A lot of thought has gone into human mortality, and how we can prolong life. Less thought has gone into the question of why nations die. But nations, like people, do have a beginning, and do have an end. Thus it is worth looking at the questions of how and why nations collapse.
This paper will not be a scholarly examination of the subject. Instead it will be more of a rough outline, sustained by a string of thoughts and quotations taken from those who have pondered these important questions. Historians, philosophers, theologians and others will here contribute to the discussion.
One common theme that emerges from those who have thought carefully about the decline of nations is that often it is the case that they collapse from within, instead of perishing from without. Thus Arnold Toynbee could rightly say, “Civilizations die from suicide, not murder.”
Toynbee, a British historian (1889-1975), is most famous for his magisterial A Study of History, 1934-1961. In this 12-volume work he examined the rise and fall of nations.
One of his more significant remarks is worth recalling: “Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.” Given that this is now a dated comment, how much more true is it today?
Other historians have of course remarked on the suicidal tendencies of nations. Will Durant (1885-1981), an American historian, made this observation: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within. The essential causes of Rome’s decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars.”
Along with his wife Ariel, he penned the monumental 11-volume Story of Civilization (1935-1975). They also penned, among other works, the 1968 study, The Lessons of History. In both these works they noted the tendency of nations to wither from within.
Lord Macaulay (1800-1859), the English writer and historian, made a similar observation about the fate of democracies. He said that the average age of the world’s greatest democratic nations has been 200 years. Each has been through the following sequence:
From bondage to spiritual faith.
From faith to great courage.
From courage to liberty.
From liberty to abundance.
From abundance to complacency.
From complacency to selfishness.
From selfishness to apathy.
From apathy to dependency.
And from dependency back again into bondage.
(A letter from Lord Macaulay to an American friend, May 23, 1857)
The questions of course that arise are these: Where are we in this progression? How far along are we on the road to decay? Can we escape this fate?
Examples of the decline
It is not hard to pinpoint where we are on Macaulay’s timeline. The examples of corruption, selfishness, apathy and decadence are all around. The easiest way to make this case is simply to open the daily newspaper. Recent newspaper headlines readily make the case. Consider just a few from the past several months:
-Pedophiles launch own political party (May 30, 2006)
Pedophiles in the Netherlands are registering a political party to press for lowering the legal age of sexual relations from 16 to 12 and allow child porn and bestiality. The party, which plans to register tomorrow, says it eventually wants to get rid of the age limit on sexual relations.
-Bibles banned (May 12, 2006)
Bibles are being banned in hospitals and schools in order not to offend non-Christians.
-Gay school guide: Teachers’ manual rejects ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ (June 4, 2006)
Victorian schools are being advised to dump the words “mother” and “father” by a new teachers’ manual that promotes the cause of same-sex parents.
-PC penguins (April 16, 2006)
Seaworld in Queensland has decided to change the names of ‘fairy penguins’ to ‘little penguins’ for fear of offending homosexuals.
Many more examples could be provided. But I think you get the point. These are all examples of a culture in deep decline. Or as one American sociologist and Democratic Senator put it, these are illustrations of “Defining Deviancy Down”.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) wrote an important essay by this title in 1993. In it he decried the moral collapse in the West, and the way we try to cope with it. He wrote: “The amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.”
He rightly noted that the saturation of evil is becoming so complete that the only way we can cope is to redefine it. Of course such attempts are not new. Twenty-five hundred years ago the prophet Isaiah could warn of similar calumny: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)
How did this happen?
There is a long answer which we cannot go into here. We could look at the Enlightenment and its impact. Or more recently, the counter-culture of the sixties. But we can provide a short answer: The past century has been one grand social experiment to see what life is like when we reject God. (And the results are in!)
We have tried to live as if there is no God, and we are now reaping the whirlwind.
One modern prophet who shares this view is the former Russian gulag prisoner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He has written much on this theme. His assessment is simple yet profound: “It is because we have forgotten God. That is why all this is happening to us.”
Our moral decline is directly connected to our rejection of God. Will Durant offered this insight: “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.”
Another important voice in this regard is TS Eliot (1888–1965). The American-British poet and critic wrote an important volume in 1948 entitled, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. His thoughts are well worth recalling:
“If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.”
Exactly. Throw out God, and the work of civilization becomes very difficult indeed. Again, Will Durant concurs: “From barbarism to civilization requires a century; from civilization to barbarism needs but a day.”
What can be done?
What is needed more than ever is a rebuilding of the foundations. As the Psalmist said so long ago, “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3) The job will not be easy, but it must be done. We need to preserve what is good, and resist those anarchic voices who would take it away from us.
And a big part of this is to learn from history, and to avoid the problems we encounter there. As the Spanish philosopher Santayana reminds us, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.”
But it is not enough to just recall the lessons of history. We must be willing to act, to take a stand, to make a difference. We cannot sit on the sidelines in a time of danger and threat. It was Dante in his Inferno who remarked that “The hottest level in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in a moral crisis”.
We must get involved. It is not enough just to talk about the problem, or to theorise about our current malaise. Karl Marx knew the importance of action: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the thing is to change it”.
But I am just one person, you might protest, What difference can I make? The problems are just too big. But the anthropologist Margaret Mead would have us believe otherwise: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Or as Edmund Burke has written: “Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”
A radical Black Panther activist of the sixties, Eldridge Cleaver, wisely said: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” And a prophet of 2000 years ago put it this way: “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.” (Jesus Christ, Matt. 5:13)
So what do we do, as believers? Often people debate as to whether we should seek personal revival or social reformation. The argument is often presented as if it is either/or. But can I suggest that it is both/and. The need of the hour is to both get our own act together, and to seek to be a light in a dark world, to be a preserving salt in a corrupt nation.
Indeed, the bottom line is this: Society is in a mess because the church is in a mess. And the church is in a mess because you and I are in a mess. We need to get back to our first love. We need to stop our trivial pursuits. We need to realise that we are here for a purpose, and the purpose of our existence does not revolve around ourselves, but around someone who gave his very life for all of us. We can do no less for him.
Thus we need to get back to basics. And we need to seek forgiveness for losing the plot. As we were reminded so long ago: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
In the end, we must agree with Toynbee: “Sooner or later, man has always had to decide whether he worships his own power or the power of God.”
The question is, how will we respond?