At the opening of the twentieth century, sponge divers plunged into the crystalline water off the coast of Greece. They brought up with them a strange object: a box that housed a sophisticated system of gears. This device, known as the Antikythera mechanism, would baffle scholars for decades. An astronomical tool, the mechanism is the first known machine that automated scientific predictions. A recent research paper from Nature suggests, “it could have automated many of the calculations needed for its own design—the first steps to the mechanization of mathematics and science.”
The complexity of its gears bespeaks an engineering prowess, specialized knowledge, and divisions of labor we prescribe not to the ancient, but to ourselves. “It challenges all our preconceptions about the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks,” continues the Nature paper. Indeed, the Antikythera mechanism makes us rethink the uniqueness of modernity, history, and our own relationship with the past.
Who can define modernity? Whigs say it means the asymptotic alleviation of suffering closely coupled to the expansion of rights and trade; reactionaries describe it as the erosion of all tradition, the purgation of deep ties, and the hyper-rationalization of all human relations. What they share is the assumption that modernity breaks with what came before it, and revised core assumptions about human life. More specifically, it permanently altered our ability to inherit what were foundational convictions about the nature of human history. When did this break with the past take place?
In 1528, Duke William IV of Bavaria commissioned a series of historical paintings. Albrecht Altdorfer’s Battle of Alexander at Issus stands as the most famous. Consider its grandeur, its accuracy.
The battle, which took place in 333 BC, inaugurated the Hellenistic era. Altdorfer’s painting captures the chaos and intimacy of the conflict between the Greeks, the Macedonians, and the Persians—a web of men on foot and horseback knitted together by the blades of their swords and the tips of their spears.
Altdorfer went so far as to enumerate the number of combatants, the dead, the injured, and listed them on the battle standards of their armies. Yet as specific and historical as this painting is, it was also meant to convey something about the era in which he painted it. In 1529, Maximilian’s serf-army met the Turks on the field of battle, a doomed siege of Vienna. In Altdorfer’s painting, the Persians wear turbans, mirroring Maximilian’s foes. Implicitly, the painting assumes a unity between past and present.
“The event that Altdorfer captured was for him at once historical and contemporary,” writes philosopher Reinhart Kosselleck. “Alexander and Maximilian, for whom Altdorfer had prepared the drawings, merge in an exemplary manner; the space of historical experience enjoys the profundity of generational unity.” No doubt, Koselleck mentions, the absence of gunpowder and rifles makes the assumption of this unity easier. Though Altdorfer painted this epic with an ancient assumption about the nature of history, he did so at the beginning of modernity right when those ancient assumptions about history were about to change.
The ancients had every reason to believe in the unity of history. For millennia, human life was constrained by limited access to productive energy. Respect for natural limits and the search for the natural standards that course through the political philosophical work of the Ancients can be read as a response to the very real concern of resource scarcity—what could be more injurious for a regime than the depletion of its stores?
The urban polities that produced the intellectuals who struggled to puzzle out these problems had the most to worry about when it came to sustaining their energy supply. The size of traditional cities depended on two things: fuel wood and charcoal, each source constrained by low power density of phytomass production. Classical “cities had to draw on nearby areas at least 30 times their size for fuel supply,” writes energy expert Vaclav Smil. “This reality restricted their growth even where other resources, such as food and water, were adequate.”
Such constraints are the story of most of human history. As the British agriculturalist Arthur Standish put it in 1611: “And so may it be conceived, no wood, no kingdom.” And yet ten years after Standish wrote these words, the early coal economy would begin to outpace the ancient reliance on wood.
In this light, we can approach the “natural standard” that so occupied the ancient philosophers as an attempt to harmonize political life with the slim margins of energy that bound their world. And we can see their assumption of the continuity between past and present as a justified understanding of the similarity of energy-sourcing technologies. Perhaps this is one reason why the essential virtue of the ancients was moderation. Once we began to exit the traditional ancient energy economy, the entire philosophical edifice of our ancient forebears appeared up for debate. The exit from ancient commitments accelerated as the coal economy deepened. Intellectual, social, and economic developments co-emerged with our thermodynamic refinements. Energy was not the only prime mover, but it was one of the most potent, insofar as every domain of human life demands its use.
But this origin story is not the usual account. The most popular account of modernity in the public consciousness belongs to the nineteenth century and flies under the banner of the Industrial Revolution. The nature of this so-called revolution has been greatly distorted by received accounts that post-date its arrival. From the propaganda of the Industrial Revolution come our most durable myths about modernity.
