Learning from history
sweeping generalization perhaps, but one which the chaos in
the world today goes far to confirm.
What then can be
the reason why, in a society which claims to probe every
problem, the bases of history are still so completely
Several reasons for the futility of our historical studies
may be suggested.
our historical work is limited to short periods -
the history of our own country, or that of some past
age which, for some reason, we hold in respect.
even within these short periods, the slant we give
to our narrative is governed by our own vanity
rather than by objectivity.
If we are
considering the history of our own country, we write
at length of the periods when our ancestors were
prosperous and victorious, but we pass quickly over
their shortcomings or their defeats.
people are represented as patriotic heroes, their
enemies as grasping imperialists, or subversive
rebels. In other words, our national histories are
propaganda, not well- balanced investigations.
the sphere of world history, we study certain short,
usually unconnected, periods, which fashion at
certain epochs has made popular.
500 years before Christ, and the Roman Republic and
early Roman Empire are cases in point.
intervals between the 'great periods' are neglected.
Recently Greece and Rome have become largely
discredited, and history tends to become
increasingly the parochial history of our own
To derive any
useful instruction from history, it seems to me essential
first of all to grasp the principle that history, to be
meaningful, must be the history of the human race.
For history is a
continuous process, gradually developing, changing and
turning back, but in general moving forward in a single
lessons to be derived must be learned by the study of the
whole flow of human development, not by the selection of
short periods here and there in one country or another.
Every age and culture is derived from its predecessors, adds
some contribution of its own, and passes it on to its
If we boycott
various periods of history, the origins of the new cultures
which succeeded them cannot be explained.
Physical science has expanded its knowledge by building on
the work of its predecessors, and by making millions of
careful experiments, the results of which are meticulously
Such methods have
not yet been employed in the study of world history. Our
piecemeal historical work is still mainly dominated by
emotion and prejudice.
The lives of empires
If we desire to ascertain the laws which govern the rise and
fall of empires, the obvious course is to investigate the
imperial experiments recorded in history, and to Endeavour
to deduce from them any lessons which seem to be applicable
to them all.
The word 'empire', by association with the British Empire,
is visualized by some people as an organization consisting
of a home- country in Europe and 'colonies' in other
In this essay,
the term 'empire' is used to signify a great power, often
called today a superpower. Most of the empires in history
have been large landblocks, almost without overseas
We possess a considerable amount of information on many
empires recorded in history, and of their vicissitudes and
the lengths of their lives, for example:
Dates of rise and fall
Duration in years
and his successors)
This list calls for certain comments.
The present writer is exploring the facts, not trying to
prove anything. The dates given are largely arbitrary.
Empires do not
usually begin or end on a certain date. There is normally a
gradual period of expansion and then a period of decline.
in the duration of these great powers may be queried. Human
affairs are subject to many chances, and it is not to be
expected that they could be calculated with mathematical
Nevertheless, it is suggested that there is sufficient
resemblance between the life periods of these different
empires to justify further study.
The division of Rome into two periods may be thought
unwarranted. The first, or republican, period dates from the
time when Rome became the mistress of Italy, and ends with
the accession of Augustus.
period extends from the accession of Augustus to the death
of Marcus Aurelius.
It is true that
the empire survived nominally for more than a century after
this date, but it did so in constant confusion, rebellions,
civil wars and barbarian invasions.
Not all empires endured for their full life-span. The
Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar, for example, was
overthrown by Cyrus, after a life duration of only some
An interesting deduction from the figures seems to be that
the duration of empires does not depend on the speed of
travel or the nature of weapons. The Assyrians marched on
foot and fought with spears and bow and arrows. The British
used artillery, railways and ocean-going ships. Yet the two
empires lasted for approximately the same periods.
There is a tendency nowadays to say that this is the
jet-age, and consequently there is nothing for us to learn
from past empires. Such an attitude seems to be erroneous.
It is tempting to compare the lives of empires with those of
We may choose a
figure and say that the average life of a human being is
seventy years. Not all human beings live exactly seventy
years. Some die in infancy, others are killed in accidents
in middle life, some survive to the age of eighty or ninety.
spite of such exceptions, we are justified in saying that
seventy years is a fair estimate of the average person's
expectation of life.
We may perhaps at this stage be allowed to draw certain
In spite of the accidents of fortune, and the apparent
circumstances of the human race at different epochs, the
periods of duration of different empires at varied epochs
show a remarkable similarity.
Immense changes in the technology of transport or in methods
of warfare do not seem to affect the life-expectation of an
The changes in the technology of transport and of war have,
however, affected the shape of empires. The Assyrians,
marching on foot, could only conquer their neighbors, who
were accessible by land - the Medes, the Babylonians, the
Persians and the Egyptians.
The British, making use of ocean-going ships, conquered many
countries and sub- continents, which were accessible to them
by water - North America, India, South Africa, Australia and
New Zealand - but they never succeeded in conquering their
neighbors, France, Germany and Spain.
But, although the shapes of the Assyrian and the British
Empires were entirely different, both lasted about the same
length of time.
The human yardstick
What then, we may ask, can have been the factor which caused
such an extraordinary similarity in the duration of empires,
under such diverse conditions, and such utterly different
One of the very few units of measurement which have not
seriously changed since the Assyrians is the human
'generation', a period of about twenty-five years.
Thus a period of
250 years would represent about ten gene- rations of people.
A closer examination of the characteristics of the rise and
fall of great nations may emphasize the possible
significance of the sequence of generations.
Let us then attempt to examine the stages in the lives of
such powerful nations.
Stage one - The outburst
Again and again in history we find a small nation, treated
as insignificant by its contemporaries, suddenly emerging
from its homeland and overrunning large areas of the world.
Philip (359-336 B.C.), Macedon had been an insignificant
state to the north of Greece. Persia was the great power of
the time, completely dominating the area from Eastern Europe
to India. Yet by 323 B.C., thirty-six years after the
accession of Philip, the Persian Empire had ceased to exist,
and the Macedonian Empire extended from the Danube to India,
This amazing expansion may perhaps he attributed to the
genius of Alexander the Great, but this cannot have
been the sole reason; for although after his death
everything went wrong - the Macedonian generals fought one
another and established rival empires - Macedonian
pre-eminence survived for 231 years.
In the year A.D. 600, the world was divided between two
superpower groups as it has been for the past fifty years
between Soviet Russia and the West. The two powers were the
eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire.
The Arabs were
then the despised and backward inhabitants of the Arabian
Peninsula. They consisted chiefly of wandering tribes, and
had no government, no constitution and no army. Syria,
Palestine, Egypt and North Africa were Roman provinces, Iraq
was part of Persia.
The Prophet Mohammed preached in Arabia from A.D. 613 to
632, when he died. In 633, the Arabs burst out of their
desert peninsula, and simultaneously attacked the two
years, the Persian Empire had ceased to exist. Seventy years
after the death of the Prophet, the Arabs had established an
empire extending from the Atlantic to the plains of Northern
India and the frontiers of China.
