning that younger players who try out the game today will likely fail to get the joke here. In his day, however, his vacuousness was legendary enough to make even the most hardened would-be assassin think twice before visiting ill upon President George H.W. Bush. Among Quayle’s greatest hits were the time he claimed the Holocaust had happened in the United States, the time he claimed Mars had a breathable atmosphere and canals filled with water, and the time he lost a spelling bee to a twelve-year-old by misspelling “potato.” And then there was the feud he started with the sitcom character Murphy Brown when she chose to have a child out of wedlock, raising the question of whether he knew that the little people he saw inside his television didn’t actually live there. It says much about what a universal figure of derision he had become by 1991 that Meier and Shelley, in no hurry to offend any potential customer of any political persuasion, nevertheless felt free to mock him in this way as the ne plus ultra of air-headed politicians. Everybody felt free to mock Dan Quayle.

But the spirit of the times in which Civilization was made is woven much deeper into its fabric than a joke tossed onto an end-of-game leader board. In fact, it’s inseparable from the game’s single most important identifying feature. The Advances Chart of which I’ve already made so much reflects a view of history as a well-nigh inevitable narrative of progress — a view that had rather fallen out of favor for much of the twentieth century, but which had come roaring back now at the end of it, prompted by the ending of the Cold War.

It’s very difficult to adequately convey today just how that ending felt to those of us in the West who had lived through what preceded it. Just a few years before, we had shivered in our beds after watching The Day After in the United States or Threads in Britain, while Ronald Reagan droned on obliviously about the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” A decade earlier, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had said that the Cold War would be “unending”: “We must learn to conduct foreign policy without escape and without respite. This condition will not go away.” Which was perhaps just as well, given that no one could seem to formulate an endgame for it that didn’t leave the world a heap of irradiated ashes. It was very nearly the conventional wisdom that someday, somehow, a mistake would be made by one side or the other, or one side would simply find itself backed too far into a corner. At that point, the missiles would fly, and that would be that. The logic of history seemed to be on the side of such pessimism. After all, what other weapon in the long history of warfare had humanity ever invented and then not used?

And then, with head-snapping speed, it was all simply… over. Over, for the most part, peacefully. In a series of events so improbable no novelist would ever have dared write them down, one side just decided to give up. The Berlin Wall came down, the Iron Curtain opened, and the Cold War ended in the most blessed anticlimax in the history of the world. As Meier and Shelley were finishing Civilization, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was entering its final stages. In June of 1991, Boris Yeltsin became the first democratically elected president of the nascent “Russian Federation.” In August, the world held its breath as a cabal of communist hardliners mounted a last-ditch coup in the hope of restoring the old order, only to exhale again when the coup collapsed three days later. And on December 26, 1991, a couple of weeks after Civilization had reached store shelves, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. Russia was once again just Russia.

For those of us in the West, the whole course of events was rather hard to fathom; it was hard to know how to react to suddenly not living under the dark threat of nuclear annihilation. But Americans at least, a people who seldom need much encouragement to wave their flags and play their anthem, soon got with the program and started celebrating the historical triumph of their “way of life.” If they needed any further encouragement, the country’s first post-Cold War military adventure, the pushing of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait, was being televised live every night on CNN even as the Soviet Union was still winding down. That war proved the perfect antidote to the lingering malaise of Vietnam; it was, at least from the perspective of 30,000 feet shown on CNN, swift and clean, all of the things the “police actions” of the Cold War had so seldom been. The United States was unchallenged in the world, in the ascendant as never before.

