In 1997 I had the pleasure of visiting a well-preserved ruin of a Roman villa in Yanworth, Cirencester, Glocs. in the UK. It took quite a bit to find in those days — it seemed that every crossroads had a sign pointing back the way just travelled pointing to it, yet no villa in sight — yet it was well-worth the trouble, especially when the covering over the mosaic floor was turned back and its beauty was revealed.
A delight though this villa is — if you’re ever in the Cotswolds, spend the time to find it — my point today is more about how societies decline.
I got off on this line of thinking as I’ve lately been reading commentaries and critiques of Oswald Spengler and his magnum opus Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West). Many professional historians and philosophers reacted then (and react still!) in a very negative way to this work. Historians moan about “the lack of detailed scholarship” or “liberties taken in interpretation” surrounding one point or another. Philosophers whinge in response to the deeply metaphysical approach taken (which really fits no other recognized “school of thought”).
For all that, this book was deeply appreciated by the public, in that best of all possible means of appreciation, by being purchased and discussed, despite the economic difficulties of early Weimar Germany with its hyperinflation. It received an equal audience when C. F. Atkinson published the English translation. A half-century later, Northrop Frye noted in his essay “Spiritus Mundi”, that Spengler’s ideas had set the intellectual tone in philosophy of history ever since its publication, even amongst those dissuaded from ever cracking its covers, and amongst all those who sought to overturn it.
If you are unfamiliar with the work, the essence of Spengler’s argument was that cultures are akin to living organic bodies, in that they are born, grow, thrive, reach their adult potential, then decline into senescence and die out. Each culture, says Spengler, is a self-contained unit, with its own core idea, key arts, scientific approach and the like. Our own Western World was, in his view, entering its dotage, having had its culture ossify into a civilization, and our future, from his time of writing, would be one of wars, economic decline, tidying up of loose ends in science, and ever-more subjective art. Caesarism was imminent. Moreover, this was a matter of destiny — our lifespan as a culture was more-or-less determined, and we could, as with the Imperial Romans, the New Dynasties in Egypt, etc., do no more overall than make the best of it, no matter what individual triumphs we may have as human beings.
You have probably heard one of the popularised bits of Spengler-chatter. Have you ever heard “America is Rome to Britain’s Greece?” That’s drawn from Spengler’s discussion of the culture of the Classical world, which ended in the civilisation of Rome as its universal state, and his recognition of the rising America (despite his German hopes that his own country may serve to be the “centre of the West” in the first volume, he recognises in the second that that opportunity has probably passed — and in 1922 was suggesting that America would be the final “state of the West” facing off against a rising (not yet a full-blown culture) in Russia. (Russian culture, according to Spengler, needed to throw off its “Westernisation”, be that the type of Peter the Great or of the Leninists).
One of the challenges this poses, to an examination in depth of our own society in 2012, and in projecting its probable futures, is that civilizations can continue for a very long time — long after their life, so to speak, has fled. If nothing disturbs such an ossified body of humanity, it continues, repeating its experience until events (typically from outside itself) knock it down another peg. Once that happens, stability at this new, less- differentiated and “lower” level, then can be re-established. Think of Egypt, which carries on for nearly 2,000 years repeating the New Empire until the Romans finally come. Picture China through the last millennium, absorbing alien invasion after alien invasion and simply carrying on.
What makes so many people react negatively to Spengler’s position, yet be unable to refute it and knock it off the field of intellectual combat, is precisely that “up to the end” the life of the society appears to continue more-or-less in “health”. It is much like an old oak tree: the core has long since died and rotted, yet the trunk persists in holding the tree up, and enough nutrients keep rising to cause it to come into acorn and leaf each year. Then comes a storm, and the tree topples, for us to see what a chimera it had been.
The villa I opened this piece with was probably constructed sometime in the late 200s or early 300s CE — which is a period where, culturally, Classical Culture was well and truly mouldering past its best-before date and what Spengler calls a pseudomorphosis (a “one thing imposing its shape on another, hiding what’s happening”) of continued repeated Classical Form hiding the rising Levant was imposing its culture on the lands of the Graeco-Roman Civilization as far north and west as the Roman province of Britannia — yet it shows no sign of that, being another classical villa with its tributes to the civic gods of Roman society. It was gracious country living, in the form retired soldiers and administrators throughout the Empire had followed for (at that point) nearly three centuries, and would, in various parts of the Empire, for as long again.
