Why Civilizations Fail: Editorial Thoughts by August Glen-James

Why Civilizations Fail: Editorial Thoughts by August Glen-James
Photo by Spencer Davis / Unsplash

“History,” wrote Edward Gibbon, “undertakes to record the transactions of the past for the instruction of future ages.”[1] Gibbon well apprehended this task having penned a six-volume tome entitled The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire comprising more than 1200 pages. Deciphering historical lessons, therefore, is no easy assignment, sometimes circuitous and rambling, but it seems nations once risen to prominence and power ultimately fail for two fundamental reasons: they abjure the principles that facilitated their rise and, in the end, become overextended. One historical example will illustrate this claim.

The Greek city-state of Athens overthrew tyrannical rule and established the world’s first democracy. Athenians, founded on principles such as wisdom, courage, justice, self-reliance, self-sacrifice, and freedom, became hardy and determined. The nascent democracy, however, was twice targeted for conquest by the Persian Empire, but the freemen of Greece, against almost impossible odds, won stunning victories both times. Rising from the ashes of war and confirmed in their civic virtues and liberty, Athens became a regional superpower, which brought tremendous prosperity to its citizens. And then something happened.

Over time, Athens lost touch with its democratic virtues and migrated, instead, to the power-seeking, money-grubbing ethics of empire. For instance, they turned the Delian League into a personal piggy bank by strong-arming and oppressing the other league members in order to keep command and control over the cash, which was spent for the aggrandizement of Athens above all else. Then imperial ambition arose. Caught in a fierce competition with Sparta for Greek hegemony, Athenian politicians decided to invade Sicily. The motivation, unlike during the Persian Wars, was not defense of their homes, their families, and their liberty; rather, Athens was now motivated by greed. Taking Sicily would humiliate Sparta and win a rich tributary state. Consequently, Athens maxed out their credit card, so-to-speak, and sailed to disaster losing thousands of men and a devastating number of expensive triremes. They had become so overextended that a Sicilian victory was necessary for continued solvency. Instead, Athens became weak and was finally conquered, in abject humiliation, by Sparta.

What happened to Athens is a template for the rise and fall of all past civilizations and, if history is a trustworthy guide, future ones, too. Gibbon hoped history would instruct and inform future ages; however, it seems Hegel’s view was more accurate when he opined that, “What experience and history teach is this - that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”[2]

Civilizations, empires, nations, and kingdoms, in the long run, are doomed to failure; not one nation or empire has ever defied the odds against its perpetuity and none probably ever will. Losing touch with original principles and, subsequently, becoming overextended means death to any nation. Once these noxious developments become a fait accompli, the wise will see the metaphorical sunset on the horizon. Lord Byron seemed to get it right in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage when he wrote, “There is the moral of all human tails: ‘tis but the same rehearsal of the past, first freedom, and then glory—when that fails, wealth, vice, corruption—barbarism at last.”[3]

[1] Gibbon, Edward, and Hans-Friedrich Mueller. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

[2] "Famous Quotations and Quotes About Learning from History." Learning from History - Famous Quotations and Quotes about Learning from History. Accessed November 17, 2016. http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/philosophy/history/learning_from_history.html.

[3] Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. February 2004. Accessed November 17, 2016. www.gutenberg.org/files/5131/5131-h/5131-h.htm#2H_4_0002.