In 1935 The Dalhousie Review (15, 1 , pp.67-78) published a fascinating little paper by Hugh MacLennan, titled “Roman History and To-day”. MacLennan was writing largely in response to the theories of the German historian Oswald Spengler and he was writing in the capacity of an historian – a trade in which he had recently been trained at Dalhousie, Oxford, and Princeton – not as a novelist – the trade for which he is mainly remembered (or, by too many, forgotten) today. But MacLennan tips his future-novelist hand a bit when he writes “The ideal historian of to-day would be integrated both as an artist and as a scientist.”(p. 69) This idea of art and science being two sides of the same coin of discovery and understanding is one I’ve long felt to be true. What MacLennan is getting at specifically, however, is the historian’s need to understand the psychology of the masses for it is the movement of the masses, not the decisions and actions of the “Great Men” which is the true force of history. There is much in “Roman History and To-day” which is directly informative of our own time of populism, mass disenchantment, new strongmen, and the looming of new World War. But when reading MacLennan’s youthful challenge to the academically powerful Spengler, I was struck by how much “Roman History and To-day” foreshadowed a work of fiction which would seven years later begin its slow rise to become a perennially burning ember to kindle an interest in economics, politics, and history in generations of teenagers. I am referring to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation cycle, and more specifically to the fictional scientific discipline of “Psychohistory” which appeared in the first Foundation story, published in 1942.
I don’t know if Isaac Asimov ever saw The Dalhousie Review or if he knew of its existance: he certainly never seemed to credit much other than Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the thermodynamics of gasses as a major inspiration for Foundation. But I suspect that an idea like Asimov’s Psychohistory was in the interbellum zeitgeist and it was on that zeitgeist that both MacLennan and Asimov drew. Such is the nature of (psycho)history that the necessary will bubble up from the mass into individuals until one or more run with that necessary.
What does history deal with? The answer used to be: “With men and events”. Nowadays we should have to state it thus: “History deals with individuals, evens, and the masses, and it embraces the whole range of human activity”. . . .(p. 69)
and here comes the psychohistory from the zeitgeist:
. . . It has become obvious that the behaviour of the masses has some peculiar quality, as though the masses comprised a sort of entity which operated under government of natural mass-laws of its own. And to modern people who read the newspapers, mass-behaviour seems so mechanical, so entirely predictable, that hardly anyone would talk of history as being a biography of great men. (p. 69)
In the first Foundation story published (the second section of the novel Foundation) Asimov has his character Fara say:
. . . you all seem to forget that Seldon was the greatest psychologist of our time and that he was the founder of our Foundation. It seems reasonable to assume that he used his science to determine the probable course of the history of the immediate future . . . (Foundation, “The Encyclopedists”, chapter 3)
and a moment later Asimov writes, apparently channelling the inner thoughts of his character Salvor Hardin:
A great psychologist such as Seldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future. (Foundation, “The Encyclopedists”, chapter 3)
As Salvor Hardin cogitates: “hm-m-m!”
Yet it would be too simple to equate the masses to some sort of crude machine level, for they have – excuse the cliché – “psychology”. The mass psychology of various times, as revealed in countless apparently unimportant ways, should be almost as important to the historian as economics.
MacLennan continues on to discuss the concepts of causes and “determiners”:
. . . there are times when the process of events is seen, with pitiless clarity, to be issuing from formal causes far remote, when individuals are like flies on a torrent, when almost everyone seems to want something not to happen, and yet later ages, looking back, see that it had to happen. Such times are vital crises, like the collapse of the Roman Republic, like the downfall of the Roman Empire, like the 1790’s. In fact, like the events of our own day. (p. 71)
This reference to “events of our own day”, by the way, was revisited by MacLennan in his 1980 novel Voices in Time, which is highly recommended. And the entire discussion of the Fall of the Roman Empire is tantalizing in reference to Asimov’s very clearly stated basing of Foundation on Gibbon’s great work of historical analysis.