The story of the Industrial Revolution goes like this: from around 1750 onwards, a steady increase in income began. And after 1900, the increase accelerated rapidly. The period between the early and late nineteenth century, the story goes, proved critical. As Angus Maddison has pointed out in a study of global GDP between 1AD and 2003, "Since 1820 the total product of the countries considered has increased seventy-fold, population nearly five-fold, per capita product fourteen-fold and real per capita consumption by almost tenfold. Annual working hours are down by half and life expectancy has doubled." None of this wealth could have been possible without a radical expansion of human facility with harnessing and exploiting greater and greater amounts of energy.
The term for this apparent discontinuity in energy abundance is the Industrial Revolution. And while many European economies expanded their industrial capabilities, no place was more pivotal than England, which had been in the process of replacing its wood-based economy with coal thanks to the advent of Devonshire ironmonger Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine in the early 1700s. To put this growth in perspective, by 1820, coal provided the equivalent power as that of a woodland area roughly the size of Britain’s entire surface area. Twenty years later, coal’s energy provision doubled, then doubled again in 1860, only to double once more by 1890.
The diffusion of coal power radically reshaped society. City-size was no longer limited by access to woodfuel and thus urban areas grew denser. Class dynamics shifted as the insurgent bourgeoisie rose to prominence on the back of the new energy-intensive industries. The workforce flocked from farms to cities with grievances, desires, and demands of their own. Coal also brought us the most consequential of modern achievements: electricity. We take electricity for granted now, but when it first arrived people could scarcely believe it was real. A local Indiana newspaper reporting on the first ever arclight demonstration in its townsquare in the late 19th century, writes that the light caused men to fall to their knees in astonishment.
Before electricity, buildings could only stand so high--who wants to walk up all those stairs? Elevators changed that. Children could now study at night, which increased the use of libraries. Cities no longer stank of horse manure and urine; sewage systems removed human contributions to the stench. Women could more safely walk home at night and, confined as they were to the domestic sphere in that era, housework took less of a toll on their bodies—no more scalding their hands on irons hot from the stove.
But there are at least two problems with the typical account of the Industrial Revolution. The first has to do with this so-called rate of energy increase. If we compare world gross domestic product from 1 AD to the beginning of this millennium, we’ll see a hockey stick that begins its curve upward around the early 19th century. Likewise, as scholar John Constable suggests, if we graph 5% compound interest on a single US dollar, we see a similar pattern. I’m not arguing that no rate increase of energy occurred, but that, as Constable points out, “there doesn’t have to be a revolution, a major discontinuity at the foot of the curve,” to explain the second graph. If rate increase isn't necessary to account for the ramp up in energy abundance, then perhaps what we call the Industrial Revolution did not span decades, but hundreds of years—small refinements in agriculture, sail, and tools compounding until taking off exponentially. That would hardly qualify as a revolution.
But surely those who lived through the 19th century knew what they were talking about. Especially in England, the Promethean epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. No doubt, late 18th and early 19th century British philosophy, literature, and economics must appear festooned with the phrase. Who could live through a revolution and not know it? But surveying the literature, Constable writes:
"The field of modern economics was founded in the English language by Adam Smith, T. R. Malthus, and David Ricardo during exactly this period, 1750 to 1820. Not one of them uses the term Industrial Revolution or anything like it. Robert Owen, the idealist social thinker and factory owner, wrote extensively about the changes in the manufacturing system but never used the term…[Thomas] Carlyle came close, in Sartor Resartus (1834, but written in 1830/31), when he spoke of steam engines “rapidly enough overturning the whole old system of Society” in favor of “Industrialism,”...Given Carlyle’s knowledge of the French Revolution that is surely significant. John Stuart Mill…did use the term once in his Principles of Political Economy of 1848, but he wasn’t referring to England and he didn’t use capitals. Neither Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), nor Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869) use the term…It doesn’t even appear in mid-century standard textbooks like Fawcett’s Manual of Political Economy (1863). Perhaps most striking of all, W. S. Jevons, one of the greatest mid-century economists, wrote an entire book on The Coal Question, published in 1865, arguing vigorously that coal lay at the root of modern British wealth, and used the term “industrial revolution” only once, and though in reference to England it is not capitalized."
If the Brits didn’t recognize what was happening as a revolution, then where did this phrase come from? Constable locates its first usage in France in the late 1820s. Though J.B. Say, Professor of Economics at the College de France, described the effects of cotton spinning in England as economically “revolutionary,” in 1837 his student Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui expressed his surprise that moderate, unrevolutionary Britain was seeing quicksilver economic modernization. Blanqui wrote in his History of the Political Economy of Europe:
"While the French Revolution was making its great social experiments over a volcano, England was beginning hers on the solid ground of the industries. […] The conditions of labor underwent the greatest modification they have experienced since the origin of society. Two machines, henceforth immortal, the steam-engine and the spinning-machine, overturned the old commercial system and gave birth almost simultaneously to material products and social questions unknown to our fathers…However, hardly was the industrial revolution born from the brain of those two men of genius, Watt and Arkwright, when it took possession of England."
