Analogies are not perfect tools, but they can be used in order to understand current problems, and to create solutions. The secret to using analogies successfully is keeping in mind where they can help us and where they can’t, as well as recognizing where there are significant similarities between the two situations, but also where there are differences.
In history, it is usually not the individual actors who are important, but instead the processes themselves. This is because similar processes can lead to similar outcomes. In these types of situations, analogies can be quite illuminating. They can help us to recognize the problems and pick potential solutions.
When coming up with analogies, the first thing you always do is to map the source system to the target system. This means you take concepts from the initial phenomenon that you know well, and then fit them to the things you are trying to analyze. While doing this, you always need to be careful about what you are comparing. When people make historical comparisons, they usually head down the road of comparing individuals that appear similar in these different eras. While mapping the different individuals from the ancient era to the modern era (is Trump the modern Clodius or Crassus?) might be fun, it does not really tell us much about the current world. Instead, it is mapping the underlying processes at play in the two eras that is interesting. This can enlighten us on what is happening in our society today.
When taking lessons from the past, there are certain key things that you should look for. When examining the modern era and Roman times, there are some apparent similarities. Certain actions and conditions lead to certain paths. These are processes that are linked to the conditions in society, and include the widening gap between the segments of society, certain segments of society getting relatively poorer, the process of anger creation, and similar things.
- I described them in more detail in the article on lessons from the ancient commentators that I wrote previously.
The fall of the Republic happened when Rome became the hegemon in its part of the world. The Roman society became richer than ever, with the level of material goods skyrocketing. However, a gap between the richest and the poorest members of society widened, with many of the people on the lower rungs feelings as if their situation was worsening. The state of affairs today is similar, we are living in an era of overall prosperity, however wide sections of the population are feeling as if they are losing out.
When working with historical analogies, what you can map are different behaviors. While culture and technology influence how these behaviors are displayed, the mental processes behind these behaviors are very similar. In one of his iconic statements on the basic nature of the world, Cicero stated that while the Egyptians might worship cats and dogs, the fundamental processes of superstition are the same in all nations. The particulars don’t matter, it is the underlying process that does.
To illustrate this statement with another example, we can look at vanity, a behavior that many humans engage in. In his work, Late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus described how people were infatuated with creating statues of themselves in ancient Rome. This behavior we can map to the modern trend of people posting selfies of themselves. While, the way the process is implemented is different (statues vs. selfies), the mental behaviors that lead to this stem from the same place.
Moving on, let’s take the process of anger creation as an example for continuing the mapping. What I am mapping here is not particular circumstances of how anger was created, but instead the general patterns. In ancient Rome, the initial process that led to anger, then outrage, and then political violence is the one between the Optimates and the Populares, as the positions between these two factions drifted apart. The similar process today is the battle between the alt-right (and other far right elements), and the alt-left (sometimes joined by other far left elements).
While the ancient process was based more on economic conditions, and the modern one is more about ideas, there are many parallels. What drove both these processes in the background was a perceived fall in status, perceived relative gains and loses, as well as similar structural elements.
Both these processes led to increased polarization in society, with the likelihood of compromise drifting further and further away. These situations also have parallels in how certain individuals are using them to gain power for themselves. Populism was on the rise then, and it is on the rise now.
The reason why these processes can wreak havoc on the political institutions of the countries of the northern hemisphere (like the US, but also the EU), is that the institutions of the Roman Republic have striking similarities to our modern institutions. Whether this was by design (as in the US) or by heritage and evolution (mostly in other countries), the way the state is set up today is close to the way it was set up in the Roman Republic.
Basically, here we are mapping the old Roman institutions to the modern political institutions. The people, the Senate, the executive, the division of powers, all these have parallels in both systems. This means that the processes are quite likely to have similar effects in both cases.
With the last statement, we are already moving to the Application Step. With this step, we are applying the mappings to learn something about the system we want to study. And the system we want to study in this case is the current political situation.
However, to be able to apply the mappings correctly, we also need to keep in mind the main differences between the two situations we are studying. These differences will determine which things from the analogy are relevant and which aren’t.
