The Fate of Empires

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

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John Bagot Glubb, a British soldier in the first and second world war, and British Commander of the Arab Legion during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, wrote a number of books including The Fate of Empires, which examines regularities in the rise and fall of 11 empires over 3000 years. The empires Glubb studied had a lifespan of about ten human generations, or two hundred and fifty years, despite changing factors such as technology. Glubb describes a pattern of growth and decline, with six stages: the Ages of Pioneers, Conquest, Commerce, Affluence, Intellect and Decadence. He pointedly avoided writing about India or China, focusing rather on middle and western eurasia, stating that his knowledge was inadequate to the task.

The Fate of Empires

… There does not appear to be any doubt that money is the agent which causes the decline of this strong, brave and self-confident people. The decline in courage, enterprise and a sense of duty is, however, gradual. The first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a moral one. Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best young men. Moreover, men do not normally seek to make money for their country or their community, but for themselves. Gradually, and almost imperceptibly, the Age of Affluence silences the voice of duty. The object of the young and the ambitious is no longer fame, honour or service, but cash. Education undergoes the same gradual transformation. No longer do schools aim at producing brave patriots ready to serve their country. [ Or to discover great things for all mankind! ] Parents and students alike seek the educational qualifications which will command the highest salaries.

The inadequacy of intellect

Perhaps 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. Even on the low level of practical affairs this is patently untrue. Any small human activity, the local bowling club or the ladies’ luncheon club, requires for its survival a measure of self-sacrifice and service on the part of the members. In a wider national sphere, the survival of the nation depends basically on the loyalty and self-sacrifice of the citizens. The impression that the situation can be saved by mental cleverness, without unselfishness or human self-dedication, can only lead to collapse.

Thus we see that the cultivation of the human intellect seems to be a magnificent ideal, but only on condition that it does not weaken unselfishness and human dedication to service. Yet this, judging by historical precedent, seems to be exactly what it does do. Perhaps it is not the intellectualism which destroys the spirit of self-sacrifice—the least we can say is that the two, intellectualism and the loss of a sense of duty, appear simultaneously in the life-story of the nation.  [  Correlation != Causation  :-)  The point is that the ages of intellectualism and decadence happen at a similar stage of development. ]

Indeed it often appears in individuals, that the head and the heart are natural rivals. The brilliant but cynical intellectual appears at the opposite end of the spectrum from the emotional self-sacrifice of the hero or the martyr. Yet there are times when the perhaps unsophisticated self-dedication of the hero is more essential than the sarcasms of the clever.

… Neither is decadence physical. The citizens of nations in decline are sometimes described as too physically emasculated to be able to bear hardship or make great efforts. This does not seem to be a true picture. Citizens of great nations in decadence are normally physically larger and stronger than those of their barbarian invaders …

See also Duty, Honor, Country:

The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

The 21st century American reality (the Age of Decadence):

“Yeah, I calculated the NPV, and, you know, it’s just not worth it for me. I really believe in your project, though. And, I share your passion. Good luck.”

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.