The feeling of exaltation wasn’t confined to flag-waving populists. The most-discussed book of 1992 among the chattering classes had no less grandiose a title than The End of History and the Last Man. It was the perfect book for the times, an explication of all the reasons that the United States had triumphed in the Cold War and could now look forward to a world molded in its image. Written by a heretofore obscure member of the RAND think tank named Francis Fukuyama, and based on a journal article he had first published in 1989, the book identified “a fundamental process at work that dictates a common evolutionary pattern for all human societies — in short, something like a Universal History of mankind in the direction of liberal democracy.” (“Liberal” in this context refers to classical liberalism — i.e., prioritizing the sanctity of the individual over the goals of the collective — rather than the word’s modern political connotations.) The central question of history, Fukuyama argued, had been that of how humanity should best order itself, economically and politically, in order to ensure the best possible material, social, and spiritual state of being for everyone. With the end of the Cold War, communism and totalitarianism, the last great challengers to capitalism and democracy by way of an answer to that question, had given up the ghost. From now on, liberal democracy would reign supreme, meaning that, while events would certainly continue, history had come to the fruition toward which it had been building through all the centuries past.

More discussed than actually read even in its heyday, Fukuyama’s book has since become an all-purpose punching bag, described as hopelessly naive in right-wing realpolitik circles and morally reprehensible in left-wing postmodernist and Marxist circles. Widely denounced by the latter group in particular as a purveyor of “jingoist triumphalism” in service of American hegemony, Fukuyama felt compelled to stress in a new 2003 afterword to The End of History that he actually saw the European Union as a better model for liberal democracy’s future than the government of his own country. His book is in many ways a book of its time — an example of a history book itself becoming history — but it’s neither as jingoistic nor as naive as its current reputation would suggest. Most of Fukuyama’s critics fail to address the fact that the idea of a secular historical eschatology hardly originated with him. In fact, he takes pains in the book to situate it within a long-established historiographical tradition, albeit updated to account for such an earth-shaking event as the end of the Cold War.

History as evolutionary progress is an Enlightenment ideal that ironically predates Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. Without it, the American and French Revolutions, those two great attempts to bring concrete form to Enlightenment ideas about human rights and just government, would have been unimaginable. During the decades prior to those revolutions, thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Adam Smith had articulated a new way of looking at the world, based on reason, science, humanism, and, yes, progress. “With our understanding of the world advanced by science and our circle of sympathy expanded through reason and cosmopolitanism,” writes the modern-day cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker of the Enlightenment, “humanity could make intellectual and moral progress. It need not resign itself to the miseries and irrationalities of the present, nor try to turn back the clock to a lost golden age.” To be a progressive, then or now, is to believe in the actuality or at least the potentiality of human history as a narrative of progress. It implies a realistic, fact-based approach to problem-solving that prefers to look forward to the future rather than back to the past.

But of course, any rousing narrative of progress worth its salt needs to have a proper bang-up climax. It was the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the early 1800s who first proposed the notion of a point of fruition toward which the history of humanity was leading. Indeed, he went so far as to claim that history may have reached this goal already in his own time, with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s victory over Prussia at the Battle of Jena in 1806 having proved the superiority of his time’s version of the modern liberal state. (Francis Fukuyama had nothing on this guy when it came to premature declarations of mission accomplished.) Hegel connected his notions of historical progress with a Greek word from classical theology: thymos. It’s difficult to concisely translate, but it connotes the social worth of an individual, the sum total of her competencies and predilections. The ideal society, according to Hegel, is one where each person has the opportunity to become this best self — or, we might say today, to use another word that smacks dreadfully of pop psychology, to “self-actualize.”

This, then, was the natural end point toward which all of history to date had been struggling. As befits a philosopher of the idealist school, Hegel gave the narrative of progress an idealistic tinge which still clings to its alleged rationality even today, whether it takes as its climax Hegel’s universal thymos, Fukuyama’s stable democratic world order, or for that matter Civilization‘s trip to Alpha Centauri.

Narratives of progress had a natural appeal during the nineteenth century, a relatively peaceful era once Napoleon had been dispensed with, and one in which real, tangible signs of progress were appearing at an unprecedented pace, in the form of new ideas and new inventions. In this time before nuclear Armageddon or global warming had crossed anyone’s most remote imaginings, the wonders of technological progress in particular — the railroad, the telegraph, the light bulb — were regarded as an unalloyed positive force in the world. By the latter half of the century, almost everyone seemed to be a techno-progressive. “Upon the whole,” wrote the British statesman William Ewart Gladstone in 1887, “we who lived fifty, sixty, seventy years back have lived into a gentler time.”