At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Mongols were
a group of savage tribes in the steppes of Mongolia. In
1211, Genghis Khan invaded China.
By 1253, the
Mongols had established an empire extending from Asia Minor
to the China Sea, one of the largest empires the world has
The Arabs ruled the greater part of Spain for 780 years,
from 712 A.D. to 1492 (780 years back in British history
would take us to 1196 and King Richard Cœur de Lion.)
During these eight centuries, there had been no Spanish
nation, the petty kings of Aragon and Castile alone holding
on in the mountains.
The agreement between Ferdinand and Isabella
was signed immediately after the fall of Granada, the last
Arab kingdom in Spain, in 1492. Within fifty years, Cortez
had conquered Mexico, and Spain was the world's greatest
Examples of the sudden outbursts by which empires are born
could be multiplied indefinitely.
illustrations must suffice.
Characteristics of the outburst
These sudden outbursts are usually characterized by an
extraordinary display of energy and courage.
conquerors are normally poor, hardy and enterprising and
above all aggressive. The decaying empires which they
overthrow are wealthy but defensive-minded. In the time of
Roman greatness, the legions used to dig a ditch round their
camps at night to avoid surprise.
But the ditches
were mere earthworks, and between them wide spaces were left
through which the Romans could counter-attack. But as Rome
grew older, the earthworks became high walls, through which
access was given only by narrow gates.
were no longer possible. The legions were now passive
But the new nation is not only distinguished by victory in
battle, but by unresting enterprise in every field. Men hack
their way through jungles, climb mountains, or brave the
Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in tiny cockle-shells.
The Arabs crossed
the Straits of Gibraltar in A.D. 711 with 12,000 men,
defeated a Gothic army of more than twice their strength,
marched straight over 250 miles of unknown enemy territory
and seized the Gothic capital of Toledo.
At the same stage
in British history, Captain Cook discovered Australia.
Fearless initiative characterizes such periods.
Other peculiarities of the period of the conquering pioneers
are their readiness to improvise and experiment. Untrammeled
by traditions, they will turn anything available to their
purpose. If one method fails, they try something else.
textbooks or book learning, action is their solution to
Poor, hardy, often half-starved and ill-clad, they abound in
courage, energy and initiative, overcome every obstacle and
always seem to be in control of the situation.
The causes of race outbursts
The modern instinct is to seek a reason for everything, and
to doubt the veracity of a statement for which a reason
cannot be found.
So many examples
can be given of the sudden eruption of an obscure race into
a nation of conquerors that the truth of the phenomenon
cannot be held to be doubtful. To assign a cause is more
easiest explanation is to assume that the poor and obscure
race is tempted by the wealth of the ancient civilization,
and there would undoubtedly appear to be an element of greed
for loot in barbarian invasions.
Such a motivation may be divided into two classes. The first
is mere loot, plunder and rape, as, for example, in the case
of Attila and the Huns, who ravaged a great part of
Europe from A.D. 450 to 453.
Attila died in the latter year, his empire fell apart and
his tribes returned to Eastern Europe.
Many of the barbarians who founded dynasties in Western
Europe on the ruins of the Roman Empire, however, did so out
of admiration for Roman civilization, and themselves aspired
to become Romans.
A providential turnover?
Whatever causes may be given for the overthrow of great
civilizations by barbarians, we can sense certain resulting
Every race on
earth has distinctive characteristics. Some have been
distinguished in philosophy, some in administration, some in
romance, poetry or religion, some in their legal system.
pre-eminence of each culture, its distinctive
characteristics are carried by it far and wide across the
If the same nation were to retain its domination
indefinitely, its peculiar qualities would permanently
characterize the whole human race. Under the system of
empires each lasting for 250 years, the sovereign race has
time to spread its particular virtues far and wide.
another people, with entirely different peculiarities, takes
its place, and its virtues and accomplishments are likewise
By this system,
each of the innumerable races of the world enjoys a period
of greatness, during which its peculiar qualities are placed
at the service of mankind.
To those who believe in the existence of God, as the
Ruler and Director of human affairs, such a system may
appear as a manifestation of divine wisdom, tending towards
the slow and ultimate perfection of humanity.
The course of empire
The first stage of the life of a great nation, therefore,
after its outburst, is a period of amazing initiative, and
almost incredible enterprise, courage and hardihood.
often in a very short time, produce a new and formidable
nation. These early victories, however, are won chiefly by
reckless bravery and daring initiative.
The ancient civilization thus attacked will have defended
itself by its sophisticated weapons, and by its military
organization and discipline.
quickly appreciate the advantages of these military methods
and adopt them. As a result, the second stage of expansion
of the new empire consists of more organized, disciplined
and professional campaigns.
In other fields, the daring initiative of the original
conquerors is maintained - in geographical exploration, for
example: pioneering new countries, penetrating new forests,
climbing unexplored mountains, and sailing uncharted seas.
The new nation is
confident, optimistic and perhaps contemptuous of the
'decadent' races which it has subjugated.
The methods employed tend to be practical and experimental,
both in government and in warfare, for they are not tied by
centuries of tradition, as happens in ancient empires.
leaders are free to use their own improvisations, not having
studied politics or tactics in schools or in textbooks.
U.S.A. in the stage of the pioneers
In the case of the United States of America, the pioneering
period did not consist of a barbarian conquest of an effete
civilization, but of the conquest of barbarian peoples.
Thus, viewed from
the outside, every example seems to be different. But viewed
from the standpoint of the great nation, every example seems
to be similar.
The United States arose suddenly as a new nation, and its
period of pioneering was spent in the conquest of a vast
continent, not an ancient empire.
history of the United States has
followed the standard pattern which we shall
attempt to trace - the periods of the pioneers, of commerce,
of affluence, of intellectualism and of decadence.
The conquest of vast areas of land and their subjection to
one government automatically acts as a stimulant to
and goods can be exchanged over considerable distances.
Moreover, if the empire be an extensive one, it will include
a great variety of climates, producing extremely varied
products, which the different areas will wish to exchange
with one another.
The speed of modern methods of transportation tends to
create in us the impression that far-flung commerce is a
modern development, but this is not the case.
Objects made in
Ireland, Scandinavia and China have been found in the graves
or the ruins of the Middle East, dating from 1,000 years
The means of
transport were slower, but, when a great empire was in
control, commerce was freed from the innumerable shackles
imposed upon it today by passports, import permits, customs,
boycotts and political interference.
The Roman Empire extended from Britain to Syria and Egypt, a
distance, in a direct line, of perhaps 2,700 miles. A Roman
official, transferred from Britain to Syria, might spend six
months on the journey.
the whole distance, he would be travelling in the same
country, with the same official language, the same laws, the
same currency and the same administrative system.
twenty independent countries separate Britain from Syria,
each with its own government, its own laws, politics,
customs fees, passports and currencies, making commercial
co-operation almost impossible. And this process of
disintegration is still continuing.
Even within the
small areas of the modern European nations, provincial
movements demanding secession or devolution tend further to
splinter the continent.