Such crises do not happen to young or primitive societies. It concerns us, in the twentieth century [and in the twenty-first], to know what is underneath our times. Obviously a great social idea, at least in its application, is very nearly played out. To use two metaphors: Has a spring uncoiled to its fullest length, as was the case with the Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century? Or is new wine likely to explode old bottles? In crises like these, however protracted and fluctuating, they may be, is anyone seriously to look for a deus ex machina like the N[ational].R[ecovery].A[dministration].?
If we want to know what determined Roman civilization, to know, that is, its significant determiner, we ought to look for it in the formal cause of its peculiar quality. It differed absolutely from Alexander’s empire, on the one hand, and from the empires of the Far East, on the other. I mean by “formal cause” the active, dynamic principle which actuated nearly all Romans in their daily life, which guided their approach to all their problems, which, in fact, made them the Romans they were. This principle was precisely what we call to-day private enterprise. As practised by the Romans, it can be equated to the following crude descriptive term: “How can I acquire the largest possible quantity of material power for myself: for myself, personally?” (p. 71)
This sounds quite familiar. It looks like it might be heading toward a sledgehammer Marxist condemnation of Capitalism, but . . .
One might naturally object that acquisitiveness is about as universal a characteristic as there is in the world. I think, however, that this objection would be superficial. A more universal characteristic still is the need for self-expression, and as the Romans expressed themselves nearly always pragmatically and materialistically, it is not too much to say that they had a genius for acquisition. (pp. 71-2)
MacLennan is here, I feel, stating both an historical hypothesis and a confession about his own desire to integrate the scientist and the artist within himself. Self-expression is the more [most?] universal characteristic than pragmatism, but MacLennan clearly always had a desire to be “scientifically” pragmatic about History as a narrative that stretches from the past to the future. Certainly his novels (self-)express the goal of reflecting and predicting past and future history, less obviously in his iconic Two Solitudes and most obviously in his last novel, Voices in Time.
The self-expression that is so important to MacLennan, and to us all, reaches across generations, bringing the zeitgeist of a specific period into a new time and situation. The interbellum years of the 1930s produced the early writings of MacLennan and Asimov in response to the intellectual, political, and economic situation of that time. But those writings, like any writings, can have a long, a very long reach. I’m thinking here of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman who has stated quite clearly that if it were not for Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, he would not have entered the field of economics. Krugman went to a Science Fiction Convention in Montreal in 2009 and, as The New Yorker reported:
Last August, Krugman decided that before he and Wells departed for a bicycle tour of Scotland he would take a couple of days to speak at the sixty-seventh world science- fiction convention, to be held in Montreal. (Krugman has been a science-fiction fan since he was a boy.) At the convention, there was a lot of extremely long hair, a lot of blue hair, and a lot of capes. There was a woman dressed as a cat, there was a woman with a green brain attached to her head with wire, there was a person in a green face mask, there was a young woman spinning wool. There was a Jedi and a Storm Trooper. Those participants who were not dressed as cats were wearing T-shirts with something written on them: “I don ’t understand —and I’ m a rocket scientist, ” “I see dead pixels, ” “Math is delicious.” Krugman has always had a nerdy obsession with puns. (He is very proud of a line in one of his textbooks: “Efforts to negotiate a resolution to Europe ’ s banana split had proved fruitless.”) He also likes costumes. Once, he and Wells gave a Halloween party where the theme was economics topics —two guests came as Asian tigers, several came as hedge funds, one woman came as capital, dressed as a column. Sitting up onstage at the science-fiction convention, Krugman looked happy to be there. It seemed that these were, in some worrying sense, his people. “Hi, everyone!” he called out. “Hi!” everyone called back. Krugman explained that he’d become an economist because of science fiction. When he was a boy, he ’d read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation ” trilogy and become obsessed with the central character, Hari Seldon. Seldon was a “psychohistorian”—a scientist with such a precise understanding of the mechanics of society that he could predict the course of events thousands of years into the future and save mankind from centuries of barbarism. He couldn’t predict individual behavior—that was too hard—but it didn’t matter, because history was determined not by individuals but by laws and hidden forces. “If you read other genres of fiction, you can learn about the way people are and the way society is, ” Krugman said to the audience, “but you don’t get very much thinking about why are things the way they are, or what might make them different. What would happen if ?” With Hari Seldon in mind, Krugman went to Yale, in 1970, intending to study history, but he felt that history was too much about what and not enough about why, so he ended up in economics. Economics, he found, examined the same infinitely complicated social reality that history did but, instead of elucidating its complexity, looked for patterns and rules that made the complexity seem simple. . . .
