Penguin Random House, which published my book War and Peace and War (henceforward, WPW) in 2005 decided that now is a good time to promote it. For a short time, the e-book version, sold on all different platforms, is priced at $1.99. If you haven’t read it, get it now while the promotion lasts. But I also thought that this would be a good occasion to do a retrospective on WPW.
I wrote WPW mostly in 2004. It was my first popular science book, or a “trade” book in the jargon of the publishing industry. Writing for a lay audience didn’t come naturally to me, but I was lucky to have a very good editor, Stephen Morrow. He contacted me and proposed this project, and he participated fully during the development of the narrative. Since then, I wrote another popular book (Utrasociety) and currently am working on a third one (which is a big reason why this blog has languished). I found that I enjoy writing for popular audiences, and trade books have become an important way for me to get the ideas of Cliodynamics out.
Although WPW was written 17 years ago, it aged surprisingly well. For seven years before I even started writing it, I read voraciously through books and articles by historical sociologists, economists, archaeologists, cultural evolutionists, and—most important—historians. I read both historians who wrote “grand historical narratives,” such as William McNeill, and historians who attempted to view history at a more personal level, through the eyes of individuals. A great example of the latter is Barbara Tuchman, who in A Distant Mirror followed the fortunes of Sieur de Coucy as he tried to survive the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages.
Human brain is a wonderful inference engine. Like many before me, as I ploughed through this sea of information, I started seeing patterns. I remember that I went through a huge number of ideas and possible explanations, many proposed by others, a few that occurred to me. 99% of them were discarded almost as soon as they came up. But a few endured, surviving the Darwinian process of being confronted with what happened in different parts of the world and different historic eras. And so, I ended up writing my own “grand historical narrative.” WPW was the result.
But it wasn’t an end result. I didn’t want to add yet another grand theory to the hundreds that had already been proposed by 2005, and dozens that have been proposed since then. The next stage, building a large body of empirical data to test the theories in WPW, as well as those proposed by others—what became the Seshat Databank—required much more time and work. And it will be a while before the job is done (you can keep track of the progress here). But looking at our results so far, it is already clear to me that much of what WPW speculated about is going to be supported by the massive data that the Seshat project has gathered. As I said above, WPW aged surprisingly well.
In retrospect, WPW largely defined my research agenda in the intervening years. My research has followed two main strands, described in Part I. Imperiogenesis: The Rise of Empires and in Part II. Imperiopathosis: The Fall of Empires. The evolution of social complexity and collapse of complex societies can be thought of as obverse sides of the same coin and, indeed, in an ultimate sense, the common theme in both is cooperation (creation or destruction). Yet the proximate sets of mechanisms are different, and I found it more natural to focus on each separately.
Part III. Cliodynamics: A New Kind of History was also an agenda-setter for me. When I published the book in 2005 hardly anybody ever heard of Cliodynamics (and many confused it with Cliometrics, which is a related, but separate field). Now, especially after the annus horribilis of 2020, Cliodynamics apparently entered the public consciousness in a much more concrete way.
Anyway, if you are interested in Cliodynamics, WPW is a great place to start.
Finally, I personally find the current book cover a bit bland and generic. I really liked the cover of the first, hardcover edition:
It is based on a detail from The Conquest of Siberia by Yermak (1895) by the Russian painter Vasily Surikov. To my mind, it’s a wonderful illustration of one of the central ideas in WPW, metaethnic frontier. Read the book to find out why!
When I first became interested in history as a teenager, I was intrigued by all the exciting battles and larger than life figures, all the great stories of humanity from different time periods and cultures. It was often more exciting than any fiction because it didn’t follow the same narrative patterns, heroes were often not rewarded, villains not punished and often the most capable and gifted characters did horrible things as well and were not punished for it.
At the same time I couldn’t help noticing certain patterns and repeating themes in all these seemingly unrelated stories from different time periods as well as in modern times, it was like there was some kind of elusive logic to all of it and I wanted to understand it.
Different ideological explanations seemed to me more like make believe and more telling about how different time periods influenced what people thought about themselves rather than how societies really work.
I had my own thoughts and was convinced the logic about how societies works can only be found in the past but I couldn’t really fit anything together .
Sometime later I read about a book in a newspaper from some kind of “math historian” which proposed some kind of new way of understanding history . I was never great at math but so I was initially reluctant but eventually bought the cheap paper bag version anyway.
I didn’t read it for some time because I thought it surely would be some kind of abstract theory and not really that relevant .
Eventually I started reading it and could not put it down again. It was as if someone connected everything I wanted to know about how the world works together and linked it to historical examples.
