The Problem of Falls

The Maya, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans. The list goes on and on of civilizations that once reached staggering heights (at least compared to the relative barbarity of most of humanity throughout most of history) only to crumble and fall. Herein lies the problem. The collapses above are so often characterized as happening overnight when in reality, their falls were sometimes centuries in the making. This is not always the case, of course, the Islamic Golden Age ended dramatically with the Mongol sacking of Baghdad. But Barring such dramatics, most of the histories and collapses we bear witness to are far more complicated than a bunch of Central Asian Steppe Riders storming through your lands (not as uncommon as you might think).

Let’s take an example in the Romans (bow before my originality). The laymen’s summary of the fall of Rome is in its sacking by Alaric and his Visigoths in 410 AD. While true in a sense, the destruction of your center of power tends to be a pretty good indication that your civilization is in full collapse, it is not the complete story. Rome had been in binds before. Hannibal with his Carthaginian/Gallic army had rampaged through Italy for a full 17 years before finally being forced out and finally defeated in North Africa by Scipio Africanus. The Roman Civil War between Julius Caesar (Et tu have heard of him?!) and the forces of the Roman Republic certainly did a number. Rome had been through any number of useless, debased, or just plain unlucky Emperors afterwards. Then you, of course, had the crisis of the 3rd century that brought Rome to the brink.

As the ever-bald Andrew Klavan would point out, conservatives always think the end is nigh. Anyone of these previously mentioned episodes would have almost anyone packing their bags for greener pastures. It is only in hindsight that we can view The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but in the end, it is possible for Rome to have climbed up from that 5th-century crisis. So the question then becomes, why do we always tend towards the inevitable in history?

One reason is that we tend to be rather Whiggish in our view of human history. What I mean by this is that we always believe humanity to be advancing to the inevitable present. History with a purpose. For the Marxists, it is dialectics that pushes history forward. The thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of class conflict push history forward. For Straussians, it is the 5,000-year leap-esque view that the inevitable growth and dominance of Western Civilization.

I would argue that the inevitability of civilization is rather foolish. Jonah Goldberg describes the success of the West best as being a miracle. That just the right ideas became adopted at just the right time in just the right place to have just the right effect to produce the Western society that we have today. The freedom we have today, the prosperity, is not the norm. It was produced by historical effects that were in turn affected by a near-infinite series of variables that miraculously produced what we have today.

At the same time as trying to gauge why we rose, we spend an inordinate amount of time on how we will fall. We, in a sense, jump at every shadow, experiencing a great degree of insecurity and neuroticism around maintaining the society we have. This, of course, makes sense. However, where the cautionary advice comes in is not to read too much into the various crisis that comes. The United States will collapse. Whether that be today, tomorrow, or in a few millennia whose to say, but she will. All shall fade; therefore, we must approach each crisis with a certain level of epistemological humility as well as hope.


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