I think about history–I’d really have to be a poor history major not to do so–and one of the things I’ve thought about is why and how empires and civilizations die. I mean, the pattern seems to be fairly constant–rise, apex, fall. There are different factors that come into play–Rome got the push from barbarians, the Mayans went away for some sort of environmental reason, the Second and Third Reichs bit off more than they could chew, etc.
However, I think that the the common thread between civilizations and empires falling is that within an empire’s rise to power are the beginnings of the factors that will cause it to collapse.
For instance, the events that really solidified Republican Rome’s place as top dog in the Mediterranean in the late B.C. era were the Second and Third Punic Wars. However, those wars also led to the concentration of wealth that allowed the development of the latifundia–giant plantations that put even Mount Vernon and Monticello to shame for sheer size–and pushed the small farmers of Italy–particularly the southern portions–off their land, which led to the development of the slums of Rome. This led to unrest (protip: large concentrations of poor people who once weren’t poor cause problems for order and stability) and the development of bread and circuses, which required money, which required more conquest, which led to more concentrated wealth, which led to more corruption–and, by the end of it all, you need the empire. Which actually has all of the same problems as the Republic, just with a strongman at the helm to seal up the cracks. And that started failing within three hundred years. And the empire fell.
For a less extreme example, consider Great Britain. Britain’s empire was almost accidental, in that usually things started off with some kind of trade outpost, then something weird would happen and Britain would puppet the local potentate, then eventually just take over. However, when the empire was moving towards its height, in the late 1700s and 1800s, one of the motivations was the British belief in civilising/”civilising” the inhabitants of the nations it took over. There were also significant amounts of profit motive involved, motivated by Britain’s rise to industrial powerhouse of Europe. Well, soon enough, as the colonized people’s started getting educated and whatnot, Britain found itself dealing with significant amounts of colonial unrest. The run-up to World War I saw Britain’s ability to punch above its weight militarily and economically, diminished by European, particularly German, and American industrialization–industrialization aided by the British desire to trade. The two world wars accelerated the decline of the empire, and by the end of the twentieth century, Britain found itself in possession of a bunch of flyspeck islands and most of the British Isles.
I could go on and on here, but the point is this: the cultural factors that lead to a civilization’s or empire’s rise will lead to its demise when the circumstances, oftentimes aided and abetted by those factors, change.
Which, in an extremely roundabout way, leads me to Seth’s post on patriotism. Stop treating the decline of the United States as an inevitability, says he.
I cannot. Not because I wish it to decline–I do not wish it to, and for the same reasons he does not wish it to. Not because I think we are imminently doomed–there’s still a lot of life left in the old girl.
No, because I know that this is how it works. Empires fall as the traits that made them great turn on the polity they brought into existence–and even if I am wrong on that score, empires always, always, fall, in some shape, form, or fashion.
But I do not offer this as a counsel to despair, as many of my friends and my foes do when they speak of the land. I offer it as a hope and a warning–and a challenge. I offer it as hope to anyone who sees the land veering leftward or rightward, that even should their worst nightmare come to pass, like all nightmares, it will fade away with the dawn–a red one, admittedly, but a dawn nonetheless. I offer it as warning to anyone who thinks they can make a permanent change, that they may not decide to ignore all suffering and disruption they leave in their wake in their quest to make that change–for, like all things, it will be as one with Nineveh and Tyre someday.
And, finally, I offer it as challenge to those of us who remain. For, up to a certain point, empire is worth preserving, that people may have room to be virtuous in–something that is mildly cramped in an anarchy or tyranny, but that is a point for another day. However, we know that it will fail in the end, that the land cannot be immortal, for it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and these cannot be excised. However, we are called to do the best we can for wherever we are for however long we are there. Let us do so, knowing that, at best, in this world we will be remembered only by antiquarians. But in the next…well…it’s the best “good job” you can ever hope to get.
‘Til next time,
Lowell Van Ness