Cycle of Civilizations vs Development of Consciousness

    In terms of understanding historical trends, the main alternative to the development of consciousness is probably the cycle of civilizations.  There are many different varieties of cycle of civilizations theory, but they all have in common the idea that throughout history there are patterns in human society that repeat themselves in a cyclic fashion.  

    The oldest reference to this idea I am aware of comes from "On a Republic," a work of Hippodamus (498 - 408 BC).  He writes: 

    "Things that grow of themselves by the same nature decay into the hidden beyond and then return to martality through transformation of growth; then, by repeated deacy, retrograde into another cycle.  Sometimes, when houses or cities have attained the peak of supreme happiness, in exuberant wealth, they have, through a welling up of insolent self-satisfaction, through human folly, perished together with their vaunted possessions.  

    Thus every human empire has shown three distinct stages of growth, fruition, and destruction.  For in the beginning, being destitute of goods, empires are engrossed in acquisition, but after they become wealthy they perish.  ... The end of self-satisfaction and insolence is destruction, but poverty and narrow circumstances often result in a strenuous and worthy life. "

    Cycle of civilizations theory is helpful in that there do indeed seem to be patterns based on human nature that occur.  There may also be patterns based on other factors, related to the physical environment of Earth that affect human civilizations.  I am not going to examine these kinds of factors in this post.  

    However, in understanding our current situation and what led up to it, I think development of consciousness is a better guide.  And this does not depend on any specific cycle theory, but on a feature intrinsic to cycle theories.  This is that, by focusing on broad trends, cycle of civilizations theories ignore the specific, qualitative aspects of a given civilization.  Now, such theories may treat their subjects in any level of granularity, but what I mean is that any qualitative features have to be added in.  They are extrinsic to the nature of the cycles themselves.  

    As an example, suppose I was to relate the rise of our current industrial civilization to the rise of Rome.  It may well be that there are trends which are similar, but Rome and the industrial revolution also differ in drastic ways and those differences are more important than the similarities.  The cycle alone cannot tell us that Europe would develop technologically or which technologies Europe would develop.  

    Certain social conditions such as prosperity or social stability can create conditions which allow geniuses to successfully spend time developing their inventions.  However, assuming that prosperity or social stability naturally lead to a flourishing of genius requires a further assumption that there is a baseline population of geniuses which only need the right conditions to flourish.  And this further assumption is not entailed by a theory of cycles of prosperity alone.   

    And it is exactly the specific, qualitative features of our current situation that concern us.  I elaborate more in this post, but in short three of the biggest are the breakdown of social bonds (which are weaker than they every have been in recorded history), the mechanization of life (also to levels never before seen in history), and the normalization of pathological, unnatural and destructive behaviors (related to the first but also distinct).  I would also add the denial of God and indeed any spiritual aspect of reality.  William Wildblood has described this last issue in many posts.  Here is one example.  

    The fact that these have happened so quickly and to such an extent should make us consider that we are not dealing with a repeat of past circumstances.  It can be difficult to see because our current situation is the water in which we swim, so to speak, but it really is a qualitative difference over any past civilization, not just a quantitative increase in decline.  This means that to understand what is going on and what we should do, we need to look at the features where our civilization differs from past ones and try to understand them.  

    And that is what theories of the development of consciousness try to do.  They look at the specific features of our current civilization and past civilizations and try to learn from these to see the trajectory of change.  Also, they look towards consciousness because human consciousness is behind all that human beings do.  Changes in consciousness are the most fundamental explanation for changes in society.  

    So, to summarize, cycles of civilization theories can be helpful, but because by their very nature they look at commonalities between civilizations, they are not as helpful in our current time as theories concerning the development of consciousness, which look at differences between civilizations.  


  1. Cycles of civilization can be helpful - they can also be very unhelpful, and that is what I usually see.

    Most of those who adhere *seriously* to the cycles of civilization ideas, as a genuine explanatory and predictive model, are on the anti-left but 'secular Right' - this would apply to Spengler a century ago, and people like the Z-man now.

    I think this shows the appeal, and problems, of cyclical theories.

    In biological terms; cyclical theories take growth and death and rebirth as the primary explanation; but leave out the long term effects of evolution (both by natural selection and also, ultimately, divine teleology).

    In sum organisms, and civilizations, do not just reproduce - but also evolve.

    1. "In biological terms; cyclical theories take growth and death and rebirth as the primary explanation; but leave out the long term effects of evolution (both by natural selection and also, ultimately, divine teleology).

      In sum organisms, and civilizations, do not just reproduce - but also evolve."

      Great analogy.

  2. Many thanks, this is a very good point.

  3. Very insightful.

    As far as I can conceptualize it, the development of consciousness unfolds in time, but I don't believe it has all that much to do with the cycle of civilization theory.


The real AI agenda

    On a post  by Wm Briggs, about artificial intelligence, a commenter with the monniker "ItsAllBullshit" writes:           "...