finem respice

Empires and the Arrow of Time

Submitted by ep on Mon, 09/03/2012 - 15:40
sure, but don't you think my birds are pretty?

A question that causes much reflection (and no small amount of consternation) among theoretical physicists and their ilk regards the "arrow of time." Why, they dare to wonder, does time appear to be asymmetric? That is, why should it travel in the direction it does, and not in any other? Why must entropy necessarily increase over time? Why is order far more difficult to create (and maintain) than disorder? Why, in turn, do the laws of thermodynamics seem destined to cheat humanity out of the promise of infinity? Arthur Eddington described the issue with no small amount of elegance back in 1928:

Let us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past. That is the only distinction known to physics. This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone.

In a pure physical sense it is easy to understand the very basics thusly: If one has a group of billiard balls arranged in a rack, and one removes the rack, there are theoretically an infinite number of changes to this configuration that will decrease the order of the formation of the balls but a finite (and probably quite small) number of changes that will increase the order of the formation. (As an aside, one can throw a wrench in this example easily by limiting the number of billiard balls to just two, but we digress). In any dynamic system, therefore, it takes far more energy to maintain order than it does to destroy it. Of course, at the macro level of physics one sees the effects vividly by observing diffusion (the movement of particles from a high concentration to a low concentration).

Sadly, long-term, the battle against entropy appears to be a losing one. In weaker moments the always philosophical finem respice reader might be reduced to despondency when realizing that while reading this piece the heat radiated by the brain creates more entropy than the reading creates order. In effect, and with apologies to Jim Morrison, "No one gets out of here cohesively."

To finem respice's way of thinking, there is good reason to believe in "social entropy" as well. Not only this, but its rate of growth seems to be increasing. Of the 50-70 empires that dominate the study of history, it is suddenly striking to realize that, generally speaking, the more modern the empire, the shorter its lifespan.

For traditionalists who date the beginning of the Roman Empire with Octavian's ascension in 27 BC one can count the Roman Empire as enduring 422 years- the end point marked with the death of Emperor Theudosius and the "Capitalizing" of Constantinople. This empire of the East managed to endure much longer (through 1453, the Turks had their own ideas about how the world should be run, you understand). In turn, the Holy Roman Empire spanned just over 1,000 years.

But one quickly discovers that these long enduring systems were exceptions rather than the rule. 400 years was about the limit for the empires of the near East (the Abassid, Ottoman, Assyrian empires for example) and the great Egyptian empires hovered just under four centuries. Eastern Europe's managed more like 325 and Chinese dynasties clocked in at just over 300 while the empires of Persia, the West and India struggled to meet the three century mark at all, and often languished and faded (or violently imploded) after a mere 200 years.

What the likes of Niall Ferguson call the "Maritime Empires" (that is, the British, Dutch and Spanish empires) have only the Portuguese Empire (racking up about 500 years) to brag about among their much lower average of about three centuries.

But it is the 20th century empires that make the next big jump. The Soviet Union managed around 70 years. Japan not quite 50. The "Thousand Year Reich" gutted out only 12, and only 6 or so once it branched out past its original borders. The verdict is still out on China, which is, in any event, still behind the Soviet Union.

Of course, the term "Empire" becomes quite crude in the context of the 20th century, all the more so since it has been branded with a black mark right across the forehead by progressives. Still, and while it behooves finem respice to be technical about such things, we simply cannot bring ourselves to kowtow to social scientists to the degree that would be required for us to use a term like "overarching social systems" in place of "Empires." Perhaps we simply read too much ancient history in our spare time, and, anyhow, quite obviously finem respice is anything but politically correct. Still, whatever your socio-political agenda it seems clear that what we will crudely call "Empires" have followed very clear a trend of reduced longevity over the last 4,000 years, and a trend that has accelerated dramatically just in the last 200.

In a sense the causes for this trend could be quite intuitive. Just as increasing the energy or heat in a system tends to speed diffusion, so too might an increased pressure or temperature of society increase the forces of social entropy in a political system. It seems no coincidence that the sudden and precipitous fall in Imperial longevity accompanies exponential growth in the velocity of capital, labor mobility, communication, and information flow generally. Should we therefore regard as alien the concept that such forces tend to speed the accumulation of social entropy? It has become hard to argue against the theory that such forces make central control far more difficult, or, as might be more appropriate in the progressive parlance of the times "ungovernable."

It should be obvious that, if correct, this theory would have dramatic implications for political systems today. The most obvious might be that the integrity and strength of institutions must be much higher the more social "velocity" exists in a given political or economic system.

What, we are occasioned to wonder, does this suggest about the ever-upward march of these velocities and the ever-downward slip of institutional integrity and strength that seem to characterize the United States over the last decade?

Obviously, a comprehensive analysis of these issues would consume untold pages- and unfortunately finem respice must now resume her attempts to complete her latest effort to beat her old Rome: Total War score.

[Art Credit: John William Waterhouse "Favorites of the Emperor Honorius," oil on canvas (1883), Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. The legacy of the Emperor Honorius has ever been one of incompetent indecision and squander. In this piece Waterhouse depicts the Emperor feeding his pigeons, indifferent to the news that Rome has fallen to the Visigoths in 410. The reference may be exagerated, but certainly the view of the Emperor was not much different. In his masterful "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" Edward Gibbon is merciless, intoning: "...the amusement of feeding poultry became the serious and daily care of the monarch of the West... [who] passed the slumber of his life, a captive in his palace, a stranger in his country, and the patient, almost the indifferent, spectator of the ruin of the Western empire, which was repeatedly attacked, and finally subverted, by the arms of the Barbarians."]

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