Will Durant was the most famous historian from the 20th Century, best known for his 12-book tome, ‘The History of Civilization.’ Book One, ‘Our Oriental Heritage,’ starts with a description of how early civilization evolved, and the first 100 or so odd pages from that book should be required reading.
One of Will Durant’s most enduring observations is that civilizations rise and decline in a predictable, cyclical pattern. All civilizations are borne in the bush (to use Will Durant’s imagery), with a dominant civilization emerging into the clearing. The civilization in the clearing will be the strongest, most advanced civilization, and will often look at other civilizations as ‘barbaric,’ ‘backward,’ or ‘third world.’ None of the civilizations are static, however. The one in the clearing will grow economically, militarily, and structurally strong, but it will also discover the arts, and will develop ample time for leisure. Idle hands lead to idle minds, and the civilization will begin to grow decadent and corrupt. Moral values will decline.
Will Durant said that there are three things a civilization needs to survive, and that any civilization can flourish as long as it has at least two of them. These things are: a shared culture, a shared language, and/or a shared religion. As the culture in the clearing becomes more decadent and corrupt, it begins to lose these things.
In the meantime, the civilizations still ‘in the bush’ are hungry, and though none of them may be as strong as the dominant civilization, the hungry civilizations borrow technologies from the dominant civilization, and grow. Life in the clearing looks easy and fun, whereas life in the bush is difficult, and often short. The civilizations in the bush would like to emerge into the clearing.
Eventually, the civilization in the clearing is so decadent, and so culturally weak, that it can barely support itself, let along hold off the strongest of the civilizations still in the bush. When this happens, the strongest civilization still in the bush will emerge, and destroy the civilization in the clearing.
But the story does not end there. The civilization that emerged from the bush will eat the civilization in the clearing, absorbing much of its culture and technology, and in doing so, the civilization in the bush replaces the civilization in the clearing.
Over time, as the new civilization in the clearing grows and expands, it begins to become more decadent and corrupt, and the whole process starts all over again.
Will Durant’s warning was that there is always another civilization still in the bush, and that one day it will emerge to destroy our own. Will Durant was somewhat fatalistic about this, looking at the rise and fall of civilizations as just another normal cycle of life, like life and death itself. We see the influence of Will Durant all around us. We even see it in popular culture, such as the Lion King’s ‘Circle of Life.’
Henry Kissinger once cautioned Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, that the United States was a nation in decline, and that the Soviet Union was emerging as the pre-eminent world power. Our job, according to Kissinger, was to nudge the new power in the right direction, so that once it took over, it would do a decent job as steward of the world. Fifty years later, Barrack Obama looked at the United States as a nation in decline, and China as the emerging world power. In Europe, the story is that the Christian world is in decline, and Islam is the emerging, dominant power.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Henry Kissinger, but on this point he was wrong. The Soviet Union wanted to be the emerging dominant power, but then, before we declined enough for the Soviet Union to take over (‘We will bury you,’ in the words of Nikita Khrushchev), Ronald Reagan became President, and Ronald Reagan did not listen to Kissinger.
Ronald Reagan had a vision of a stronger, resurgent America – one in which our best days were still ahead of us, and in which the world needed American Exceptionalism more than ever. From Reagan through Clinton, and into the George W. Bush years, America flourished.
George W. Bush was the most hated President I can remember before Trump, and I believe one of the reasons he was hated so much was that he, like Reagan, believed in a stronger, resurgent America. George W. Bush believed in American Exceptionalism.
Jeff Daniels perhaps best captures the mood of the political left, when he says that America is not great. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo said that America was never great. It is, in fact, a common refrain on the political left that America is an evil empire, built on genocide and white supremacy, with the worst human rights record in world history. The New York Times recently ran an entire re-make of American History, based on this view.
Many in America think that America needs to be brought down to size. Barack Obama once said, “My legacy will be an America brought down to the level of the rest of the world.”
Whereas the political right tends to look at America as the greatest force for freedom in human history, much of the political left views America as an oppressive force that must be rebuilt, in the image of other countries. To these people on the left, America is exceptional only in being bad, and America’s dominance of the world stage is an inherently evil thing.
America is at a crossroads, where it must decide whether the future should be one of decline, or one of renewed growth. We must decide whether we still believe in the cultural norms that have defined our nation for the past 230 years, or whether those cultural norms are something from the past. We have to decide whether we are a nation of Christians, or a nation entering a post-Christian age.
A multicultural, multi-language, secular society, such as the left wishes to build, would lack all three of the things Will Durant said a society needs to survive: a shared religion, a shared language, and a shared culture. If we choose the way of the left, we choose decline, and we ensure that even if China does not emerge as the dominant power, our day in the sun is coming to a close.
The political right, on the other hand, promises a renewed period of growth, and a recommitment to American greatness, both as a bastion of freedom and prosperity, and as the dominant player on the world stage.
Dominance, prosperity, greatness, decline, decadence, and poverty – these things are choices. No person, or nation, can decide what they are, as that decision was made in the past, but every nation, and every person, can decide what they aspire to be, and by wise stewardship, each person, and each country, has the power to become whatever it is that it wants to be.
Decline is a choice, and a choice best left to others.
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