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THE RISE AND DECLINE OF SOCIETIES

Nations, kingdoms, or empires arise seemingly out of nowhere, develop into strong, stable, prosperous societies, many of them even growing to a kind of greatness in which they put their indelible mark on an age or era — then lose the wonderful dynamic that brought them to that greatness and pass on into insignificance or even oblivion. 

So it is that there is a life cycle of birth, growth, maturity, decay and death of human society — in the same way that there is a natural cycle of birth, development, maturity, decline and death for all things in life.

No two societies go through this life cycle alike.  How they come to life, how they develop, what they mature into, and how long they prosper before decline sets in, is entirely different from one society to another.  Most societies grow into their prime through military conquest — though not all.  The Portuguese nation in the 1400s and 1500s and the Dutch nation in the 1500s and 1600s were major contributors to the expansion of Western domination throughout the rest of the world — though both were essentially commercial rather than military societies.

Some great states hold on to their greatness for centuries.  Greek society, though defeated militarily by the Romans fairly early in its existence, continued to dominate culturally the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean for over a thousand years (500 BC - 600 AD).  The Roman Empire lasted similarly a thousand years or more.  But other societies seem to complete the cycle of rise and fall in only a generation or two. Charlemagne's European Empire (800 AD) did not outlive his grandsons.  Tamerlane's great Asian Empire (late 1300s) did not last much longer.  The great Soviet Union lasted only70+ years (1918-1991).  Hitler's "1000-year" Reich (Empire) lasted only a dozen years (1933-1945).  Some societies however seem to continue onward, seemingly forever, through an on-going process of rebirths in which after a period of deep decline they come back to life, though in a greatly altered form.  China is a perfect example of this, as is India.  Both of these societies have enjoyed thousands of years of continuing existence — intermixed with on-going and sometimes deep changes.

Where does American society fit in this picture?

At the very end of the 1980s we Americans were all greatly gladdened to see the Soviet Empire, our arch rival in the Cold War, suddenly — almost without warning — dissolve into chaos.  But there was also something chillingly shocking about it all.  How quickly Russia went from being one minute a superpower and the next minute a stumbling Third World country.  We wondered: how did that happen?  Many of us surely wondered: could this also happen to us?  Was America destined to long-term greatness ... like the Greeks and Romans.  Or was it too going to be merely a flash in history, great one moment, then rapidly declining into insignificance only after a few generations of such greatness ... like the Soviet Union?

Modeling the pattern of rise and fall

Many years ago I became profoundly aware of a definite pattern in the process of the rise and decline of societies ... and as a university professor teaching political science, I created a social ‘model’ in the form of a narrative about an imaginary family dynasty.  I divided its family history into four generations, from the founder of the dynasty ... to the fourth  generation that brought it to destruction.  I will be presenting this model as a parable in the next section.

It is not a new idea.  The Hebrew Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible tells a similar tale about the rise and fall (repeatedly) of ancient Israel.  The Chinese author, Sima Guang, who wrote the Zizhi Tongjian (some time in the 1000s AD), makes a similar case in his study of the historic rise and fall of the various Chinese dynasties. 

More recently British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, in his 12-volume series A Study of History (1934-1961), studied 28 world civilizations, and came up with a similar pattern of rise and decline of these societies: genesis or birth, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.  He used the challenge-response idea to explain their development (they grew in response to challenges they faced as societies).  

Decline he saw as a matter of increasing moral-spiritual corruption of those leaders who had taken on primary responsibility for directing or guiding the rest of the society.  He noticed these leaders over time becoming increasingly self-serving in their addiction to power, offering the rest of society only dead formulas to justify their growing privileges.  Meanwhile in this condition of self-indulgence, these small groups of privileged leaders would lose touch with reality, instead falling into a world of elaborate fantasy... and thus become unable to guide the society effectively in the face of a new and rising challenge.

The pattern we will be exploring in our own study of social dynamics will follow along much the same lines as Toynbee's  ... though in a much shorter format!  We will look relatively briefly (only three chapters!) at a dozen societies – from ancient to more recent – in an attempt to highlight the same profile of growth and decline.  We will study (approximately 10 to 15 pages each) ancient Israel, Greece (notably Athens), Rome, Christendom (from Rome’s acceptance of the faith in the early 300s AD to its decline with the ‘Wars of Religion’ ending in the mid 1600s), Islam (notably the Omayyad Dynasty), Tang China, Mughal India, and modern Spain, France, Britain and Russia.

We will then take a look at what seem to be the various key factors in these societies’ rise and decline:

    1) the ‘social idea’ that gives definition or identity to a society,
    2) those who lead society through personal representation of the society’s ‘social idea’
        ... and more particularly the moral example these ideas call for,
    3) the types of societies this combination of ideas and leaders produces ... but are
        themselves  produced by the way the societies chose to address the particular
        challenges facing them
    4) then other key components of social power, and
    5) the actual political techniques used by social leadership to guide their societies
        through the challenges of both internal and external forces acting on their society.

Finally we will turn our eyes on our own country, America, to examine where things stand today with respect to this pattern of rise and decline.  Our purpose here to offer some suggestions as to how we can keep the country flourishing ... in the face of challenges at home and abroad, ones that invite social decline if we fail to respond to them in the right way.

Miles H. Hodges - 2016