The Imperial Ideal and Multipolarity: Beyond the Rise and Fall of Empires
The present essay aims to account for two facts of history: that human communities express the unity of the human condition in terms of political expansion (imperialism) and that these communities tend to fail to hold themselves together beyond a certain geographic and temporal span. These two facts pose a question: how should the initial perception of human unity be expressed following the failure of its all-to-literal, political instantiation as a global hegemon? What consciousness arises after the fall of an empire?
The answer is that the true legacy of imperial projects should be sought precisely through their fall, not through nostalgia for the zenith of their material power. We should look to the felix culpa, “fortunate fault”—or, more properly, a “fortunate fall.” A fall can be said to be fortunate when it leads to the empire’s rise as a poetic rather than strictly political category.
We will call civilizational spaces constituted by such a phenomenon ‘post-empires,’ or ‘local ecumenes.’ Properly realised, they represent the reconciliation of the imperial ideal with the aesthetics of multipolarity, so to speak: of imperium to the beauty of diversity and sovereignty.
Initially, the burden to express the ideal of ‘empire’ falls on the political sovereign. Imperial legitimacy (its claim to universality) is understood as more or less identical to its institutional centre. The eventual loss of this centre’s ability to exert direct control over its satellites, however, will result in a new focus on pursuing harmonious relations instead. This can involve both the civilizational sphere defined by the former empire and, beyond this, a continued sense for global concerns and grand politics.
Such a transition is analogous to the structure of spiritual realisation: the initiatic triad of ritual death, otherworldly journey and, finally, rebirth; or in Greek, Christian terms, katharsis, theoria, and theosis. These describe, 1) the loss of our contingent coordinates, 2) the experience of a transcendent universal, and 3) the return to contingency, now with proper awareness of the universal.
We may understand this in terms of the study of language: 1) ceasing to identify objects and the structure of thought with the specific language we speak (its lexicon, its grammar), 2) coming to an abstract definition of the human linguistic faculty in and of itself, and 3) returning to the study of particular languages in terms of that universal definition.
For another example of this principle, we may imagine a world in which every circular object is blue. In order to understand circularity, we will have to 1) cease identifying it with the colour blue, or learn to distinguish between shape and colour; 2) arrive at an abstract, mathematical definition of circularity, and; 3) return to the world, aware that a red circle is potentially just as much a circle as a blue one.
The third phase is characterised by a greater potential pluralism than the more naïve point of view with which we began, because it knows that a universal category is not exhausted by any particular form, but rather can manifest in diverse ways. Justice is not a single law code; Beauty is not a single beautiful thing; Order is not one particular state or regent; Architecture is not the Sudano-Sahelian as opposed to Gothic style, etc.
An empire may survive its own initial expansion and subsequent decline by becoming a cultural sphere, one which interpenetrates others and, in this sense, succeeds in enduring as a global presence.
Ideally, it will understand itself to be a manifestation of the universal, imperial principle. Returning to the example of the circle, such a post-empire is like a blue circle, perfecting its circularity (the inward health of its institutions) and participating in wider circles (outward, harmonious relations), while recognizing the legitimacy of other-coloured circles.
It extends throughout the whole, albeit it is no longer hegemonic—it contributes to harmonising differences, not to a general homogenization. We may say it has passes from an imperialist to an ecumenic state. Such interpenetrating spheres can be said to have fulfilled themselves as global empires, albeit non-exclusively and non-agonistically. They constitute the many radiating centres of a polycentric ecumene.
Their contribution to this ecumene constitutes an ambit or category of global order. For example, the whole world tends towards Hebraic religious language, Roman statecraft, and Greek philosophical thought, without this effacing the particularity of Jerusalem, Rome, and Athens. Just so, it might also come to integrate Taoist alchemy or classical Indian metaphysics, a certain civilization’s principles of urban-planning or geomancy, and another’s approach to medicine.
Sometimes, these fulfil each other, the way Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic can seem somehow more Christian than many explicitly Christian works, or the way a cold European lager complements an Indian vindaloo.
Crucially, this does not imply uniform synthesis: local cultures can integrate foreign technologies, or, indeed, subscribe to certain universal truth claims (such as a religion), while retaining their own identity. In the words of British Orientalist John Woodroffe, “Foreign achievements and culture should be a food for each people, eaten and assimilated.”