The present fashion for 'independence' has produced great
numbers of tiny states in the world, some of them consisting
of only one city or of a small island. This system is an
insuperable obstacle to trade and cooperation.
European Economic Community is an attempt to secure
commercial cooperation among small independent states over a
large area, but the plan meets with many difficulties, due
to the mutual jealousies of so many nations.
Even savage and militaristic empires promoted commerce,
whether or not they intended to do so.
The Mongols were
some of the most brutal military conquerors in history,
massacring the entire populations of cities. Yet, in the
thirteenth century, when their empire extended from Peking
to Hungary, the caravan trade between China and Europe
achieved a remarkable degree of prosperity - the whole
journey was in the territory of one government.
In the eighth and ninth centuries, the caliphs of Baghdad
achieved fabulous wealth owing to the immense extent of
their territories, which constituted a single trade bloc.
The empire of the
caliphs is now divided into some twenty-five separate
The pros and cons of empires
In discussing the life-story of the typical empire, we have
digressed into a discussion of whether empires are useful or
injurious to mankind.
We seem to have
discovered that empires have certain advantages,
particularly in the field of commerce, and in the
establishment of peace and security in vast areas of the
Perhaps we should
also include the spread of varied cultures to many races.
infatuation for independence for ever smaller and smaller
units will eventually doubtless be succeeded by new
attempts to create
a European community may be
regarded as a practical endeavor to constitute a new
super-power, in spite of the fragmentation resulting from
the craze for independence.
succeeds, some of the local independencies will have
to be sacrificed.
fails, the same result may be attained by military
conquest, or by the partition of Europe between
conclusion seems, however, to be that larger territorial
units are a benefit to commerce and to public stability,
whether the broader territory be achieved by voluntary
association or by military action.
One of the more benevolent ways in which a super-power can
promote both peace and commerce is by its command of the
From Waterloo to 1914, the British Navy commanded the seas
of the world. Britain grew rich, but she also made the Seas
safe for the commerce of all nations, and prevented major
wars for 100 years.
Curiously enough, the question of sea power was never
clearly distinguished, in British politics during the last
fifty years, from the question of imperial rule over other
In fact, the two
subjects are entirely distinct. Sea power does not offend
small countries, as does military occupation.
If Britain had
maintained her navy, with a few naval bases overseas in
isolated islands, and had given independence to colonies
which asked for it, the world might well be a more stable
In fact, however,
the navy was swept away in the popular outcry against
The Age of Commerce
Let us now, however, return to the life- story of our
We have already
considered the age of outburst, when a little- regarded
people suddenly bursts on to the world stage with a wild
courage and energy.
Let us call it
the Age of the Pioneers.
Then we saw that these new conquerors acquired the
sophisticated weapons of the old empires, and adopted their
regular systems of military organization and training. A
great period of military expansion ensued, which we may call
the Age of Conquests.
resulted in the acquisition of vast territories under one
government, thereby automatically giving rise to commercial
prosperity. We may call this the Age of Commerce.
The Age of Conquests, of course, overlaps the Age of
military traditions still hold sway and the great armies
guard the frontiers, but gradually the desire to make money
seems to gain hold of the public. During the military
period, glory and honor were the principal objects of
To the merchant,
such ideas are but empty words, which add nothing to the
Art and luxury
The wealth which seems, almost without effort, to pour into
the country enables the commercial classes to grow immensely
How to spend all
this money becomes a problem to the wealthy business
community. Art, architecture and luxury find rich patrons.
Splendid municipal buildings and wide streets lend dignity
and beauty to the wealthy areas of great cities.
merchants build themselves palaces, and money is invested in
communications, highways, bridges, railways or hotels,
according to the varied patterns of the ages.
The first half of the Age of Commerce appears to be
virtues of courage, patriotism and devotion to duty are
still in evidence. The nation is proud, united and full of
self-confidence. Boys are still required, first of all, to
be manly - to ride, to shoot straight and to tell the truth.
(It is remarkable
what emphasis is placed, at this stage, on the manly virtue
of truthfulness, for lying is cowardice - the fear of facing
up to the situation.)
Boys' schools are intentionally rough. Frugal eating, hard
living, breaking the ice to have a bath and similar customs
are aimed at producing a strong, hardy and fearless breed of
men. Duty is the word constantly drummed into the heads of
The Age of Commerce is also marked by great enterprise in
the exploration for new forms of wealth.
is shown in the search for profitable enterprises in far
corners of the earth, perpetuating to some degree the
adventurous courage of the Age of Conquests.
The Age of Affluence
There does not appear to be any doubt that money is the
agent which causes the decline of this strong, brave and
The decline in
courage, enterprise and a sense of duty is, however,
The first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a
moral one. Money replaces honor and adventure as the
objective of the best young men. Moreover, men do not
normally seek to make money for their country or their
community, but for them- selves.
almost imperceptibly, the Age of Affluence silences the
voice of duty. The object of the young and the ambitious is
no longer fame, honor or service, but cash.
Education undergoes the same gradual transformation. No
longer do schools aim at producing brave patriots ready to
serve their country. Parents and students alike seek the
educational qualifications which will command the highest
moralist, Ghazali (1058-1111), complains in these
very same words of the lowering of objectives in the
declining Arab world of his time.
says, no longer attend college to acquire learning and
virtue, but to obtain those qualifications which will enable
them to grow rich.
situation is everywhere evident among us in the West today.
That which we may call the High Noon of the nation covers
the period of transition from the Age of Conquests to the
Age of Affluence: the age,
Augustus in Rome
al-Rashid in Baghdad
Sulaiman the Magnificent in the Ottoman Empire
Victoria in Britain
Perhaps we might
add the age of Woodrow Wilson in the United States...
All these periods reveal the same characteristics. The
immense wealth accumulated in the nation dazzles the
Enough of the
ancient virtues of courage, energy and patriotism survive to
enable the state successfully to defend its frontiers. But,
beneath the surface, greed for money is gradually replacing
duty and public service.
Indeed the change
might be summarized as being from service to selfishness.
Another outward change which invariably marks the transition
from the Age of Conquests to the Age of Affluence is the
spread of defensiveness.
immensely rich, is no longer interested in glory or duty,
but is only anxious to retain its wealth and its luxury.
It is a period of
defensiveness, from the Great Wall of China, to Hadrian's
Wall on the Scottish Border, to the Maginot Line in France
Money being in better supply than courage, subsidies instead
of weapons are employed to buy off enemies. To justify this
departure from ancient tradition, the human mind easily
devises its own justification. Military readiness, or
aggressiveness, is denounced as primitive and immoral.
are too proud to fight.
The conquest of
one nation by another is declared to be immoral. Empires are
device enables us to suppress our feeling of inferiority,
when we read of the heroism of our ancestors, and then
ruefully contemplate our position today.
This even enables
us to assume an attitude of moral superiority.