Even the less sanguine thinkers couldn’t resist the allure of the narrative of progress. On the contrary: it was Karl Marx among all nineteenth-century thinkers who devoted the most energy to a cherished historical eschatology. With Enlightened scientific precision, he laid out six “phases of history” through which the world must inevitably pass: primitive communism, the slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and finally true communism. He disagreed with Hegel that liberalism — i.e., capitalism — could mark the end of history by noting, by no means without justification, that the thymos-fulfilling nations the latter praised actually empowered only a tiny portion of their populations, that being white men of the moneyed classes; these were the only people Hegel tended to think of when he talked about “the people.”

But even in the nineteenth century the narrative of progress had its critics. The most vocal among them was yet another German philosopher, Wilhelm Friedrich Nietzsche. Whereas Hegel spoke of the thymos, Nietzsche preferred megalothymia: the need of the superior man to assert his superiority. To Nietzsche, nobility was found only in conflict. All of these so-called “progressive” institutions — such as democracy and human rights — were creating a world of “men without chests,” alienated from the real essence of life; the modern nation-state was “the coldest of all cold monsters.” Hegel had imagined a world where slaves would be freed from their shackles. Maybe so, said Nietzsche — but they will still be slaves. Instead of history as a ladder, Nietzsche preferred to see it as a loop — an “eternal recurrence.” Whether progress was defined in terms of railroads, telegraphs, and light bulbs or social contracts, human rights, and democracies, it was all nonsense, merely the window dressing for the eternal human cycle of strife and striving.

While Nietzsche’s views were decidedly idiosyncratic in his own century, the narrative of progress’s critics grew enormously in number in the century which followed. In contrast to the peace and prosperity that marked the last few decades of the nineteenth century in particular, the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by a devastating one-two punch: the two bloodiest wars in the whole bloody history of human warfare, the second of them accompanied by one of the most concerted attempts at genocide in man’s whole history of inhumanity to man. It wasn’t lost on anyone that the country which had conceived this last, and then proceeded to carry it out with such remorseless Teutonic efficiency, was the very place where Hegel had lived and written about his ideals of ethical progress. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin was turning Marx’s dreams of a communist utopia into another brutal farce. In the face of all this, the narrative of progress seemed at best a quaint notion, at worst a cruel joke. After all, it was only the supposedly civilizing fruits of progress — technology, bureaucracy, a rules-based system of order — that allowed Hitler and Stalin’s reigns of terror to be so tragically effective.

Even when World War II ended with the good guys victorious, any sense that the narrative of progress could now be considered firmly back on track was undone by the specter of the atomic bomb. Maybe, thought many, the end goal toward which the narrative was leading wasn’t an Enlightened world but rather nuclear apocalypse. In his 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr., introduced a grotesque new spin on Nietzsche’s old idea of the eternal recurrence. He proposed that human civilization might progress from the hunter-gatherer phase to the point of developing nuclear weapons, and then proceed to destroy itself — again and again and again for all eternity. In 1980, the astronomer Carl Sagan upped the ante even further in his television miniseries Cosmos. Maybe, he proposed, the reason we had failed to find any evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life was because any species which reached roughly humanity’s current level of technological development was doomed to annihilate itself within a handful of years — the eternal recurrence on a cosmic scale.

