Upon learning that America has an Arch-Druid, it would be only natural to make some assumptions about his beliefs, and cautious guesses would probably be right. The commitments of a religion that avoid appeal to the supernatural, one might expect, would be characteristically down-to-earth, ecological, conservative (in the determinedly lower-case and old-fashioned sense), practical, and empirical. At its most intellectually abstract, and also most (quietly) mystical, druidism would accept the ultimate complicity of all reality with a pattern of change that is at once sensible and insurmountable, multi-leveled, subtle, and all-enveloping: the cycle.
John Michael Greer, author of the Arch-Druid Report, eschews spiritual obscurity, at least in public. His persona as a blogger is that of a calm, lucid, and exceptionally insightful cycle theorist. In the strongest and most ineluctable sense, cyclicity is the norm, from which nothing truly, or sustainably, departs. A cultural formation that loses this druidic grounding, by attaching itself to a setting which would break the cycle, thereby destines itself to a fall, or reversal of fortune – expressing the inevitable reversion to sustainability within a greater wheel of nature and history. Balance is less a moral imperative than a cosmic necessity, and since sustainability cannot be avoided, it can only also be advised.
As an analytical method, druidism is a kind of cybernetics, reflecting the mainstream orientation of the discipline. Negative feedback, which adjusts towards stability, fetches back deviations, to produce normal cycles. Perturbations are canceled within natural rhythms. Destabilizing, self-accentuating, positive feedback, in contrast, incarnates the unnatural, and is thus – from a certain perspective – unreal. Self-reinforcing processes accelerate to a crisis, and then collapse, describing a wave, or fluctuation, at a greater scale. What seems like an irrecoverable deviation has its counterpart within a larger whole, matching it exactly in one-sidedness, or violence, and providing the complementary reversion that restores equilibrium. A broken cycle is part of a more encompassing rhythm, partially perceived. Druidic naturalism insists that everything is eventually fetched back, because there is nowhere ‘else’ to flee. The law of the earth is ultimately inviolable:
… positive feedback [is] extremely rare in the real world, because systems with positive feedback promptly destroy themselves — imagine a thermostat that responded to rising temperatures by heating things up further until the house burns down. Negative feedback, by contrast, is everywhere.
At the largest social scale, pathological deviations, and their reversions, are exemplified by the rise and fall of civilizations. Historical cycle theorists, such as Spengler and Toynbee, capture the recurrent pattern in its essentials. Cultures and all of their component parts, including historiography itself, are enveloped and directed by these great rhythms:
Every literate urban society, Spengler argued, followed the same trajectory from an original folk religion rich in myths, through the rise of intellectual theology, the birth of rationalism, the gradual dissolution of the religious worldview into rational materialism, and then the gradual disintegration of rational materialism into a radical skepticism that ends by dissolving itself; thereafter ethical philosophies for the intellectuals and resurgent folk religion for the masses provide the enduring themes for the civilization to come.
Such patterns offer the material for what Greer calls ‘morphology’ which, on the model (especially) of 18th and 19th century biology, extracts regular, comparable shapes from the confusion of varied particulars. Among the objects of morphological investigation are deep cultural structures, inextricable from religious ideas (in the widest sense), which pre-reflectively organize the experience of historical time. Globalized Occidental civilization (“modern industrial culture”), Greer argues, is characterized by two dominant time shapes, at once twinned and aligned, which resonate with an unsustainable, positive-feedback dynamic in their pathological denial of balance, or eventual reversion.
Before examining these twinned shapes of modern time, some broader context can generate ambient illumination. Greer introduces a variety of time shapes from non-industrial cultures (and ecologies), including the changeless ‘dream time’ of hunter-gatherer societies, and the great cycles of pre-modern Chinese tradition. Indeed, his sketch of the classical Chinese time-shape appears oddly, even fetchingly, druidic:
The basic theory of the Chinese science of time is that events are guided by many different cycles, some faster and some slower, some influencing one dimension of human life and some shaping another. The cycle of the seasons was one of these; the cycle of human life was another; the cycle of the rise and fall of dynasties was a third; there were many more, each with its own period and typical sequence of events. Just as no two years had exactly the same weather on exactly the same days, no two repetitions of any other cycle were identical, but common patterns allowed the events of one repetition to be more or less predicted by a sufficiently broad knowledge of earlier examples. On a much broader scale, all cycles of every kind could be understood as expressions of a single abstract pattern of cyclic change, which was explored in the classic Chinese textbook of time theory, the I Ching — in English, the Book of Change.
