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?
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
But there was also something chillingly shocking about it all.
quickly Russia went from being one minute a superpower and the next
a stumbling Third World country. We wondered: how did that
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
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
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.
1) the ‘social idea’ that gives definition or identity to a society,