Well, the Roman society that is at the root of both MacLennan’s essay and Asimov’s Foundation, and, incidently, of Krugman’s career arc, is, as MacLennan makes explicite, a “servile state”, to be more clear, a slave-owning, slave-dependent state. It is here, on the question of servility, slavery, that MacLennan’s discussion most importantly confronts prediction of the future, both the future from the view point of 1935 and our own future. Today, a century after Spengler’s Decline of the West, we are actually not far removed from the historical issues of his time. MacLennan and Asimov still speak to our time as contemporaries. Spengler argued that a civilization had an organically predetermined lifespan and that around the year 2000 the “West” would truly begin to decline. MacLennan argued, less mystically than Spengler, that decline in a civilization would begin, as it did in Rome, when the desired avenues for human self-expression became closed to the common people:
Empire, the achievement of it, is a confession that a limit has been reached. What did this mean to the individual Roman? The answer is clear and vitally important. It dominates the whole writing of Tacitus. It is reflected in the senatorial hatred of Tiberius and Domitian. In a word, it meant that the great career was gone. (p. 75)
The “great career” was the possibility of moving ever upward, the “American Dream” in the terms of the last century . . .
It took the Romans almost a century of empire to realize this. But what was the main work of Augustus? He had made order out of chaos. He had relieved the provinces; he had created a salaried civil service; he had made the provinces prosperous and even happy, so that it was with real feeling that they worshipped him after his death as a god. But the decay in stock was already beginning in the capital. A new avenue for self-expression was needed and was not found. For several centuries Rome lived on the energy of the provinces, where the same process that had happened to herself was underway in a new form. And for a century the civilization grew. It became a vast organism, complex, populous, cultured and safe, in which the provinces finally absorbed the capital. By the time of Trajan the world reached a high level of commerce which it never reached again until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Yet, in the fifth century, this organism decayed and fell, and the Dark Ages really descended and lasted for almost a thousand years. (pp. 75-6)
Compare MacLennan’s words to this from the holographic recording of Hari Seldon in chapter 7 of “The Encyclopedists”, the first-published section of Asimov’s Foundation:
“For centuries Galactic civilization has stagnated and declined, though only a few ever realized that. But now, at last the Periphery is breaking away and the political unity of the Empire is shattered. Somewhere in the fifty years just past is where the historians of the future will place an arbitrary line and say: ‘This marks the Fall of the Galactic Empire.’
“And they will be right, though scarcely any will recognize that Fall for additional centuries.
“And after the Fall will come inevitable barbarism, a period which, our psychohistory tells us, should, under ordinary circumstances last for thirty thousand years. We cannot stop the Fall. We do not wish to; for Empire culture has lost whatever virility and worth it once had. . .”
As far as I remember, this is as near to a statement by Asimov of the actual cause of the Galactic Empire’s decline and fall: a loss of “virility and worth”. Asimov is wearing his fiction writer hat. Maclennan, however artistic he may be feeling, is wearing his Historian hat and feels it necessary to explore causes more deeply than Asimov seems to be:
History should ask, not will it decay, but when will it decay, and for what specific reason will it decay? And the majority of historians of Rome cite the effects as being causes. The reasons generally given are decline in stock, indifference of the senate and public to state affairs, panem et circenses, the rise of the pacific civilization of Christianity, bankruptcy in ideas and resources, diminishing trade returns and soil-exhaustion; chief of all, the strangling growth of bureaucracy.