The first factor to keep in mind is the difference in the level of technology in the two societies. This had a huge impact not only on how people lived, on transportation between places, but also on the spread of information. There were also many cultural differences, with one huge difference being that in ancient Rome people had a fundamentally different view of the set up of society. There was the institution of slavery, and women had much less rights than they do now.
One significant element was that the Roman Republic was a libertarian paradise. Everything was provided by private contractors and many things we take for granted now (like a police force or a fire squad) were not there. For example, Crassus used this hole in the market by making his own private fire squad and sometimes using it for nefarious purposes. Some of these things were corrected under the Empire. When he consolidated his rule, Augustus set up a sort of police squad, as well as a fire squad, which were under the control of the state.
There were also differences in the work structure. The population outside of the city of Rome consisted mostly of agrarian farmers, and the presence of slaves was also significant in all aspects of society. Today, the places of work are either in the industry, but more importantly in offices, where people sit all day in front of the computer screen.
While these differences are significant, in my opinion, they do not negate the main point of the argument that the Roman Republic could be used as an analogy for current times. The key to this is that different processes can produce the same mental effects. This means the same outcomes.
People might argue that the institutions of Roman Republic and today are not the same. This might be true, but only on a physical level. On a more conceptual level, the institutions are incredibly similar.
Here we can use concepts from computer science to illustrate. Data modeling in computer science divides data models into conceptual, logical and physical levels. The conceptual level is all about the concepts and ideas, while the lower levels are about how these are implemented in practice. The logical and physical levels are where the actual set-up of the institutions shows up.
For the political system, the conceptual level has things like the people, legislative power (even though in theory the people made the laws, in reality it was the Senate), or the executive power (consuls). The system in the Roman Republic was set up as a way to check the powers of the different institutions and make sure that no one person becomes too powerful. This resulted in a division of powers, which inspired the way modern governments (such as in the US) are set up. While, in ancient Rome, there were consuls, and the US has a president, this does not really matter. On the conceptual level, these institutions are quite similar, as they are the executive powers in the state.
Another interesting parallel is powerful individuals hiding their business dealings behind front men (and making policy to benefit their business dealings). How this process worked was described in some of Cicero’s letters. Reading these writings, it is almost eerie to realize how similar corruption of yesteryear was to that of today. Powerful business interests are often tied to politicians and have quite a big influence on policy.
One important lesson that has parallels in both eras is norm breaking. Since the institutions are similar, the breaking of norms by politicians can destroy the institutions in similar ways. There is an interesting parallel in the strategy used in ancient Rome and the UK a few years: going to the people to decide. Gracchus and other Populares started going around the Senate and implemented people’s plebiscites on many issues. This is quite similar with what happened with the Brexit Referendum in the UK. These processes were easily manipulated.
There is one further point which I would like to map, and which in many ways is a quite abstract analogy. However, it could give clues to why a system that weathers numerous storms for hundreds of years, suddenly falters. There was one fundamental difference between the Rome of 100 BC when things were beginning to unravel, and the Rome of 300 BC or even 200 BC, when things seemed to be functioning.
In 100 BC, Rome was no longer a city-state, but ruled a vast empire, becoming the hegemon of the Mediterranean world. While even in earlier times, it had ruled territories outside the city, even outside of Italy, the scale and circumstances became fundamentally new and different.
These circumstances changed the rules of the game. Rome becoming an imperial power was something so fundamentally new, that the institutions that worked well in the old times were not able to adapt fast enough. A paradigm shift was occurring in the ways the world worked and the Republic collapsed under the strains. The Romans were not able to handle all the different things that were suddenly thrown at them. Chaos was the result.
A similar type of paradigm shift in how the institutions work is happening in today’s world. This is due the changes of technology, with the rise of the internet. Even more radical changes like artificial intelligence are just a stone’s throw away. Systems that are designed to work well in predictable circumstances, can get strained and cease to function properly when a curve ball is thrown at them. For the Roman Republic, this curve ball was empire, for us this curve ball is technology.
