Questioning Civilization

Questioning the Value of Civilization: The Decline of “Decline”

“Every time History repeats itself
The price goes up.”
– Anon

Civilisations are fragile, impermanent things. The fact they expire seems to double our mortality. We die once by shuffling off our skeletal coils and then again knowing that whatever we have built will perish. Rome didn’t just fall, it took the Antonine Age with it; the Chou Dynasty didn’t just disappear, the ‘Hundred Schools’ faded in the aether too.

These sentiments climax today as many feel the Western world reaches a point of ‘no return’, a time when older ways will no longer be recalled as part of a living tradition but as the debris of history; a period when increasing complexity and specialisation mean few can understand its direction, purpose or mechanisms. This sentiment ices a cake flavoured with other fears such as nuclear war, resource depletion, mass migration, economic decline, ecological crises or socio-political disintegration.

Such cataclysms punctuate history like full-stops. Harappan uniformity broke down for mysterious reasons in 1750 BC. Mesopotamia went from constituting a powerhouse of the earliest civilisations to seeing its alluvium levels collapse. By the twelfth century the total occupied area shrunk to roughly six percent of its level five centuries earlier.

In Egypt, the Old Kingdom entered severe upheaval with the end of the sixth dynasty (2181 BC). The Hittite empire collapsed as a catastrophe of great magnitude but uncertain form overtook the Near East and the region ceased to sustain urban settlements. Minoan civilisation ground to a halt c. 1380 BC, while Mycenaean palaces vanished c. 1200 BC.

In China, unity evaporated c. 770 BC until the Ch’in reunified it (221 BC) over five centuries later. On the other side of the world, violence overtook Mexico’s oldest civilisation, the Olmec, c. 400 BC. Elsewhere, Teotihuacan a city with around 125,000 souls – collapsed c. AD 700, while Casas Grandes disappeared from the map in 1340. People in these times might well have remarked – like the poet of the Exeter Book – that:

“How wondrous this wall-stone, shattered by Fate;
Burg-places broken, the works of giants crumbled.
Ruined are the roofs, tumbled the towers,
Broken the barred gate: frost in the plaster,

Ceilings a-gaping, torn away, fallen,
Eaten by age…
Bright we the halls, lofty-gabled,
Many the bath-house; cheerful the clamour
In many a mead-hall, revelry rampant –
Until mighty Fate put paid to all that…”

Monumental architecture is the easiest part of decline to chart mainly because it’s the bluntest manifestation of civilisation’s two governing concepts: inequality (stratification) and heterogeneity. If either are thrown out of kilter, however, it often remains unsaid that mankind doesn’t plunge back into primordial chaos but returns to the normal human rate of lower complexity, a default mode of being equal and homogenous.

If a pie-chart were to be drawn up of Man’s time living in small, autonomous and flat communities versus civilisation, the former would represent ninety-nine percent of the circle. It has only been within the last six thousand years that this hierarchical, organised, interdependent existence has been established.

Indeed, it should never be taken for granted that civilisation is necessarily a good thing. While Toynbee could argue that civilisations were “in their nature progressive movements.” Spengler argued they were undesirable and often evil:

“They are a conclusion… death following life, rigidity following expansion… They are an end, irrevocable, yet by inward necessity reached again and again.”

To Christians civilisation is also a double-edged sword. It provides Man with the opportunity to dial up the good or bad in himself. The latter is especially clear in Tertullian’s identification of Christ with the prophecy of Daniel 2 when the Son will – as a stone cut from the mountain – strike and destroy the image of “secular kingdoms,” or Augustine’s more famous anti-Roman eschatology in the City of God.

For such thinkers the historical incidentals are irrelevant. What good does it do for Man to divide his weaknesses into neat intellectual categories? He can scribble down “scarcity, resource allocation, insurmountable catastrophes, confrontation of other complex societies, intruders, class conflict, elite mismanagement, social dysfunction, chance concatenation of events, economic factors,” etc. but such knowledge does not change his moral fiber or character. Logic can only account for so much, little control can be exerted over external circumstance, and civilisations – by being complex – are inherently fragile, operating on low margins of reserve. Or, put differently, truth/knowledge rarely strays far from the direct lessons of life. Few systems can increase control without increasing risk (and therefore fragility).

This fragility is what gave asabiyya-boosted barbarians the edge when they played deus ex machina executioners to what historians like to paint as their effete individualist opposition. According to the Rigveda, Aryans formed the juggernaut that wiped out Harappan civilisation. Mesopotamia’s Sargon of Akkad fell to the barbarians of the eastern mountains known as Gutians. The fall of Ur is ascribed to Amorites and Elamites. The Hittite capital was razed by the barbaric Kaska of the eastern Anatolian mountains, their empire engulfed by the migratory “Sea Peoples.” The Mycenaeans were destroyed by Dorian Greeks (whose dialect appears to have developed in the mountainous NW parts of Greece).