The weakness of pacifism is that there are still many
peoples in the world who are aggressive. Nations who
proclaim themselves unwilling to fight are liable to be
conquered by peoples in the stage of militarism - perhaps
even to see themselves incorporated into some new empire,
with the status of mere provinces or colonies.
When to be prepared to use force and when to give way is a
perpetual human problem, which can only be solved, as best
we can, in each successive situation as it arises.
In fact, however,
history seems to indicate that great nations do not normally
disarm from motives of conscience, but owing to the
weakening of a sense of duty in the citizens, and the
increase in selfishness and the desire for wealth and ease.
Age of Intellect
We have now, perhaps arbitrarily, divided the life-story of
our great nation into four ages.
The Age of the
Pioneers (or the Outburst), the Age of Conquests, the Age of
Commerce, and the Age of Affluence. The great wealth of the
nation is no longer needed to supply the mere necessities,
or even the luxuries of life.
Ample funds are
available also for the pursuit of knowledge.
The merchant princes of the Age of Commerce seek fame and
praise, not only by endowing works of art or patronizing
music and literature. They also found and endow colleges and
universities. It is remarkable with what regularity this
phase follows on that of wealth, in empire after empire,
divided by many centuries.
In the eleventh century, the former Arab Empire, then in
complete political decline, was ruled by the Seljuk sultan,
The Arabs, no
longer soldiers, were still the intellectual leaders of the
world. During the reign of Malik Shah, the building of
universities and colleges became a passion. Whereas a small
number of universities in the great cities had sufficed the
years of Arab glory, now a university sprang up in every
In our own lifetime, we have witnessed the same phenomenon
in the U.S.A. and Britain. When these nations were at the
height of their glory, Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge
seemed to meet their needs. Now almost every city has its
The ambition of the young, once engaged in the pursuit of
adventure and military glory, and then in the desire for the
accumulation of wealth, now turns to the acquisition of
It is useful here to take note that almost all the pursuits
followed with such passion throughout the ages were in
themselves good. The manly cult of hardihood, frankness and
truthfulness, which characterized the Age of Conquests,
produced many really splendid heroes.
The opening up of natural resources, and the peaceful
accumulation of wealth, which marked the age of
commercialism, appeared to introduce new triumphs in
civilization, in culture and in the arts.
In the same way,
the vast expansion of the field of knowledge achieved by the
Age of Intellect seemed to mark a new high-water mark of
We cannot say
that any of these changes were 'good' or 'bad'.
The striking features in the pageant of empire are:
extraordinary exactitude with which these stages
have followed one another, in empire after empire,
over centuries or even millennia
that the successive changes seem to represent mere
changes in popular fashion - new fads and fancies
which sweep away public opinion without logical
At first, popular
enthusiasm is devoted to military glory, then to the
accumulation of wealth and later to the acquisition of
Why could not all these legitimate, and indeed beneficent,
activities be carried on simultaneously, each of them in due
Yet this never
seemed to happen.
The effects of intellectualism
There are so many things in human life which are not dreamt
of in our popular philosophy.
The spread of
knowledge seems to be the most beneficial of human
activities, and yet every period of decline is characterized
by this expansion of intellectual activity.
The Age of
Intellect is accompanied by surprising advances in natural
In the ninth
century, for example, in the age of Mamun, the Arabs
measured the circumference of the earth with remarkable
were to pass before Western Europe discovered that the world
was not flat. Less than fifty years after the amazing
scientific discoveries under Mamun, the Arab Empire
collapsed. Wonderful and beneficent as was the progress of
science, it did not save the empire from chaos.
The full flowering of Arab and Persian intellectualism did
not occur until after their imperial and political collapse.
intellectuals attained fresh triumphs in the academic field,
but politically they became the abject servants of the often
When the Mongols
conquered Persia in the thirteenth century, they were
themselves entirely uneducated and were obliged to depend
wholly on native Persian officials to administer the country
and to collect the revenue. They retained as wazeer,
or Prime Minister, one Rashid al-Din, a historian of
Yet the Prime
Minister, when speaking to the Mongol II Khan, was obliged
to remain throughout the interview on his knees.
banquets, the Prime Minister stood behind the Khan's seat to
wait upon him. If the Khan were in a good mood, he
occasionally passed his wazeer a piece of food over
As in the case of the Athenians, intellectualism leads to
discussion, debate and argument, such as is typical of the
Western nations today. Debates in elected assemblies or
local committees, in articles in the Press or in interviews
on television - endless and incessant talking.
Men are interminably different, and intellectual arguments
rarely lead to agreement.
affairs drift from bad to worse, amid an unceasing cacophony
of argument. But this constant dedication to discussion
seems to destroy the power of action.
Amid a Babel of
talk, the ship drifts on to the rocks.
The inadequacy of intellect
Perhaps the most dangerous by-product of the Age of
Intellect is the unconscious growth of the idea that the
human brain can solve the problems of the world.
Even on the low
level of practical affairs this is patently untrue.
Any small human
activity, the local bowls club or the ladies' luncheon club,
requires for its survival a measure of self- sacrifice and
service on the part of the members. In a wider national
sphere, the survival of the nation depends basically on the
loyalty and self-sacrifice of the citizens.
that the situation can be saved by mental cleverness,
without unselfishness or human self-dedication, can only
lead to collapse.
Thus we see that the cultivation of the human intellect
seems to be a magnificent ideal, but only on condition that
it does not weaken unselfishness and human dedication to
Yet this, judging
by historical precedent, seems to be exactly what it does
Perhaps it is not
the intellectualism which destroys the spirit of
self-sacrifice - the least we can say is that the two,
intellectualism and the loss of a sense of duty, appear
simultaneously in the life-story of the nation.
Indeed it often appears in individuals, that the head and
the heart are natural rivals. The brilliant but cynical
intellectual appears at the opposite end of the spectrum
from the emotional self-sacrifice of the hero or the martyr.
Yet there are
times when the perhaps unsophisticated self-dedication of
the hero is more essential than the sarcasms of the clever.
Another remarkable and unexpected symptom of national
decline is the intensification of internal political
One would have
expected that, when the survival of the nation became
precarious, political factions would drop their rivalry and
stand shoulder-to-shoulder to save their country.
In the fourteenth century, the weakening empire of Byzantium
was threatened, and indeed dominated, by the Ottoman Turks.
The situation was so serious that one would have expected
every subject of Byzantium to abandon his personal interests
and to stand with his compatriots in a last desperate
attempt to save the country.
spent the last fifty years of their history in fighting one
another in repeated civil wars, until the Ottomans moved in
and administered the coup de grâce.
Britain has been governed by an elected parliament for many
centuries. In former years, however, the rival parties
observed many unwritten laws. Neither party wished to
eliminate the other.
All the members
referred to one another as honorable gentlemen. But such
courtesies have now lapsed.
and loud noises have undermined the dignity of the House,
and angry exchanges are more frequent. We are fortunate if
these rivalries are fought out in Parliament, but sometimes
such hatreds are carried into the streets, or into industry
in the form of strikes, demonstrations, boycotts and similar
True to the
normal course followed by nations in decline, internal
differences are not reconciled in an attempt to save the
On the contrary,
internal rivalries become more acute, as the nation becomes
The influx of foreigners
One of the oft-repeated phenomena of great empires is the
influx of foreigners to the capital city.
often complain of the number of Asians and Africans in Rome.
