A Civilization Afflicted by the Barbarism of Reflection

October 02, 1994|By JON MARGOLIS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- From the occasionally bizarre but never dreary precincts of Boulder, Colorado, comes a missive from one John Meyer, by his own account a photographer, a computer tinkerer and a student of the way the world works.

Mr. Meyer, who is 59 years old, has developed something he calls the Elliott Wave Theory of History. Regular players of the stock market know the Elliott Wave theory. It was developed by a market analyst named Ralph Elliott in the 1930s, and is one of several cyclical theories of stock permutations.

Well, let's leave that to the folks who care about getting rich, poor things, and get back to Mr. Meyer, who applies the Elliott Wave Theory not just to the stock market but to the history of the world. With the help of historical and economic information, computer techniques and game theory (questionable, but at least multidisciplinary) Mr. Meyer has concocted a chart which he calls ''a general description of historical trends'' from 3550 B.C. to the present.

Because it would take too long, the intricacies of the chart and the theory behind it will not be detailed here. (OK, and because I don't entirely understand it. Even Mr. Meyer only claims that it makes ''a crazy kind of sense.'') But the details don't matter. What does matter are Mr. Meyer's two major insights:

1. History is cyclical, not linear; and

2. Ours is an age of decline, ''like that of Rome in the 6th century, A.D.''

Whether he's right on either count, Mr. Meyer brings to mind another unconventional philosopher, also self-taught, also very difficult to read -- Giambattista Vico, who had a great deal to say about the 1990s even though he died in 1744.

Vico's major work, completed in 1725, was called ''The New Science.'' By modern standards, it is neither new nor very scientific. Still, it powerfully influenced Goethe and James Joyce among others, and much of it seems quite contemporary.

Vico believed that human societies pass through stages of growth and decay. ''The nature of peoples,'' he wrote, ''is first crude, then severe, then benign, then delicate, finally dissolute.''

In short, as people make life better for themselves materially, they fall into moral, spiritual and intellectual decay. ''Men first feel necessity,'' he wrote, ''then [they] look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.''

The end of the process is apparent, Vico said, when ''each man [is] thinking only of his own private interests.'' But that is only the first stage of barbarism. The second and last stage ''arises from an excess of reflection or from the predominance of technology,'' in the words of the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Vico. Only then, when materialism degenerates into a systematic examination of itself, are people ''made inhuman by the barbarism of reflection,'' as Vico said.

Human society, Vico said, progresses from the forests to the huts to the villages to the cities ''and finally the academies.'' That's the end.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? In the 370 years since the Pilgrims converted some of the forest to huts and then villages, Americans have gone through the entire process. Now we are dominated either by those who think only of their own private interests or by those who reflect on the process whereby people think only of their own private interests. Or, worst of all, by those who do both.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a long article about a woman named Betsy Frank, who is one of the most important people in the world of television, and therefore of popular culture.

She is neither a producer nor a writer nor a technician, nor is she a critic. She is a prognosticator. She watches each new TV series before it goes public and tells her employer, an advertising agency, whether the program will be a hit. She advises network executives what to produce. She discusses television violence with the attorney general. Grown men quiver at the mention of her name.

According to another advertising executive, ''prognosticators'' such as Ms. Frank became powerful because of ''increased coverage of the medium [television] by TV shows . . . and so there was a demand for people who could explain what was going on.''

In other words, because so much television is now about television, the television business pays big money to someone to explain it to itself. That's a pretty good example of the barbarism of reflection.

And it isn't just television. Similar positions exist in the academic, political and journalistic worlds.

Where this fits on John Meyer's Elliott Curve is hard to say. Giambattista Vico, though, would no doubt see it as proof of his theories.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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