Is it necessary to say that these, most of them, were not causes but outward signs of an organic decay: They seem the invariable concomitants of this process which even in pristine times we saw in generation; which we saw set in active motion by the vigour, the pressure from below, of early Romans; which was strengthened by the inculcated reverence for the abstract tribal notion of patriotism, by physical hardihood and practical intelligence. It wasgiven a physical direction by geography, a limitation by the relative absence of science, a mental direction by the empirical Roman mind, a necessity by what seems to be the human nature of Western man. Private enterprise is a fact which no Western thinker can dare blink. Its most direct result is to establish some form of a servile state.
Rome, as anyone would admit, suffered because she was a servile state. But it was just because she was a servile state that she became mighty. She had, in the two aspects of her administration, to face a dilemma, one horn menacing the republic, the other the empire. Without exploitation there could be no great career for the individual, and the republic demanded the career. Without curtailing exploitation and making a conservative system of it, there could be no state at all. Christianity, the Epicurean and Stoic philosophies, the Neo-Platonists, all seem to have been produced out of this waste land of hopelessness and disillusionment. The masses, even the upper classes, after two centuries of empire, came to know bitterly that no matter how hard they laboured they could never fully realize their potentialities; that they were factual, if not legal, slaves. Having no hope in this world, it became comfortable to despise it and to concentrate on other-worldly religions. Yet, for some reason, Western man cannot take easily to mysticism. He must express himself outwardly. So when expansion ceased, decay set in. (pp. 76-77)
Needless to say, MacLennan’s words have frightening implications for our own “To-day” of huge masses of population feeling disenfranchised, facing or already in poverty, and looking out on an all to often real wasteland of hopelessness and disillusionment. How many people today of any age truly can imagine that there is a “Great Career” waiting for them somewhere out there behind the wolf at the door?
In a few paragraphs MacLennan makes reference to some words of Aristotle which will perk up any Asimov fan’s ears:
Aristotle was near the root of the historic mystery. He saw that abilities differ, and that the superior man will not be able to realize himself to a complete degree unless he has leisure from supplying the needs of mere existence. Just in so far as he is superior, he is bound to requisition the services of the inferior man to do the menial work of the world. One sentence from the Politics is noteworthy: “If machines could operate automatically, as in the myths they say the tripods of Hephaestus did, if the shuttle could weave without a hand to guide it” … if this happened, then Plato’s Republic might become possible. For Aristotle it was the reductio ad absurdum. For us it should be the most significant thing he ever said. Is it too much to say that Rome declined, when and how she did, because she had no machines and could not alter her values? (p. 77)
At the beginning of the series, the Foundation universe had no robots, and when Asimov late in his career worked to unify his fictional universes, he had to come up with a reason that the Galactic Empire had no such machines which he largely did in his 1983 novel The Robots of Dawn. Very simply put, Asimov decided the Galaxy had been populated by people and a culture which didn’t like robots. But I find it interesting that, although Asimov’s first four robot stories, “Robbie”(1940), “Reason”(1941), “Liar!”(1941), and “Runaround”(1942) where written before or contemporaneously with the first Foundation story (later made the second part of Foundation), and so in his mind while reading Gibbon (who certainly discusses slaves*) and dreaming up the Foundation – although all that, he didn’t think to put robots – or slaves – into the Foundation/Galactic Empire universe.
Mid-Twentieth Century American author doesn’t get into slavery . . .
. . . but the Canadian historian/author did.
As I said before, I don’t know whether Asimov had any contact with MacLennan’s Dalhousie Review piece. I’d be very surprised if I were told he had no familiarity with Spengler, and I assume that any similarities between the Foundation series and MacLennan’s little essay are an outgrowth of the zeitgeist and, perhaps, of responses to the Spengler that was in the air at the time.
