In War and Peace and War, among other works, mathematical historian Peter Turchin develops dynamical data-driven models of history that statistically reproduce the sizes, frequencies, and durations of the rise and fall of ancient empires up through just before the start of the Industrial Revolution. There are, in other words, relatively simple dynamics underpinning the rise and fall of ancient empires such as the Republic of Pisa, the Republic of Venice, which was a great sea power, the Byzantine empire, and pretty much all the other ancient empires (and ancient nation states as well).
Tolstoy’s theory of history, on the other hand, is that shit happens. Contrary to how historians ascribe history to the actions and decisions of world leaders, business magnates, scientists, and other such influential people, history to him is the sum of innumerable, unknowable events and individual choices. Napoleon was no more responsible for the invasion of Russia than all the soldiers of the Grand Armée.
Some find this is preposterous.
“…someone like Napoleon was in a position to choose to invade or not invade Russia. In that instance, massive historical events which cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives depended on the actions of just a few people.”
In some cases, however, I find that Tolstoy’s theory of history is spot on. The French had one thing in common before the French Revolution. They were starving while the richest lived it up. Quelqu'un miserable threw the first stone. Ditto the Arab Spring. A heretofore unknown street vendor burnt himself alive and precipitated a sea change.
On 17 December 2010 Tunisian Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he reported was inflicted on him by a municipal official and his aides. In time major insurgencies erupted in Syria, Libya, and Yemen along with civil uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain, large street demonstrations in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Oman, and minor protests even in Saudi Arabia.
Thus it would seem in this case that history started from the bottom up (possibly with the help of climate change through attendant droughts, crop shortages, and spikes in essential food prices). Old regimes and dictatorships were toppled by millions of nameless people.
From a statistical physics point of view, deep correlations underlie and drive these kinds of long-tailed power law phenomenology. The French, the Arabs, the mothers, fathers, babies, brothers, sisters, distant cousins, neighboring families were desperately hungry under an oblivious ruling class. In stock market bubbles, everyone shares in the risk pool which increases as more people pile in. Eventually, however, something, possibly only a rumor, panics people triggering massive selloffs. Here the contrarians kick in, buying into the fear. It’s not fundamentally different than building a sand pile one grain at a time. Eventually the sand particles correlate and the sand pile avalanches. To look for avalanches and black swans, look for correlation.
The rise of Nazi Germany seems to be a hybrid case of history being simultaneously driven from the bottom up and top down: hungry people with churning guts were turned into a nation of mass murderers by a charismatic, racist demagogue who railed against a targeted population. Remind you of anyone?
Today people in business and financial circles talk about disruption. Uber and Airbnb have disrupted the hell out of the taxicab and hotel businesses. Walmart has disrupted brick and mortar businesses, and Amazon is disrupting Walmart. Yet I’m pretty sure that you haven’t seen anything yet when it comes to catastrophes. All sort of catastrophes await us.
In mathematics a catastrophe happens when small changes in certain parameters of a nonlinear system cause equilibria to appear or disappear, or to change from attracting to repelling and vice versa, leading to large and sudden changes of the behavior of the system. Think climate change, farming, new viruses, political instability, long-tailed power law dynamics: black swans, pandemics, oil prices, etc. It remains to be seen if we’ll develop the scientific and technological tools to tame these new challenges along with the requisite political maturity as human beings.
Mark Twain once wrote, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” You’ll find people on either side of this statement. Edmond Burke told us that, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Others say no way. I think a good foundation in history helps frame our lives. I think this was the purpose of War and Peace. More than frame our lives, however, I think history gives us a pantheistic sense of existence in the sense of Victor Hugo. (I mean this in terms of YouTube's Shots of Awe not gods of any kind.)
In the preface to The Toilers of the Sea (my favorite French novel), Hugo wrote “Religion, society, nature: such are the three struggles in which man is engaged … In Notre-Dame de Paris the author denounced the first of these; in Les Misérables he drew attention to the second; in this book he points to the third.” Every word of every sentence of every thought in The Toilers of the Sea pulses with pantheistic life, with quarks and gluons if he had known of them, with emergence and entanglement, with evolution, with our ugliness and our beauty, and with our defiance against our meaninglessness.
These were the goals I had when I started writing my story a dozen years ago: the pantheistic sense of life that we humans draw from our universe, the detached and awful majesty of history unfolding in our very personal, very intimate lives, such as packing a handful of family pictures, a toothbrush, and some underwear and nightgowns before being driven off to a palliative care ward, our final destination. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke up, its chunks spectacularly slamming into Jupiter days before cancer literally drowned my mother in her own fluids when a nurse tried to suction them out. I cannot forget these moments, the sight of life ending, the sight of nature carrying on.
The Last Opera, five major iterations later, is finally good enough for my 16 year old daughter to read. It is my War and Peace and my The Toilers of the Sea condensed for the modern reader, packing a century of history and personal lives into my best projection of humanity’s next steps.
Here is the free PDF.
Here is the Kindle form.
PS - Apologies to previous readers. Amazon never updated my story after 2nd or 3rd edition. I’ve wrongly believed that many of you have read 3rd and 4th editions, the 4th and 5th finally becoming readable.
If you want the single page synopsis that agents ask for, click here: Synopsis.