WHY SOCIETIES COLLAPSE
(EXPLAINED IN ABOUT 3 MINUTES)
So again, why do societies collapse?
That's the question we launched here, in Part I.
The explanations there relied heavily on the word "God."
But are there explanations that don't?
After all, plenty of people want to describe the above in a way that’s purely scientific.
And by “scientific,” they often mean “an explanation that doesn’t involve anything close to God, religion, or spirituality.”
They assume that any scientific explanation must have a materialistic (or atheistic) worldview in order to be legitimate. They assume that God, spirituality, or religion are entirely subjective, personal opinions that don’t belong in respectable models of how societies rise or fall.
Agnostics tend to define the word “God” as “something or someone I don’t know anything about.” Atheists tend to define the word as “something/someone I don’t believe in.” They tend to assume purely material causes for things, and explain everything in terms of economics, politics, technology, finance, geography, or millions of other possible physical factors across multiple different fields.
To leave the validity of these assumptions aside – and without asking someone to rethink their entire life philosophy – can we describe the collapse of societies in ways that align with this approach?
It seems so.
The same essential dynamics can occur, but seen from a different perspective.
The dynamics described above are still governed by human nature.
They’re ultimately a psychological process.
While geography, economics, technology, and so on can be important factors in various ways, societies generally live or die based on the actions of human beings. Individual people are the ones who invent and use technologies, take part in economies, live in certain geographical regions, and so on.
The real matter, then, is eventually one of human nature. Our nature.
It also depends on our thinking. If a person narrowly avoids a terrible accident or recovers unexpectedly from an illness, that person might describe it as an act of God, fate, skill, or pure chance. Again, their explanation will depend on their worldview or life philosophy. If they explain it as an act of God, they’re probably a theist. If their explanation is fate, they’re probably a deist. If it’s skill, they’re probably an existentialist (since the outcome was determined by themselves.) If it’s pure chance, they’re nihilistic. And if they give up on trying to explain it at all, they’re agnostic.
And the same dynamics that apply on a large scale apply to the individual.
The same drama can play out in a single person or in a million people. There’s a difference in quantity, but not quality.
So, an entire society can experience “The Death of God,” as Nietzsche described. But a single individual can also experience The Death of God on a personal level, as Nietzsche experienced.
If the rejection of God, or one’s “conscience,” or one’s very self is something that actually can occur in one human being on a personal level, then the same thing can happen to many on a wider scale, in the way society is one person multiplied to many.
This all brings us back to the question: how might an atheist or agnostic describe a societal self-destruction?
The easiest way might be to substitute one word.
For the word “God,” take the same explanation above, but substitute the word “truth.” Therefore:
We’re living through “the death of truth.”
Humans have forgotten truth. If truth doesn’t exist, or even if you cease believing in it, it’s not that you suddenly believe “nothing.” It’s that you’ll believe anything. And if you’ll believe anything, then everything is permitted. Truth is the soul of a culture, and a society or culture which has lost its roots in truth is a dying culture.
This might seem far-fetched or theoretical. But in many universities and mainstream thought today, the dominant epistemology is “social constructivism.” Social constructivists assume that “reality is a social construct.” In other words, we create truth. We don’t know any “truth” aside from what we ourselves perceive, create, or “socially construct.”
But if “reality is a social construct,” then this raises the question: who or what is in charge of the “social construct”? That is to say, who is in charge of “reality”?
The answer often is, “It’s just us.”
According to this perspective, it’s just us – which is to say, there is no “God” or even “objective truth” to factor in.
This kind of thinking is a certain strain of the existential worldview. It assumes that God/Truth/Reality is unknown and unknowable (“We’re trapped in The Matrix with no way out.”) This strain of thought traces back to Kant, and before him, the Skeptics, and others. And since there’s no hope in that direction – since there’s no way out of Plato’s Cave – then who has been left in charge? We are.
And so, it’s an existential version of Home Alone (we’ve been abandoned are left on our own in the universe) which soon becomes Children of the Corn (we go crazy and even get a little murdery).
Since “we’re in charge here,” as the thinking goes, it’s up to us to make reality what we want. If there’s any kind of God or god, then, it’s us – and therefore, the real fun lies not in discovering reality, but creating it.