In mediaeval Europe, the transition of the imperial idea we are discussing occurred in terms of the Roman imperium, which became removed from its prior political context, becoming a defining identity-trait of Europeans (including the Franks and the British) who, like Caesar, claimed Trojan descent. This phenomenon records “the translatio of the Trojan Empire, not the expansion … the imperium they celebrate is not that of ultramarine conquest, but of national sovereignty,” as Wilson-Okamura’s puts it.
In this vein, Frances Yates writes of the Roman Empire that its “revivals, not excluding that of Charlemagne, were never politically real or politically lasting; it was their phantoms which endured and exercised an almost undying influence.”
The emphasis on translatio (as distinct from expansion), or empire’s “reflection in symbolism and poetic imagery,” in Yates’ words, does not define a project of universal hegemony, rather, it describes a certain culturally-defined jurisdiction of the world.
Importantly, as a post-empire or local ecumene, the political mysticism or civilizational poetics of Rome came to define a delimited civilizational zone: Europe. It eventually lost North Africa, but extended far into the north. Snorri Sturluson’s claim that Odin and Thor were Trojan-blooded, and the Icelandic retelling of the Aeneid and the founding of Rome using the names of Norse gods and Christian theological language represents the spiritual integration of even the remotest Germanic peoples into the Caesar’s fold (see the Breta Sögur, various Icelandic versions of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s histories). Post-empires can go beyond their defunct political antecedents.
The idea of universality left behind by a once expansive empire may be likened to the lucidity, the new lease on life, with which intense experiences leave us. The nature of those experiences will determine whether we allow them to become a part of our identity, that is, whether we should return to them or not. A life-threatening duel, for example, can teach us something important, but it would be reckless to continue seeking out dangerous combat after overcoming our opponent, as we may lose our life and so deprive our family of our presence. In contrast, the ecstasy of a spouse’s embrace can be deepened again and again, being that it is compatible with the duties of a householder. Both can lead to a kind of spiritual epiphany, a peak experience, but one must remain alien to us, whereas the other is part of our intimacy.
The same is true for a nation determining its membership in the civilisational sphere defined by an empire’s legacy. When Ivan III cast off the Mongol yoke from Moscow in 1480, for example, he and the Russian people decided that the legacy of the Kahn was that of a rival to be learnt from, but not assimilated. On the other hand, when Ivan began using the title of Caesar (Tsar) and called his city a new Rome, he was embracing another empire and rendering the Rus part of the Romanitas, just as surely as Snorri Sturluson did for the Icelanders.
The Defeated Conqueror, or the Conqueror’s Epiphany
We may explore the process of “fortunate fall.” Eric Voegelin writes of what he calls the “concupiscent conqueror,” who learns the futility of conquest. The man possessed of a “deadly concupiscence of reaching the horizon,” eventually comes to discover what Plato knew: that the world has no stop, no edge; it rolls on forever. And crucially, it therefore has no single centre. Any point can claim the privilege of being the centre, with equal lengths extending from itself in any direction (even the north pole is no absolute centre, being complemented by the south, and both are inhospitable). We might say the world has as many centres as humanity is able to build. Voegelin goes on:
The superb irony of the ecumene having the shape of a sphere that brings the concupiscential explorer of reality back home to himself … has hardly yet entered the consciousness of a mankind that is reluctant to admit concupiscential defeat.
And yet, just as the fall of empires need not be understood as their failure, we might say that Voegelin’s “concupiscential explorer” or conqueror does, indeed, find what he was searching for. In seeking the edge of the horizon, he makes a conceptual or spiritual discovery. The terminus he desired comes not to the physical senses, not as the earth’s edge which his eyes might see, or a literal world government under his authority, but as a subtler truth.
We may think of the mediaeval Alexander Romances in which the Greek is lifted up into the sky by a gryphon-helmed chariot until, like St. Peter in Acts, he comes to know the whole world—not through horizontal conquest but by a vertical vision into which it is all collected like a mandala.
Understanding how the fortunate fall leads to a different conception of universal order—and how it might allow for distinct and interpenetrating spheres—should inform conservative thinking about transnational cooperation and the shape world order ought to take.
Today, conservatism is the position of the besieged. Its principal commitments are thrust upon it by the need to resist. In this respect, it has to rest on the twin pillars of
1) preserving cultural particularity in the face of the monoculture, and
2) promoting universal moral principles and metaphysical truth claims in the face of that monoculture’s philosophical relativism.
A commitment to both the particular and the universal requires a philosophy of empire (of universitas, a universal order) that attends to its legacy beyond both rise and decline: beyond the explicit attempt at world conquest and subsequent fragmentation.