In the Learning Step, we come up with a generalization of what this all means for the evolution of human societies. What can we learn from history? There is a common saying that you never step in the same river twice. This is true. The water and everything floating in in is not the same. However, the underlying processes of how the rivers flows, how it deposits sediments, as well as other things are pretty much the same.
So yes, the way the sediments look after they are deposited will not be the same, but you need to look at processes. You examine one spot of the river at one time and then come back a year later. It will look a bit different. While you might not know the specificities, you can describe what general processes made it look different. You won’t be able to predict the precise way that spot will look one year from now, but you can guess what processes will affect it (sediment deposits, wind, water erosion…etc.). Of course, we also need to keep in mind the possibility of big unpredictable events, which can mess all this up. Maybe a major storm might hit and destroy everything. As history often reminds us, “black swan” events can often out of nowhere and totally change the course of history.
There is also the question of the inevitability of outcomes. What we need to distinguish here are the role of trends versus human agency. Here you can use counterfactuals to judge what if scenarios. What would have happened if Sulla had not taken his army to Rome? It is likely that at some point some other general would have done it. This is because there were strong trends in place, which made this quite inevitable. With armies in the field after the Social War and these armies becoming more loyal to their commanders than the state after the reforms of Marius, it was just a matter of time before one or the other ambitious general used them for his own interests.
What role can you attribute to humans in the course of events? Some events are likely to happen no matter which person actually triggers it, but some are highly dependent on the person. For example World War I. was triggered after the assassination of archduke Ferdinand, but even if that had not happened, something else would have triggered it. The conditions were ripe. Once the tipping point is reached, almost anything can set off the spark to start the conflict.
However the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander were highly dependent on Alexander, since he was the one who came up with the idea (or rather his father Philip). If Alexander had not been in charge of Macedonia, it is quite unlikely that another person would have attempted to conquer the Persian Empire.
Another important thing to keep in mind is the question of causes versus symptoms. What is the cause of an event and what is its symptom? This can be quite hard to distinguish, but causes are usually large processes, fed by feedback loops, while symptoms are specific manifestations of these processes. For example, Trump is a symptom of the current malaise. This means that even if he didn’t show up, someone else like him would likely have come along and taken advantage of the situation. There are different brands of populists across the world today, but they are all using similar underlying processes that carry them to power.
However, the arrival of someone like Trump further destabilizes the situation, which then creates greater chaos. This is because the different feedback loops working in the background are reflexive, meaning that they reinforce each other. Both the causes and effects affect each other, with no one being able to tell which is the cause and which is the effect after a while.
What is the answer to all these problems? For the ancients it was using reason (using system 2 in the words of modern psychology researchers). However the questions remains, can we beat out the pitfalls of human nature by using the brain?
There are specific conditions in our modern societies today, that are giving rise to specific behaviors. This is quite similar to what was happening in the ancient Roman Republic. People argue whether nature or nurture is more influential in human behavior. The bell curve model that I explained is agnostic to whether character comes from nature, individual willpower, or nurture.
I believe that all these have an effect on how a human behaves. Nature gives each individual human certain predispositions for behavior and certain traits, however individual willpower and nurture can push these to the background and sometimes even change them.
I am a big believer that as an individual you are not just a slave to your genetic predispositions, but through your own willpower can rise above them to a certain extent. Virtuous character and acting right for the right reasons can be maintained under any circumstances. Yes, it can be shaken, and you will sometimes have to make some moral concessions, but overall there is never a need to descent to the pits of evil.
What is key is to build a resilient system, one that can withstand the swings of human nature. History has cycles, but with certain measures it should be possible to stop these cycles or at least diminish them. According to Polybius, the mixed form of government of Rome was able to diminish the functioning of these cycles, and prevented wanna-be kings from arising.
Turns out that this wasn’t enough. Even the most resilient systems can succumb to powerful forces. The separation of powers in the US has been able to keep the country stable for a long time, however as can be seen from things like the Civil War, certain processes can overwhelm even the best of systems.
