The indefatigable Old AF Sarge over at Chant du Depart posted an older piece of fiction yesterday (the man, by the way, can write. If you are not following him and the cast of misfits over there, you should be) about the battles of Lexington and Concord - as seen from the side of the British of that day. In the middles of the story, one of the characters notes "It seemed to Tom that a war might be starting this very day. were these men insane?"
It was a thought provoking piece for a Sunday, which is come to be my deep breath day of the week wedged as it is between what has become effectively the end of the work week (Saturday) and the beginning of the next day. It raised the salient thought: How do you recognize the actual end of a civilization or a society?
These sorts of questions have always fascinated me, and of the many different types of history that I have devoured it is the end of empires that often garners the most attention. Rome, Byzantium, The Ottoman Empire, The Austro-Hungarian Empire - I have read and re-read the fall of these empires until the progression of their unwinding becomes clear.
Why empires, or at least multinational states? Because it is the fact that these are more often than not societies that have existed for hundreds of years and almost up to their end, they continue to show signs of life. Even moribund, an empire can still continue to shamble forward based on the powers of a bureaucracy that defies inertia.
And then, all of a sudden, there is the sudden end. Curtain, finis.
Were these inevitable collapses? In hindsight of course, it is always difficult to say "no". We know the history in a way that those living through it could not and we see all of the factors that contributed to the cracking, not just the ones that are easy to see. But was there a moment just before the moment of inevitability, a moment where the course could have been corrected? And if there is such a moment, could they have actually seen it for what it was?
Asked differently, can we think critically enough about pivotal points of history to consciously choose them?
I suspect the answer is no, as that would require more thought and consideration than most individuals are willing to put into any decision, let alone critical ones that impact them in ways that they cannot fully comprehend. I do not think that this surprises me: abstract decision making is very difficult for us when it directly impacts us, let alone when does not. Add to that a hearty dose of kicking the can down the road, and the fact that a decision of this nature passes by in an instant is not surprising.
It does make me wonder though: were the inhabitants of Rome or Byzantium or the Ottoman Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the previous 200 years to somehow magically move forward in time and see the outcome of their decisions, would they have changed them? Or is the lure of the here and now, of themselves and their plans and desires, too much to overcome the survival of that which they might have held dear?
History suggests "no", but I am always willing to be pleasantly surprised.