Eternal Recurrence: The Rise and Fall of Complex Civilizations
Richard Wagner: Faust Overture
History Repeats Itself?
Most people have heard the cliché, “history repeats itself” but how many have considered what it really means or even if it is valid? Surely, whoever first coined the phrase did not mean that events and people from the past reemerge or even reincarnate themselves in the present or future, but that discernible patterns can be detected in the numerous human societies that have risen and fallen throughout history. Whoever first stated that “history repeats itself” took the perspective that humans are predictable in their behavior and the societies that they build are even more so, which enables those in the present to view history from the long durée by establishing certain patterns and ultimately to make reasonable deductions as to where present day societies are headed.
The idea of viewing patterns in history is known as “cyclical history” and is actually quite ancient, although it acquired more popularity in intellectual and academic circles in the early twentieth century where it eventually became a sub-discipline within historical studies. Applying cyclical history to past cultures can be a useful tool for modern scholars and lay people alike to understand how and why some of the greatest human societies collapsed; but many argue that it can also be used to comprehend the trajectory of modern Western society’s path, as well as possibly uncovering methods to stop its potential decline. The concept of cyclical history must first be examined before exploring if the modern West in general and the United States in particular are doomed to repeat some of the same follies that the Egyptians, Romans, and Aztecs – to name just three – did before them. The following report will show that based on current events and compared to previous civilizations, there is clear evidence of decline in the West and the United States of America.
The Prescientific Origins of the Cyclical History Theory
As stated above, the idea of cyclical history can be traced back thousands of years and was apparent in many different, totally unrelated, religions, cultures, and civilizations. Most of the early theories that concerned cyclical history were articulated in myth and theology and while some were quite simple, others were very detailed and complex. One of the earliest known writers who formulated an idea that can be described as proto-cyclical history was the eighth century Greek poet, Hesiod.
Hesiod lived in a period when Greece was still far from the glories of later centuries, but it was men like him and Homer – who may have been one of his contemporaries – who laid some of the foundations for early Greek culture. Among Hesiod’s most influential works was Theogony, which was essentially a cosmogony and genealogy of the Greek gods. Hesiod wrote that there were three distinct ages of gods, whereby one generation would be replaced by the next until the Olympian gods – Zeus, Poseidon, Hera etc. – were the final and dominant deities in the world. Each generation of gods usually ended in some type of tragedy before the next cycle began. Humans played little role in Hesiod’s divine cycles, but his Theogony no doubt influenced a later Egyptian writer who used similar themes in his works.
Manetho was a third century BC Egyptian high priest who was knowledgeable of both Egyptian and Greek historical, religious, and literary traditions, as he was employed by the Greek Ptolemy rulers who reigned over Egypt during his life. The Egyptian priest had full access to Egyptian temple libraries as well as the newly built Library of Alexandria, which is where he was probably first introduced to Hesiod. At some point during his life, Manetho used his knowledge of both cultures to write a history of Egypt, today called the Aegyptiaca, which divided Egyptian history into thirty one dynasties. Manetho’s influence on the modern world is apparent as the divisions of Egyptian history he employed are the same ones that modern Egyptologists still use. Unfortunately, Manetho’s writings have only been transmitted to the modern world through other ancient and medieval translations, but the fragments that do exist demonstrate a cyclical view of history that may have been influenced by Hesiod. Manetho’s history gives a list of gods, then demi-gods, and finally historical kings that ruled Egypt. Similarly, also from the ancient Near East, the Sumerian King-list also listed a number of mythical and semi-historical Sumerian kings that ruled in the Mesopotamian kingdom of Sumer before the great flood described in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which of course bears remarkable similarities to the biblical flood in the book of Genesis. The ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, and Hebrews all believed a perfect, or near perfect, age, or ages, existed where gods and humans lived on the earth together, before human hubris became too much and a new cycle of imperfection began. Further to the east, around the same time, even more complex ideas of cyclical history were being formulated by ancient Indian scholars and holy men.