It was wonderful to finally have real answers not bogged down by heavy ideology and everything fits together so well . It was amazing and everything I dreamed of.
The chapter about Machiavelli cured me from my cynicism and pessimism. I, like many, also thought that there is some truth to some general cynical logic but you dismantled him completely and since then I have completely changed my view. I only think about conditional cooperators now
Using the Asabiyyah concept to explain the elusive stuff which makes some societies and groups work better together and have more cohesion is just brilliant .
How competition between individuals within groups and between groups as a whole works
How external competition can suppress too much competition in the group for more cohesion from the whole group which in turn makes the group stronger in competitions with other groups.
This explains so much and after reading it I can now see it everywhere, be it societies or sport teams or anywhere where humans interact in groups.
If I could read only one book about how societies work or humans in general it would be this.
Bought it! It was one of your book that I was missing.
About 10 years ago also by reading your books I picked up the hobby to apply biological mathematics to history and the humans in general. The confinement of 2020 speeded up the hobby so much to the point that I am done and I have started writing a book about it. Which is nothing else then a big readme file for the models that I have put together.
Even though I have focused primarily on macro biological parameters such as population and life expectancy, since I was willing to check-up (or at least attempt to) the macro parameters with the historical phases, it turned out that there might be a biological explanation to the degeneration of the elites, that generates Imperiopathosis that generates war peace war.
Note about Macchiavelli: The renaissance historian Garret Mattingly argued, quite convincingly, that Macchiavelli just wrote a satire. The argument that drove it home was Macchiavelli’s constant using of Cesare Borgia as an example to follow. But the time he wrote it, Borgia had lost, and had had to flee home to Spain.
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Peter, can we get a more in-depth look at the father-son cycle please?
More pecifically, can you give us a mathematical or non-mathematical explanation of
(a) why it is resiliant to the temporal non-uniform distribution of potential triggers (i.e. clustering of triggers doesn’t seem to make the apocalypse come sooner and the lack of them doesn’t seem to avoid it, both run counter to the “common sense” view of the dynamics of political dissent) and still keeps its charateristic 50-year period with very little distortion, as well as
(b) why it is resiliant to the exact height of peaks and troughs of radicalization and still keeps its once again 50-year inflection points (i.e. a very intense peak promotes deradicalization just the same as a very weak one, whereas the political violence during the weak peak is obviously much less than the intense one), and finally
(c) how should we consider a society in which there exists very large “underdog” groups (second-class citizen, apartheid, slavery, outright military conquest, etc)? What happens when the dominant group considered alone is in a highly integrative “golden era” while the underdog group are spit in their faces day after day? Can we confidently apply SDT to lump this society into elite and mass, and the underdog group assuming (naturally) to be part of the mass and contribute proportionally to internal instability and only briefly get to vent their rage during the father-and-son instability peak? Or are we better off considering them to be a 2-nation frontier, in which we only consider dominant in-group cooperation as well as underdog in-group cooperation and simply discount the intergroup violence? This is not a very novel configuration throughout history, and we see it today in Israel at least. How should we apply our analysis?
Peter, can we get a more in-depth look at the father-son cycle which is not well explained in Ages of Discord, specifically,
(a) why it is insensitive to non-uniformity (clustering or absense) of triggers and high-impact events and always clocks in at roughly 50 years;
(b) why the height of the peak doesn’t have a noted impact on inflection points of radicalization/deradicalization, i.e. a mild peak leads to deradicalization as well as a violent peak;
(c) what to think of societies with large and distinct “underdog” population (through military conquest and mergers, slavery, discriminative subjugation and disenfranchisement, etc.). Are they to be considered a single society saddled with an immiserated faction of mass or a de facto 2-nation frontier? Is there a noted difference in the proper treatements of the two scenarios or do they smoothly blend into each other? For an example, look no further than Israel. Are Palestinians simply underdog Israelis? Or are they in a ethnic frontier, pre-nation configuration? Who exactly are the Palestinians elites? The PA? Hamas? 50 or 60-something intellectuals who remember well their indignations fuming in Gaza and beyond? Particularly opinionated youths who know how to voice their discontent to Western audiences? Does the deradicalization process still work for the Palestinians? When faced with intense violence from out-groups that is hard to ignore or acquiesce, is there still an expected waning of political dissent?
Thank you for the post.
I wanted to echo and enthusiastically endorse anything written by Barbara Tuchman, who is by far my favorite author. She has such a gift for telling a compelling story and bringing important people in her stories to life.
I look forward to reading WPW
It might be a good idea to read some of his other writings then. He wrote a lot of historical commentary besides The Prince, none of which is nearly so widely known. Off the top of my head, I remember running across excerpts from his reflections on the history of the Roman Republic a while back.
