The Fate of Civilizations

Should a philosopher be interested in the trajectory of civilizations, from their rise to dominance in a region, and then the reasons why a civilization seems to lose its collective capacity and go into decline?

Most professional philosophers are not, of course, mostly because of the micro-specialization of academia generally. But suppose we can identify philosophically significant premises believed within populations as well as by leaders … premises that might empower the rise of a civilization. If these premises then start to disappear, or are removed, the civilization starts to falter.

Historically important philosophers such as Condorcet, Comte, Marx, all had theories of stages civilizations went through. Each believed that progress would lead to a final state of affairs, that which Hegel called the Absolute. For Comte, the ideal society was a society based on the applications of science to every aspect of human life. Bertrand Russell agreed. Since subsequent history has shown abundantly that science and technology are just as prone to abuse as any other human products, there is now grave doubt that a society based on science (and technology) would be the ideal.

Other writers saw civilizations as moving in cycles: as having life spans not unlike that of a person, with all the stages of life a person goes through. Edmund Gibbon wrote his classic Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Spengler penned The Decline of the West. Carroll Quigley, in The Evolution of Civilizations, wanted to answer Spengler as he believed civilizations in trouble could turn themselves around and continue making progress. Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, Quigley believed we were in trouble even then.

A lesser known writer we ought to investigate is Sir John Bagot Glubb (1897 – 1986). His major works began to appear around the same time as Quigley’s, and for some time after. Glubb was British, the son of a Royal Engineers officer, whose own military education and service (Royal Military Academy, followed by his own stint in Royal Engineers), followed by service in the first World War, eventually took him to the Arab world where he settled in. In 1930 he signed a contract to serve the Transjordan Government (later: Jordan). He came to command the Jordan Arab League. By this time he had assimilated into Arab culture, a culture he appreciated and even loved. He became a leading authority on the history of the Arabs, eventually writing some 20 books on the Middle East.

By the 1950s, however, Glubb noted with some dismay that his native Great Britain was in full retreat around the world. He’d learned that the Arabs had a vast empire a thousand years ago. He found himself studying other empires. He soon came to the conclusion that vast civilizations follow a pattern that transforms them into empires and then sees them destroyed. This led to his best known essay, “The Fate of Empires” (1978).

What pattern did he see?

He saw civilizations going through six stages, or phases. Here they are:

(1) The Outburst and Age of Pioneers.

(2) An Age of Conquest.

(3) An Age of Commerce.

(4) An Age of Affluence.

(5) An Age of Intellect.

(6) An Age of Decadence.

Glubb would agree, that is, with the idea that civilizations are usually not conquered but fall from within. Let’s consider each stage in a bit more detail.

(1) An Outburst may follow the appearance of some new ideal that captures the imaginations of a population, or a founding document such as the U.S. Constitution that expresses this ideal. The U.S. Declaration of Independence and its Constitution surely count as such documents. This, Glubb notes, has happened elsewhere. It happened with the emergence and rise of Islam. What follows is the start of a rapid expansion.

(2) This expansion is called the civilizations Age of Conquest. Those leading the Conquest become national heroes. Heaven help any other cultures unfortunate enough to be in the way. Ask the indigenous cultures that populated North America as the U.S. expanded westward during the very early to mid 1800s. For that matter, ask those who got in the way of Roman expansion, or in Napoleon’s way.

(3) With territory claimed, an Age of Commerce ensues. Farms and factories are built, trade routes are laid down, a single language is spoken, and a single administrative system falls into place across the region. It is during this period that the seeds of trouble get planted, however. For as the first native fortunes are accrued, those building them start to notice the power money gives them. Power otherwise unavailable within the political and administrative system. This they find fascinating!

(4) An Age of Affluence begins (there will be considerable overlap between this and its predecessor). To all appearances, the High Noon of a civilization is its Age of Affluence. Because new technologies are appearing and the builders of fortunes create millions of jobs, the standard of living rises exponentially. With sufficient surplus wealth floating around, large universities can be created and endowed, research institutes formed, etc. The generations that follow experience the results of this overall rise in prosperity but not the effort that went into them, and this, too, presages trouble. Moreover, making money starts to become an end in itself and not a means to advancing the common good of communities.