Baghdad, in its prime in the ninth century, was
international in its population - Persians, Turks, Arabs,
Armenians, Egyptians, Africans and Greeks mingled in its
In London today, Cypriots, Greeks, Italians, Russians,
Africans, Germans and Indians jostle one another on the
buses and in the underground, so that it sometimes seems
difficult to find any British.
The same applies
to New York, perhaps even more so. This problem does not
consist in any inferiority of one race as compared with
another, but simply in the differences between them.
In the age of the first outburst and the subsequent Age of
Conquests, the race is normally ethnically more or less
homogeneous. This state of affairs facilitates a feeling of
solidarity and comradeship.
But in the Ages
of Commerce and Affluence, every type of foreigner floods
into the great city, the streets of which are reputed to be
paved with gold.
As, in most
cases, this great city is also the capital of the empire,
the cosmopolitan crowd at the seat of empire exercises a
political influence greatly in excess of its relative
Second- or third-generation foreign immigrants may appear
outwardly to be entirely assimilated, but they often
constitute a weakness in two directions.
their basic human nature often differs from that of
the original imperial stock.
earlier imperial race was stubborn and slow-moving,
the immigrants might come from more emotional races,
thereby introducing cracks and schisms into the
national policies, even if all were equally loyal.
while the nation is still affluent, all the diverse
races may appear equally loyal. But in an acute
emergency, the immigrants will often be less willing
to sacrifice their lives and their property than
will be the original descendants of the founder
the immigrants are liable to form communities of
their own, protecting primarily their own interests,
and only in the second degree that of the nation as
many of the foreign immigrants will probably belong
to races originally conquered by and absorbed into
the empire. While the empire is enjoying its High
Noon of prosperity, all these people are proud and
glad to be imperial citizens.
But when decline
sets in, it is extraordinary how the memory of ancient wars,
perhaps centuries before, is suddenly revived, and local or
provincial movements appear demanding secession or
Some day this
phenomenon will doubtless appear in the now apparently
monolithic and authoritarian Soviet empire. It is amazing
for how long such provincial sentiments can survive.
Historical examples of this phenomenon are scarcely needed.
The idle and
captious Roman mob, with its endless appetite for free
distributions of food - bread and games - is notorious, and
utterly different from that stern Roman spirit which we
associate with the wars of the early republic.
In Baghdad, in the golden days of Harun al-Rashid, Arabs
were a minority in the imperial capital. Istanbul, in the
great days of Ottoman rule, was peopled by inhabitants
remarkably few of whom were descendants of Turkish
In New York,
descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers are few and far between.
This interesting phenomenon is largely limited to great
conquering race is often to be found in relative purity in
rural districts and on far frontiers. It is the wealth of
the great cities which draws the immigrants. As, with the
growth of industry, cities nowadays achieve an ever greater
preponderance over the countryside, so will the influence of
foreigners increasingly dominate old empires.
Once more it may be emphasized that I do not wish to convey
the impression that immigrants are inferior to older stocks.
They are just
different, and they thus tend to introduce cracks and
As the nation declines in power and wealth, a universal
pessimism gradually pervades the people, and itself hastens
There is nothing
succeeds like success, and, in the Ages of Conquest and
Commerce, the nation was carried triumphantly onwards on the
wave of its own self-confidence. Republican Rome was
repeatedly on the verge of extinction - in 390 B.C. when the
Gauls sacked the city and in 216 B.C. after the Battle of
But no disasters
could shake the resolution of the early Romans. Yet, in the
later stages of Roman decline, the whole empire was deeply
pessimistic, thereby sapping its own resolution.
Frivolity is the frequent companion of pessimism. Let us
eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. The
resemblance between various declining nations in this
respect is truly surprising.
The Roman mob, we
have seen, demanded free meals and public games.
shows, chariot races and athletic events were their passion.
In the Byzantine Empire the rivalries of the Greens and the
Blues in the hippodrome attained the importance of a major
Judging by the time and space allotted to them in the Press
and television, football and baseball are the activities
which today chiefly interest the public in Britain and the
United States respectively.
The heroes of declining nations are always the same - the
athlete, the singer or the actor.
'celebrity' today is used to designate a comedian or a
football player, not a statesman, a general, or a literary
The Arab decline
In the first half of the ninth century, Baghdad enjoyed its
High Noon as the greatest and the richest city in the world.
In 861, however,
the reigning Khalif (caliph) Mutawakkil, was murdered
by his Turkish mercenaries, who set up a military
dictatorship, which lasted for some thirty years.
period the empire fell apart, the various dominions and
provinces each assuming virtual independence and seeking its
the capital of a vast empire, found its authority limited to
The works of the contemporary historians of Baghdad in the
early tenth century are still available. They deeply
deplored the degeneracy of the times in which they lived,
emphasizing particularly the indifference to religion, the
increasing materialism and the laxity of sexual morals.
also the corruption of the officials of the government and
the fact that politicians always seemed to amass large
fortunes while they were in office.
The historians commented bitterly on the extraordinary
influence acquired by popular singers over young people,
resulting in a decline in sexual morality. The 'pop' singers
of Baghdad accompanied their erotic songs on the lute, an
instrument resembling the modern guitar.
In the second
half of the tenth century, as a result, much obscene sexual
language came increasingly into use, such as would not have
been tolerated in an earlier age.
issued orders banning 'pop' singers from the capital, but
within a few years they always returned.
An increase in the influence of women in public life has
often been associated with national decline. The later
Romans complained that, although Rome ruled the world, women
In the tenth
century, a similar tendency was observable in the Arab
Empire, the women demanding admission to the professions
hitherto monopolized by men.
wrote the contemporary historian, Ibn Bessam, 'have
the professions of clerk, tax-collector or preacher
to do with women? These occupations have always been
limited to men alone.'
practiced law, while others obtained posts as university
There was an
agitation for the appointment of female judges, which,
however, does not appear to have succeeded. Soon after this
period, government and public order collapsed, and foreign
invaders overran the country.
increase in confusion and violence made it unsafe for women
to move unescorted in the streets, with the result that this
feminist movement collapsed.
The disorders following the military take-over in 861, and
the loss of the empire, had played havoc with the economy.
At such a moment,
it might have been expected that everyone would redouble
their efforts to save the country from bankruptcy, but
nothing of the kind occurred. Instead, at this moment of
declining trade and financial stringency, the people of
Baghdad introduced a five-day week.
When I first read these contemporary descriptions of
tenth-century Baghdad, I could scarcely believe my eyes.
I told myself
that this must be a joke! The descriptions might have been
taken out of The Times today.
of all the details was especially breathtaking:
break-up of the empire
abandonment of sexual morality
singers with their guitars
of women into the professions
I would not
venture to attempt an explanation!