This gives rise to many different visions of what reality should be.
Within this perspective, humans would get to define and create reality. It’s as if we’re all playing football, and each of us can write our own version of the NFL Rulebook.
We’d soon have very different ideas about how the game should be played. This manifests in very different visions of utopia, or ideas about what the world should be.
Some of these visions are harmless. Some become humanism, fascism, communism, various cults or isms, or other dreams of paradise, imbued with varying degrees of sanity.
But then one person’s idea of paradise is usually somewhat different from another’s.
And then, well - things can get hairy.
There is no common identity or even reality with this approach, after all.
And so naturally, folks will tend to disagree. Before long, people are essentially living in parallel universes. No one can agree on anything, or even understand each other. They tend to assume that they are good and others – especially those who don’t mirror their exact vision of utopia – are evil. The world then becomes a Tower of Babel and dissolves into conflict.
This basic logic can play itself out on an even simpler level – for example, with corruption. Along with The Death of God comes the death of high ideals – ideals such as honesty and duty, for example, which we aim at and orient our lives around.
When these dissolve, then many aspects of morality dissolve. What’s left are codes to live by that are entirely self-serving. And when this happens, why refuse a bribe? Why not cheat? Why not bend the rules for personal benefit? The definition of “ethical behavior” from Aldo Leopold comes into play: “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” Without ideals – reasons to do the right thing even when there’s no clear personal gain – the natural, inevitable result is widespread corruption. Widespread corruption leads to a breakdown of law and order, which eventually leads to a breakdown of civilization.
But this could also be rephrased more simply.
It could be described in the way of a few basic dynamics.
For example, there’s a popular saying (of unknown origin):
Hard times make strong men.
Strong men make good times.
Good times make weak men.
Weak men make hard times.
A similar pattern that echoes this comes from historicist Sir John Glubb in his essay “The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival.” There, he describes a consistent pattern in the rise and fall of great nations – how they’re born and when they die.
First, he describes an “age of pioneers.”
Then there’s an “age of conquests.”
Then an age of “commerce.”
Then an age of “affluence.”
Then an age of “intellect.”
Then, an age of “decadence.”
Others have proposed similar models.
The latter stages of all this could be summed up in a single word.
The word is “oikophobia.”
Societies, like people, seem to have a lifecycle. If all goes well, adults survive infancy and toddlerhood to eventually reach adolescence and then adulthood. This lifecycle, if all goes well and a society grows to maturity, will eventually lead to a confrontation with oikophobia.
Oikophobia might be described most simply as “self-hatred.”
It could also be defined as "self-rejection."
As described in depth by Benedict Beckeld, oikophobia is the opposite of xenophobia. Where xenophobia is a fear or hatred of others, oikophobia is a fear or hatred of oneself. “Oikophobia is the felt need to denigrate one’s own culture.” (Beckeld, Western Self-Contempt: Oikophobia in the Decline of Civilizations, 12) It’s “not so much the product of sensitivity and a thoughtful process as it is a vain malaise that befalls cultures at a certain point in their development.” (10) “The oikophobe…holds his own community and his own culture to be worse than other cultures and communities.” (7)
How does oikophobia come about?
According to Beckeld, oikophobia can be found in any societies that manage to achieve enough wealth, security, and freedom for its leisure class to attack its own civilization.
Once the basic necessities of life are taken care of, we face the problem of figuring out what to do with ourselves.
And our solutions to that problem can be pretty bad.
This often plays out in the lives of the wealthy – especially children of the wealthy. Sometimes it’s alcoholism or drug addiction. Other times it’s mere social climbing and status-seeking. Other times it’s the creation of soap-opera drama out of sheer boredom, and so on. The list is endless. The problem manifests most clearly in and tragically in those with the opportunity and ability to create almost any environment for themselves. The game of life they choose to play, too often, takes them straight toward a cliff.
It’s the problem of angst. “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon,” as Susan Ertz said.
This often plays out as a sense of meaninglessness.
A sense of meaninglessness or existential depression can enter the scene at this point, which brings the sense of having no good answer to the questions, “Where is this all heading?” or “What’s the point?”
After all, when all external threats have been overcome, and when all external goals have been met, what’s left?