Often the historical record doesn’t leave us enough to go on, however, to accord barbarians anything but a scavenger, hyena-esque role. And sometimes its remnants barely suffice for even this scanty task. Take, for instance, Rhys Carpenter on the Dorians:

“All in all, an extraordinary and paradoxical situation, in which there is no sign of the presence of any hostile invader, for whom no route of entry and no passage can be found; yet the native population is deserting its established habitations as though driven by some invisible and nameless terror, ‘like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.’”

The two main responses to these problems have been biological and moral. In the former category figures such as Polybius reckoned “every organism, every state, every activity passes through a natural cycle, first of growth, then of maturity and finally of decay.” A mantle that other Romans happily took up, not least Cyprian, Ammianus Marcellinus, Ambrose and Vegetius. This was an ancient mindset with roots in Hesiod. Even Christians as famous as Jerome could subscribe to it, placing his own life squarely in the Age of Iron. Adjacent to these were Renaissance figures such as Machiavelli who supposed that the valour/virtu of peoples might be related to the Age but by no means dependent on it.

In the latter category fall thinkers like Augustine who reckoned the inhabitants of the City of God were essentially assayed by troubles and strife, while those who stood outside God’s flock would be overwhelmed. Flavio Biondo (whose decline and fall, Historiarum ab Inclinatione Romanorum Imperii Decades Tres, predated Gibbon’s by three hundred and twenty-three years) took a similar tack arguing Rome fell thanks to its constant persecution of the Christians, the deterioration of its moral life, and the arrival of inferior barbarians en masse.

Later thinkers tended to be cynics like Herder who believed all social structures were transitory (and became oppressive within a few generations) or romantics such as Hegel who argued polities had to struggle for great ideals (or at least against great opposition) or risk disintegration. Spengler represented a curious mix of the biological and the romantic insisting each culture:

“Has its own idea; its own passions, its own life, will and feeling, its own death… its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return… They are sublimated life essences which grow with the same superb aimlessness of the flowers of the field.”

Yet it was culture that he waxed lyrical about, not civilisation which he framed as its antithesis. To Spengler civilisations were dominated by the intellect and existed to express (to exhaustion) forms that will become inorganic or dead. Cities were expressions of this state with populations that are “parasitical… traditionless… matter-of-fact, religionless, clever and unfruitful.”

In this he resembles Plato on steroids. It is as if the German took the philosopher’s forms and claimed that to let them materialise was akin to watching a snuff film. Manifestation becomes synonymous with mortification; to have blood is to know it will congeal; to have life is to know death; all wet clay must dry. Spengler falls in love with the force behind life, but not life itself. It is ultimately a Manicheist stance whereby the Creator is adored but Creation scorned. Indeed, the thinker often gets sulky in a Gnostic manner about how the “world-consciousness is fighting like a harassed debtor against all the dark and daemonic in itself and in Nature” as if the light in each thing needed to wrestle with the dark rules of the Demiurge.

Toynbee was more orthodox in his faith, sometimes explicitly as when he described the height of civilisation as achieving “some superhuman kind of being in a Communion of Saints” and that wickedness caused civilisations to fall. Such reasoning remained unconvincing to thinkers such as Borkenau, however, who highlighted that many ascendant civilisations committed horrendous crimes. While Kroeber preferred the biological model of exhaustion to explain decline, noting that Egypt produced four kingdoms before submitting to absorption.

The problem with these models is that they resort to highly disputable value-judgments, an eccentric reliance on the biological growth analogy and, finally, intangibles as explanationsexplaining mysteries by reference to mysteries thus explaining nothing.

Perhaps more interesting is the psychological (or systematic?) mechanism that allows complexity and prices to rise but rarely readjusts them downwards. Tax rates go up (rarely down), information requirements go up (rarely down), the number of specialists increases (rarely decrease), welfare costs and elite salaries rarely decrease, and so on. Complexity somehow breeds further costs and inefficiency as the system fails to critique itself or, if it succeeds in this, is even less able to perform the necessary surgery on itself. In short, marginal returns on complexity decline, offering lower benefits at ever-increasing costs.

When the marginal cost of investment in complexity becomes too high, various segments of the population increase passive or active resistance, or overtly break away. The insurrections of the Bagaudae are a case in point. In the later [Western] empire the marginal return on investment in complexity was so low that the barbarian kingdoms seemed preferable. Decline can often form an economising process that occurs when it becomes necessary to restore the marginal return on organisational investment to a more favourable level.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian from London. He writes at

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