There are so many
mysteries about human life which are far beyond our
Today we attach immense importance to the ideology of our
The Press and
public media in the U.S.A. and Britain pour incessant scorn
on any country the political institutions of which differ in
any manner from our own idea of democracy.
It is, therefore,
interesting to note that the life-expectation of a great
nation does not appear to be in any way affected by the
nature of its institutions.
Past empires show almost every possible variation of
political system, but all go through the same procedure from
the Age of Pioneers through Conquest, Commerce, Affluence to
decline and collapse.
The Mameluke Empire
The empire of the Mamelukes of Egypt provides a case in
point, for it was one of the most exotic ever to be recorded
It is also
exceptional in that it began on one fixed day and ended on
another, leaving no doubt of its precise duration, which was
In the first part of the thirteenth century, Egypt and Syria
were ruled by the Ayoubid sultans, the descendants of the
family of Saladin. Their army consisted of Mamelukes, slaves
imported as boys from the Steppes and trained as
On 1st May 1250,
the Mamelukes mutinied, murdered Turan Shah, the
Ayoubid sultan, and became the rulers of his empire.
The first fifty years of the Mameluke Empire were marked by
desperate fighting with the hitherto invincible Mongols, the
descendants of Genghis Khan, who invaded Syria.
By defeating the
Mongols and driving them out of Syria, the Mamelukes saved
the Mediterranean from the terrible fate which had overtaken
Persia. In 1291, the Mamelukes captured Acre, and put an end
to the Crusades.
From 1309 to 1341, the Mameluke Empire was everywhere
victorious and possessed the finest army in the world.
For the ensuing
hundred years the wealth of the Mameluke Empire was
fabulous, slowly leading to luxury, the relaxation of
discipline and to decline, with ever more bitter internal
empire collapsed in 1517, as the result of military defeat
by the Ottomans.
The Mameluke government appears to us utterly illogical and
fantastic. The ruling class was entirely recruited from
young boys, born in what is now Southern Russia.
Every one of them
was enlisted as a private soldier. Even the sultans had
begun life as private soldiers and had risen from the ranks.
extraordinary political system resulted in an empire which
passed through all the normal stages of conquest,
commercialism, affluence and decline and which lasted
approximately the usual period of time.
The master race
The people of the
great nations of the past seem normally to have imagined
that their pre-eminence would last for ever. Rome appeared
to its citizens to be destined to be for all time the
mistress of the world.
Khalifs of Baghdad declared that God had appointed
them to rule mankind until the day of judgment.
ago, many people in Britain believed that the empire would
endure for ever. Although Hitler failed to achieve
his objective, he declared that Germany would rule the world
for a thousand years.
like these could be publicly expressed without evoking
derision shows that, in all ages, the regular rise and fall
of great nations has passed unperceived.
statistics prove the steady rotation of one nation after
another at regular intervals.
The belief that their nation would rule the world forever,
naturally encouraged the citizens of the leading nation of
any period to attribute their pre-eminence to hereditary
They carried in
their blood, they believed, qualities which constituted them
a race of supermen, an illusion which inclined them to the
employment of cheap foreign labour (or slaves) to perform
menial tasks and to engage foreign mercenaries to fight
their battles or to sail their ships.
These poorer peoples were only too happy to migrate to the
wealthy cities of the empire, and thereby, as we have seen,
to adulterate the close-knit, homogeneous character of the
unconsciously assumed that they would always be the leaders
of mankind, relaxed their energies, and spent an increasing
part of their time in leisure, amusement or sport.
In recent years, the idea has spread widely in the West that
'progress' will be automatic without effort, that everyone
will continue to grow richer and richer and that every year
will show a 'rise in the standard of living'.
We have not drawn
from history the obvious conclusion that material success is
the result of courage, endurance and hard work - a
conclusion nevertheless obvious from the history of the
meteoric rise of our own ancestors.
self-assurance of its own superiority seems to go
hand-in-hand with the luxury resulting from wealth, in
undermining the character of the dominant race.
The welfare state
When the welfare state was first introduced in Britain, it
was hailed as a new high-water mark in the history of human
History, however, seems to suggest that the age of decline
of a great nation is often a period which shows a tendency
to philanthropy and to sympathy for other races. This phase
may not be contradictory to the feeling described in the
previous paragraph, that the dominant race has the right to
rule the world.
For the citizens
of the great nation enjoy the role of Lady Bountiful.
As long as it
retains its status of leadership, the imperial people are
glad to be generous, even if slightly condescending. The
rights of citizenship are generously bestowed on every race,
even those formerly subject, and the equality of mankind is
The Roman Empire
passed through this phase, when equal citizenship was thrown
open to all peoples, such provincials even becoming senators
The Arab Empire of Baghdad was equally, perhaps even more,
generous. During the Age of Conquests, pure-bred Arabs had
constituted a ruling class, but in the ninth century the
empire was completely cosmopolitan.
State assistance to the young and the poor was equally
generous. University students received government grants to
cover their expenses while they were receiving higher
likewise offered free medical treatment to the poor.
The first free
public hospital was opened in Baghdad in the reign of Harun
al-Rashid (786-809), and under his son, Mamun, free public
hospitals sprang up all over the Arab world from Spain to
what is now Pakistan.
The impression that it will always be automatically rich
causes the declining empire to spend lavishly on its own
benevolence, until such time as the economy collapses, the
universities are closed and the hospitals fall into ruin.
It may perhaps be incorrect to picture the welfare state as
the high-water mark of human attainment. It may merely prove
to be one more regular milestone in the life-story of an
ageing and decrepit empire.
Historians of periods of decadence often refer to a decline
in religion, but, if we extend our investigation over a
period covering the Assyrians (859-612 B.C.) to our own
times, we have to
interpret religion in a
very broad sense.
human feeling that there is something, some
invisible Power, apart from material objects, which
controls human life and the natural world'.
We are probably
too narrow and contemptuous in our interpretation of idol
The people of
ancient civilizations were as sensible as we are, and would
scarcely have been so foolish as to worship sticks and
stones fashioned by their own hands.
The idol was for
them merely a symbol, and represented an unknown, spiritual
reality, which controlled the lives of men and demanded
human obedience to its moral precepts.
We all know only too well that minor differences in the
human visualization of this Spirit frequently became the
ostensible reason for human wars, in which both sides
claimed to be fighting for the true God, but the
absurd narrowness of human conceptions should not blind us
to the fact that, very often, both sides believed their
campaigns to have a moral background.
Genghis Khan, one
of the most brutal of all conquerors, claimed that God
had delegated him the duty to exterminate the decadent races
of the civilized world. Thus the Age of Conquests often had
some kind of religious atmosphere, which implied heroic
self-sacrifice for the cause.
But this spirit of dedication was slowly eroded in the Age
of Commerce by the action of money. People make money for
themselves, not for their country.
Thus periods of
affluence gradually dissolved the spirit of service, which
had caused the rise of the imperial races.
