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An “Internal Dynamic” causing the Decline and Fall of Civilizations

by William McGaughey 

Scholars today are sold on the idea that external factors cause the death of civilizations. In much the same way that the dinosaurs became extinct through the collision of a massive asteroid with earth, we want to believe that “guns”, “germs”, or “steel”, or perhaps droughts or food shortages, or invasions and conquests, have brought about the decline of civilizations. We want to see a mechanism to explain destructive processes.

The call for papers to this conference notes that “in the Collapse of Complex Civilizations, Joseph Tainter describes the decline of early civilizations and speculates about the causes. Was it because of the degradation of their environment, climate change, civil conflict, foreign invaders? Or, he asks ‘Is there some mysterious internal dynamic to the rise and fall of civilizations?’”

I prefer the second alternative, the one based on the “mysterious internal dynamic”. This is an older view of the rise and fall of civilizations that dates back to the early 19th century.

The philosopher Hegel believed that, as ideas develop through time, human societies fill up with ever more complicated types of institutions. As institutions and practices develop, they tend to move toward an opposite situation. The thesis produces anti-thesis, and a synthesis resolves their contradiction. The assumption is that society contains an internal mechanism that drives change from one state of being to another. It may be underlying economic conditions and class conflict or changing fashions of a restless human spirit.

My own view of civilization is taken from Spengler and Toynbee. Oswald Spengler saw civilizations as plant-like entities that took root in certain places and at certain times, grew into cultures with a distinct identity. The cultures then became institutionalized. They hardened into “civilization”, and subsequently declined and died.

The decline of civilizations was therefore a matter of an organic life cycle that had reached a certain phase. Life, or any living creature, displays the same pattern of development. Birth and growth to maturity are followed by decline and ultimate extinction.

Arnold Toynbee accepted Spengler’s basic view. He was concerned with the “growth” and “disintegration” of civilizations. In his list of twenty-one principal civilizations, past and present, fourteen were extinct and seven remained into modern times.

In Toynbee’s terminology, the key concepts are “growth” and “disintegration”, describing phases in the life cycle of a civilization. He wrote: “Growth is achieved when an individual or a minority or a whole society replies to a challenge by a response which not only answers that challenge but also exposes the respondent to a fresh challenge which demands a further response on his part.” (A Study of History, page 241)

With respect to decline, Toynbee wrote: “Militarism ... has been by far the commonest cause of the breakdowns of civilizations during the last four or five millennia ... Militarism breaks a civilization down by causing the local states into which the society is articulated to collide with one another in destructive fratricidal conflicts.” (A Study of History, page 190)

The general point here is that civilizations are like living animals or plants. It is their life cycle, rather than incidental factors or circumstances, that is mainly responsible for their demise.

I’ll use myself as an example. I am 68 years of age. My genes are programmed to give me perhaps another twenty years of healthy life. On the other hand, my own death could come suddenly at any time if I become involved in a major automobile accident. It could come if a gang of gun-toting thugs assaults me on the street. But since I am getting up in years, I think old age is a more significant factor. My internal clock points to eventual decline and death. So it is also with civilizations.

Why do persons such as myself grow old and die? What “mysterious internal dynamic” pushes my body toward a progressively weakening state? That this happens is accepted scientific fact. No doubt, an explanation for it can be found in the structure of the human genome. Few would quarrel with the fact that I exist as a living organism and am, therefore, subject to certain biological laws. However, the precise mechanism of the aging process is complex and beyond my powers of explanation. Eventually someone who has spent a lifetime studying the process will figure it out and win a Nobel prize.

Civilizations, while exhibiting a similar mechanism, are much more complex. In the first place, we have trouble defining this type of entity. What is a civilization? If the definition of a civilization is wrong, there may be no such entity. But if the entity exists, it might be subject to laws resembling those that govern the life cycle of creatures such as you and me. I do not know the precise mechanism of its aging process but do have some thoughts on the subject.

The conventional view of civilizations is that they are the culture of a certain people in a particular place and time. Chinese civilization would pertain to the culture of the Chinese people as they have lived in east Asia for many years. All this “civilization” would have been created in numerous acts of individuals undertaken over a long period of time.

