If Civilization is Worth Doing, it’s Worth Doing Badly

Historian Arnold Toynbee takes the long view–the very long view, on the fall of Rome.  We think of Rome as a grand empire, but Toynbee reminds us both in his book Hellenism, and in Hannibal’s Legacy, that Rome originally organized itself very much like other Greek city-states.  The early Roman Republic was essentially a polis.  As they grew in size, the political dynamics changed until little to nothing remained of its more democratic past.  But if we think of Rome as a “Republic” first and foremost, we should place the decline of Rome somewhere in the transition between the 3rd-2nd cenutry B.C. at the absolute latest.*

Toynbee takes this approach because he sees civilizations operating in a spiritual sense.  He focuses on the beliefs, the internal coherence, the relationships between different groups in society, and so on.  He has long sections in volumes five and six of his multi-volume A Study of History on the “schism in the soul” present in declining civilizations, which might strike one with a more materialist bent as rather absurd.

Niall Ferguson takes a different approach, and I believe that I see common themes in his books, Civilization, Colossus, and Empire.  Ferguson sees civilization running on various physical platforms, such as the quality of roads, a good sewer system, and a good way of gathering and using tax revenue.**  He eschewed the idea of slow, steady decline–or at least one that we could observe in any meaningful way.  For him, the system works until suddenly it doesn’t, and no one can really predict when it will stop working. This explains why no one saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming, or various stock-market crashes.  The collapses, when they come, will therefore come out of the blue suddenly.

Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Socieities is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject. Tainter does a good job with his argument, which I admit even I though I disagree with some of his basic premises.

His argument boils down to a few key points:

  • Major civilizations tend to experience an early period of rapid growth through the ‘low hanging fruit’ of available territory, resources, etc.
  • This growth inevitably leads to specialization, stratification, and complexity which initially serves growth–though this “low-hanging fruit” won’t last forever.
  • The civilization plateau’s and the structure established to help it grow becomes an inextricable  part of society just at the moment that it is no longer really needed.
  • When the ‘low hanging fruit’ disappears, further expansion (be it territorial, trade-oriented) becomes less and less profitable, and eventually starts to work against the civilization.
  • Finally, the complex structure gets too unwieldy, a ball and chain, as the state has to spend more and more to get less and less. But now we depend on the structure.   It has become too big to fail, but like a house of cards, easy to knock over.

Tainter supports his theory well from civilizations across time, and uses very obvious info, like territory, and some other more unusual information, like crop yields, colonial administrations, and so on. No doubt there are many lessons for economists here.

But, while his book is valuable, it has big holes.

In his quest for absolute objectivity, he rejects all value-judgment theories of collapse. If you can’t measure it, it’s not useful. We can never be sure exactly a civilization really believes, and even if we could, it is not an objective field of study, so has nothing to contribute to the study of collapse. After a brief summary of  the work of people like Gibbon, Toynbee, Spengler, and others he dismisses them with a wave of his hand. But as C.S. Lewis once pointed out, very few people are actually German economists. Any study of history must involve people, which will involve more than graphs on paper.

This over-emphasizing of economics shows up in what is actually a thought-provoking idea. What happens after collapse, he argues, may actually be beneficial to society, because it removes a great deal of inefficiency that the old system labored under. Collapse, might be the cleansing forest fires of history, events to almost welcome.

This sounds good on paper, but no actual human being who lived through collapses would have agreed with him. Imagine living in Western Europe ca. 550 AD and thinking, “Boy, I sure am glad for the fall of Rome. Of course, our ramshackle village could be overrun, destroyed, and our people pillaged who knows when by some Goth, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Vandal, Hun, or some other kind of Goth I have forgotten about. But I’ll take that any day over the economic inefficiency of the late Roman Empire.”

To augment Chesterton’s oft-quoted phrase (If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” “If civilization is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”



*I love and admire Toynbee for many reasons.  But in some places he puts the decline of Rome at 431 B.C. (!), the same year as the outbreak of the Pelopponesian War in Greece.  He does this mostly because he sees much more similarity than difference between Greece and Rome.  One can make that argument, and he does so decently in his Recollections, but to carry it so far as to say that Rome began declining when Athens hit the wall goes way too far.

**In some ways the difference between Toynbee and Ferguson boils down, as (almost) always, to the differences between Plato and Aristotle.  Both are great–I prefer Toynbee and Plato.


I almost always find Toynbee stimulating, and I include some of his collected thoughts on the fall of Rome . . .