It might be a good idea to read some of his other writings then. He wrote a lot of historical commentary besides The Prince, none of which is nearly so widely known. Off the top of my head, I remember running across a series of excerpts from his reflections on the Roman Republic a while back.
Sorry for the double-post. I wrote the second one because the first one didn’t show up at first and I thought it hadn’t gone through.
Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince” was about how to win in politics, leaving aside legitimacy, morality, and the like. He recommended that a leader ought to *seem* virtuous. Bertrand Russell wrote in History of Western Philosophy: “Perhaps our age, again, can better appreciate Machiavelli, for some of the most notable successes of our time have been achieved by methods as base as any employed in Renaissance Italy. He would have applauded, as an artistic connoisseur in statecraft, Hitler’s Reichstag fire, his purge of the party in 1934, and his breach of faith after Munich.”
Machiavelli’s reflections on the Roman Republic were in his book “Discourses on Livy”.
Bertrand Russell in HWP: “The doctrine of checks and balances is set forth explicitly. Princes, nobles, and people should all have a part in the Constitution; ‘then these three powers will keep each other reciprocally in check.'” He is pragmatic, and he leaves aside theories of legitimacy, like from what happened in the Garden of Eden. “His preference for popular government is not derived from any idea of ‘rights,’ but from the observation that popular governments are less cruel, unscrupulous, and inconstant than tyrannies.”
BR concludes something interesting in connection with our host’s research. “Machiavelli’s political thinking, like that of most of the ancients, is in one respect somewhat shallow. He is occupied with great law givers, such as Lycurgus and Solon, who are supposed to create a community all in one piece, with little regard to what has gone before. The conception of a community as an organic growth, which the statesmen can only affect to a limited extent, is in the main modern, and has been greatly strengthened by the theory of evolution. This conception is not to be found in Machiavelli any more than in Plato.”
A sort of creationist view of society, one might say. Writing during World War II, BR states that “In Russia and Germany new societies have been created, in much the same way as the mythical Lycurgus was supposed to have created the Spartan polity. The ancient law giver was a benevolent myth; the modern law giver is a terrifying reality.”
It seems to me that Machiavelli should be understood as a whole, albeit one marked by normal human lack of consistency (or integrity, if you will.) Discourses on Livy showed how much Machiavelli’s realpolitik was aimed at building the state. And his play Mandragola showed his basic attitude to moralizing, namely that it was the province of a corrupt clergy. The Prince is sincere in the need for strong rule, but not necessarily committed to it being Cesare Borgia. (Especially if Borgia had failed, then it would be kicking his political corpse, damning with faint praise.). Maybe The Prince like a vague reverse anticipation of Hobbes’ concession that absolute sovereignty can reside in a collection of men, that Machiavelli is conceding it can reside in a single prince…so long as he unites the people. One thing that must be understood I think is that “democracy” is a form of class collaboration, within the upper classes and between them and the lower classes, for the goal of fighting the outside enemy, and conquering. “Democracy” as the reign of the people’s virtue or some such is very much a romantic ideal.
As to Machiavelli’s anticlericalism? Being anticlerical is no more atheistic than being anti-moralizing, against sentimental pap masquerading as morals, means being a criminal. Atheists say there is no god and Machiavellie never said any such thing. People so bold as to forthrightly declare there is no such thing as magic as suspect as atheists, because of the difficulty of distinguishing magic and religion. But philosophers of science have worked hard to corrupt thinking on such issues and many scientists themselves would be horrified to be so dogmatic as to say “There is no magic.” In a larger perspective, such a posture is contemptible, shocking and self-defeating, as someone on their knees will never go far. But there it is.
Projecting backwards contemporary wrong notions about liberal democracy, liberalism in general, may be helped by a wider perspective. Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History could be very useful in this regard. (And his War and Revolution could be stimulating as well.)
The apparent insensitivity of the father-son cycle to basic demography, especially rates of population growth (or decline) and emigration/immigration shakes my confidence in cliodynamics. It’s not quite as bad as “parapsychology” with it’s non-physical metaphysics, but still….The possibility of a non-causal statistical correlation misleading the whole structure seems very real to me.
I have already read both WPW and Ultrasociety. Both very interesting. Recently I have read “the secret of our sucess” and it has a very strong narrative of cultural evolution. I am very intrigued by the apparent moral decay of our society broadly in terms you propose in phathosis of civilizations coming together with the astonishing prosperity we are experiencing due to science, technology and market integration as described by Matt Ridley in Optmist Rationalist.
It is worrisome the effects forecasted by Niestche in his “death of god” and this strange age of abundance and nihilism.