The most jarring contrast with the progressive model of time, however, is found much closer to it, both in cultural proximity and obvious ecological complementarity. It is laid out by Hesiod in his Works and Days, where it is articulated as a grinding stepwise decline through successive ages, each determined by its deterioration relative to the age before.
Hesiod’s abnormality – or ours – emerges starkly from an overlap. As modern historiography progresses, expanding its purchase ever more deeply into archeology and paleo-anthropology, it discovers ancient societies ‘rising’ from the new stone age (‘neolithic’) to the bronze age, and then later, with the advance of metallurgy, entering the iron age, with improved weapons and tools. The passage from bronze to iron is an obvious leap forward, corresponding to a basic threshold of cultural maturation, locked in to the history of the world by a progressive technological ratchet. How disconcerting, then, to find this same sequence repeated by Hesiod, but with inverse sign, in a degenerative series of ages — Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron – that proceed through increments of coarsening, from the most noble metal, to the most base.
From our deeply-entrenched, progressive perspective, any historical meta-narrative structured by relentless decline appears exotically strange. The same does not hold within Greer’s ecological framework, which couples deviations to reversions within long cycles, so that a downward slope is no more abnormal than a persistent incline. Our historical optimism finds itself ecologically relativized by a story that has no less confidence in its fears than we have in our long-consolidated hopes. The explanatory background that Greer supplies – themed by soil erosion — has sufficient directionality to match, and to carry, Hesiod’s shape of time:
Two thousand years before Hesiod, prehistoric Greece had been the home of a lively assortment of village cultures making the slow transition from polished stone tools to bronze. On that foundation more complex societies rose, borrowing heavily from contemporary high cultures in the Middle East, and culminating in the monumental architecture and literate palace bureaucracies of the Mycenean age. Those of my readers who have some sense of the rhythms of history will already know what followed: too much clearcutting and intensive farming of the fragile Greek soils, made worse by the importation of farming methods better suited to flat Mesopotamian valleys than easily eroded Greek hills, triggered an ecological crisis; most of the topsoil of Mycenean Greece ended up at the bottom of the Aegean Sea, where it can still be found in core samples; warfare, migration, and population collapse followed in the usual manner, as Mycenean society stumbled down the curve of its own Long Descent.
Greer’s readers have been prepared to recognize “its own” as a pointer to our own – another “Long Descent” anticipated by an ecological grounding pattern, this time set by the energy-availability curve of Peak Oil. This forecast is a topic for another occasion. For now, our concern is more abstract, indifferent to the specific mechanism of civilizational limitation, and attentive solely to Greer’s claim that the denial of historical cyclicity is a form of unwarranted exceptionalism, founded materially in an ecological boost-phase, and reasonably encapsulated in the notorious bubble slogan this time it’s different:
There’s a wry amusement to be had by thinking through the implications of this constantly repeated claim. If our society was in fact shaking off the burdens of the past and breaking new ground with every minute that goes by, as believers in progress like to claim, wouldn’t it be more likely that the theory of historical cycles would be challenged each time it appears with dazzlingly new, innovative responses that no one had ever imagined before? Instead, in an irony Nietzsche would have relished, the claim that history can’t repeat itself endlessly repeats itself, in what amounts to an eternal return of the insistence that there is no eternal return. What’s more, those who claim that it’s different this time seem blissfully unaware that anyone has made the same claim before them, and if this is pointed out to them, they insist—often with quite some heat—that what they’re saying has nothing whatsoever to do with all the other times the same argument was used to make the same point down through the years.
It bears repeating that the belief in progress, and the equal and opposite belief in apocalypse, are narratives about the unknowable. Both claim that the past has nothing to say about the future, that something is about to happen that has never happened before and that can’t be judged on the basis of any previous event.
Neither progress nor apocalypse, Greer contends, are time-shapes well-suited to the realistic evaluation of their ends. [More on that next]