I. Everybody Knows
We all know, more or less, about why people come and go, psychologists come and go, historians come and go, good and bad politicians come and go, but we know less about why civilizations come and go.
Since the lifetime of civilizations tends to be outside our common senses and experiences, the subject of the life and death of civilizations does not tend to occur to us.
Only a few have pondered it like Arnold J. Toynbee has (see photo).
Actually, simply exploring this subject is an exercise that will likely cause us to receive different answers from different people if we ask them what 'civilization' means (What Do You Mean - World Civilization?).
Likewise, if we ask someone what "Western Civilization" means, the answers may vary (Dredd Blog on "MOMCOM civilization", cf. Oil-Qaeda & MOMCOM Conspire To Commit Depraved-Heart Murder- 6).
II. Toynbee's Microscope
Toynbee wrote volumes about two dozen or so civilizations that we only think about when we are in a history class or a library, however, unlike us he didn't just skim the surface, no, he followed ugly all the way to the bone:
"In other words, a society does not ever die 'from natural causes', but always dies from suicide or murder --- and nearly always from the former, as this chapter has shown."(A Study of History, by Arnold J. Toynbee). What? Suicide? Murder? ... He was no ordinary historian was he?
That is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, as a world famous encyclopedia points out:
"In the Study Toynbee examined the rise and fall of 26 civilizations in the course of human history, and he concluded that they rose by responding successfully to challenges under the leadership of creative minorities composed of elite leaders. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to the sins of nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority.(Encyclopedia Britannica, emphasis added). Previous posts in this series have zeroed in on the question of what "tyranny" and "despotic minority" meant to him.
III. Siggy's Microscope
Another famous person now practically relegated to the realm of mythology, Sigmund Freud, pointed out the necessity of developing a way of diagnosing the time when a civilization was entering into "suicide" mode:
"If the evolution of civilization has such a far reaching similarity with the development of an individual, and if the same methods are employed in both, would not the diagnosis be justified that many systems of civilization——or epochs of it——possibly even the whole of humanity——have become neurotic under the pressure of the civilizing trends? To analytic dissection of these neuroses, therapeutic recommendations might follow which could claim a great practical interest. I would not say that such an attempt to apply psychoanalysis to civilized society would be fanciful or doomed to fruitlessness. But it behooves us to be very careful, not to forget that after all we are dealing only with analogies, and that it is dangerous, not only with men but also with concepts, to drag them out of the region where they originated and have matured. The diagnosis of collective neuroses, moreover, will be confronted by a special difficulty. In the neurosis of an individual we can use as a starting point the contrast presented to us between the patient and his environment which we assume to be normal. No such background as this would be available for any society similarly affected; it would have to be supplied in some other way. And with regard to any therapeutic application of our knowledge, what would be the use of the most acute analysis of social neuroses, since no one possesses power to compel the community to adopt the therapy? In spite of all these difficulties, we may expect that one day someone will venture upon this research into the pathology of civilized communities. [p. 39]"(Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, 1929, emphasis added). Do you wonder why that therapy was never developed (When You Are Governed By Psychopaths - 2)?
"Men have brought their powers of subduing the forces of nature
to such a pitch that by using them they could now very easily exterminate one another to the last man. They know this——hence arises a great part of their current unrest, their dejection, their mood of apprehension. [p. 40]"
IV. Post Toynbee Views
One way to estimate a civilization's (or empire's) chances of pulling out of 'a' or 'the' nosedive is to identify its momentum:
"... we’ve now reached the point where our chances of ever exiting the nightmare are shrinking. There was a lot of vote-rigging, etc., under ..., but we’re now within striking range of becoming a de facto one-party autocracy — someplace we’ve been heading at least since ..."(Our chances of ever exiting the nightmare are shrinking). There are other ways of course, and one those ways is predominant (ignore the nose-dive).
In the annals of history and herstory, as the chances of pulling out shrink, the hope-and-don't-worry-be-happy trances increase.
This can be disastrous to personal reputation, country, etc.:
"The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression cost Fisher much of his personal wealth and academic reputation. He [in]famously predicted, nine days before the crash, that stock prices had 'reached what looks like a permanently high plateau'."(Wikipedia). Fishing expeditions under false hopes can end up in disaster because not knowing reality from fantasy is basically an Amygdala dynamic (Comparing a Group-Mind Trance to a Cultural Amygdala).
V. Closing Comments
Events related to the many potential futures before us even give scientists and their tools some shock from time to time (Climate Model Problem?, Icy Dicey Truth, Ocean currents are speeding up faster than scientists predicted, Multiple eco-crises could trigger 'systemic collapse': scientists).
Same with politicians who think that elections are the cure Sigmund Freud was talking about (Lessons Learned From The Iowa Caucuses, And Danger Signs Ahead).
That a civilization "does not ever die 'from natural causes', but always dies from suicide or murder" makes civilizations unlike humans, because the vast majority of humans die from natural causes rather than by suicide or murder.
Civilization, then, perhaps is not really human after all (The Machine Religion).
The previous post in this series is here.
Did I mention 'Everybody Knows'?