Only oneself. This can soon become an existential crisis, or a meltdown of one’s worldview. Because of angst, we humans aren’t naturally at peace once our basic creature comforts have been met. Something in us makes us dissatisfied. “The world is not enough.” Again, we seem to sense a potential that’s going unfulfilled.
Our efforts to understand and address the source of that dissatisfaction – and to find the correct solution for it – leads to a confrontation with the self.
Here is where “know thyself” isn’t just a platitude, but a matter of life or death.
Nietzsche – again, no fan of traditional religion, to put it mildly – said it well:
“In times of peace, the warlike man sets upon himself.”
Many societies, at this stage, develop oikophobia or self-hatred, turn against themselves, weaken, lose their confidence, and eventually collapse.
After a lifetime of effort working to understand human nature, Freud abandoned his earlier models (“the pleasure principle”) and described, as a replacement, a model involving the “death drive” or “Thanatos.” While his theory often comes across as muddled and is widely ignored or misunderstood, the rough idea of something like an instinct for destruction can sometimes kick into high gear, apparently, in the mature stages of civilizational development.
- and also in the mature stages of our own personal development.
So, what’s the solution to oikophobia?
Beckeld doesn’t prescribe a clear and direct “cure” for oikophobia. But he does point out one of its more curious qualities.
He describes the connection between oikophobia and religion.
As he says, “oikophobia is preceded by a decreasing adherence to traditional religion.” (59) He also says, “religion is the cornerstone of every civilization. There are no exceptions to this rule.” (59-60)
Notably, Beckeld said, “I am not a religious person.” (11) (In this sense, he can’t be dismissed as merely promoting the idea of religion for his own personal agenda or subjective opinion.)
But he does say this: societies that are religious tend to avoid falling into oikophobia – and so, tend to survive.
There’s something about genuine spirituality that provides immunity to oikophobia.
Here we can find ourselves back at Suzuki’s earlier quote.
As Suzuki described, there’s something in human nature that must either flourish, or it becomes poisonous. It’s as if there’s some chemical in human beings that must be activated, or it becomes toxic. If we don’t reach our full potential as human beings, we start to self-destruct.
The aim of real spirituality, then, is to develop this potential – not only so we reach our full humanity, but also so we don’t go crazy or become crippled on the inside.
Suzuki isn’t alone in this. For example, this basic idea is mirrored by Hindu sages:
“The soul of man is his friend when by the Spirit he has conquered his soul; but when a man is not lord of his soul then this becomes his own enemy.”
(The Bhagavad Gita, VI:6)
Or, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Or even Carl Jung:
“…when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.”
All of this brings to mind the basic idea – an idea most of us today hold – that part of human nature involves a “conscience.” We might describe this mysterious faculty by different names: the “heart,” or the “higher self,” the "beyond within," the “soul,” or just our “self” – or other labels. But the basic underlying idea is the same: something in us knows something. And it knows more than “we” do, or more than our ordinary ego does.
But this “something” is often dormant, asleep, or unconscious in us.
And our task – if we want to stay sane or find happiness or even just survive – is to find it, wake it up, bring it to life, and put it into use.
These are the “higher gears” of the human being – gears that often go unused, but shouldn’t.
The need, then, is genuine self-knowledge.
Today, we often look to technology as the solution to all of our problems.
But again, our technological development is outpacing our inner psychological development. Our technology is becoming stronger as we’re becoming weaker. And this situation is becoming increasingly dangerous, as many who understand this technology best have said.
That said, “know thyself” is not a new idea. Many see it as a slogan that isn’t all that interesting, at least compared with the latest gadgets.
But the thought of going through life not knowing yourself strikes most of us as a bad idea.
Yet those who deliberately launch an active investigation to deliberately “know themselves,” it seems, are few.
But those who soon find themselves on a strange kind of adventure.
Those who embark on this quest soon find themselves involved in a struggle, a kind of inner battle.
And as Dostoevsky also said, “…the battlefield is the heart of man.”
This “battle,” it seems, is no casual matter.
If the above read on this is accurate, this effort involves the real measure of humanity, not just in our individual lives, but in civilization itself.
Our task, then, if this is the case, is to “look up.”
Or “look in.”
We should look everywhere, it seems, until we see.