In due course, selfishness permeated the community, the
coherence of which was weakened until disintegration was
Then, as we have
seen, came the period of pessimism with the accompanying
spirit of frivolity and sensual indulgence, by- products of
despair. It was inevitable at such times that men should
look back yearningly to the days of 'religion', when the
spirit of self-sacrifice was still strong enough to make men
ready to give and to serve, rather than to snatch.
But while despair might permeate the greater part of the
nation, others achieved a new realization of the fact that
only readiness for self-sacrifice could enable a community
Some of the
greatest saints in history lived in times of national
decadence, raising the banner of duty and service against
the flood of depravity and despair.
In this manner, at the height of vice and frivolity the
seeds of religious revival are quietly sown.
several generations (or even centuries) of suffering, the
impoverished nation has been purged of its selfishness and
its love of money, religion regains its sway and a new era
We have traced the rise of an obscure race to fame, through
the stages of conquest, commercialism, affluence, and
intellectualism, to disintegration, decadence and despair.
We suggested that
the dominant race at any given time imparts its leading
characteristics to the world around, being in due course
succeeded by another empire.
By this means, we
speculated, many successive races succeeded one another as
super- powers, and in turn bequeathed their peculiar
qualities to mankind at large.
But the objection may here be raised that some day the time
will come when all the races of the world will in turn have
enjoyed their period of domination and have collapsed again
When the whole
human race has reached the stage of decadence, where will
new energetic conquering races be found?
The answer is at first partially obscured by our modern
habit of dividing the human race into nations, which we seem
to regard as water-tight compartments, an error responsible
for innumerable misunderstandings.
In earlier times, warlike nomadic nations invaded the
territories of decadent peoples and settled there. In due
course, they intermarried with the local population and a
new race resulted, though it sometimes retained an old name.
invasions of the Roman Empire probably provide the example
best known today in the West.
Arab conquests of Spain, North Africa and Persia
Turkish conquests of the Ottoman Empire
Norman Conquest of England
In all such cases, the conquered countries were originally
fully inhabited and the invaders were armies, which
ultimately settled down and married, and produced new races.
In our times, there are few nomadic conquerors left in the
world, who could invade more settled countries bringing
their tents and flocks with them.
But ease of travel has
resulted in an equal, or probably an even greater,
intermixture of populations.
bitterness of modern internal political struggles produces a
constant flow of migrants from their native countries to
others, where the social institutions suit them better.
The vicissitudes of trade and business similarly result in
many persons moving to other countries, at first intending
to return, but ultimately settling down in their new
The population of Britain has been constantly changing,
particularly in the last sixty years, owing to the influx of
immigrants from Europe, Asia and Africa, and the exit of
British citizens to the Dominions and the United States.
The latter is, of
course, the most obvious example of the constant rise of new
nations, and of the transformation of the ethnic content of
old nations through this modern nomadism.
Decadence of a system
It is of interest to note that decadence is the
disintegration of a system, not of its individual members.
The habits of the
members of the community have been corrupted by the
enjoyment of too much money and too much power for too long
a period. The result has been, in the framework of their
national life, to make them selfish and idle.
A community of
selfish and idle people declines, internal quarrels develop
in the division of its dwindling wealth, and pessimism
follows, which some of them Endeavour to drown in sensuality
In their own surroundings, they are unable to
redirect their thoughts and their energies into new
But when individual members of such a society emigrate into
entirely new surroundings, they do not remain conspicuously
decadent, pessimistic or immoral among the inhabitants of
their new homeland.
Once enabled to
break away from their old channels of thought, and after a
short period of readjustment, they become normal citizens of
their adopted countries.
Some of them, in
the second and third generations, may attain pre-eminence
and leadership in their new communities.
This seems to prove that the decline of any nation does not
undermine the energies or the basic character of its
members. Nor does the decadence of a number of such nations
permanently impoverish the human race.
Decadence is both
mental and moral deterioration, produced by the slow decline
of the community from which its members cannot escape, as
long as they remain in their old surroundings.
elsewhere, they soon discard their decadent ways of thought,
and prove themselves equal to the other citizens of their
Decadence is not physical
Neither is decadence physical.
The citizens of
nations in decline are sometimes described as too physically
emasculated to be able to bear hardship or make great
efforts. This does not seem to be a true picture.
Citizens of great
nations in decadence are normally physically larger and
stronger than those of their barbarian invaders.
Moreover, as was proved in Britain in the first World War,
young men brought up in luxury and wealth found little
difficulty in accustoming themselves to life in the front-line trenches.
The history of exploration proves the same
Men accustomed to
comfortable living in homes in Europe or America were able
to show as much endurance as the natives in riding camels
across the desert or in hacking their way through tropical
Decadence is a moral and spiritual disease, resulting from
too long a period of wealth and power, producing cynicism,
decline of religion, pessimism and frivolity.
The citizens of
such a nation will no longer make an effort to save
themselves, because they are not convinced that anything in
life is worth saving.
Generalizations are always dangerous. Human beings are all
different. The variety in human life is endless.
If this be the
case with individuals, it is much more so with nations and
cultures. No two societies, no two peoples, no two cultures
are exactly the same.
In these circumstances, it will be
easy for critics to find many objections to what has been
said, and to point out exceptions to the generalizations.
There is some value in comparing the lives of nations to
those of individuals. No two persons in the world are
lives are often affected by accidents or by illness, making
the divergences even more obvious. Yet, in fact, we can
generalize about human life from many different aspects.
characteristics of childhood, adolescence, youth, middle and
old age are well known. Some adolescents, it is true, are
prematurely wise and serious. Some persons in middle age
still seem to he young.
exceptions do not invalidate the general character of human
life from the cradle to the grave.
I venture to submit that the lives of nations follow a
similar pattern. Superficially, all seem to be completely
Some years ago, a suggestion was submitted to a
certain television corporation that a series of talks on
Arab history would form an interesting sequence.
The proposal was
immediately vetoed by the director of programs with the
Yet, in fact, the
history of the Arab imperial age - from conquest through
commercialism, to affluence, intellectualism, science and
decadence - is an exact precursor of British imperial
history and lasted almost exactly the same time.
If British historians, a century ago, had devoted serious
study to the Arab Empire, they could have foreseen almost
everything that has happened in Britain down to 1976.
A variety of falls
It has been shown that, normally, the rise and fall of great
nations are due to internal reasons alone.
of human beings suffice to transform the hardy and
enterprising pioneer into the captious citizen of the
But whereas the life histories of great
nations show an unexpected uniformity, the nature of their
falls depends largely on outside circumstances and thus
shows a high degree of diversity.
The Roman Republic, as we have seen, was followed by the
empire, which became a super-state, in which all the natives
of the Mediterranean basin, regardless of race, possessed
The name of Rome,
originally a city-state, passed from it to an equalitarian
This empire broke in half, the western half being overrun by
northern barbarians, the eastern half forming the East Roman
or Byzantine Empire.