(5) An Age of Intellect begins, also overlapping with its predecessors. Almost every major community will soon have its college or university. Some of these will be very good at this stage; others will be mediocre. With the basic necessities of life now assured for a sufficient fraction of the population, acquisitions of academic honors start to replace honors achieved through military conquest and even by commercial achievement. At the same time, the Age of Intellect is marked by the appearance of disputations that more and more, seem to lack seriousness in the sense that they don’t address real problems. They may well be steeped in false premises, not recognized as such because they are not really tested against the world but protected within academia’s safe groves. Inevitably, such disputations turn to the foundations of the civilization itself, be they religious or otherwise. A civilization begins to drift as its first premises are called into question by its ostensibly best minds. Intellectual and eventually political leadership is thus beset by quandaries and doubt that did not exist before. Questionable decisions will be made, some involving which intellectual groups to support with lavish funding. Some will have bad consequences, as bad books are written and absorbed within a growing media culture. A result is that the moral “fiber” that holds communities together starts to unravel. This is accompanied by rapid “creative-destructive” advances in technology, achievements of convenience, and so on, that often lead to massive differences between parents and children, adding to uncertainty.

(6) Ages of Decadence call for lengthier attention. An Age of Decadence is marked by all or most of the following.

(a) Monetary policy is less and less responsible; as when, for us, financialization replaced production as a means of wealth-generation, allowing production to be outsourced to third world nations for cheap labor, all in the name of enhanced profitability. Civilization is by now highly centralized, so that monetary policy affects everyone within its borders in one way or another, and for that matter, will affect other societies that are trading partners.

(b) Rapid cultural changes are urged; these are eagerly embraced by some populations but not others, leading to rising division and dissension.

(c) There is rising alienation, as institutions of all sorts cease to serve persons and become expansive, impersonal bureaucracies serving only themselves. (Incidentally, think of the replacement of personnel departments with human resources departments, the implication being that human persons are resources not different in kind from other resources.)

(d) Increased frivolity sets in, as celebrities and sports stars replace achievers of the past who made genuine contributions to the civilization.

(e) Women begin to move into professions previously dominated by men, sometimes for economic reasons as the currency is devalued, wages flatline, and families need two breadwinners instead of just one.

(f) Immigrants begin to flow into population centers, the difference being that immigrants of the past learned to speak the dominant language and assimilated into the dominant culture while those of this new period do not. The result is that subcommunities form, and the capacities of schools, hospitals, and other institutions are overwhelmed by a babble of foreign languages. Some of these subcommunities are actively hostile to the dominant culture, furthering already existing divisions. (We see this happening in Europe, a civilization clearly in its Age of Decadence.)

(g) There is rising dependency on the instruments of the state sometimes for basic necessities. This may be because families have split up and communities have become divided, leaving elderly couples stranded and without other help; it may be because profit-driven outsourcing has resulted in a lack of jobs that match the skills of the population. It may be because of growing chronic health conditions resulting from imbibing unhealthy food, products of other questionable (but profitable) decisions.

(h) Schools fail to educate. Documentation of this is ignored. Educators begin to leave the profession out of frustration. The sources of their frustration may range from the growing indifference and unruliness of students, from bureaucratic interference with their teaching methods and content, or from pay so low that it fails to meet their basic expenses. Schools fill up with mediocrities and become less and less functional.

(i) Religious belief, healthy patriotism, a sense of duty to the common good, respect for matters of learning, and other commitments aggregated under the label tradition are replaced by materialist consumerism, a love of money, frivolity, and cynicism. These encircle the individual, who is increasingly isolated if he refuses to commit to them. A kind of pessimism suffuses the body politic however papered over with “eat, drink, and be merry.” Pessimism and anxiety will be reflected in literary, artistic, cinematic, musical, and other cultural products.

(j) An irrational fascination with sex of every variety comes to suffuse all cultural and commercial activity. We see its results all around us: distrust and hostility between the sexes, extramarital affairs, marriages breaking down or not happening at all as people choose to stay single (much easier to have multiple affairs that way), the appearance and mainstreaming of practices previously rejected sometimes as immoral but sometimes just on public health grounds. A general sense of the cheapness of human life manifests itself in the widespread acceptance of such practices as abortion. An added sense of the postmodern fluidity of truth is employed in their defense, which speaks euphemistically (e.g.) of a “woman’s reproductive rights” without the added observation that the “right” under discussion is a right to kill another human being without impunity.

(k) Finally, and most dangerously, civilizations, having entered their Ages of Decadence, take on the full characteristics of empire: over-expansion whether politically, economically, militarily, or in some combination of all three. They become aggressive toward other nations, often seeing themselves entitled to those nations’ resources or to be able to profit from having gotten them hopelessly entangled in debt (see John Perkins, The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, 2016). These same governments and corporations become increasingly aggressive towards their own citizens. Decisions are made on the basis of expedience, not principle. Those who criticize this system are driven to the margins, though they can appeal to increasingly alienated populations and sometimes gain an audience for their ideas. Among those ideas, if they are to retain a following, is hope. Satisfying that hope, however, is predicated on a fundamental change in the collective consciousness. Such change may go against the will (and the profit margins) of the corporate-state, and therefore be resisted violently by those in power if it catches on.

Is it not clear that the U.S. (and indeed, much of the rest of Western civilization) is deeply mired in its Age of Decadence?