It is indeed, one of the tragic ironies that the idealists that arise within the ruling class should tread the same path of social migration as the wastrels.  The Graachi worked far greater havoc through a nobility [in the late Republic] to which someone like Commodus could never aspire. Commodus did far less damage by his own social truancy [i.e., pretending to be Hercules, fighting in the arena, etc.], by engaging in a vulgarity that represents a spiritual malaise, to which the Graachi would never fall.  

By their ‘downward migration’ towards the plebs, the Graachi incurred the wrath of their fellows, who punished them severely for abandoning their class privilege.  Commodus is uneventfully swallowed by the slough in which he delighted to wallow, whereas the Graachi released a kind of demonic energy into the masses of Rome.


Seneca writes ca. A.D. 60 concerning the social function of the Emperor in one of his treatises. . .


“He is the bond that holds the Commonwealth together, he is the breath of life is breathed by his subjects, who in themselves would be nothing but a burden and a prey if they were left to their own devices through the removal of a presence which is the soul of the Empire.


Their king is safe?  One mind informs them all;

Lost?  They break faith straightway.


If this calamity, written about by Vergil in his Georgics (IV, 212-13), which he imagines overtaking the bees, would overtake us, the people would be safe so long as it does not snap the reins, or–if they refuse to be bridled again.  Should this happen–then the texture of this mighty empire would be rent and its present tidiness would fly apart into a hundred shreds. Rome will cease to rule the moment they cease to render obedience.”

A foretaste of the fulfillment of the prophecy that Seneca made to the Emperor Nero was inflicted on the Roman world in A.D. 68-69 as an immediate result of Nero’s tyranny; but the first time round this calamity acted as a stimulus, for after the chaos Rome got Vespasian as emperor and relative calm.  Though Domitian (d. A.D. 96) tried his utmost to revive the chaos by claiming deity for himself, the tide was turned by a series of beneficial philosopher emperors who succeeded one another from Nerva (A.D. 96) through Marcus Aurelius (d. A.D. 180).

It was only after Marcus that the new “time of troubles” set in, and even then foolishness of Commodus managed to right itself after the civil wars of Severus, who repeated Vespasian’s work, though with a rougher and less skilled hand.  It was only after the death of Alexander Severus (A.D. 235) that the storm broke with shattering and uncontrollable violence.


And finally, some of his thoughts on the drawn out length of Roman decline:

In the downward course of a civilization there is truth in the saying of the philosopher Heraclitus: “War is the father of all things.”  The sinister concentration of the resources of a civilization upon the business of fratricidal warfare may generate a military prowess that will place their neighbors at their mercy, may create a military technique that may grant them a far reaching technical mastery over the merely “Material World.”   

Since it is common to reckon success primarily by power and wealth, the opening chapters in the decline of a civilization will be hailed as times of blessing and growth, and this misconception can persist even for centuries.  Sooner or later, however, disillusionment is bound to follow, for a society that is hopelessly divided against itself is almost certain to try and double down on military might, for that is what seemed to work initially.

For example, we see the money-power and man-power won for Greek society by Alexander the Great, and these same vast resources used to intensify the civil wars between Alexander’s successors.  This same power swept into Roman hands through the meteoric rise in Rome’s land and wealth ca. 241-146 B.C. was just as quickly spent in the various civil wars that wracked Rome before the rise of Augustus and the Pax Romana.  For Spain, the treasure gained in the new world and the free labor of the essentially enslaved native populations was the food for their wars in Europe during the late 16th and early 17th centuries–the same wars that brought them into second-rate power status in Europe.

Thus the increasing command over the environment gained is apt to bestow upon a society a disintegration that puts a greater driving power into the suicidally demented society’s chosen work of self-destruction; and that story turns out to be a simple illustration of the theme that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  And again, the empires of industrialized Europe in the late 19th century gained the material resources to nearly destroy European civilization in our great Western civil war of 1914-18.

[Toynbee goes on to argue at length that Augustan synthesis bought Rome time, and brought Rome increased prosperity, nevertheless, it was an “Indian Summer” that lasted about 175 years that did nothing to fix Rome’s basic issues or  prevent the coming winter.]




10th Grade: The Death of a King

Greetings to all,

This week we looked at the building tension between Parliament and Charles I.  The civil war that eventually came would, in the long term, change the way the western world thought of political power.