But then came that wonderful day in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. What followed was the most ebullient few years of the twentieth century. The peace treaty which had concluded World War I had felt like something of a hollow sham even at the time, while the ending of World War II had been sobered by the creeping shadows of the atomic bomb and the Cold War. But now, at the end of the twentieth century’s third great global conflict of ideologies, there was seemingly no reason not to feel thoroughly positive about the world’s future. The only problems remaining in the world were small in comparison to the prospect of nuclear annihilation, and they could be dealt with by a united world community of democratic nations, as was demonstrated by the clean, quick, and painless First Gulf War. From the perspective of the early 1990s, even much of the century’s darkest history could be seen in a decidedly different light. Amidst all of the wars and genocides, the century had produced agents for peace like the United Nations, along with extraordinary scientific, medical, and technological progress that had made the lives of countless people better on countless fronts. And, to cap it all off, the fact remained that we hadn’t annihilated each other. Maybe the narrative of progress was as vital as ever. Maybe it just worked in more roundabout and mysterious ways than anticipated. Maybe it was sometimes just hard to see the forest of overall progress amidst all the trees of current events.

As we all know, progress’s moment of triumph would prove even more short-lived than most of history’s golden ages. Within a few years of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an unspeakably brutal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was showing that age-old ethnic and religious animus could still be more powerful than idealistic talk about democracy and human rights. Well before the end of the 1990s, it was becoming clear that Russia, rather than striding forward to join the international community of liberal democracies, was sliding backward into economic chaos and political corruption, priming the pump for a return to authoritarian rule. And then came September 11, 2001, the definitive ending of the era that would come to be regarded not as the beginning of humanity’s permanently peaceful and prosperous post-history but as the briefly tranquil internecine between the Cold War and a seemingly eternal War on Terror. In a future article, we’ll try to reckon with the changes that have come to the world since those ebullient days of the early 1990s.

Right now, however, let’s turn back to Civilization. Even as I continue to emphasize that Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley weren’t out to make a political statement with their game of everything, I must also note that its embrace of the narrative of progress as its core mechanic, combined with its spirit of rational practicality and a certain idealism, wind up making it a very progressive work indeed. Loathe though he has always been to talk about politics, Meier has admitted to a measure of pride at having included global warming in the game; if you don’t control your modern civilization’s pollution levels, your coastal cities will literally get swallowed up by the encroaching ocean.

I want to stress that “progressive” as I use it here is not a synonym for (non-classically) “liberal”; it’s perfectly possible to be a progressive who believes in smaller government, possible even to be a progressive libertarian. Still, even at the time of the game’s release, when the American right tended to be more trusting of science and objective truth than they’ve become today, its pragmatism about our fragile planet didn’t always sit well with MicroProse’s traditional customer base of largely conservative military-simulation and wargame fans. Computer Gaming World‘s Alan Emrich, who was more than largely conservative, penned the hilarious passage below in his otherwise extremely positive review of the game. It can probably stand in for many a crusty old grognard’s reaction to some of the game’s most interesting aspects (“politically correct,” it seems, was 1991’s version of “social-justice warrior”):

Civilization strives to be a “hip” game, and deals with popular social issues from the standpoint of “political correctness.” Thus, global warming is a tremendous threat. Odd, for such a recent, unproven theory. Evolution is expressed in the game’s introduction, but at least that debate has been around a while. Pollution, therefore, becomes a society’s primary focus after industrialization takes place, with players being channeled toward more politically-correct power plants, recycling centers, and mass transit to address the problem. Even the beta-test “super-highway” Wonder of the World gave way to “women’s suffrage.” While women’s suffrage is a novel concept for its effect during gameplay, it is also another brick in the wall of political correctness.

One hardly knows where to start with this. Should we begin with the bizarre idea that any designer of a massive computer strategy game, about the most unhip thing in the world, would ever have striven to be “hip?” Or with the idea that evolution might still be up for “debate?” Or with the idea that recycling centers and mass transit, and letting women vote, for God’s sake, are dubious notions born of political correctness, that apparent source of all the world’s evils? Or with the last mangled metaphor, which seems to be saying the opposite of what it wants to say? (Was Emrich listening to too much Pink Floyd at the time?)  Instead of snarking further, I’m just going to move on.

