When I woke up this morning, I shuffled down the stairs in a pair of silk slippers, the same silk slippers that you’re probably wearing. Well, I don’t own any silk slippers, and I was already wearing my boots by the time I left my bedroom, but I’m referring to metaphorical slippers. Voltaire* in the early eighteenth century asserted “history is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.” While this metaphorical explanation for the rise and fall of civilizations is unpopular these days, largely because it implies that we are probably in the silk slippers and on our way down the stairs, I think it has significant merit in explaining societies’ evolution.
*Note: I did not read this quote from whatever original work of Voltaire included it, but rather heard it explained in Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast.
Throughout history, there are examples of civilizations rising from barbaric origins, achieving magnificent success, only to fall into decadence and be defeated by the next group of scrappy barbarians. We see it with Egypt, with Rome, with Persia (multiple times), with China (multiple times): grand civilizations all that eventually fell, to be supplanted by new civilizations of ‘barbarians’ that in time underwent a similar cycle. What makes this metaphor so powerful is that it does not ascribe cause; it merely identifies an association, and that observation is notably insightful.
The concept is straightforward, for all that it manages to embrace an enormous breadth of considerations. The ‘silk slippers’ refers to the indulgences and luxuries of advances civilizations, and the ‘wooden shoes’ are the hard times and tough circumstances of those who are outside those civilizations. It comes down to a matter of motivation: when a civilization is struggling for survival, there is strong impetus for its people to be constantly bettering themselves and striving against adversity, but when a civilization is at its peak, there is less reason for anyone to apply themselves so strongly, less adversity to temper them. Positing that it is through adversity that strength, resilience, and advancement come, the “silk slippers of history” postulate implies that dominant civilizations lack the adversity necessary to generate the strength to hold and improve their positions.
Even if you accept that the silk slippers postulate is relevant to the rise and fall of ancient civilizations, it is easy to dismiss its relevancy to our civilization today. After all, there are not barbarian hoards menacing our frontiers, nor unexplored cradles of civilizations from whence can come the next conquering savages to take over our empires, whether they be the Visigoths or the Mongols of old. Yet I would argue that the signs of decadence and its concomitant decay are present today, and that we may well be shuffling down the stairs in our silk slippers even now. We might do well to be looking for the stranger coming up them in the wooden shoes. By making life too easy for ourselves, we lose our resilience, our ability to adapt and overcome adversity, our capacity for innovation and change.
I’m not here to convince you that our civilization is in danger of going the way of the Achaemenid-Persian empire tomorrow, though (I’m not fully convinced myself) – that would be a different post. As interesting as that exercise might be, I find the silk slippers postulate far more useful as a tool of inquiry into historical civilizations than into our own. It might be unpopular, but I think it has a lot of insight to offer us. As I’m reading The Inca and deciding whether or not to add the other books in the Lost Civilizations series to my reading list, considering the silk slippers of history seems especially relevant.