A Theory Of Historical Cultural Stagnation
June 22, 2009, 05:51 PM
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One important finding in Charles Murray's 2003 book Human Accomplishment is that during the rise of the West from 1500 onward, most major civilizations outside the West were stagnating culturally — even in categories where they only compete against themselves (e.g., Arabic Literature, Chinese Literature, Indian Literature, Chinese Painting, Indian Philosophy, and Chinese Philosophy).

Only the Japanese seemed to be making steady progress on broad fronts. Not as fast as Europe, but during their isolationist period from 1601-1853, the Japanese were developing many of the features of modern Japan (geisha culture, sumo wrestling, etc.) and continued to progress in the arts. This forward movement may explain why they responded more impressively to the Western challenge when it finally arrived in 1853.

I think there may be a general historical pattern in which a culture goes through a growth phase, classics emerge, and then subsequent generations settle down to memorizing the classic books, which slowly leaches the dynamism from a society.

For example, during the competition of the Warring States era, the Chinese developed lots of ideas about politics and behavior. Subsequent generations judged Confucius, reasonably enough, to be the most sensible of the early Chinese thinkers. They then erected a meritocratic system for choosing government officials based more or less on who can memorize the most Confucius. This worked pretty well for a long time, but by, say, 1800, the Chinese have coasted about as far as they can go on Confucius and aren't prepared for the modern world. (Substitute Mohamed, Plato and Aristotle, Buddha, Aquinas, etc. for other civilizations.)

The invention of the printing press in the 1450s liberated Europe from the tyranny of memorization by making books cheap.

Here's my question about Japan: What are the classics that have dominated Japanese thought? Do they have many? Did they just pay lip service to Confucius. Is this relative lack of classics a key to their continued progress? In Modern Times, Paul Johnson says, "In a sense, the Japanese had always been modern-minded people."