Ada Palmer posts rarely, but when she does, it’s always worth reading. She alternates between writing about her science fiction and writing about academic history; her most recent post is the latter, covering the historiography of the Renaissance. She notes that the idea of a three-age system, in which great Ancient knowledge was lost in the Middle Ages and rediscovered in the Renaissance, was first promoted in the Renaissance itself, even if the word renaissance was only used starting in the 19th century, and traces why this idea was accepted then and why it’s remained popular since. In short: it provided political legitimacy to the coterie of thugs (“aristocracy”) who launched coups and counter-coups in the Italian states, who could hire historians to portray them as harbingers of a new era of revival of ancient glory.
This is a paragraph-long summary of a 13,000-word post that summarizes an in-progress book, so I’m glossing over a lot of detail and I recommend that people read the post if they want to talk about Renaissance historiography. I bring this up because this is relevant to transportation, and to some extent urbanism in general, in a number of ways.
The three-age schema
Ada notes that medieval Europeans divided the world into two ages: before and after Jesus. The Renaissance began a trend of a three-age system: Antiquity, a medieval dark age, and the Renaissance or modernity. She further traces the intellectual history of this not just in the Italian Renaissance but also in more recent times, going over the use of the language of renaissance in Johan Burkhardt’s work to argue for a new modernity replacing medieval superstition.
Stepping away from professional historians, I do not know to what extent the average educated Westerner thinks in terms of three ages. The answer is clearly “a great deal,” but I do not know to what extent it is universal. I was taught this schema uncritically in primary and middle school, but what I see in the online discourse is less consistent – for example, Paul Krugman’s writings on Malthusianism back a two-age model, before and after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But even with the caveat that economic historians don’t view things this way, the Nike swoosh model of Roman greatness, medieval decline, and modern resurgence still exercises enormous cultural influence.
The relevance of this is that people who propose a change to something often default to the three-age model, transplanted into a specific context. The emergent view of most American and European advocates for rail transport is that rail had a golden age from its invention until the middle of the 20th century, declined subsequently, and is supposed to enter a renaissance now. This is usually connected with urbanism, with a model of the growth of traditional cities, decline through suburban sprawl, and renaissance; variants depend on politics, but Strong Towns, myriads of consultants telling cities how to attract talent, most YIMBYs, and most of the left agree on this picture.
Revival of ancient learning
Renaissance Italy had a MIGA obsession. In an era of the Avignon Papacy and intensifying warfare between different factions and city-states, the appeal of Roman unity and peace is not hard to understand; it’s not as if 14th- and 15th-century Italians had better models. Here’s Ada again:
The solution Petrarch proposed to what he saw as the fallen state of “my Italy” was to reconstruct the education of the ancient Romans. If the next generation of Florentine and, more broadly, Italian leaders grew up reading Cicero and Caesar, the Roman blood within them might become noble again, and they too might be more loyal to the people than to their families, love Truth more than power, and in short love their cities as the Romans loved Rome. Such men would, he hoped, be brave and loyal in strengthening and defending their homelands. Rome started as one city, and did not make itself master of the world without citizens willing to die for it.
“Petrarch says we can become as great as the ancients by studying their ways! Let’s do it!” Petrarch’s call went out and, with amazing speed, Italy listened. Desperate, war-torn city states like Florence who hungered for stability poured money into assembling the libraries which might make the next generation more reliable. Wealthy families who wanted their sons to be princely and charismatic like Caesar had them read what Caesar read. Italy’s numerous tyrants and newly-risen, not-at-all-legitimate dukes and counts filled their courts and houses and public self-presentation with Roman objects and images, to equate themselves with the authority, stability, competence and legitimacy of the Emperors. No one took this plan more to heart than Petrarch’s beloved Florentine republic, and, within it, the Medici, who crammed their palaces with classical and neoclassical art, and with the education of Lorenzo succeeded in producing a classically-educated scion who was more princely than princes.
This provided the template for every Western narrative of decline that I’m familiar with, and a good number of non-Western ones: we were great, we’ve gone into decline, we will reverse the decline by restoring our ancient values. It’s unavoidable in every narrative of American decline; it’s there in the Brexit conception of British nationalism; it’s there in cross-national narratives of the decline of the left since the 1970s. In non-Western countries, it was there in a lot of early colonial rebellions (the Indian Rebellion of 1857 tried to restore the Mughal Empire). Even Japan went through a restorationist phase in the wake of its forced opening, though it famously went in a very different direction once the Meiji restoration happened.
This schema is used at a subnational level extensively. Regions that view themselves as declining, like the American Rust Belt, Northern England, or East Germany, cling fiercely to distinctive local institutions. This includes extensive study of local history and local affairs. It’s unavoidable in, say, Belt Publishing. Sometimes, this history is studied critically; in the broad public, it usually isn’t. The number of times I’ve heard New Yorkers contrast how the First Subway was built in four years (and not, say, 40) with how long subways take today is beyond mortals’ ability to count.
With rail transport specifically, advocacy is usually bundled into railfan interests. This, as per the usual paradigm, dovetails into very deep, usually uncritical, study of the history of the technology back when it was supposedly great. Go on Railroad.net and you will see people talk about the minutiae of historical steam and diesel engines and also brush off every piece of knowledge that was not generated in American mainline railroading. Interest in rail technology as a solution for the future gets bundled into romanticism for steam locomotives and for the particulars of how private railroads chose to operate service in the early 20th century.
The Renaissance Man as the innovator
Finally, Ada’s insight about why the idea of the Renaissance was accepted so quickly matters when looking at modern technology. Here, the three-age model is less relevant. The same emphasis on the innovator bringing the company/city/nation/world into a golden age is produced by other models. The accelerating growth model of the technological singularity produces the same effect even without the need to learn history, and is therefore widely popular among rationalists.
In transportation, the best recent example of this is the idea of the Hyperloop. What it is, underlyingly, is a new technology for running rail service, like maglev but capable of running at higher speed. All aspects of rail service planning with the exception of propulsion remain mostly the same (mostly, because the higher speeds do have special implications, though I don’t think they’re any different from what one can extrapolate from existing high-speed rail). This means that what it takes to build Hyperloop is similar to what it takes to build ordinary rail plus more money. I think Hyperloop One and Virgin understand that, but Elon Musk does not.
The importance of history as legitimacy cannot be discounted here. Court historians were hired to write hagiographies, just as artists were hired to paint and sculpt the likenesses of the biggest thugs (“royalty”). This does not usually apply to modern academic history – historians have political biases but there are layers insulating high-prestige academic historians from donors. But it does apply to a lot of popular writing, especially business journalism. I forget where I’ve read – I think it was in the context of New York real estate – that 2010s journalism is alive and well in trade media, but writing critical investigative pieces about powerful players is not always expected or rewarded in publications that make money as internal trade papers.
The upshot is that analyzing history, whether general or specific, as an abrupt positive change serves to empower people who can claim that they are the new world, and that any and all criticism is just the old way of thinking. It’s a form of epistemic narrowing that blocks off knowledge those people don’t have or can’t easily control.