The back cover of this book by James K. Thompson proclaims that, “there are few comparative studies available” of theories of decline,” whereas “growth” gets all the attention. This seems false to me. Hollywood can’t go more than a few weeks without making a movie about huge disasters and the end of all things. Americans, at least, seem to be continually questioning themselves and pondering our place in the cosmos. Historians too, going back to Thucydides at least, seem in general more drawn to decline than growth. And admittedly for me, the title Decline in History: The European Experience in itself got me to look at the book in the first place. It seems that I, like everyone else, have decline on the brain.
Thompson sets out to first examine two basic approaches to decline taken in the 20th century, and then see via synthesis whether or not he can come up his own grand theory. In past centuries theories of decline had their roots in the actions of men, and here I don’t mean “mankind” generally but men as political leaders most particularly. Not much else got examined. In the early 20th century Spengler and Toynbee changed this standard approach and saw the actions of people in general against a back drop of a process of growth and decay that had either the dread inevitability of death about it (Spengler) or the great likelihood of human actions adding up to eventual failure (Toynbee).
Enter into the arena the Fernand Braudel, a patient, meticulous genius who rebelled utterly from the standard way of viewing decline. He looked at everything but people and instead focused on climate, the soil, geographical positioning, and observed slight changes over time.* So, Portugal was doomed not so much by what it did as by the fact that their forests could never keep up with their shipbuilding, thus leading to an inevitable overextension in their soil. The Mediterranean itself never had high quality soil. So while (perhaps following Toynbee) this initially presented a great challenge and brought out an inspired response from those who lived there, no amount of human ingenuity could fundamentally change nature. The receding tide of Mediterranean dominance was written under the soles of their feet.
Other 20th century historians followed Braudel armed with a Marxist approach that focused on social class, such as Michael Mann. Success in any civilization raises the standard of living for the middle class. This middle class then aspires to join the aristocracy, or at least emulate their habits. This results in exploitation of the lower classes and with that, an attendant social and political decay. Thus for Braudel and Mann, success, exploitation, and decline all go together, whether in the soil or in the mass of humanity.
Thompson attempts to glean from these approaches (with a few others thrown in as well) and come up with his own approach. I liked his broad spectrum approach, and some of his examples show give great illumination into what happens with decline across different civilizations.
Historically rises in power, and shifts in power, tend to have two main characteristics. One is proximity to the coast, for coastal regions will lead to fruitful contact with other civilizations. The second factor in significant and sustained growth lies in the coastal region’s proximity to another great power of different aspect, allowing for progress arising out of a dynamic synergy. So Greece’s proximity to Egypt presaged a shift from the Fertile Crescent to the Mediterranean. Venice’s location on Italy’s northeastern coast gave them beneficial interaction with Byzantium. So Venice’s decline in power might have less to do with Venice and more to do with the Moslem conquest of Byzantium by 1453. Now the possibility of fruitful interaction ended, and the “center of gravity” shifted away from the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic. This gave Portugal the early advantage in the next growth cycle.
But for Thompson growth and decline involve more than geographic position. Portugal’s quick rise had something to do with geography, but also to the dominance of the aristocracy with a high-born and heroic ideal. As De Tocqueville states, aristocratic societies will eagerly jump into the fray when competition, honor, and glory beckon. They are bred for that sort of thing, and perhaps this explains (along with their geography) why Thompson then suggests that perhaps Portugal held onto their empire for longer than we might expect due to the tenacity of the peasant class seeping into the Portuguese ethos. But it was this lack of a strong merchant middle-class that meant that they could not really implement their enormous gains and diffuse them into the whole of society. Imagine one getting first to Thanksgiving dinner, gorging oneself, but lacking proper digestion. Everything would sit in the belly with none of the nourishment passed to the body, immobilizing the unfortunate eager diner.
Thompson shows himself torn between the deterministic Braudel/Mann and the more fluid Jonathan Israel, who focused on politics. It does appear, however, that he has little time for theories of growth and decline that focus on individual rulers. He offers a lengthy summary of Charles Diehl’s work on Byzantium, whose “traditional interpretation” focuses mainly on the influence of their emperors. Thompson prefers other sociological factors, namely,
A transitional state, between Antiquity and the medieval world, one too whose quixotic obsession with preserving the imperial ideal [agreeing with Toynbee’s spiritual analysis of Byzantium] caused it to clash continuously with new economic, social, and political developments, thus, not altogether surprisingly, can be seen to have experienced the type of decline associated with both types of civilization.
Based on Thompson’s brief summary, I think I would have more sympathy with Diehl than he. But Diehl himself suggests an interesting point of confluence between the political and sociological perspectives when he argues that at a certain point, Byzantium issues lay beyond the help of any one ruler. Eventually concrete sets in that requires a catastrophe to loosen. I like this approach of synthesizing different approaches, but few historians have the necessary nimbleness of mind, personality, and the patience of research to achieve this. Perhaps that leaves us layman needing to seek out different writers with different strengths and different points of view.
*I have tried (feebly) to read Braudel and failed on multiple occasions. How he gathered his research, how he had the patience to do so, is beyond me. I do think, however, that while his methods have much to commend them, writing history without focusing on people seems too clever by half.