According to Hindu tradition, which comes from the older Vedic tradition, the world goes through four successive ages, or yugas, every 1,000 years. The first yuga is the Satya, where the gods and humans live together in harmony. After the 1,000 year Satya yuga the world then moves into the Treta, Davapra, and finally the Kali yuga, which most Hindu scholars believe is the current age. The Kali yuga is marked by a lack of divine involvement in human affairs and an Earth that is consumed with lust, greed, vice, and violence. Everything that was once considered evil is now good, but before long the god Kali will bring forth a final act of destruction that will end his yuga and bring forth the golden age of the Satya yuga once more. The Vedic/Hindu tradition of cyclical history was mirrored thousands of miles away in the snow caped mountains and frigid fjords of Scandinavia.
The Norse people, often referred to simply as Vikings, developed an interesting and intricate set of myths before they converted to Christianity in the Middle Ages. Actually, as Indo-Europeans, the Norse followed a religion that had many similarities to that of the people who developed the idea of the yugas in India, so it perhaps should be no surprise that they also established a similar view of world history. Perhaps reflecting the Norse culture’s sanctification of warfare, the ages were described as the following: Axe age, Sword age, Wind age, and the Wolf age. The Norse believed that at the end of the Wolf age, a great battle called Ragnarok would commence between the gods and giants, with man on the side of the gods, which would ultimately result in a three year long winter that would extinguish most life on Earth. Once the Wolf age was over, the survivors would gather before the god Balder and a new golden age would begin.
Cyclical History in the Twentieth Century
The myths surrounding cyclical history that were first formulated in the ancient and medieval worlds gave way to a more scientific understanding of world history in the nineteenth century. By the late nineteenth century, scholars, especially in Western countries, were influenced by the rational thinking of the eighteenth century Enlightenment as well as the advances in science made during the nineteenth century. The result was that many historians began to view the world through a more cynical and less romantic lens that was also decidedly biological in nature. Historians began to view past states, societies, and even civilizations as living entities that had finite lifespans, which could be compared in order to determine visible historical patterns. Some nineteenth century German writers who employed aspects of cyclical history in their writings were Georg Hegel and Karl Marx, who borrowed, some would say “stole,” heavily from Hegel. As Marx and Hegel’s ideas were being discussed, debated, and dissected by a plethora of scholars across the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, a young German schoolteacher produced a tome that would become the standard for many of cyclical world history.
Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) was a philosopher, historian, and schoolteacher who began his magnum opus, Der Untergang des Abenlander (The Decline of the West) in 1918 and finished it in 1922. The focus of Spengler’s work was civilizations, of which he identified the following: Indian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Classical, Arabian/Magian, Western, Chinese, and Meso-American. Spengler argued that most nation-states and kingdoms were constituent parts of a larger civilization; for instance Germany and the United States were part of the Western, while Japan was an offshoot of Chinese civilization. Egypt was the only civilization that was also a nation-state, in the modern sense of the word, in Spengler’s taxonomy of civilizations. Spengler’s thesis was that each civilization had a life cycle like a plant: the “spring” is when a civilization is born and vibrant; the “summer” is a civilization’s greatest creative era; the “autumn” is when a civilization begins its decline and is marked by over rationalization of philosophies and concepts; and finally the “winter” is the ultimate demise of a civilization, which manifests in tendencies towards dictatorships and “wars of annihilation.” Spengler’s thesis was decidedly deterministic; humans could do little to nothing to stop the decline of a civilization, even when the hallmarks of decline were recognized. The German historian’s theory of world history became quite popular in the decades leading up to World War II, where they were debated in the halls of academia across the Western world and then expanded and modified by a British historian.
Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975) was the quintessential British answer to Spengler’s view on cyclical world history. Toynbee was a more classically trained historian who respected and was influenced by Spengler’s work, but saw inherent flaws in the German’s book that he believed could be improved. Like Spengler, Toynbee believed that in order to understand world history one must look at civilizations instead of kingdoms and nation-states, which he concurred, were merely constituent parts of larger civilizations. Unlike Spengler, Toynbee identified more civilizations, both past and present, where were the following: Egyptiac, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumeric, Mayan, Yucatec, Mexic, Hittite, Syriac, Babylonic, Iranic, Arabic, Far Eastern, Far Eastern: Japanese offshoot, Indic, Hindu, Hellenic, Orthodox, Orthodox Russian, and Western. Toynbee’s taxonomy of civilizations was much more detailed than Spengler’s and identified affiliated civilizations – for instance, Hellenic civilization was loosely affiliated with the Minoan and apparented to Orthodox, Orthodox Russian, and Western civilizations.
Toynbee’s central thesis was that before a culture becomes a civilization, it is challenged either physically (for instance by the desert as in the case of the Egyptiac and Sumeric civilizations) or socially (such as establishing order after a civilization collapsed as in the case of the Orthodox after the collapse of Hellenic civilization), or a combination of both. Once the culture successfully overcomes the challenge then it enters the civilization stage where it encounters new challenges that it overcomes through creativity in art, religion, science, etc. When a civilization is in its most creative phase it is usually fairly peaceful, yet at the highpoint of its culture. Once the creativity of a culture begins to be exhausted then the culture turns inwards and practices mimesis of early creative forms. Toynbee then identified a “time of troubles” where the various kingdoms and nation-states within a civilization begin to fight for supremacy of the entire civilization. The time of troubles is then resolved when the winner establishes a “universal state” and the arts of war and economics become the last bastions of creativity. The key difference between Spengler and Toynbee’s theories was that Toynbee was much less deterministic; he believed that civilization declines could be halted and even reversed if the proper leaders were in power. Of the two, Toynbee was much more influential on later scholars, which can be seen in two more recent works.
In the early 1990s, after the termination of the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union, many people thought the world had entered a new ecumenical phase, where major conflicts were a thing of the past. Political scientist Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) argued in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order that to the contrary, modern societies had just reformed and realigned along civilizational lines and that in the coming decades most conflicts would be intra-civilizational in nature. Huntington identified nine current civilizations in the world – Western, Latin American, Orthodox Christian, African, Islamic, Buddhist, Sinic, Japanese, and Hindu – that either clashed or peacefully interacted with each other along fracture lines. He argued that some civilizations were inherently hostile towards each other due to cultural reasons – the Hindu and Islamic for instance – while others that shared some of the same cultural history – Western, Latin American, and Orthodox Christian – were less so, but the differences ultimately shaped foreign policy of the constituent nation-states. Huntington was clearly influenced by Spengler and Toynbee as he gave precedence to civilizations over nation-states, but he placed little emphasis on the cyclical philosophy of history, which was a departure in his methodology from the two earlier historians.
More recently, Paul Kennedy wrote The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, which clearly channels some of the ideas of Spengler and Toynbee in regards to cyclical history, but places more emphasis on the fortunes of individual nation-states in the West. Kennedy argues that part of the West’s success vis á vis medieval China and the Islamic world was due to the lack of central authority, which allowed for greater economic development in Western Europe. The economic boom that took place in Western Europe in the late 1400s into the 1500s allowed for the various nation-states to invest in armies that later conquered much of the world. Ultimately, Kennedy argued that the fate of the West was/is inextricably tied to the rise and fall of individual states such as Hapsburg Austria, the British Empire, Imperial Germany, and more recently the United States.
Cyclical History, Western Civilization, and the United States
So what do all of these ideas concerning cyclical history mean for the current states of affairs in the world and what does the future hold for Western civilization in general and the United States specifically? First, if one takes the stance of historians such as Spengler and Toynbee that history is cyclical, then certain patterns can be discerned and a potential decline can be identified. The question then remains: if those patterns are identified, can they be halted or reversed as Toynbee argued?
