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?
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,
The Fathers or 'Framers' of the American Constitution (1787)
When the Fathers of the American Constitution gathered in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to come up with a more effective form of government than the old Confederation they had been working under during and since the War of Independence (1775-1783), they of course had some ideas of their own (which they argued about) as to what this new government should look like.
Working from political ‘logic.’ Of course, like all people (especially lawyers, which most of them were) they loved to work from the 'purity' of their own personally developed logic in designing carefully the new political order that needed to come into being. They needed to come up with a formula that would keep the new ‘states’ they represented working closely together. Despite their victory in the recent war against the English king and his armies, these ‘Americans’ were quite aware that the English were never really far away ... and treaties, like the Paris Treaty of 1783 in which the English king recognized American 'independence,' were notoriously short-lived and could be – and usually were – quickly revoked when new opportunities presented themselves. Thus they needed to work quickly and effectively in constructing a new political order that would offer them a means of mutual protection ... against a reinvigorated English king seeking to recover his lost American colonies (or if not the English, then possibly the aggressive Spanish ... or perhaps even the ambitious French).
Also working from personal experience. Yes, in fact those who gathered in Philadelphia1 that summer were intellectuals. Yet unlike most intellectuals (even of their own days) most all of them had experienced first-hand the deadly perils of politics, especially the politics of war. It is amazing how quickly rational theory fades in the face of the unpredictability of real politics ... especially the way violent conflict like the war they had just been through cares little about theory. Survival is a highly risky process. They were well aware of what would have happened to them if their rebellion against the English king had failed. Rebellion against a sitting king was considered a crime of treason ... and had they failed they all would have been led to the gallows to be hanged by a vengeful English government. No ... these intellectuals were by painful necessity ardent 'realists.'
Long experience in self-government. Part of the realism that directed these 'Framers' of the new Constitution also came simply from the 1½ centuries of self-government that had quite successfully guided their colonial world. During those years the English king and his royal court – which back in England the people had long been accustomed to govern them rather absolutely or totally – had been far, far away from these colonists. The King and his court were all the way on the other side of the Atlantic ... at least a month’s distance in travel time (usually more). Political communication between England and her American colonies thus was quite limited. Thus it was that since the founding of the American colonies in the early 1600s, the American colonials had learned to simply take care of themselves, politically, economically, socially ... and spiritually. The New Englanders, as Calvinist Protestants, were in fact spiritually a completely self-sufficient people. And the Virginians and other southern American colonials – though respectful members of the Church of England (headed by the English King) – were just as defensive when it came to protecting their rights to self-government (and had been themselves quite active in the recent rebellion against King George).
Thus it was that the colonials and their elected representatives had personally come to know a great deal about directing their own social order ... as the English-Americans faced Indians, French, Spanish, pirates – and the necessity of finding funds and personal support to meet those challenges.
The lessons of war ... and peace. In fact it had been only recently that the issue had come up of having to submit themselves to the rule of a king ... rather than rule under their own hands. This in fact was what the rebellion we know as the 'American Revolution' was ultimately all about. These English-Americans appreciated the responsibility of self-government ... and were in no mood to give all that up.
The American colonials had developed some degree of inter-colonial cooperation prior to the outbreak of the rebellion/war. The war naturally had required of the colonial leaders a political operation of greater complexity and deeper inter-personal commitment than had existed previously. Thus colonial leaders came together to organize an inter-colonial ‘Confederation’ ... which worked fairly well (more or less at times) in creating politically and economically a united colonial front against the aggressive king and his royal troops (and a large number of American ‘Tories,’ especially numerous in the South, who remained loyal to the king ... even serving in his army).
But with the war now over, the need for inter-colonial cooperation seemed to be much less pressing. Indeed, these former colonies – now independent ‘states’ – had recently begun to compete with each other as sovereign entities ... each state now looking out for its own narrower interests. This reminded these post-war American leaders of what happened to the city-states of ancient Greece after they had beaten back the ambitions of their mutual enemy Persia ... and the sense of collective threat had faded. Peace had brought these city-states only the rise of narrower self-interests ... ones that eventually led them to full war against each other (the Peloponnesian Wars) – and ultimately to their own self-destruction as well. This must not now happen to the newly independent American states as well.
And working from the wisdom that the knowledge of human history provides. Here is where the American political leaders’ own intellectual credentials now paid off ... as they faced the challenge of formulating something entirely new as a government: a federation of sorts that would keep them together at some effective level ... without the benefit of a compelling challenge such as they had experienced so recently in their war with England. They needed to design and implement a new inter-state government, one that would continue to unite them in peace, but allow them also to continue to live under the wide American freedoms they had long experienced and had just reconfirmed in the recent war.