Frederich Engels then borrowed the term from Blanqui and his closest friend, Karl Marx, took it from him. Blanqui is French, Marx and Engels German. The phrase wouldn’t appear in English again until the late 1880s when two American translators brought Blanqui’s work to the attention of Arnold Toynbee, a tutor in political economy at Balliol College in Oxford. He died three years later, but soon after that his influential Lectures on the English Industrial Revolution were published. Four years after that, in 1887, the phrase made its first appearance in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
As the diffusion of the meme of the Industrial Revolution deepened, so did our perception of modernity as the great solvent of our forebears’ lifeworld. Rather than radical continuity, a new lexicon of radical departures began to permeate Western thought. The idea of historical progress—in both utopian and pragmatic modes—began to overtake tradition. With the advent of the electrified oil economies came consumer society, which held that the world could be endlessly revised through novel technology and consumer goods. After the so-called Industrial Revolution nothing would or could be the same.
This misperception of the historical timeline has not come without consequences.
I refuse to downplay the benefits of modernity—the general uplift in material quality of life cannot be overstated. Nor is material improvement the only metric of success. But to describe modernity as an unalloyed good is also a mistake.
Progressives like to delude themselves into believing that engineering novelty will arrive like an angel of history, supplying mankind with the necessary technical fixes to all problems. This tendency can cater to a politics of “bare life,” where the point of society is to alleviate suffering through third-party management. It also promotes a pernicious twist of mind that treats the past as little more than the manure of ignorance out of which our newer, truer virtues flower. This devolves into relativism and then to a sticky nihilism that pervades politics and culture. What is our present moment other than another meaningless step towards moral improvements that, in hindsight, will make us look like monsters to any who remember us? And what is our present moment other than the triumph of our current preferences and sentiments over the barbaric mongoloids dragging their knuckles across the pages of our history books? It’s an untenable stance.
The conservative position reduces itself to nostalgia for an Arcadia that never quite existed. Often progressives point this out, failing to understand that the tendency towards nostalgia is a misguided attempt to recover what they condemn: memory, some kind of tie to what has come before that we can receive, maintain, and pass down. Yet the nostalgia deadlock entraps conservatives into a reactive position in which they defend fantasies they mistake for tradition. From this cage they cannot synthesize a way forward informed by those who have come before us.
Regardless, what both camps share is territory: they agree that we live after a radical and sudden break with the past. Whereas progressives cheer the endless revision of life, conservatives lament it. Yet progressives flail in a sense of meaninglessness while conservatives cower in impotence. Perhaps this is why most of civic life in the West is defined by a single word: crisis. How can the current state of affairs continue? Surely, collapse must come, whether from eco-pocalypse or decadence. There persists a secret hope that the ending will settle the score. What appears as a durable state of panic about various catastrophes discloses the secret fear held left and right: they can scarcely imagine a future at all. The real crisis of modernity is not crisis itself, but the fear of ongoingness.
But as the Antikythera mechanism suggests, modernity was neither sudden and thus not as radical as we are often led to believe. Our received wisdom about modernity blocks us from asking a vital question that helps resolve the tensions held by the left and the right, evidenced everywhere in the magisterial relics of the ancient world: what can we build today that will redound for generations, for millennia?
Several years ago, when Notre Dame caught fire, I wondered if we still had the ability to build something so durable. Could grandparents pass professions onto the children and then grandchildren and so on to create common goods so fantastic in this day and age? To begin to answer, I had to start with what we had already built. A surprising answer arrived: nuclear power plants.
Unlike other power plants, nuclear can be refurbished. Reactors can last, at this point, 80 years, though that is nowhere near a hard expiration date. It is possible to simply keep reworking and repairing them, like so many ships of Theseus, for as long as our progeny desires safe, clean, affordable energy. And it is likely that they will. In fact, they will likely need more of it. They may even outlast our current political regimes, our current paradigms. Fission produces so much energy with so little fuel, we cannot even say the atomic age has really begun. Rather, we’re in the first rustlings of what would be a world that onboards uranium the way mankind did coal.
No doubt, building more nuclear reactors does not solve our various predicaments. There is no “one weird trick.” But it does provide us with a practical societal project that gives us the chance to fundamentally reframe how we approach the modern experience. We could be laying the groundwork for what will become Ancient Earth Nuclear—industrial cathedrals that outlive all of our aspirations save that we have bequeathed the coming generations with the equipment they need to take up the task of living in much the same way that we have. Could there be a more ancient, a more human impulse than that?