12.04.17 | The Fate of Empires

Invest even a modest amount of time and effort in this remarkable twenty-four page essay (Click here to read “The Fate of Empires and the Search For Survival,” by Sir John Glubb) and you will be rewarded with a renewed appreciation of history, presented not as discrete and disconnected segments but as the sweeping, interconnected story of the dynamics powering the rise and fall of empires over the last four thousand years. This wide-angle lens captures ten such representative empires -- Assyria, Persia, Greece, Roman (pre- and post-Augustus), Arab, Mameluke (Egypt, Syria), Ottoman, Spain, Romanov Russia, Britain -- each served up not so much for individual analysis but as exemplars of the organic flow characterizing human development.

Behold the four stages of the historic empire life-cycles: the breakout phase on the part of a previously-obscure race that achieves rapid conquest through reckless bravery and daring initiative; the absorption of those conquered with such consolidation giving rise to the tremendous benefits of transportation and commerce; the age of affluence; and then, finally, the age of intellectualism with the subsequent path to disintegration, decadence and despair. Empires collapse and reform. Ten generations of twenty-five years each make up a typical life-cycle.

Such as it has always been and shall always be. This panoramic perspective addresses the question once posed by Thomas Merton, "How did it ever happen that, when the dregs of the world had collected in Western Europe, when Goth and Frank and Norman and Lombard had mingled with the rot of old Rome to form a patchwork of hybrid races, all of them notable for ferocity, hatred, stupidity, craftiness, lust, and brutality -- how did it happen that, from all this, there should come the Gregorian chant, monasteries, and cathedrals, the poems of Prudentius, the commentaries and histories of Bede . . St. Augustine's City of God?" Contrary to the vanity of any particular age, no empire (superpower) has ever remained linearly ascendent. Each is but a way-station in the flow of history.

Those in the advanced class may be tempted to jump ahead and search for lessons from this forty-year-old piece that are applicable to our own day and age. It's not so much the advancing age of our own Republic (nearing the end of the typical 250 year life-cycle) as the lessons learned from previous empires that provide the most helpful clues to our own maturation. 

We see from each empire the insidious way that wealth saps the ancient virtues of courage, energy and patriotism necessary to defend borders. Greed replaces duty and public service as the respective empires become more defense oriented.

We learn later-stage empires are actually marked by the rise of intellectualism (e.g. the flowering of Arab and Persian intellectualism occurred after their respective political collapses) as the ambition of the young, once directed to the pursuit of adventure and military glory, is channeled to the accumulation of wealth and then to the acquisition of academic honors. No amount of intellectual sophistication can replace the sense of duty and self-sacrifice necessary for empire preservation.

But the most jaw-dropping symptoms of the late-stage imperial decline rests with civil dissension, the influx of foreigners (PC alert: this relates only to the atavistic impulses demonstrated throughout history and is no reflection on the people per se), and a preoccupation with frivolity -- heroes of a declining nation are always the same, "the athlete, the singer or the actor." The author notes the accounts of tenth-century Baghdad and feels he's reading a then-current edition of The Times.

May we engage in a healthy discussion of contemporary America in the context of the historical narrative, recognizing, however, discussion absent action is itself a last-stage indicator. Have a nice day.

Steve SmithComment