They did have some idea of what they wanted ... because they were educated men. And back then ‘educated’ meant that they had a very strong background in history. In short, they had historical models to work from ... good and bad.
Three of these models were quite well known to them: Ancient Israel, ancient Greece, and ancient Rome. They also knew – from history – the problems as well as the possibilities that accompany any form of government they might choose.
1Actually tiny Rhode Island did not send representatives to participate in the conference drafting up the new constitution ... fearing the loss of their right of self-government to the political interests of the larger, more powerful states such as Virginia, New York or Massachusetts.
‘Democracy’ not a very compelling idea. Like the ancient Greeks Plato and Aristotle, they were aware of the dangers of 'democracy' ... understanding how clever Greek public speakers ('demagogues') had been responsible for bringing Greece to ruin. Greek ‘Sophists’ (‘wise ones’) had trained young men of the leading families in the political art of getting the public to bend to their will during the public debates. But unfortunately, without much moral instruction accompanying such intellectual empowerment, this also included the ability to get the Greeks to do some really self-destructive things ... such as the Peloponnesian Wars.
American government as a ‘Republic.’ Ultimately the model they chose (mostly) was inspired by the idea of the Roman Republic ... explained in detail as to its ideals and processes by the ancient Roman writer/politician Cicero, whose writings they were well familiar with as educated Americans. A ‘Republic’ was a government of law rather than personal will ... the latter – personal will – typical of the way that kings, military dictators, demagogues, etc., have typically led or ruled whole societies historically. These American leaders were hoping that, like the Roman Republic, a regime of strict laws would both empower and yet set precise boundaries in the conduct of American self-government. They wanted no government run by the will of a single individual ... such as the English King George III, whom they had just risen up in rebellion against.
And indeed ‘Republic’ (from the Latin, res publica or ‘thing of the people’) was the label they finally put on the governmental formula they came up with. America was to be governed as a Republic (not a ‘democracy’).
Even here they were hesitant, for they knew well from history that the Roman Republic failed after several centuries of excellent service to the Romans ... when the military and their generals (imperators or emperors) took over the running of Rome – thus turning Rome into an Empireinstead of a Republic. Here too, the political instincts of the people got carried away by Roman 'tyrants' (champions of the common people) – military men supported by their loyal troops, who took power in the name of the people ... but in fact from that point on (around the time of the birth of Christ) ruled from the vantage point of very expensive and wasteful military power ... rather than direct involvement of the people. Thus it was that the Roman Republic (thing of the people) became the Roman Empire (thing of military generals).
Thus when the work of the constitutional convention was over and the participants finally opened up to the public (their sessions had been held in secret to avoid unwanted special interest pressuring from outside) and Ben Franklin was asked what kind of a government the delegates had delivered them, his answer was: A republic ... if you can keep it.
Again, from their knowledge of political and cultural history they knew very well the good – and the bad – involved in governing: how a government can succeed ... and how it can fail.
It is too bad that Americans generally have lost that sense of history, believing that we have escaped from the perils of the past into a progressive culture than needs not be bothered by how things worked out for people in the past. We believe ourselves to be instinctively too enlightened, too progressive to be liable to commit any of the errors of the past. We have forgotten the ancient saying: "those who forget history are fated to repeat it."
This, of course, is highly indicative that we are living in the fourth generation, immersed so deeply in the pleasantness of palace life that we are certain that nothing outside our well-padded existence can touch us. We think we have everything ‘under control.’ All we have to do is follow our deeper natural instincts ... a path that presumably offers a much more pleasant passage to happiness ... than to be disheartened by the instructions that history cautiously sets out.
Unfortunately, history repeats itself ... again, and again, and again.
History as true ‘social science.’ And so, like our wise constitutional Fathers, we need to take a closer look at the historical record ... to inform our ‘science’ or knowledge of society. Like an experiment in a laboratory, looking at repeated events is a better way of arriving at the truth than coming up with dreamy ideas conceived in the comfort of our academic or bureaucratic offices. Beautiful utopian dreams that come to us as we couch ourselves in comfort do not substitute well for wisdom gained by looking closely at the actual record of the human efforts at governance.
Ancient Israel - A social model
Ancient Israel - A social model. Undoubtedly the historical model the Fathers were most knowledgeable about was ancient Israel. The Christian Bible that they were very familiar with was heavily a narrative about the ups and downs of the ancient Israelites ... how they fared and explicitly why they fared the way they did. The American Fathers knew intimately about Israel – good and bad – not just from their own regular reading of the Bible but also from the pulpits of their churches from which Israel was often cited in weekly sermons as both an encouragement ... and as a warning if people tried to go against the social laws of God.