I shouldn’t have to argue the point!

Those who keep up with current events saw the pathetic spectacle of the hearings over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh over Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual misconduct during a party when he was 17 and she was 15. There were abundant reasons to believe the Democrats were holding onto the allegation, just in case they could not take Kavanaugh down on his legal qualifications and experience. The sense that Dianne Feinstein had little intrinsic interest in Dr. Ford’s complaint illustrates the cynicism of our times. As matters ensured, we were treated by Senate Judiciary Committee members to a recounting of the exact words used by teenagers in Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook as if they constituted evidence, something that did not occur even 25 years ago when Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. What is clear, however, and this speaks to the sense of fluidity of truth mentioned above: if you’re a liberal or progressive, you believed her. If you’re a conservative, you believed him. Moreover, if you’re a liberal or progressive, you saw his visible anger as the arrogant outburst of an entitled white male of privilege. If you’re a conservative, you see it as the moral outrage of someone falsely and very publicly accused. This all exemplifies a divided nation. There is no clear way of ascertaining the truth, as what little evidence there is, is testimonial, and doesn’t support either story unequivocally (how could it?).

We get into messes like this because, first of all, in a culture saturated with sexuality and sexual innuendo, sexual misconduct is bound to occur. To that extent, her story becomes somewhat believable. In a culture of distrust between the sexes, moreover, in which allegations become weaponized for whatever reason, false accusations are bound to be thrown around. To that extent, his story becomes believable. Consider, moreover, social media technology which research shows allows people to group themselves voluntarily into silos, echo chambers, where their premises and conclusions won’t be challenged. This is human nature, if you think about it. Result: divides grow until they are all but unbridgeable, views on the other side of the aisle are seen as illegitimate, and public differences of opinion threaten to turn violent.

An Age of Decadence will be characterized by distrust. This distrust will manifest itself in countless ways, some very visible and others little more than nuisances. An example of the first is the highly intrusive vetting for positions such as a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court, a process bound to be very public in our age of total media saturation. Given that men are now guilty if accused in this environment, this may eventually ensure that no one, no matter how well qualified, will want such a position. We aren’t to that point yet, but why would anyone in his right mind want to endure what either family, Kavanaugh’s or that of Dr. Ford, have had to endure? (As an example of the second above, the nuisance factor, the other day I was temporarily locked out of my PayPal account because I had a typo in my password when I tried to log in. The system threw me several security hoops I was compelled to jump through to prove “I’m me.” The sad fact is, in this age of hackers, most such measures are justified.)

Returning to Sir John Bagot Glubb. He documents, from excursions into the histories of Greece, Rome, Persia, the Ottomans, and others, that we’ve never seen a civilization turn around from an Age of Decadence and regain its original foundation. The sexuality genie in particular is unlikely to go back into the bottle. Our monetary foibles are reaching a critical stage as debt of all sort continues to mount. The U.S. national debt is unpayable and continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Many of the U.S. federal government’s larger legal obligations will eventually be unpayable. A lot of student loan debt will not be paid, even as those struggling to pay it sacrifice major expenditures (e.g., housing) that would contribute to the economy. Add to this the fact that other nations, recognizing the dollar’s loss of value and increasing fragility, are starting to “de-dollarize” (do business in their own currencies).

All of this, of course, leaves the future of the U.S. very uncertain, no matter who is president, no matter which party controls Congress, no matter which technologies promise to emerge tomorrow to increase our convenience and save us from ourselves.

What often happens as an Age of Decadence runs its course is that the old older simply collapses, whether slowly or rapidly. There is a vast loss of influence and sometimes territory. This happened with the British Empire. It happened with the Soviet Union. It is likely to happen to the U.S., after it happens to the European Union. At the culmination of an Age of Decadence, institutions lose their capacity to enforce the rules because those in them lose their will. The system itself loses legitimacy. Citizens will already have turned inward, either to “tending their own gardens” as it were, or acting with their follows to actively separate, which is the start of the building of replacement institutions in a new culture. There are innumerable persons and communities, some within the borders of the U.S., some elsewhere, who have to all intents and purposes seceded from a political economy they see as dying.

What should a philosopher have to say about all of this? Er, plenty, it looks like, although very few philosophers are saying anything (most are, er, “tending their own gardens” in their safe comfort zones of academia).

As I stated at the outset, a philosopher should look to the first premises guiding any civilization, explicitly or tacitly, and get positioned to evaluate them. This will be the topic of my next few posts.


About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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1 Response to The Fate of Civilizations

  1. Richard says:

    It’s unfortunate we don’t have leadership in our social institutions (family, church, state, commerce, community) to lead us out of the decadence. The Bible illustrates Israel going through this but cycled around a few times via repentance and return to God until it finally was destroyed.

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