It remains out of vogue in our age of political correctness to speak of either growth or decline of civilizations. But I do believe that their are criteria to discover a field of intelligibility from which to study and determine whether or not a civilization is in decline or expansion.
Throughout this post I would like to provide for the reader a view of some veritable positions that only seem true, they are often thought of as criteria determining a growing civilization. We must remain skeptical to insist that such criteria is purely extrinsic in character. We will see that they are by themselves inconclusive.
A civilization is most stimulated when its challenge is one of a mean between an excess of severity and a deficiency. But we must ask about the challenge in which a civilization is just barely capable of coping? This is by far the most stimulating challenge imaginable. However, most civilizations have succumbed to this most challenging circumstance. The Polynesians, Eskimos, Nomads, Spartans and Ottomans are all examples of civilizations that were overcome in just coping. Note that both Spartans and Ottomans were challenged by human environments! All paid the fatal penalty in the shape of becoming arrested in their development. We must conclude that the evocation of the greatest response is not the ultimate test of whether a specific challenge is optimum from the standpoint of evocation. The real challenge is one that not only stimulates a response but permits the aggrieved party momentum which carries him further from achievement to another fresh struggle. We are not interested in a single finite movement from disturbance to restoration of equilibrium if genesis is to be followed by true growth. One immediate intrinsic criteria for growth is the inspiration to be continuously challenged.
The very first challenge presented to the new born Hellenic civilization was the challenge of mastering the disintegration of her sister Minoan Society which had left enormous social debris throughout Greece. This first challenge was met by lowand Greeks mastering agriculture and turing Athens into a dominant City State. In doing so these cultivators had mastered the shepherds and brigands of the mountains. This very success exposed such victors to a political, social challenge of mastering the challenge of over-population. The Hellenic response was one of discernment based on alternative experiments, until one gained traction.
The ruling aristocratic caste of Athens demonstrated superior tactical and strategic skills in developing and implementing superior political, military craft over both her neighbors and resident foreign born aliens. It was this success that brought down a new challenge upon the victors. What the Athenians had done in their success was a challenge to all other regions. Eventually, the challenge of overpopulation, and its attendant political success in the birth of the Athenian City State was answered by Persia. The Persian defeat brought the Peloponnesian War and the implosion of Greece.
Civilizations do not demonstrate growth through geographic extension or through the improvements of technique. We can find throughout history, a concomitant real decline with expansion. We point the reader to study the histories of Assyria, Babylon, Aztec or Mayan Empires. All demonstrated sufficient geographic expansion which was the by product of militarism and ultimate defeat. Prussia and Germany in the late 20th century followed this same trajectory. The reader should be aware that both Thucydides and Herodotus claimed their study within the purview of general decline. It was only later western historians that refused to acknowledge the historical antecedents noted above that produced decline. The same trajectory albeit with far more violence can be found when anyone studies the ‘Period of Contending States’ or ‘The Warring States Period’ in Chinese history. During the growth of Chinese civilization, the domain of its growth never exceeded beyond the basin of the Yellow River. With violent expansion of under Ts’in She Hwang-ti (pronounced Sing Swang-Tea) all of geographical China was dominated. Here expansion and violent social disintegration were one.
The history of most civilizations furnishes plenty of examples of geographical expansion coinciding with improvements of technique. We could provide examples of Polynesians who excelled in navigation, Eskimo’s as fishermen, the Spartans as soldiers, Nomads as archers and horsemen and Ottomans and tamers of men. A more synoptic view avails the reader of deterioration within such improvement and expansion.
The question remains: what is the criteria to discern either growth or decline in cultures or civilizations? The answer is simple: the criterion of growth is a progressive change of emphasis, a shifting of the scene of action from extrinsic categories, whether human or physical, to intrinsic categories, where individuals manifest an inward self-articulation. In a word: self determination. The mistake is to think description of growth exclusively in terms of an external field. (Please do read my posts on Shakespeare and how/why his tragedies are sufficient quarry for politics.)
Simply put, the Empires of the ancient world were confronted and dominated by challenges resulting from victorious responses from previous extrinsic challenges. Because none possessed a grasp of human freedom (exposed by revelation in the Church, see my post ‘The Specificity of Christian Ethics’ or ‘Why Study Ancient Civilizations’), neither could sufficiently perceive nor gain traction in any response. Nobody understood the link between the political and spiritual. The link exists in reality because the human person is an indissoluble reality.
Only with the arrival of Christianity is man truly free to both perceive, conceive and respond effectively to the challenges of his time.
The question remains, given the field of intelligibility as increasing self determination, can human freedom destroy itself in a field of radical autonomy?