History is on the face of it a hugely complicated subject. It encompasses the totality of human experience through the millennia. It includes every thought, feeling and action that anyone has ever had. At any one point in time, how an individual acts depends on their experience up until that point, and their perception of the rest of the world. Possible perception is manifold; and history as an object is infinitely complicated, including perception of possibility and perception of perception.
To make sense of this, we look for patterns, like the spread of particular technologies (like the use of stone, bronze and iron, after which their respective ages are named), or the effects of geographical features (which may be barriers like mountains and deserts, or highways, like grasslands for nomadic raiders). These are general historical principles which explain a multitude of phenomena.
Another type of pattern is similarity between the perceptions of different people. If many view others as being part of a community, then â€œthe communityâ€ is a shared concept. If a particular technology is used by many, then a single, communal concept of that technology can be postulated. Language, religion, money, contracts, the wearing of neck-ties, and law codes are a kind of computer program which runs within society. The shared perception is not arbitrary, but evolves in harmony with individual perception, and human nature manifests itself in similar ways at different places and times.
In ancient literature we find the idea of a single society changing through various stages. A lack of historical perspective may lead one to feel that, regarding how they feel about other people and their general level of satisfaction with their life, things have always been the way they are, and always will be. An oppressive semantic fog hangs over us and it is easy not to even be aware of its existence. The most explicit explanation of this idea seems to be found in The Republic, by Plato. (The idea of society progressing through stages occurs in Hinduism (Yugas) and Greek mythology (Ages of Man) and even in the Bible (Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue in the book of Daniel).)
Perhaps a summary will help to explain; and help us consider whether this progression is another useful general historical principle.
To understand Plato’s model of society, one should understand his model of an individual. One is used to explain the other. He sees three components to a human being: the intellect, the passion, and the appetite. These are powerful to various degrees depending on the individual or society in question.
The first stage is the ideal stage (according to Plato). Society is harmonious and has common goals. The various castes work together. Proto-Indo-European civilization may be an example of this.
The next two stages, timarchy and oligarchy, are characterized by a decrease of intellectual regulation and an increase in passion. (Appetite may also increase, but this change will characterize the next two stages more.) Note that a highly passionate person is not â€œbadâ€ per se, but it is the chaos of society as a whole which is bad. The same person could play a perfectly useful role in a healthy social order.
We may speculatively say this transition from aristocracy to oligarchy is an example of increasing entropy. This means that the arrangement of a system becomes more and more typical of systems of this type. Entropy is defined as the volume of â€œphase spaceâ€ (i.e. the space of possible states of the system) that represents a particular configuration of the system. It is a very fine balance to have all the three components (intellect, passion and appetite) in perfect harmony, and society will tend to drift out of this configuration, towards configurations which are represented by more states. Again, political power tends to diffuse away from the priest caste to the warrior caste, and because of the different constitution of this class, will increase the effect of passion on the exercise of political power, and reduce that of the intellect.
In the last two stages, democracy and tyranny, something similar happens except this time the appetite becomes more powerful.
It may be possible to see some this in real history. The old European nobility may have become more materialistic before the disturbances of the French revolution, such as in the courts of Louis XIV, which is the trait of an oligarchy (in other words, a plutocracy). The ruling class had become expanded from the noblesse d’Ã©pee, the old warrior aristocracy, to include new appointments (the noblesse de robe). This would seem to agree with the idea of an expansion or dilution of the original aristocracy. The French revolution saw a further spread of power to the bourgeoisie, and tyranny such as that during the Reign of Terror.