History's Roundabouts

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We’re used to talk of history’s cyclical nature. President Obama made mention of it in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, and for anyone struggling to come to terms with this year’s political catastrophes, it’s a precious straw to clutch at. But who pioneered this idea? Well, you can sift through the classics for hints, but the man who gets the credit for developing this theory is the fourteenth century North African historian, Ibn Khaldun.

  A man of extraordinary intellectual gifts, he grew up in Tunis, drifted across various courts in North Africa and Andalusia and wrote his masterpiece, the Muqaddimah, in a troglogytic cave in Algeria.It was described by the British historian Arnold Toynbee as ‘undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.’

  Intended as a preface to an epic history of the world, the Muqaddimah or ‘Introduction’ presented many concepts that western thinkers only began to grapple with many centuries later. Ibn Khaldun identified co-ordinated specialisation as a primary source of economic surplus, anticipating Adam Smith; whilst his analysis of the negative impact of an overbearing state on a lively economy and the significance of public works would be championed centuries later by JM Keynes.

  On history’s cyclical nature, he illustrated his ideas by reference to the nomadic tribes that had seized power so regularly in North Africa. There were five stages, he argued. First came ‘success, the overthrow of all opposition.’ The tribe, yoked together by asabiyyah (usually translated as ‘solidarity’ or ‘tribalism’) would sweep across the land, ripping control out of the hands of the previous incumbents. With ‘complete control’ (stage two), they bedded in and grew accustomed to power, enjoying the ‘leisure and tranquility’ it brought (stage three), followed by ‘contentment and peacefulness’ (stage four). But they would soften, the generations born to power lacking the fiery stamina of their forebears. ‘Waste and squandering’ would be common; the dynasty seized by ‘senility and the chronic disease from which it can hardly ever rid itself, for which it can find no cure, and eventually, it is destroyed.’

  Ibn Khaldun knew all about power and its loss – he schemed in his capacity as a minister at many courts, including Granada and Fez, and often found himself on the run (he was a better historian, by the looks of it, than a political wheeler-dealer). With so much talk of history’s echoes these days (from the ‘return to the 1930s’ meme to the ‘Olde Englande’ image peddled by Nigel Farage), Ibn Khaldun’s theories are certainly worth paying attention to. After all, there are plenty who would say our western civilisation is currently in the climactic fifth stage of Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical theory, wracked by ‘waste’ and ‘chronic disease’, awaiting the emergence of a more vigorous order. Sometimes, looking at the headlines, Ibn Khaldun doesn’t seem so many centuries ago.  

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