My own view of civilization is that such an entity describes a stage in the development of a single world culture. It would describe a state of society at a particular time.
Civilization I, for instance, would be the stage after that of primitive society when people abandoned tribal life to live in small urban communities. The royal court would be its primary institution. The civilization that followed it, Civilization II, would begin with a moral critique of government power by philosophers, prophets, and other intellectually or spiritually advanced persons. Eventually, these philosophically driven systems of thought became the world religions.

In a similar way, Civilization II gave way to Civilization III; and that, in turn, to Civilization IV. In our own day, we see the beginnings of a Civilization V. Each is a cultural entity that follows a life cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and decay.

Following the concept presented in Five Epochs of Civilization, I would claim that these civilizations are living organisms that are, in a sense, subject to an internal dynamic like that alleged by Spengler and Toynbee in their historical schemes. It then becomes possible to predict the future course of the later civilizations by noting patterns in the earlier ones. (See http://www.worldhistorysite.com/prediction.html.)

I feel compelled to explain why ideas and institutions change in this world. Why does the Hegelian concept of evolving ideas seem to hold true? I will offer a general explanation based on a philosophy rather than one developed from the study of specific situations. It has to do with the nature of self-consciousness.

A philosophical explanation

What is self-conscious thought as opposed to regular thought? Regular thought, or “consciousness”, is a thought formed by thinking about something in the world. Self-conscious thought, in contrast, is a thought formed by thinking about previous thoughts. It is thought thought of. Because this type of thought carries with it something of the thinker’s own perspective, it contains an additional element. This type of thought is therefore more complex.

While the word “self-consciousness” refers primarily to thought, it also includes the worldly result. And since much of the world of human society is the product of human thinking, actions undertaken as a result of thoughts change society. They change the previous patterns of behavior and make the society more complex.

Let’s consider an example. Suppose that, every Wednesday afternoon, a rich nobleman travels along a highway in a carriage to get from one place to another. A robber realizes this. Knowing the traveler’s intent, he anticipates that the nobleman will be coming down this road at a certain time. He waits in ambush and then robs the carriage. If repeated often enough, the practice of robbery on this highway becomes a fact to be reckoned with in the world.

Next we move to the stage of self-conscious thought: The nobleman realizes that he may well be robbed if he travels along this highway on Wednesday afternoons. Anticipating that, he takes steps to avoid the robbery. He could change the time of his appointment to Wednesday mornings. He could take a different route. Or, he might hire an armed guard to ward off the expected attackers. In any event, his original practice is changed.

Philosophically, the situation can be analyzed as follows:

(1) It is a conscious thought for the nobleman to decide to travel on the highway to make his Wednesday afternoon appointment.

(2) It is a self-conscious thought for the robber to wait in ambush. He must know or suspect the traveler’s intention.

(3) It is also a self-conscious thought at a still deeper level for the traveling nobleman to change his plans. He must suspect that a robber will likely be waiting for him if he adheres to the original plan. He thinks what the robber’s thoughts will likely be and takes evasive action.

No longer is it a simple matter of traveling on this highway to get from one place to another. Because there are two minds of contrary purpose - the traveler’s and the robber’s - travel practices become more complex. A less efficient route to the appointment must be taken or an armed guard must be hired.

This last thought - to change travel plans - takes the robber’s previous thought into account, which, in turn, takes the traveler’s original thought into account. To understand the situation, one sees a juxtaposition of the three thoughts in perspective.

It’s important to note, however, that thought must be successfully acted upon in order for it to become a factor in the world. If the robber thought of robbing the carriage but did not do it, his thought would have no effect. Only if the robber acts upon his intention to rob the carriage does the traveler becomes aware of that possibility so that he changes his plans.
How does self-conscious thought relate to changing phases of civilization? Start with the idea that thoughts lead to action. They must lead to successful action to become a palpable object that others can notice. Others can react to its existence, like any other object in the world.

For instance, if I think I can become rich by selling bootlegged software on the street corner, I may act on this idea. If I find no customers willing to buy my product, I will give up on this enterprise after several outings. If, on the other hand, I sell many software disks and make lots of money, I will repeat the practice indefinitely. It may soon be that others will imitate me. Before long, people will begin noticing that the bootlegged-software business is booming. Society will have been changed.