And these early Americans – especially the Puritans – but also their offspring among the Founding Fathers – were very much focused on learning and living by the laws of God ... not just in the social sciences (thanks in part to Israel). They were also the leading experimenters in the fields of math, physics and chemistry ... ‘sciences’ that also derived from the laws that God himself had set out at the beginning of Creation2
Anyway, ancient Israel was well understood in America to be a ‘light to the nations,’ revealing to all the peoples, all the nations, how God’s social laws work ... since social experiments, unlike physics experiments, cannot be conducted in a laboratory. Due to the complexity of the laws of society, God simply demonstrated through the ‘Israelite experiment’ the laws of society as he made them. He even made those laws explicit through words given directly to Israel by way of the prophets. He intended for all this to be studied ... and learned from. And indeed that was a set of lessons that the Founding Fathers would have known in great detail.
So we will start our narrative with Israel. The Israelite narrative is very complete in its explanation of what works and what does not work with respect to society and its governance. Indeed, we will see in this very first social model how much of the Israelite experience is repeated in the narrative of the other societies we are presenting. This is then how history becomes so very instructive as the true ‘science of society.’
The covenant with God
There is a central theme that runs through the entire narrative of the people of Israel ... right on into Christianity: that the God of Heaven actually covenants (contracts, pledges) with the Man of the earth (Adam)3, God offering counsel, protection and provision to Man ... as long as Man puts aside his own instincts to play god himself and instead submits his personal will to God – the only God.
In this the covenanted Israelites and their descendants the Jews served God as a guide to others, pointing the Godly way of life to other peoples, other nations ... through their own God-awarded success in life. Giving such testimony as the light to the ‘Gentiles’ (the other nations of the world), the entire nation of Israel was to serve humankind prophetically. That was Israel’s great commission ... the one that Jesus would then pass on to his own disciples, the first Christians: honor and serve God in all of your ways, that through you the world may also come to know of God and his ways.
2No ... Christianity and ‘science’ are not enemies! It is just that Christians oppose very much the idea that the laws of science just ‘happened’ into existence and had nothing to do with a Creator or God who willed these into existence. Christians know that these laws of science were there in perfect form from the very outset of existence itself ... thus having to come from some source other than existence itself. Thus it is also that Christian scientists believe that every discovery made in the field of science simply proclaims all the more the marvelous glories of a very complex but infinitely precise God.
3The name ‘Adam’ is derived from the Hebrew word adamah ... meaning ‘of the earth.’ In the Genesis story in the Jewish Scriptures, Adam was made from the dust of the earth ... and thus should be understood to be as ‘Man of the Earth.’ Hebrew names were not of the kind we think of today when we call someone George or Elizabeth, or William or Tanya. They were actually titles describing special qualities of the individual and could be changed – just as Abram became Abraham and Jacob became Israel – in describing a new status or character they had taken on. Thus Adam should not be understood as a proper name but as a title assigned to the one who serves in the Jewish narrative as the model of all of us as ‘Sons of Adam,’ sons and daughter of the Adam who was a prototype of Man himself ... good and bad.
This 'covenant' that guided Israel was well understood by the Founding Fathers. This is why the wise Ben Franklin had cause during the debates over the new constitution to get up to speak. Discussions were heated and not going well ... only around and around. Even some of the New York delegation had headed home in disgust. The work that the Founding Fathers had been appointed to undertake was breaking down. So Franklin spoke up (recorded in the notes taken by James Madison):
The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other, our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes and ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding.
We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, some we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all around Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.
In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?
In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend?
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?
We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that "except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move, that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of the City be requested to officiate in that service.
According to Madison, the delegates sat speechless after Franklin sat down. This was not the kind of input that they would have expected of the famous man of common sense. But apparently the speech had some kind of impact, for that marked the point at which the discussions finally began to move forward, rather than go round and round.
Sadly America has chosen to lose this deeper understanding of the greatest of America's early political-social philosophers (and scientists).
But this is exactly why the work here is being undertaken: to restore that very same wisdom, a wisdom which guided the country through one of its most challenging times ever ... and has done so repeatedly when the country, like Israel of old, found itself faced with a very serious social crisis.
We are going to need that wisdom again – probably sooner than we might wish – because today's fourth-generation America (as any fourth-generation society) is not destined historically to last very long as such.
... And thus it is that we begin our study with Ancient Israel.