A more useful subject to examine right now might be just what kind of progress it is that Civilization‘s Advances Chart represents. The belief to which the game seems to subscribe, that progress in technology and hard science will inevitably drive the broader culture forward, is sometimes referred to as technnological determinism. It can be contrasted with the more metaphysical narrative of progress favored by the likes of Hegel, as it can with the social-collective narrative of progress favored by Marx. Unsurprisingly, it tends to find its most enthusiastic fans among scientists, engineers, and science-fiction writers.

Given the sort of work it is, it makes a lot of practical sense for Civilization to cast its lots with the technologists’ camp; it is, after all, much easier to build into a strategy game the results of the development of the musket than it is to chart the impact of a William Shakespeare. Even outside the rules of a strategy game, for that matter, it’s far more difficult to map great art onto a narrative of progress than it is other great human achievements. While scientists, engineers, and even philosophers build upon one another’s work in fairly obvious way, great artists often stand alone; Shakespeare continues to be widely acknowledged today as the greatest writer of English ever to have lived, even as progress has long since swept all other aspects of his century aside.

Still, importantly, Shakespeare is in the game, as are Michelangelo and Bach, and as are markers of social progress like women’s suffrage and labor unions. (By way of confirming all of Alan Emrich’s deepest suspicions, the game makes communism a prerequisite for the last.) It is, in other words, not remarkable that Civilization on the whole favors a “hard” form of progress; what is remarkable is the degree to which it manages to depart from such a bias from time to time. If the game sometimes strains to find a concrete advantage to confer upon the softer forms of progress — women’s suffrage makes your population less prone to unhappiness, which makes at least a modicum of sense; labor unions give you access to “mechanized infantry” units, which makes pretty much no sense whatsoever — its heart is nevertheless in the right place.

The first people ever to pen a study of Civilization‘s assumptions about history were none other than our old friend Alan Emrich and his fellow Computer Gaming World scribe Johnny L. Wilson, who did so together in the context of a strategy guide called Civilization: or Rome on 640K a Day. It has to be one of the most interesting books ever written about a computer game; it’s actually fairly useless as a practical strategy guide, but is full of fascinating observations about the deeper implications of Civilization as a simulation of history. Wilson writes from a forthrightly liberal point of view, while Emrich is, as we’ve already seen, deeply conservative, and the frisson between the two gives the book additional zest. Here’s what it has to say about Civilization‘s implementation of the narrative of progress:

To be civilized in terms of Sid Meier’s Civilization means to be making material progress in terms of economic well-being and scientific advancement. The game has an underlying belief in such progress. In fact, this dogma is so strong that there is actually no problem in Sid Meier’s Civilization that cannot be solved by human effort (using settler units) or more technology. There are, as a correspondent named Gary Boone wrote to us shortly after the game’s release, no Luddites (reactionary anti-technological activists during the Industrial Revolution) in this game’s universe. It is, to paraphrase Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, the best of all progressing worlds.

Many an earnest progressive in the real world has doubtless wished for such an alternate universe. Galileo wished he could write about heliocentrism without being hauled before an ecclesiastical court; Einstein wished he could pursue his Theory of Relativity without contending with a pitchfork-wielding mob of Isaac Newton disciples; modern researchers wish they could explore gene therapy without people forever trying to take their stem cells away. All of these wishes come true in Civilization, that best of all progressing worlds.

Of course, even those of us who proudly call ourselves progressives need to recognize that the narrative of progress has its caveats. Many of the narrative’s adherents, not least among them Civilization, have tended to see it as an historical inevitability. Notably, Civilization has no mechanisms by which advances, once acquired, can be lost again. Yet clearly this has happened in real human history, most famously during the thousand-year interregnum between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, during the early centuries of which humanity in the West was actively regressing by countless measures; much knowledge, along with much art and literature, was lost forever during the so-called Dark Ages. (Far more would have been lost had not the Muslim world saved much of Europe’s heritage from the neglect and depredations of the European peoples — much as is done, come to think of it, by a small society of monks after each successive Apocalypse in Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.)

