On Classical Futurism

Classical futurism — the subject of this publication — appears at first to be a contradiction in terms. Isn’t the future (or futurism, at any rate) about progress? How can the future be classical?

To explain this, we have to step outside of our own time for some perspective.

When people of our age think of the future, they think primarily about technology; technology which, like time’s arrow, seems to flow in only one direction: forward. (This is actually a mirage, as technology can and has regressed at numerous times throughout history, as demonstrated by the extinction of Linear A and Linear B script in the Greek Dark Ages, or the loss of the Polar Inuits’ ability to construct canoes in the 1820s.)

Whatever the next great technological revolution that will define our future holds — whether it’s AI, space travel, crypto, bio-engineering, whatever — we can be fairly certain that it will not be a repeat of a past breakthrough. Our technological future, in this sense, cannot look like our past.

But the same cannot be said of culture. For one thing, no cultural element ever really goes obsolete. You may no longer use a record player to listen to your music, but the Beatles are still popular decades after their demise, and Beethoven’s symphonies are still instantly recognizable centuries after his death. We still read old books and watch old movies. People don’t look at the Mona Lisa or the statue of Nike of Samothrace or the Great Pyramid at Giza and think “who cares, Apple made a better version of this.”

This memetic persistence means that even if one particular style, fashion, or way of doing things dominates a given culture at a given point, all the past options are still alive – though some are in better health than others. Some dwell beneath the surface like dormant volcanoes waiting to erupt at any moment.

That’s why, if you went to an EDM festival like Ultra Miami in the 2010s, you’d hear music with many similarities to techno that was popular in discotheques of the 80s. That’s why, for the person furniture shopping in 2021, one frequently comes across vendors advertising a “mid-century” look (referring to the mid 20th century).

These are but two minor examples of a recurrent phenomenon in culture that can happen in far grander terms: cultural revivalism.

Revivalism: remixing culture to create something new

Revivalism happens when something old is made new again — often with a twist. If you buy furniture with a “mid-century” look today, aspects of the final product may look similar to furnishings you might have seen in old pictures, TV, or movies. But much will have inevitably changed. You’d likely buy it online, for one thing. And the products themselves will be constructed using different manufacturing technology, different supply chains, and different tastes.

The beauty of revivalism is that it is not a simple return to the past, it is a recombination of it. Since usually significant time elapses between a cultural phenomenon and its revival — often generations or even centuries — some of its essence is lost. Those who attempt to revive it, no matter how closely they study the original, will end up reimagining it.

A cultural revival is therefore not a snapshot of the past, but more like an impressionist painting. It is in this sense a genuine form of innovation — but unlike cultural innovation which seeks to create something entirely new and therefore may not have the intended effects, it seeks to recreate a culture that once thrived.

With cultural modernity long since having been exhausted, and with cultural postmodernism reaching a breaking point of absurdity, nihilism, and self-abnegation, it is time for the Western World to turn to something new.

The signs of this are rife — the rapid and frequent memetic waves that have overwhelmed the West in recent years seem to show that it has come unmoored from its cultural foundations, leaving a yawning vacuum of meaning, purpose, community, and aesthetics at its core.

What will step forward to fill its place? There are many possible options, but one in particular shows a special potential.

The Golden Thread of Antiquity

Western civilization is a complex tapestry with many threads. The cultures and peoples that contributed to this grand tapestry are diverse, and it has turned at times from one direction to the other.

However, there is one thread that shines brightly in that tapestry: that of classical antiquity, the extinct Mediterranean civilization defined first by the Greeks, and then by the Romans.

Though this golden thread was cut short with the fall of Rome in 476 AD (at least in Western Europe; whether the Byzantine Empire should be considered a continuation of Greco-Roman civilization is a different discussion), it resurfaced — or was resurrected — time and again by some of the most gifted geniuses, builders, and remixers of the 1500 or so years that intervene between then and now.

Thus, Charlemagne dubbed his new Teutonic kingdom the “Holy Roman Empire” upon its foundation circa 800 AD, a name that would describe the decentralized principalities of Germany for nearly a thousand years.

Thus, Petrarch’s discovery of a collection of Cicero’s letters in a forgotten corner of the Verona Cathedral library helped catapult interest in classical antiquity back into the forefront of the Western mind after a millennium of having been dominated almost exclusively by Christianity.

Thus, the enlightenment philosophes like Voltaire and Montesquieu in their salons in France, and their American counterparts like Franklin and Madison and Jefferson resurrected the old Roman Res Publica (Republic) form of government after 1400 years of disuse.

Of these flowerings and revivals of antiquity, there is much more to say later. The point for now is simply this: the inheritance of the Greeks and the Romans has had a profound and lasting effect on our civilization, usually through a period of cultural revival which reimagines the present in terms of an idyllic past to build a better future.

In that sense, classical futurism is not new. Petrarch did it, and the very Italian language was born from the effort. Madison and Jefferson did it, and gave rise to the world’s most successful republic since Roman times. Charlemagne did it, and gave the confederation of Germanic principalities a cool name before they were conquered and reunified by Prussia a thousand years later, bringing at least a semblance of order to Western Europe for the first time since the fall of Rome.

Can we do it again? Why should we? And what will be different this time? The short answer: yes, yes, and quite a great deal. The long answer? That’s the subject of this publication, The Classical Futurist.

What is The Classical Futurist?

The Classical Futurist is a monthly publication. Each issue will either broadly address the questions laid out above, or it will thematically align with bringing a vision of antiquity into the future in some loose way.

Who are we, the authors? We are enthusiasts of antiquity (obviously), history, human progress, and building a brighter future with a common vision of what that might look like.

Sachin Maini is a longtime student and enthusiast of antiquity who works in tech. He specializes in the history of ideas and cultures, and particularly how the evolution of ideas impacts the course of history.

Étienne Fortier-Dubois is a writer and programmer who is interested in the evolutionary forces underlying most things. He writes about science, history, and aesthetics, among other things.

Caleb Ontiveros is fascinated by stories of the classical world and its gods. He is a writer, programmer, and founder of Stoa. He focuses on philosophy.

By Sachin Maini

Longtime student and enthusiast of antiquity writing about the history of ideas, cultural evolution, and complex adaptive systems.