Here are excerpts and minor commentary on Lieutenant General Sir John Bagot Glubb’s “The Fate of Empires“, an essay which describes, at least for the West and for nations closely allied with the West, their rises and falls.
Glubb claims to have discovered a rough pattern in the history of empires. Western and Near Eastern ones, at any rate. He admits ignorance of empires of the East, Africa, and our great southern continent. From the Assyrian to the Persian to the Greek to the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire and so on up to once Great Britain, all empires last about 250 years, a period of time which, says Glubb, has remarkably little variation. The dates are not sharp, of course, but neither are they in great dispute.
All empires begin in rough, hardy, even foolhardy outbursts, led my men, more of less homogeneous in race, who treasure most adventure, duty and honor and who believe in a higher calling. If successful, trade begins and the money rolls in leading to an age of affluence.
From there, men’s minds turn from conquest and exploration and turn inward to the pursuit of greater wealth. Money soon trumps duty, honor, and religion. A defensive attitude predominates. Then, invariably says Glubb, arises the Age of Intellect. The once conquering princes “found and endow colleges and universities. It is remarkable with what regularity this phase follows on that of wealth, in empire after empire, divided by many centuries.” In the USA and Britain, “Now almost every city has its university.”
Great and wondrous things arise from the intellectual outburst. At first. “[I]n the age of Mamun, the Arabs measured the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy.” But under the theory that nothing succeeds like excess comes noise.
As in the case of the Athenians, intellectualism leads to discussion, debate and argument, such as is typical of the Western nations today. Debates in elected assemblies or local committees, in articles in the Press or in interviews on television—endless and incessant talking.
Men are interminably different, and intellectual arguments rarely lead to agreement. Thus public affairs drift from bad to worse, amid an unceasing cacophony of argument. But this constant dedication to discussion seems to destroy the power of action. Amid a Babel of talk, the ship drifts on to the rocks.
I cannot say that this blog does not contribute to the babble. Similarly, councils of war often lead to timidity, inaction, fear.
“Perhaps,” says Glubb, “the most dangerous by-product of the Age of Intellect is the unconscious growth of the idea that the human brain can solve the problems of the world.” Though Glubb doesn’t put it this way, can quickly devolves to should. And then the real trouble begins. “Another remarkable and unexpected symptom of national decline is the intensification of internal political hatreds.”
Wealth entices foreigners, and the defensive posture and newfound generosity of the rulers allows the influx. “Historical examples of this phenomenon are scarcely needed. The idle and captious Roman mob, with its endless appetite for free distributions of food—bread and games—is notorious, and utterly different from that stern Roman spirit which we associate with the wars of the early republic.”
Even “Second- or third-generation foreign immigrants may appear outwardly to be entirely assimilated”, but as Glubb later says, when the breakdown invariably comes. He emphasizes, “that I do not wish to convey the impression that immigrants are inferior to older stocks. They are just different, and they thus tend to introduce cracks and divisions.” And “when decline sets in, it is extraordinary how the memory of ancient wars, perhaps centuries before, is suddenly revived, and local or provincial movements appear demanding secession or independence.” Mexicans still sting over the loss of California and Texas.
“A universal pessimism gradually pervades the people, and itself hastens the decline.” Frivolity, says Grubb, becomes the main occupation. “Gladiatorial shows, chariot races and athletic events were [the Roman’s] passion. In the Byzantine Empire the rivalries of the Greens and the Blues in the hippodrome attained the importance of a major crisis.”
Judging by the time and space allotted to them in the Press and television, football and baseball are the activities which today chiefly interest the public in Britain and the United States respectively.
The heroes of declining nations are always the same—the athlete, the singer or the actor. The word ‘celebrity’ today is used to designate a comedian or a football player, not a statesman, a general, or a literary genius.
As it was declining, the remnant in Baghdad “commented bitterly on the extraordinary influence acquired by popular singers over young people, resulting in a decline in sexual morality… In the second half of the tenth century, as a result, much obscene sexual language came increasingly into use, such as would not have been tolerated in an earlier age.”
In what is sure to set off the loudest noise is Grubb’s observation that an “increase in the influence of women in public life has often been associated with national decline…In the tenth century, a similar tendency was observable in the Arab Empire, the women demanding admission to the professions hitherto monopolised by men.” Soon after the women were granted entry, “government and public order collapsed, and foreign invaders overran the country.” Grubb doesn’t say if Arabic women stood at their borders with signs reading “Refugees Welcome.”
The increasing welfare found at the end of all empires dries coffers, saps resolve, and erases memories. “The rights of citizenship are generously bestowed on every race, even those formerly subject, and the equality of mankind is proclaimed.” In Baghdad, “University students received government grants to cover their expenses while they were receiving higher education. The State likewise offered free medical treatment to the poor.” Glubb did not put scare quotes around “free”. “The impression that it will always be automatically rich causes the declining empire to spend lavishly on its own benevolence, until such time as the economy collapses”. The late great philosopher David Stove identified benevolence as the care that is killing us.
It is obvious that the decline in religion is found near all ends. It is “inevitable at such times that men should look back yearningly to the days of ‘religion’, when the spirit of self-sacrifice was still strong enough to make men ready to give and to serve, rather than to snatch.” Yet decadence can motivate self-sacrifice. “Some of the greatest saints in history lived in times of national decadence, raising the banner of duty and service against the flood of depravity and despair.” But recall saints are often accompanied, or are themselves, martyrs.
In short, “A community of selfish and idle people declines, internal quarrels develop in the division of its dwindling wealth, and pessimism follows, which some of them endeavour to drown in sensuality or frivolity. In their own surroundings, they are unable to redirect their thoughts and their energies into new channels.”
Glubb identifies no cure. None appears to exist. Once it settles into the bones, the rot is ineradicable. Discussing the doom hastens the doom. Yet remaining silent seems absurd. The parallels between the other failures and ourselves are obvious: those who can see know them only too well. For these folks, giving in to sensuality or frivolity will not be countenanced. It is from this small pool we will find our saints.
The only real questions are: how much longer, and who will be our replacement? The year 2026 may represent an important anniversary for the good old USA. ISIS made a good stab at an empire, and though it has been somewhat beaten back, may yet succeed.