The vast Arab Empire broke up in the ninth century into many
fragments, of which one former colony, Moslem Spain, ran its
own 250-year course as an independent empire. The homelands
of Syria and Iraq, however, were conquered by successive
waves of Turks to whom they remained subject for 1,000
The Mameluke Empire of Egypt and Syria, on the other hand,
was conquered in one campaign by the Ottomans, the native
population merely suffering a change of masters.
The Spanish Empire (1500-1750) endured for the conventional
250 years, terminated only by the loss of its colonies. The
homeland of Spain fell, indeed, from its high estate of a
super-power, but remained as an independent nation until
Romanov Russia (1682-1916) ran the normal course, but was
succeeded by the Soviet Union.
It is unnecessary to labour the point, which we may attempt
to summarize briefly. Any regime which attains great wealth
and power seems with remarkable regularity to decay and fall
apart in some ten generations.
The ultimate fate
of its component parts, however, does not depend on its
internal nature, but on the other organizations which appear
at the time of its collapse and succeed in devouring its
Thus the lives of
great powers are surprisingly uniform, but the results of
their falls are completely diverse.
Inadequacy of our historical
In fact, the modern nations of the West have derived only
limited value from their historical studies, because they
have never made them big enough.
For history to
have meaning, as we have already stated, it must be the
history of the human race.
Far from achieving such an ideal, our historical studies are
largely limited to the history of our own country during the
lifetime of the present nation. Thus the time- factor is too
short to allow the longer rhythms of the rise and fall of
nations even to be noticed.
As the television
director indicated, it never even crosses our minds that
longer periods could be of any interest.
When we read the history of our own nation, we find the
actions of our ancestors described as glorious, while those
of other peoples are depicted as mean, tyrannical or
Thus our history
is (intentionally) not based on facts. We are emotionally
unwilling to accept that our forbears might have been mean
Alternatively, there are 'political' schools of history,
slanted to discredit the actions of our past leaders, in
order to support modern political movements.
In all these
cases, history is not an attempt to ascertain the truth, but
a system of propaganda, devoted to the furtherance of modern
projects, or the gratification of national vanity.
Men can scarcely be blamed for not learning from the history
they are taught.
There is nothing
to learn from it, because it is not true.
The word 'empires' has been used in this essay to signify
nations which achieve the status of great powers, or
super-powers, in the jargon of today - nations which have
dominated the international scene for two or three
At any given
time, however, there are also smaller states which are more
or less self-contained. Do these live the same 'lives' as
the great nations, and pass through the same phases?
It seems impossible to generalize on this issue. In general,
decadence is the outcome of too long a period of wealth and
If the small
country has not shared in the wealth and power, it will not
share in the decadence.
The emerging pattern
In spite of the endless variety and the infinite
complications of human life, a general pattern does seem to
emerge from these considerations.
It reveals many
successive empires covering some 3,000 years, as having
followed similar stages of development and decline, and as
having, to a surprising degree, 'lived' lives of very
The life-expectation of a great nation, it appears,
commences with a violent, and usually unforeseen, outburst
of energy, and ends in a lowering of moral standards,
cynicism, pessimism and frivolity.
If the present writer were a millionaire, he would try to
establish in some university or other a department dedicated
solely to the study of the rhythm of the rise and fall of
powerful nations throughout the world.
History goes back
only some 3,000 years, because before that period writing
was not sufficiently widespread to allow of the survival of
But within that
period, the number of empires available for study is very
At the commencement of this essay, the names of eleven such
empires were listed, but these included only the Middle East
and the modern nations of the West.
India, China and
Southern America were not included, because the writer knows
nothing about them.
A school founded
to study the rise and fall of empires would probably find at
least twenty-four great powers available for dissection and
The task would not be an easy one, if indeed the net were
cast so wide as to cover virtually all the world's great
nations in 3,000 years.
The knowledge of
language alone, to enable detailed investigations to be
pursued, would present a formidable obstacle.
Would it help?
It is pleasing to imagine that, from such studies, a regular
life-pattern of nations would emerge, including an analysis
of the various changes which ultimately lead to decline,
decadence and collapse.
It is tempting to
assume that measures could be adopted to forestall the
disastrous effects of excessive wealth and power, and thence
of subsequent decadence.
means could be devised to prevent the activist Age of
Conquests and Commerce deteriorating into the Age of
Intellect, producing endless talking but no action.
It is tempting to think so.
Perhaps if the
pattern of the rise and fall of nations were regularly
taught in schools, the general public would come to realize
the truth, and would support policies to maintain the spirit
of duty and self-sacrifice, and to forestall the
accumulation of excessive wealth by one nation, leading to
the demoralization of that nation.
Could not the sense of duty and the initiative needed to
give rise to action be retained parallel with intellectual
development and the discoveries of natural science?
The answer is doubtful, though we could but try.
The weaknesses of
human nature, however, are so obvious, that we cannot be too
confident of success. Men bursting with courage, energy and
self-confidence cannot easily be restrained from subduing
their neighbors, and men who see the prospect of wealth open
to them will not readily be prevented from pursuing it.
Perhaps it is not in the real interest of humanity that they
should be so prevented, for it is in periods of wealth that
art, architecture, music, science and literature make the
Moreover, as we have seen where great empires are concerned,
their establishment may give rise to wars and tragedies, but
their periods of power often bring peace, security and
prosperity to vast areas of territory.
Our knowledge and
our experience (perhaps our basic human intellects) are
inadequate to pronounce whether or not the rise and fall of
great nations is the best system for the best of all
These doubts, however, need not prevent us from attempting
to acquire more knowledge on the rise and fall of great
powers, or from endeavoring, in the light of such knowledge,
to improve the moral quality of human life.
Perhaps, in fact, we may reach the conclusion that the
successive rise and fall of great nations is inevitable and,
indeed, a system divinely ordained. But even this would be
an immense gain. For we should know where we stand in
relation to our human brothers and sisters.
In our present
state of mental chaos on the subject, we divide ourselves
into nations, parties or communities and fight, hate and
vilify one another over developments which may perhaps be
divinely ordained and which seem to us, if we take a broader
view, completely uncontrollable and inevitable.
If we could
accept these great movements as beyond our control, there
would be no excuse for our hating one another because of
However varied, confusing and contradictory the religious
history of the world may appear, the noblest and most
spiritual of the devotees of all religions seem to reach the
conclusion that love is the key to human life.
Any expansion of
our knowledge which may lead to a reduction in our
unjustified hates is therefore surely well worth while.
As numerous points of interest have arisen in the course of
this essay, I close with a brief summary, to refresh the
We do not
learn from history because our studies are brief and
surprising manner, 250 years emerges as the average
length of national greatness.
average has not varied for 3,000 years. Does it
represent ten generations?
stages of the rise and fall of great nations seem to
is marked by:
An influx of foreigners
The Welfare State
weakening of religion
is due to:
histories of great states are amazingly similar, and
are due to internal factors.
falls are diverse, because they are largely the
result of external causes.
should be taught as the history of the human race,
though of course with emphasis on the history of the
student's own country.