So far, so good. The process of having an idea and making it work represents conscious thinking. Self-conscious thinking comes about when the product of the earlier thinking becomes an element in the world. In this case, a business which becomes successful by pursuing an idea changes as it grows larger. It tends to become more bureaucratic. The informal selling of products gives way to procedures set by upper management.

As profits increase, the managers become more interested in getting their hands on some of this money than they are in managing the business. The internal competition for promotions intensifies. Employees worry mainly about pleasing the boss. Incompetence in terms of the firm’s original purpose becomes institutionalized, leading to decline.
None of this would have happened had the firm not first become successful. Success means that the business becomes an object to be exploited for other purposes.

And so the patterns of self-conscious action take various forms. As ideas acquire an institutional “body”, other persons take that visible being into account. Oppositional interests create new practices. Or else, success breeds imitation which leads to a over-crowding situation. Increased competition, in turn, makes it less likely than before that a business enterprise will succeed.

How this applies to Civilizations

Civilization, in my view, begins with the emergence of a new institution in society: government, religion, commerce, entertainment. There is vigorous growth in the initial creative years. But then, as the institution gains power, the internal competition for power overshadows the purpose that this institution originally had. Society’s leaders become mainly interested in preserving their own position. Toward that end, they use coercive and sometimes violent practices. One may recall that Arnold Toynbee said: “Militarism ... has been by far the commonest cause of the breakdowns of civilizations...”

Civilization II was an age of religion. It replaced the previous civilization dominated by imperial government because people were tired of incessant war. Christianity was originally a pacifist religion. In the 11th century, however, Pope Urban II launched the Crusades to recover Jerusalem from the Moslems. After much expenditure of blood, this purpose failed. The Papacy became discredited. This was the beginning of the end for Civilization II.

In the 17th century, there was a similar experience of futile warfare when Protestants and Catholics fought each other for decades . Continental Europe was devastated. European intellectuals realized that arguing over theology was an unproductive enterprise. They turned to natural science instead. That, in turn, led to technologically based industries and a new civilization which I call Civilization III.

So it is that any movement in culture or in the institutions of power sows the seeds of its own destruction when it develops beyond a certain point. Great power and influence attract unsavory characters: gatekeepers to stifle new creative expressions, priesthoods to enforce orthodox expression. No longer can individuals with new ideas find a receptive audience for their work. The status quo beats back challenges to its position.

And that is why civilizations languish and eventually change to something else. Self-conscious thoughts, cognizant of earlier thinking, undercut the possibility of unimpeded progress along the same lines. The main killing act comes from within.

In my opinion, this has been the chief pattern of civilizational decline in the past. I will admit that in the 21st century human society is encountering a new situation: the collision between growing populations and economic growth, on one hand, and finite space and natural resources, on the other. The challenge of our time may well be to find ways to reconcile this contradiction.

Humanity’s progress in institutions and practices related to Civilization III has created a kind of “overcrowding” with respect to what the earth can support. External threats, such as depletion of the earth’s water or petroleum resources, may well force changes in the way our society operates. More than ever before, the future of civilization may therefore be determined not only by internal dynamics of society’s power struggle but also by the external relationship between human society and the natural environment.

One can speculate that if the previous culture, Civilization II, had not gone into decline, the earth might not be facing an environmental crisis. Organized religion aspires to change men’s hearts and minds, not exploit the earth’s natural resources. So long as the activity is mental rather than physical, little harm can come to the natural environment. But, instead, humanity progressed to a civilization based on natural science, secular education, and industrial growth and development. That does threaten the environment.

Now, however, the question is not whether an environment crisis exists or is significant to our future but whether humanity can muster the collective will and intelligence to deal with such problems. If we are, as I suggest, living in a civilization focused on popular entertainment, that question does not have a clear answer. Whoever controls the media controls how people think. So, while we do need to integrate scientific knowledge into our study of civilizations, we need also to understand how civilizations move internally to new situations and states of being.

This conference should include both perspectives.


Note: This is the text of a presentation made at the 39th annual conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, on June 5, 2009: Session A - Rise and Fall of Civilizations.


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