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Rise and fall of empires

December 15, 2011

HISTORY affords us a mosaic of human activity. The human civilisation as we know it today appears to have evolved from the simple harpoons of the hunting bands to the ever-growing complexity of our contemporary machine civilisation. The march seems to be ceaseless and continuous.

This multi-colour mosaic of history is etched with cultural images of the rise and fall of empires established across the globe.

Empires are the highest cultural forms of civilisation-making ability. They are significant because they invest symbolic meaningfulness in human activities. In pyramids, temples, mosques, skyscrapers and churches, synagogues and monasteries, we witness the zeitgeist frozen.

The worldviews which inspired human souls are littered in broken palaces and abandoned gardens. The great cities of the world stand oblivious from human memory, where once glory, dance, music and laughter reigned supreme. What causes the rise of great ‘empires’? The pattern is simple and unmistakable. Human society experiences the birth of a great soul, followed by a profound idea. This creative synthesis leads the unleashing of collective will to move and transform society and nature.

This is then followed by the growth of cultural activities of city-building and architecture, agriculture, industry, literature, arts and music. Finally the new civilisation expands and colonises the neighbouring societies. This then translates into the myth of super-civilisation of the times, which does not allow sharing and cooperative social living with the neighbouring civilisations. This produces conditions of war, conflict and perpetual fight for domination over weaker cultures.

But this zeal of dominant empire to conquer and dominate also jeopardises its own existence. The point of no return thus reaches for the dominant empire to wither away to where its predecessors lie buried.

Paul Kennedy writes that when a great empire loses balance between butter, guns and investments it is then time for that power to say adieu on the theatre of world history. Military overstretch, he further asserts, creates an economic mess culminating in eventual downfall of the great powers. The power once praised becomes a casualty in the hands of depleted resources. This directly makes the law of decline operative on a particular empire.

We just have to look at the Ottoman, Mughal and the British empires. They all bear testimony to this historical insight of Paul Kennedy. On the road to decline one finds signposts of Rhode islands, Marhatta lands and the Nazi fury. Every empire at its zenith becomes a victim of its self-delusional historical immortality. Yes, they do achieve immortality but only in moth-eaten history journals of libraries.

Arnold Toynbee comes up with another interpretation of the ultimate demise of empires. He says that every empire at its time of glory is faced by an ‘internal proletariat’ which challenges its mighty power and hold on world resources. This conflict with internal proletariat weakens the might of the empire and we witness its eventual decline.

There are two more great historians who have tried to explain empires: Oswald Spengler and Ibn-i-Khaldun. Spengler looks at the empire as one of the cultural-expression form of human creative energy which is bound to wither away after fulfilling its eventual destiny. Civilisation as its frozen product needs to be appreciated and enjoyed. It is a continuous cycle of rise and fall; there is no metaphysical mystery in it.

Ibn-i-Khaldun looks at the problem in a psychological-cultural context. He asserts that when a ‘group-feeling’ becomes strong enough in a human group, the empire is bound to rise. When this group-feeling gradually weaken due to luxuries of civilised life in cities, the empire gradually steeps in decline. However, he makes the observation in line with Spengler that the ‘rise and fall’ is a cyclical process. It takes approximately 300 years for a dominant empire to decline and decay.

There are profound insights in the observations of these great minds. What are we doing when we are on the ‘rise’ as individuals? Are we aware of our eventual decline and decay? If we are conscious of our decay, how are we leading our lives?

Do we share our intellectual, financial and personal resources for the well-being of our fellow human beings? Or do we consume and then perish leaving our bank accounts to be plundered and consumed by others?

Do we share our extra piece of bread with a hungry person? Are we ready to share our clothes, shelter and knowledge with those who do not own these things? Are we ready to listen to the cries of the depleting ecological system and its consequences? Are we ready to change and listen to our hearts and stop killing innocent human beings who do not agree with our worldviews?

The human civilisation today is faced with global challenges and if we do not respond responsibly and intelligently, we are doomed as the human species. No history shall inherit our world.

The writer is a social scientist based at the School of Business and Economics, University of Management and Technology, Lahore.