Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ian Morris and the Big Picture

Ian Morris has number of books, history with a wide lens, where individuals shrink beside the importance of big, sweeping factors like biology, geography and city building. He has a law: "Morris Theorem," "Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things." These people are much the same everywhere. He was not always this way. In college, Morris sent a demo tape to Iron Maiden in 1979, when the soon-to-be-world-famous band was advertising for a new guitarist. Iron Maiden looked elsewhere. But he did play professionally for another band called Expozer.

The idea detailed in his new book, Why the West Rules, is that an intellectual revolution took place between 800 and 200 BC. Confucianism and Daoism in China. Buddhism and Jainism in India. The Hebrew Bible and Greek philosophy in the West. From East Asia to the Mediterranean, new systems of thought emerged that shaped how billions of people made sense of the world for millenniums to come. All share a notion of transcendence. Reaching this superior realm involves a process of self-structuring. Live ethically. Renounce desire. Do unto others. Practice these principles in your personal life, the thinking goes, and you will change the world. If this sounds familiar, it should. This is the Axial Age—meaning the centuries around 500 BC formed an axis around which history turned—originated with the German philosopher Karl Jaspers after World War II. But Morris feels he knows why: The regional divine kings were becoming too local and the increasing population away from their divinity needed a new way to touch the divine.

He plans a new book on war. In Stone Age societies, 10 to 20 percent of the population died violently. (How he knows this, I do not know.) Yet by the 20th century, despite two world wars, the Holocaust, and nuclear weapons, only 1 to 2 percent died. What explains that decline? Morris says that despite the increase of weapons power, war is getting safer.

And the future? Past empires were regional. So were the impacts of their collapses. But that has changed. We are all tied together now. He sees the great threat as global warming. "The big scary thing now is that the entire world has become one big experiment," Morris says. After the Roman Empire fell, he points out, it took 1,600 years for western Eurasia to climb back to the level of development that the Romans had enjoyed.

Fukuyama thinks this is incomplete thinking, that smaller, unmeasurable factors like philosophy and religion have greater impact than Morris sees. And, indeed, there is a casual, chatty coffeehouse quality about Morris' books. But, in 2011, he was called to the CIA at Langley to address members of the National Intelligence Council, which publishes a global trends report after each presidential election to guide the incoming administration. Someone thinks he's really important.

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