Britannia was not brought low by barbarian invasions — no Goths, Visigoths, Vandals or Huns burnt and occupied its cities. Rather, as economic decline continued to unwind and the Romans became unable to maintain their holdings, the decision was taken to simply abandon some of the more far-flung provinces. Britannia was one such: in 410 CE Emperor Honorius told Roman Britain to “look to its own defence”, and executed the decision to withdraw the Legions to defend older parts of the Empire. Many of the villa-holders left at the same time, worried about Celtic incursions from beyond the borders in never-Roman Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Others were themselves impoverished, with the long-dying and long-drying up of Roman economic life. (Much as with Britain’s nobility today, many had been reduced to living in just a portion of their homes, in much-reduced conditions, but without the saving grace of operating tours through the now-unaffordable main body of a manor or castle.)
For those that remained, little of Roman Britain other than ruins remains. Within two more generations Britannia was nothing more than a land of undifferentiated peasants, as a backwater cut-off from “civilization”. Two more generations saw the Angles, Saxons and Jutes begin their invasions. The road toward the English had begun. Rome was no more.
It would, I think, be fair to say that here, in the Cotswolds, this villa — located close to the edge of Britannia (the Roman province) — would have, at the time of its construction, been a land grant for a retiree that was still near the end, but not past, of supply lines connecting it to the Empire at large. As the 300s wore on, the villa’s inhabitants would have been more and more isolated, depending more on local items (or doing without) and less on goods brought from the Continent via Londinium or other other trade routes. Continued peaceful conditions would have seen the quality of life slowly slip, and stories of how “life was better when I was a child” would have had truth, but the changes would have been hard to see.
Then, abandonment. It matters little whether the villa was abandoned before Rome left the province, with that withdrawal across the Channel, or afterward, when maintaining life “in the middle of nowhere” became too difficult. Whenever it happened, this region became too difficult to continue Roman life in. Further habitation would not be civilized for many more centuries.
Here, I believe, we do find ourselves. Our technological “brilliance” suggests to me that our collapse is likely to be rapid, when it comes — there are too many interconnected systems, too many parts that must operate well, to deal easily with events today.
Isolated locations could well carry on for quite a while; not all need go at once. But for a continent, it gets harder to see how it will all be maintained. It took, in 2003, a half-hour to shut down power to over 55,000,000 people — and three days to restart. 9/11 saw it take the airlines nearly a week to reposition their craft to properly restart their schedules once flying resumed. These were against a backdrop of other things working well.
We may be gifted with a century or two, as those who believe in technology think, or we may find our interdependencies crushing much of “the world we know” within a decade or two. Within this, further “advances” are not precluded — but the trend will be toward losing what we have, not gaining on it, or, to put it another way, we are at the point where coming generations do not live as well as we have (even though some few may well do better for a while yet).
What makes the future opaque to most is the reality that little of the decline is readily seen. Currency debasement and an increasing draw upon capital and operating incomes to fund government programs — a Roman problem in its day no less so that today, with the “untouchable welfare state” and the endless demands for ever-more intervention common to all Western lands — do not immediately trigger collapse, but they do hollow out the society and weaken it, consuming the ability to rebuild when an event does occur. How much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is restored, seven years after Katrina? How does this compare to what we were able to do in Europe after World War II?
Up until that moment, however, an impoverished society still appears rich. So, too, with services: they may degrade somewhat, and become prone to breakdown, but by and large they continue until the moment comes when they cannot — at which point they also are generally incapable of being restarted.
To take but one example: Roman communications, along well-mainted post roads, were taken as given (and did work) until the end of the Empire. Within two decades these roads lay broken, being mined for materials. It took a millennium for something as simple as letter carrying became routine again — outside of the realm preserved by St-Benedict and his peers, who deliberately created a “society within a society” in the monasteries before the final collapse, in order to preserve the Church in a world where Roman services and Roman order had failed.
I have no expectation of persuading anyone who believes that technology holds the answers to our problems, who believes that our current apparent strength is unchallenged, who believes that only through further intervention can society “progress” or who thinks “God will provide” (to take but four common objections to the dark Spenglerian world-view). Nor is that my point, either. If Spengler is correct, our down-going will occur regardless: our free will may accelerate or decelerate parts of it, but the unwinding is destined.
It is to that question of destiny, to the isolation of cultures, and to the question of preserving Western thought and accomplishment for the future, that I believe we should turn. Let us neither hide nor roll over and die: let us do what Western society has done all along: deal with the esoteric, the hard to know and face the world not as we would imagine it to be, but as it is.
If Quigley is right, in The Evolution of Civilizations, we in the West can reinvent ourselves yet again (having done it twice before). That will require us to rethink much about our current world. Even if he’s wrong, shouldn’t we try?