But . . .
Why am I feeling the need to respond to these two works from 1935 and 1942, together, as though meaningfully linked, at my particular time in History? What do Rome or Foundation or Robots have to do with To-day? Perhaps I should give MacLennan the last word, the last words of his essay:
One thing historic study teaches is that, where there is an opening, the masses tend to gravitate towards it, and that so long as evolution is possible the mass-process will continue. Historic evolution can almost be gauged by the widening and narrowing in the range of choice of action and self-expression.. And as it is obvious that machinery and science contain, for us, a vast reservoir, practically untapped and certainly not fully explored, the present situation seems explosive rather than apathetic. Those whose meaning is identified with the old idea can hardly escape perishing when their meaning goes, but Spengler to-day seems to have been blinded by the worldweariness of the period as well as by his own a priori position. Roman history also shows that propaganda is no new thing, though the modern technique of lying and of using language to conceal thought has certainly reached a high peak of efficiency. But intelligent men deliberate only on what it lies in their power to effect. Those present-day Governments who, by “imposing ideas from above”, would create conditions suitable for their own interests ought to learn from history that to do so is to prolong their time, not to consolidate it. It is impossible to resuscitate permanently any civilization without either altering the formal cause which has brought it into trouble or fundamentally altering the direction of its activity.
When a new era begins, the case might be different. At such a point of time, if ever, a man can resemble a god, for then he can lay causes. But whether it is possible for Western man to lay a different cause, or a cause operating in a different direction, from that which we have seen operating in Rome, cannot yet be told. To attempt to tell this would be to transcend the limits of our own age. Surely, however, we are justified in believing so much as this: though potential energies of our time are far greater than our time is using, nevertheless machines provide a means of decreasing the necessity of slavery in the world; and if the world has this recourse still untapped, it must ultimately use it. But as a corollary it must be added that unless state-education is altered and the values of the masses are profoundly altered, the new era will not escape the old vicious circle. So much, at any rate, seems the lesson of past history. (pp.77-78)
- * “It was by such institutions that the nations of the empire insensibly melted away into the Roman name and people. But there still remained, in the centre of every province and of every family, an unhappy condition of men who endured the weight, without sharing the benefits, of society. In the free states of antiquity the domestic slaves were exposed to the wanton rigour of despotism. The perfect settlement of the Roman empire was preceded by ages of violence and Their treatment. rapine. The slaves consisted, for the most part, of barbarian captives, taken in thousands by the chance of war, purchased at a vile price, accustomed to a life of independence, and impatient to break and to revenge their fetters. Against such internal enemies, whose desperate insurrections had more than once reduced the republic to the brink of destruction, the most severe regulations, and the most cruel treatment, seemed almost justified by the great law of self-preservation. But when the principal nations of Europe, Asia, and Africa, were united under the laws of one sovereign, the source of foreign supplies flowed with much less abundance, and the Romans were reduced to the milder but more tedious method of propagation. In their numerous families, and particularly in their country estates, they encouraged the marriage of their slaves. The sentiments of nature, the habits of education, and the possession of a dependent species of property, contributed to alleviate the hardships of servitude. The existence of a slave became an object of greater value, and though his happiness still depended on the temper and circumstances of the master, the humanity of the latter, instead of being restrained by fear, was encouraged by the sense of his own interest. The progress of manners was accelerated by the virtue or policy of the emperors; and by the edicts of Hadrian and the Antonines, the protection of the laws was extended to the most abject part of mankind. The jurisdiction of life and death over the slaves, a power long exercised and often abused, was taken out of private hands, and reserved to the magistrates alone. The subterraneous prisons were abolished; and, upon a just complaint of intolerable treatment, the injured slave obtained either his deliverance, or a less cruel master.” Gibbon, Chapter 2