The Aesthetic Categories of World Order
Just as we often discuss the need to forge common institutions in ways that ensure international frameworks do not impinge on our sovereignty, we should also assert that nations and civilizational spheres have what we might describe as an aesthetic right to their own cultural forms.
This vision is neo-medieval (having something in common with Barry Buzan’s international society of states, or the “new Middle Ages” of Nicholas Berdyaev): neither barbarian-tribal nor Roman-hegemonic. It is a vision consistent with institutional arrangements based on the principle of subsidiarity, preserving local integrities within wider units. Our conception provides an understanding of world order in which different civilizational spaces act as (territorially-delimited) jurisdictions of the ecumene, so to speak, while also making different contributions to each other as (global) categories of the ecumene.
Active Participants in World Order
Past imperial projects would represent a contribution to the anatomy of world order. We may cite the way in which Mongolian domination of Central Asia served to spread technologies from China to Europe, for example. These empires represented an intuition of human universals, albeit usually an all-too-literal identification of those universals with a particular set of governing structures (the authority of the Caesar, the Caliph, the Kahn, etc.).
But these projects also represented the development of a specific civilizational and cultural identity which can now operate as one part of the ecumene: a fully enfranchised, participative member of the whole, precisely because it retains the memory of its historic mission and a sense of its dignity as having borne a vision of universality.
Indeed, if they are to avoid becoming passive, colonised instruments of other, global actors, and if they are to preserve their cultural idiosyncrasy, local ecumenes must preserve and rehabilitate some of the political clout of their former imperial phase. Seeking unity on the basis of shared Greco-Roman and Christian heritage that Europe, for example, can help Europe act with unity and count for something in world affairs.
A post-empire’s participation in world order is not inferior to that which was possible during its imperial past, because it is in this latter mode that it can retain its own identity, rather than turning itself into a universal identity. The post-empire will thereby discover that the aesthetics of its civilization are, in some sense, archetypal, just as the different colours in a rainbow are irreducible modes (we might say, moods) of the sunlight from which they refract.
When Europeans first succeeded in making their culture universal during the early modern period, de facto this did not only mean universalizing certain Enlightenment propositions, but specific cultural forms as well.
In this way, Europe began to deconstruct itself: there is no such thing as “European civilization” because European is everything; Western civilization isn’t a civilization, it is the civilization. European culture became the gold standard for the human condition. And if the default mode of humanity is European, it becomes monstrous for a European to hold to his identity as distinct from other identities, because this implies he possesses more humanity than others. Today, the same unconscious assumption operates in the kind of discourse that justifies mass migration by assuming everyone has a right to move to western countries.
The principle is simple: if one takes the most perfect circle in the world to be blue, one might be tempted to paint all circles blue in order to make them likewise perfect. One’s definition of shape has become conceptually tainted by the addition of an additional particular (that of colour). History is littered with subtle examples of this error.
The Post-Empire as Political Paradigm
To conceive of the international system in the terms developed above presents the following advantages, which may also serve as concluding remarks:
- It recasts multipolarity in terms that seek to redeem the universalistic instincts of the imperial impulse.
- Our conception also tempers the idea of a ‘balance of power’ and of multipolarity as merely practical goods, introducing the (not really political) notion of an aesthetics of world order, emphasising the beauty of a plurality of civilizational spheres as good in itself.
- Crucially in this regard, we recognize that different spheres constitute not only interactable partners to one another, but categories that can be integrated by one another. This allows for the adoption of certain foreign elements, where such adoption does not lead to a monocultural, homogenising amalgam.
This last point establishes a kind of reciprocity of contributions to world order, refusing to privilege the strictly political. A privileging of the political contributions to the ecumene would view the world as more European than Asian, for example, because its political order is largely based on European paradigms.
By not understanding the international system only in terms of its political structures, then, we are following the so-called English School’s conception of the global order as a society of states whose norms emerge from the practices of its participants, as a tapestry of negotiated outcomes. The international society is moulded by myriad quasi-political and non-political factors, just as a society is. This contrasts with both the Realist school of international relations’ emphasis on state interest as a simple, calculable category, and Liberal Institutionalism’s emphasis on the values represented by international institutions like the UN.
This discussion has sought to provide an alternative to both the repudiation of the imperial past and a chauvinistic apologia of its legacy. In this regard, it responds to a general need for cultural and political renewal through genuine alternatives to prevailing dichotomies, alternatives able to resist absorption into established dialectics.