As I mentioned last week, Charles inherited the ideas of absolute monarchy from his father James.  As some commentators, have suggested, however, there was a difference.  For James absolutism was an intellectual question, and thus a conviction he could dispense with, or at least minimize, when the time called for it.  For Charles, absolutism was a emotional issue, and one associated with his religious convictions.  It ran deeper for him, he believed in it with his heart instead of his head.

It would be wrong to say that Charles coveted power for the sake of power.  His conception of England was a realm that needed a shepherd.  He viewed England in personal terms.  His “High Church” Anglicanism serves as an example of this.  Yes, Charles liked ceremony, but also believed ceremony and pageantry appealed to masses, many of whom could not read.  He saw himself as their protector from the more “intellectual” Puritans.  His parliamentarian opponents saw England I think, in terms of institutions, and these institutions for them were the guarantee of the people’s liberties.  Both sides saw the same picture from different perspectives, and different aspects of the picture had different meanings for them.

Among the issues at stake:

Should something be considered legal if it is within the letter but not necessarily the spirit of the law?  Is the letter or the spirit of the law a better guarantee of liberty?

To understand this question, the issue at hand was Charles’s refusal to rule with Parliament, and his collection of the ‘Ship’s Tax.’  Being an introvert and socially awkward, I think Charles hated Parliament.  He did not hate every MP, but he did hate the crowd, the glad-handing, the politicking of it all.  Charles lacked people skills. It was just so much easier, on a number of levels, for him to rule alone without Parliament’s help.  As king, he was not required to call Parliament at all, except when he wanted new taxes.
Charles tried to keep expenses down but every government needs money at some point.  The ‘Ship’s Tax’ was a law still on the books from a few generations prior, but it had fallen into disuse.  It was used as a war-time measure to raise money when under the threat of invasion.   The last time it had been collected was back in the days when Elizabeth used it as a special measure to help prepare defense against the Spanish Armada.  Charles resurrected the tax.  Technically it was not a ‘new’ tax, for it had been collected before.  But Charles was using the tax as a means of general, not special revenue, and he did so to avoid calling for Parliament’s approval for any new taxes.  Charles was within the letter, but not the spirit of the law.  The tax was not “new” in the sense that it had once been collected, albeit with a different purpose in mind.  But Charles revived the tax not under threat of invasion, but as a loophole to avoid Parliament altogether.
By definition, can the king be a traitor?  If so, what would he have to do to merit that approbation?  If one conceives of the king personally embodying England itself then the answer is no.  But if one sees the king as a steward over something outside of himself, then it becomes a possibility.  Charles obviously viewed himself in the former sense, and Parliament the latter.  But at the time, no consensus existed on this question.

Should a bad, or ineffective king, be given complete loyalty?  Does the power of the king depend on how he rules, or on his office?

In the end, Parliament put Charles on trial for treason.  He had, they claimed, made war on his own people and trampled on the Constitution.  Furthermore, he had lied to them and negotiated with the Scots to invade on his behalf, while negotiating in supposed good faith with Parliament.  But the Parliament that tried Charles was not the full Parliament.  The army booted out those whom they suspected that Charles bought off, including the whole House of Lords.  Parliament may have the power to try the king, but was this Parliament?  Charles, at the trial, refused to enter a plea for this reason.  He argued that while “a power” faced him, law did not, which the following clip illustrates. . .

Charles never actually had a trial.  When he refused to enter a plea Parliament found him guilty “in abstentia” (though of course it did not take 2:30 as in the movie clip!).  Though I personally think that Parliament had a good case against Charles, they forced the issue and gave Charles back some dignity and legitimacy when they did not use the full Parliament to put him on trial.

At the end of this week we assigned lawyers to prosecute and defend Charles, as well as witnesses for the defense and prosecution.  I hope the students will have fun with our own mini ‘mock-trial’ and come away with a greater understanding of England during the mid-1600’s.  But as we will discuss next week, the past is not wholly “past.”  Our own ‘War on Terror’ has raised many of the same questions that faced the English.  Should torture ever be used, as Charles did, in time of war?  How far does the power of the president extend in war time?  Bush, for example, defended his extensive wire-tapping as a necessary war-time measure even if it was in a distinctly grey constitutional area, as this article notes.
These are many of the same dilemmas, in an obviously different context, that the English dealt with in 1650.  I hope students will make the connections.
Dave Mathwin
*Observe, for example, how in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” the kings of France and England call each other “Brother France,” and “Brother England.”