The Fate of Civilizations, Part 2

Is our Age of Decadence dooming us?

Steven Yates

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Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Part 2 of 3. (Read Part 1 here; Part 3 to come.)

Review: from Breakout to Collapse.

Going back quickly: Sir John Bagot Glubb, British military writer and historian who had both assimilated into and studied Arab civilization and its history, developed the view that empires / civilizations (most civilizations become empires, after all) go through a life cycle of six sometimes overlapping stages:

(1) Breakout and Age of Pioneers.
(2) Age of Conquest.
(3) Age of Commerce.
(4) Age of Affluence.
(5) Age of Intellect.
(6) Age of Decadence.

A new and perhaps previously unpromising-appearing society experiences a meteoric rise during phases (1) and (2), and heaven help anyone in the way. The society achieves an (imperfect) stability during (3) and reaches its “high noon” period. Then things slowly go awry as it moves from (3) to (4). The civilization loses its sense of direction during (5). This brings about a slow and often painful unraveling involving increasing self-sabotage. At the end of (6) it either collapses from within or is conquered.

This, by the way, doesn’t preclude the possibility of shorter cycles and “turnings” such as those outlined by Strauss and Howe in their controversial The Fourth Turning: An American Prophesy (1997): “highs,” “awakenings,” “unravelings,” and “crises,” each cycle lasting between 70 and 80 years and each “turning” lasting 15–20 years.

That is, the U.S. experienced an “unraveling” during the period beginning in or around 1914 and ending in 1929 when the stock market crashed. The ensuing Great Depression was surely a “crisis.” We survived, redefined ourselves, and a new “high” began in 1947–48, continuing until 1963–64.

What Strauss and Howe may not have seen: each cycle comes with its own set of challenges, some of which are not resolved and which therefore accumulate and perhaps fester, their effects compounding over time. Eventually a “crisis” erupts that overwhelms the society’s potential to reach a new “high.” If things don’t go to pieces at this point…

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Steven Yates

I am the author of What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory. I write about philosophy (especially the Stoics), health and systems, and the future if we have one.