One of the primary problems that is currently affecting the United States and other Western countries is a potentially declining and definitely unstable world economy. The recession in 2007 brought to light a plethora of economic problems that still remain unresolved. Government spending has increased, while the amount of debt governments owe to other nations and private individuals has also grown and sent worrisome shockwaves throughout the world markets. Perhaps more troubling than anything, economically speaking, is the decreasing effectiveness of central banks to cope with recessions and the devaluation of currencies through unprecedented monetary expansion. Despite the fact that the majority of economists today are concerned about deflation, the prospect of severe tail-end inflation taking root is not out of the question. Excess “printing” of money inherently leads to inflation, which was best exemplified in modern times during the 1920s Weimar Republic Germany in what is now known as “hyper-inflation”. A severe inflationary cycle could be extremely catastrophic to economies as the prices on essential goods and services climb, while wages stagnate, as they have essentially done for some time now. Excessive “printing” of currency also leads to a lack of consumer confidence in the currency and eventually in the overall economic system. Lack of consumer confidence coupled with geopolitical pressures could very well result in the US dollar no longer being used as the single reserve currency in the world. If/when the dollar is no longer the single reserve currency, the United States’ influence in world affairs, especially in the sphere of economics, will be further diminished. Closely linked to the economic situation in the United States and Western Europe are demographic and cultural concerns.
Currently, nearly every Western nation has severe generational imbalances, which has the potential to be an economic bomb to the social and welfare systems of those countries. The Baby Boomer generation is now at the retirement age and is quickly claiming its rightful government pensions, but many question if those same benefits will be available for future generations. In the United States in particular, the Social Security system has been described at various times as a “slush fund” and “Ponzi scheme” whereby the government uses money stored in it for other programs and projects, which would be fine if the system continued to record a surplus, but it has not for some time. Part of the problem is the result of low birth rates by the Baby Boom generation, which various Western leaders believed they could augment in the 1970s and ‘80s with increased immigration quotas and “guest worker” programs. The result was a steady increase in the overall population of most Western nations, but the Social Security and pension problems were only exacerbated as more and more people began to receive government benefits before retirement age. The result is that in many Western nations there is a consistently narrowing pool of tax payers and a growing pool of benefit recipients that is in the long-term unsustainable. Although the current world economic system is for the most part unique to Western civilization and therefore difficult to compare with previous civilizations, the Hellenic civilization offers some analogous behavior.
Hellenic civilization came to be dominated by the Romans in the second century BC and for at least three centuries everything went relatively well – there was peace throughout the Roman Empire, trade was brisk, and the monetary system was fairly strong. By the third century AD, for a number of reasons, the Roman economy began to falter and so Roman leaders introduced new methods to keep the economy alive. The Roman economy operated under a gold based currency where the silver coin, known as the denarius, was the standard and can be compared to the dollar in many ways. As government expenses for the military and social programs grew in Rome, much like today in the United States and Europe, Roman leaders devised a way that they believed would compensate for the diminishing gold and silver reserves in the imperial mints – they would add impurities to the coins. The impurities that were added to the coins had the same effect that printing excess money has had in modern times, it devalued the currency. Before long, a host of other problems manifested in Rome that were tied directly to the devaluation of the currency including some of the following: labor riots, housing shortages, exorbitant tax rates, and a greater concentration of wealth into the hands of a few. Surely one does not have to be an economist to see some parallels between the state of the current U.S. and Western economies and that of Rome.
One of the hallmarks of civilization decline that both Toynbee and Spengler wrote about was the tendency towards warfare and eventual consolidation of all kingdoms and nation-states under one leader. This has not yet happened in the West, but there have been several attempts to do so, most notably by the Hapsburgs in the eighteenth century, Napoleon in the nineteenth century, and Hitler in the twentieth century. Some would argue that since there has never been an ecumenical “Western Empire” similar to that of Rome for the Hellenic civilization, the New Kingdom for Egypt, and Hammurabi’s Empire for the Sumeric that the United States and the West has yet to enter this critical phase of decline, but that may be a false assumption. Although there has been no outright military dictatorship that has consolidated all of the Western states as was done in previous civilizations, a number of intra-governmental organizations exist that may fill the modern role of Toynbee’s “universal state.” For instance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was ostensibly formed to protect the West from the Eastern bloc during the Cold War; but the organization still not only exists, it continues to add members in central and eastern Europe. Non-Western nation-states see NATO’s expansion and NATO itself as aggressive and a threat, as can be evidenced by saber rattling by Russia and that nation’s outright occupation of sections of perspective NATO member, Ukraine.