We should thus remember as we construct our narratives of progress for our own world that the data in favor of progress as an inevitability is thin on the ground indeed. We have only one history we can look back upon, making it very questionable to gather too many hard-and-fast rules therefrom. All but the most committed Luddite would agree that progress has occurred over the last several centuries, and at an ever-increasing rate at that, but we have no form of cosmic assurance that it will continue. “The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness,” wrote Norbert Wiener in 1950, going on to note that the sheer pace of progress in recent times had given those times a character unique in human history:

There is no use in looking anywhere in earlier history for parallels to the successful inventions of the steam engine, the steamboat, the locomotive, the modern smelting of metals, the telegraph, the transoceanic cable, the introduction of electric power, dynamite and the high-explosive missile, the airplane, the electric valve, and the atomic bomb. The inventions in metallurgy which heralded the origin of the Bronze Age are neither so concentrated in time nor so manifold as to offer a good counterexample. It is very well for the classical economist to assure us suavely that these changes are purely changes in degree, and that changes in degree do not vitiate historic parallels. The difference between a medicinal dose of strychnine and a fatal one is also only one of degree.

Civilization rather cleverly disguises this “difference of degree” by making each turn represent less and less time as you move through history. Nevertheless, progress at anything but the most glacial pace remains a fairly recent development that may be more of an historical anomaly than an inevitability.

Whatever else it is, the narrative of progress is also a deeply American view of history. The United States is young enough to have been born after progress in the abstract had become an idea in philosophy. Indeed, its origin story is inextricably bound up in Enlightenment idealism. That fact, combined with the fact that the United States has been fortunate enough to suffer very few major tragedies in its existence, has caused a version of the narrative of progress to become the default way of teaching American history at the pre-university level. One could thus say that every American citizen, this one included, is indoctrinated in the narrative of progress before reaching adulthood. This indoctrination can make it difficult to even notice the existence of other views of history.

Civilization, for its part, is a deeply American game, and much about the narrative of progress must have seemed self-evident to its designers, to the point that they never even thought about it. The game has garnered plenty of criticism in academia for its Americanisms. Matthew Kapell, for instance, in indelible academic fashion labels Civilization a “simulacram” of the “American monomythic structure.” Such essays often have more of an ideological axe to grind than does the game itself, and strike me as rather unfair to a couple of designers who at the end of the day were just making a good-faith attempt to portray history as it looked to them. Still, we Americans would do well to keep in mind that our country’s view of history isn’t a universal one.

But if we shouldn’t trust in progress as inevitable, how should we think about it? To begin with, we might acknowledge that the narrative of progress has always been as much an ethical position, a description of the way things ought to be, as it has been a description of the way they necessarily are. This has been the real American dream of progress, one always bigger than the country’s profoundly imperfect reality, one in which much of the world outside its borders has been able to find inspiration. Call me a product of my upbringing if you will, but it’s a dream to which I still wholeheartedly subscribe. To be a progressive is to recognize that the world is a better place than it used to be — that, by almost any measurement we care to take, human life is better than it’s ever been on this little planet of ours — thanks to those Enlightenment virtues of reason, science, humanism, and progress. And it is to assert that we have the capacity to make things yet much, much better for all of our planet’s people.

Progress will continue to be the binding theme of this series of articles, as it is the central theme of Civilization. We’ll continue to turn it around, to peer at it, to poke and prod it from various perspectives. Because ultimately, responsibility for our future doesn’t lie with some dead hand of historical or technological determinism. It lies with us, the strategizers sitting behind the screen, pulling the levers of our real world’s civilizations.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal, The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics by Christopher Lasch, History of the Idea of Progress by Ribert Nisbet, The Idea of Progress by J.B. Bury, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., Ulysses by James Joyce, Lectures on the Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; Computer Gaming World of September 1991 and December 1991; Popular Culture Review of Summer 2002.)

 
 

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