To your first post, I agree with the sentiment. From what I remember of The Prince (it’s been a while since I read it) most of the specific recommendations, as opposed to the theoretical framework about human motivation, are actually pretty similar to the ideas one would get from Prof. Turchin’s books, that is, keep the size of the elite to a minimum, take action to alleviate poverty, and pay attention to warfare as the foundation of sociopolitical activity.
To your second, first of all, thanks for the reference. However, I’m not sure if I agree with Russell about the notion of an organic community being alien to Machiavelli. With Plato, I’m not familiar enough to comment, although I would caution that well less than 50% of his work is estimated to have survived to the present, so it is possible that he may have expressed interest in an idea which hasn’t come down to the present day. With Machiavelli, though, I do remember a passage in The Prince to the effect that leaders so transformative that their countries are like blank canvases can only arise in periods of great crisis, in other words, what in SDT terms would be called a structural-demographic crisis. Such figures did exist in the distant past as well as recently, for example Tiglath-Pileser III or Shang Yang.
@steven t johnson
I agree about the weirdness of the father-son cycle. Intuitively, one has the impression that there is a big part of the picture missing in terms of the causal mechanism. What cliodynamics does do very well, however, is explain how the 250-year long cycle works.
@steven t johnson
Machiavelli is fundamentally wrong in his assumption about human nature , this was dismantled completely in the chapter in WPW.
“It is necessary for him who lays out a state and arranges laws for it to presuppose that all men are evil and that they are always going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope.”
Is just wrong and with it the type of western philosophy this generated
Jakob blames Machiavelli for western philosophy that has a low opinion of human nature. For my part, I think the doctrine of original sin, re-cast in philosophical terms to be sold as new and original thinking, is likely to share the credit. Further, I think the Discourses on Livy fundamentally presuppose civic virtue. The opposition to mercenary soldiers in preference to citizen armies appears to presuppose some sort of civic virtue as well. As I read the play Mandragola lapse from virtue is just that, not the norm.
As to the quote itself, what if it had been written thus: “It is necessary for him who lays out a state and arranges laws for it to presuppose that all men are tempted to evil and that some are always going to succumb to temptation and act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope.” I don’t think much would have changed in consequence.
I have no idea what you guys are taking about . I was referring specifically to the chapter about Machiavelli in WPW , have you even read it ?
It’s about the assumption on human nature and that humans are always selfish if not forced otherwise which is just wrong and was thoroughly dismantled in the mentioned chapter in WPW.
If human nature is selfish you have a collective action problem which means no states , no nations ,no cooperation but also no war . So it’s evidently wrong .
I recommend reading the actual book this blog post is about
You completely misunderstand the meaning of the quote. He isn’t saying that every person is actually malevolent, rather that that is the best operative assumption from the point of a view of a head of state when it comes to personnel management. There have been multiple highly successful countries organized around this principle, off the top of my head, the Qin Kingdom which created China as a coherent country, and was much emulated despite official opprobrium, was explicitly set up on what if anything was an even more extreme iteration of the same viewpoint, see the Book of Lord Shang or the writings of Han Fei. Later, as Theta Skocpol wrote in her book States and Social Revolutions regarding the Prussian civil service, “The entire bureaucratic mechanism was based on the assumption that no official could be trusted any further than the keen eyes of his superiors could reach.”
Yes, I have read WPW. Am I not allowed to disagree with it? I have also read Machiavelli’s work and I can assure you that he did say the things I said he said. This is pretty easy to verify for yourself if you wish. The claim that self-centered actors are incapable of collective action is wrong at a theoretical level, because human interaction is not usually a series of one-off encounters with people one never meets again. Rather, people tend to be members of organizations for long periods of time, said membership being important for socioeconomic success, and the people involved know that if they don’t play their assigned roles the other people will see this and make the rational decision to kick them out. This has been extensively studied in the context of the prisoner’s dilemma, see for example this article https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-20426-w From the abstract, “Contrary to common belief, our results reveal that cooperation can emerge among selfish individuals because of selfishness itself: if the final reward for being part of a society is sufficiently appealing, players spontaneously decide to cooperate.”
Peter, do you believe that now with the modern “standard of living” based cultural selection forces appearing in world regions that the theory of Asabiya Black Holes will continue to apply?
It is my reasoning that instead modern Secular Cycles reflect creative destruction where revolutionary ideas compete with the environment & like the Arab Spring will attempt to lead to better states copying successful ones. In past states this would not occur since the main pressure back then was that of Metaethnic Frontiers, once those are gone, revolutions are free to lead to greater disunity via lower-level selection.
..lemme get this straight..youre saying youre a clyodanmicist as oppossed to a cliometricalist
..lolol…?? that’s your reposte?