Introduction to great epochs

“Sporadic great men come everywhere. But for a community to get vibrating through and through with intensely active life, many geniuses coming together and in rapid succession are required. This is why great epochs are so rare, – why the sudden bloom of a Greece, an early Rome, a Renaissance, is such a mystery. Blow must follow blow so fast that no cooling can occur in the intervals. Then the mass of the nation glows incandescent, and may continue to glow by pure inertia long after the originators of its internal movement have passed away.”

This is William James’ view, in his excellent Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment paper, on what it takes to have great epochs. The finer grained causes are something I want to research more in the future but for now I wanted to give an introduction to just how great a great epoch can be. Consider the two periods below:

Greece (197 years)

  • Sophocles 497-406
  • Pericles 495-429BC
  • Phidias 480-430
  • Socrates 470-399
  • Plato 428-348
  • Aristophanes 427-386
  • Aristotle 384-322
  • Euclid 365-300

Enlightenment/scientific revolution (233 years)

  • Francis Bacon 1561 – 1626
  • Hobbes 1588 – 1679
  • Descartes 1596-1650
  • Fermat 1607 – 1665
  • Pascal 1623 – 1662
  • Locke 1632 – 1704
  • Newton 1643 – 1727
  • Leibniz 1646 – 1716
  • Jacob Bernoulli 1655 – 1705
  • Voltaire 1694 – 1778
  • Daniel Bernoulli 1700 – 1782
  • Euler 1707 – 1783
  • Hume 1711 – 1776
  • Adam Smith 1723 – 1790
  • Kant 1724 – 1804

What is absolutely astounding to me is that these spans equate to roughly 1/5 of the elapsed time since the oldest member, Sophocles, was born. Yet they represent the founding of multiple disciplines we rely on today as well as having many of the practitioners we regard as the greatest in those disciplines.

We find a similar pattern with great painters or composers as well, there were flashes where most of those we consider great worked and before or since then we seemingly haven’t been able to generate talent in those areas in such concentrated amounts.

It’s important to consider whether there are any dull reasons for this, perhaps you could choose any period and conceivably draw up such a list. I think you would struggle with this. There are only so many people we consider truly great and in most fields it seems like this pattern of a flash of luminaries for a number of decades or a century or two occurs.

Another mundane reason could be that every subject requires someone to start it, isn’t it likely that the time period where some enterprise starts is likely to make vast amounts of ground? To this I would say quite possibly but also that I don’t think it really gets to the central question I am looking at. Even if some group has to start a movement, it is not clear why these ones did. Why wasn’t the enlightenment earlier? Was there really some path dependence where many centuries had to pass before thinking of this quality could be supported? Maybe, but I doubt it. Also saying that because one group discovers an area and therefore it is bound to make vast amounts of progress would seem to be disproven by the two groups above. The groups are predominately made up of philosophers and mathematicians. If it really was so easy to progress rapidly through these areas why the 1,500 year hiatus?

These two episodes present another idea which is that virtuosity in epochs seems to cross vast disciplines. In the Greek example there almost weren’t any disciplines as we would know them today, they in many ways created modern Maths and Philosophy. Similarly the enlightenment created what we would likely call modern science. It seems almost absurd to imagine there are fields that are so important as the ones named that we still have scarcely any conception of, but it would also have seemed almost absurd to imagine this in the decades before the enlightenment or the Greek period. For a more recent example of a paradigm shifting field one could look at computing, yes it is in some degree an off shoot of Maths but I would consider it distinct enough to count.

It seems like the James quote is on to something. There are non linear network effects to having greatness. Each luminary doesn’t increase the chance of another by some linear amount but more so. What is the nature of the feedback loop? Is it mentorship, a society where one can work on these ideas and have it considered a worthy occupation? Are there external elements like being independently wealthy like many on the lists were?

One important point will be whether these phenomena are emergent. Can we really ever hope to centrally plan anything or do we just get luck every few centuries in various fields? Even if this may be true it still seems worth looking for answers given the outsized effects these few centuries have had on everything from literature to science to the very way think about reason.

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