Things don’t have to only go from bad to worse. There is precedence for societies changing for the better. One example is the lessening of corruption in Sweden. Sweden went from one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, one where everything was for sale, to one of the least corrupt ones.
On the other hand, the Roman Republic entered a vicious cycle, where it went from one of the least corrupt societies in the Mediterranean, one based on honor, to a corrupt, hedonistic cesspool. Decadence took over, which had a negative effect on how people behaved in society.
This brings us to the concept of a behavioral sink. The environment around you has a huge influence on how people act, which can be seen from some pretty unusual experiments that were undertaken in the 1950s and 60s. Researchers built a series of rat and mouse paradises, habitats which were meant to provide all the food and housing needs of its inhabitants and keep them free from predators. Then they introduced a small number of rats (in some experiments it was mice) into these habitats and watched what happened.
After a time of exploration, the rats settled in and started reproducing. Since all their needs were provided for, their populations exploded rapidly. However, after a time, weird things started happening. Dominant males built their harems, which consisted of a lot of females and a small number of select males who completely withdrew from doing anything productive and just ended up spending the entire day grooming themselves. The rest of the rejected males started congregating in some sections of the habitats. Some of them withdrew from society entirely, while others became violent and attacked anything that moved.
Decadence set in and rat society started disintegrating. The differences between the males were huge. Some had access to harems of females, while the majority did not have access to even one. With many of the rats congregating around a select number of feeding stations, social interactions became stressful.
After a while, all out war erupted, and even the alpha males had trouble defending their harems and territories. In these chaotic times, the females stopped building nests and even threw out their babies. At one point, no more babies survived into adulthood. Society disintegrated and collapsed.
Yet, there was no problem with food, predators, or shelter. These habitats provided for all of them, creating a prosperous society. Instead of calming everyone down, stress pervaded everywhere. The same rats that acted normally before, started behaving in abnormal ways.
The Roman Republic also underwent its behavioral sink. After the Punic Wars, it became a prosperous society overall, and its outside threats were eliminated. The population increased exponentially. Yet the social divisions grew worse too. The rich hoarded all the money and resources, while the poor got poorer. The select number of alpha rats monopolized most of the females and the best locations, while most of the other male rats ended up with nothing. The elites in Rome monopolized the farmlands and other resources, while many sections of the populations were kicked off their lands and couldn’t even find work.
The fact that the population skyrocketed and the space was limited, meant that the population had to battle over limited space and resources. The historians who came up with the theory of cliodynamics proposed that elite competition was an important factor in the downfall of the Republic. The population of the nobles grew, yet the number of places at the top was as limited as ever. There were still only a limited number of senators, and a small number of magistrate positions, including two consuls every year. While in the past, many of these nobles would be able to satisfy their ambitions in rising up the hierarchy, in a situation where there are a lot of them, this was no longer guaranteed. Battles for positions started.
We might be experiencing a behavioral sink now. While, there are significant differences between humans and rats, what happened in the rat utopias can serve as a warning sign. Certain conditions changed the behavior of the inhabitants, which led to a collapse of the society. Even though the utopias had all the resources needed for their inhabitants and protected them from outside predators, decadence set in and social interactions helped start a vicious circle, which spiraled down until society was destroyed.
We live in societies which are the most prosperous in history, yet the conditions seem to be stuck in a vicious cycle which is spiraling down. Social interactions are stressful, causing many people to withdraw from society, while others become more aggressive. The differences between the haves and have-nots are getting wider and wider, not just in terms of money, but also in social dynamics for many guys (a small percentage has harems of women, while others struggle to even get a date). City life is further adding to the every day stresses of large parts of the population, and the rise of social media is taking over social interactions.
This all leads to more and more frustration, which can lead to anger, and the rise of dark forces like populism, which further polarize society, leading it down to potentially bad places.
This is Part 2 of a series on using historical analogies to describe current events. Read Part 1 here:
Why the fall of the Roman Republic is a good analogy for today’s chaotic time – Part 1.
Further articles to read:
Article on forming analogies:
The method to create good analogies.