One of the salient features in most civilizations decline was the emergence of aggressive war-bands from the marches of the civilizations, which Toynbee termed the “external proletariat.” In the Hellenic civilization these were the Germanic tribes that invaded Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, while in Egypt it was the sea borne raiders known collectively as the “Sea Peoples” who raided the Egyptian coast and helped topple the Hittite civilization around 1200 BC. The Sumeric civilization had to contend with various desert tribes known as the Gutians and the ancient Chinese civilization fought unsuccessfully against the Mongol hoards from the north.
Today, the United States and Western Europe is in the midst of an immigration crisis that has brought millions of people from the Latin American and Islamic worlds into the West, which threatens to further destabilize Western economies and will no doubt bring more cultural/civilizational clashes in the future. Huntington noted that as of the 1990s the Islamic world was in the midst of its own baby boom that threatens to destabilize the already unstable Middle East. Young, angry, jobless men are perhaps more susceptible to extremist and Jihadist brands of Islam, which they then bring with them to Europe. Britain, Spain, and France have all witnessed major Islamic terrorist attacks over the last fifteen years and many neighborhoods in the major cities of those countries often resemble Lahore, Algiers, Tunis more than London, Madrid, and Paris. A slightly different, yet similar, situation exists in North America where violent Mexican drug cartels and multi-national street gangs like MS-13 have taken advantage of illegal immigration by smuggling immigrants and their members across the U.S.-Mexico border. Today, nearly every major American city and some major Canadian cities have a presence of these groups in their midst.
Finally, both Spengler and Toynbee also argued that the decline of a society is most visible in a lack of overall creativity and creative output. Toynbee especially concentrated on this idea and wrote that civilizations in decline often focus their creative energies on mimesis. One does not have to look far in either high or pop culture in the current West to see that this is the case to a certain extent: “musicians” routinely steal ideas and even whole songs from others; most works of high art are devoid of any spiritual significance, even those that are copied from earlier periods; and forgettable films are habitually made based on television shows from prior decades that were equally forgettable. The lack of creativity apparent in modern society is also demonstrated in modern politics and economics – it appears that everyone is afraid to make the wrong choice, which has inhibited the boldness often needed to formulate solutions to major problems.
More recently, anthropologist Joseph Tainter has arrived at a more materialistic view of decline that can perhaps be used as an auxiliary to Spengler and Toynbee’s more spiritually based ideas. Tainter posits that what he terms “complexity” – which is often manifested in the form of government bureaucracies, highly detailed economies, and multi-layered scientific innovations – is what leads to civilization, but consequently is also the source of decline. He argues that too much organization and in particular excessive regulation, stifles creativity and as an example he points out some of the great scientific and medical advances made during the nineteenth century. Most of those advances were made by individuals and had the result of advancing human knowledge exponentially, while today scientific research is made by teams who usually just manage to add to existing technologies. Tainter also points out that as societies become more complex they require more resources, which eventually results in diminishing returns.
Ultimately no one can say for sure what the future holds, but many of the patterns Spengler and Toynbee identified as indicative of decline appear to be at work in the West in general and the United States in particular. Also, Huntington’s idea of civilizational clashes appears to be on display in a number of regions throughout the world: the West is clashing with the Orthodox Christian civilization over Ukraine and both of those civilizations are currently clashing with Islamic civilization in the Middle East. When the contemporary United States and western Europe are viewed from the perspective of cyclical history there can be no doubt that they exhibit many signs of decline; but if the leaders of the constituent nation-states have the courage to halt and even reverse the decline remains to be seen. In the end, an individual may not be able to stop the decline him or herself, but knowing the situation can definitely help one prepare for the future.
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Huntington, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
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