WHY SOCIETIES COLLAPSE
(EXPLAINED IN ABOUT 3 MINUTES)
Why do societies collapse?
And what can it tell us about human nature, and ourselves?
Folks often take the society they live in for granted. They tend to assume it will never collapse, even though that’s been the norm throughout history.
But why do they collapse? And how?
There are plenty of long and complicated answers to this question.
Here’s one that’s fairly short and simple.
“Being conquered” won’t count, by the way.
Many societies collapse simply by being militarily overpowered and absorbed by an external foe.
But what about societies that aren’t conquered by force? What about empires, for example, that don’t face major external threats?
In a nutshell: they self-destruct.
They’re often destroyed from within, as if by an “internal” force.
Once a society is weakened from within, it loses confidence in itself, and then it’s easier to conquer it from without. Sometimes an external enemy will even deliberately weaken a society from within, and later finish the job militarily. The military conquest, in that scenario, is mere cleanup.
As Arnold Toynbee said, “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”
So here, the question can change slightly: why do societies self-destruct?
There’s a 90-second explanation and a 3-minute version.
Here’s the 3-minute version.
We can boil it down to five quotes.
First, Alexander Solzhenitsyn described the collapse of traditional Russia in the 20th century like this:
Second, Fyodor Dostoevsky:
“If God did not exist, everything is permitted.”
Third, G. K. Chesterton:
“When you cease believing in God, it’s not that you believe nothing. It’s that you’ll believe anything.”
(That’s how nihilism actually appears: it doesn’t show up as someone saying, “I’m a nihilist.” It shows up as someone who “believes anything.”)
Fourth, D. T. Suzuki:
"This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows moldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled."
So, according to Suzuki: there’s a “mysterious power” that exists inside us. And if we fail to properly develop this power, then we tend to eventually go crazy or become (psychologically) crippled.
In this sense, humans are often like Ferraris that get driven only in first gear. We might not know how to shift into second, third, or fourth gears – or we might now even know those higher gears even exist.
This might result in a frustrating, haunting sense of potential going unfulfilled, something we might call “angst.” “The object of Zen” – or any kind of genuine spirituality or religion – is the effort to properly develop that “mysterious power,” and so, cure angst.
So, this “power” or potential can remain undeveloped in specific individuals, and often does. But it can also remain undeveloped on a large scale – so it remains undeveloped in many individuals.
Historian Christopher Dawson, author of Dynamics of World History, describes this in the fifth and final quote:
“Religion is the soul of a culture, and a society or culture which has lost its spiritual roots is a dying culture.”
That basic idea is the premise of one of the most widely-read psychology books today.
The thrust of Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning is this: when there’s a loss of meaning, people tend not to survive for long.
(“Meaning,” as Frankl describes it, is a science-friendly way of describing something that was once under the jurisdiction of religion, spirituality, or what Suzuki described as Zen.)
To be clear: Frankl’s basic idea isn’t mere speculation or academic theorizing. Like Solzhenitsyn’s, it’s a bitter, hard-won insight born and hammered out within some of the most horrific conditions human beings can face – those of a concentration camp. It’s what Nietzsche likely would have described as one of those “truths soaked in blood.”
Yet Frankl’s insight – as incisive as it is – isn’t new. Another phrase that’s thousands of years old makes the same point: “Without vision, people perish.”
In fact, the same basic point is made in allegorical form, over and over again, in the Old Testament itself. The stories can almost seem repetitious: whenever people would remember God, they would thrive. When they would forget God, they’d soon be in for some hard times. That basic pattern was repeated numerous times.
This basic idea could be seen as a highly dense nugget of insight – a summary of experimental results based on centuries of hard empirical data and observation, then converted into allegorical form and communicated down through generations – or, as more than that. Either way, the message is the same.
It’s an explanation of why advanced civilizations collapse.
So, here we can recap and rephrase.
We tend to live or die based on the quality of our answers to the Big Questions of life. So, our answers to the existential riddles we all face are incredibly important.
When our answers are mistaken, incoherent, or even just shallow, our lives tend to be more difficult, painful, and short than they need to be.
When our answers are strong, clear, and deep, we tend to survive and thrive.
These dynamics can all be boiled down to four words.
We could call it “The Death of God.”
It’s what Nietzsche (who was mostly atheistic) was trying to warn us about over a century ago.
To be clear, he wasn’t saying that a literal deity literally died, or that the problem was simply a matter of where we spent an hour on Sunday mornings (or not).
He was pointing at what happens when philosophy collapses, or when we forget God, or when we no longer know of a religion or spirituality that seems credible.
He was pointing at nihilism.
Nihilism is tricky.
It can’t be seen directly. Hardly anyone declares, “I’m a nihilist!” (except in The Great Lebewski).
Instead, it’s a shapeshifter. It shows up in a thousand disguises. It only appears in soft forms, and becomes apparent indirectly, through its symptoms. It often remains invisible, even when those symptoms become painfully obvious. A nihilist is rarely even aware of being a nihilist.
When our life philosophy collapses, we fall into nihilism. And when we fall into nihilism, things tend not to go well.
So again, to revisit the quotes above:
If we forget God (Solzhenitsyn), everything is allowed (Dostoevsky), and we’ll start believing anything (Chesterton). When this happens, we no longer develop ourselves properly, and we go crazy (Suzuki). When this happens on a large scale, entire cultures die off (Dawson).
They grow weak and soon get conquered. It happened to ancient Greece, Rome, the Spanish Empire, and many others.
That was the three-minute version.
Here’s the 90-second version.
A society is based on certain core ideas.
Those ideas work as a kind of “code to live by.”
It’s a society’s “life philosophy.” That philosophy might be “democracy,” “tyranny,” a “republic,” “anarchy,” or something else. (Even if it operates by raw power or brute force – a kind of warlord state – someone has the idea (or philosophy) that raw power or brute force should decide things.)
A life philosophy consists of answers to Big Questions.
Philosophy itself can be divided up into a few major categories:
Ontology or metaphysics, which asks, “What exists?”
Epistemology, which asks, “What do I know?
Teleology, which asks, “What’s the point?”
Psychology, which asks, “What is human nature?” **
Ethics asks, “How should we live?”
These fields are interconnected. They also exist in a certain order. They’re “stacked” in certain ways.
The bottom floor or foundation of this “stack” is ontology or metaphysics.
When that foundation collapses, everything that’s based on it collapses as well.
It’s like the first floor of a building. If that goes, all the floors above it aren’t far behind.
The basis of a philosophy is metaphysics. So, if metaphysics collapses, natural consequences quickly follow. They play out roughly along these lines.
If metaphysics collapses, there’s no basis for knowledge, so epistemology collapses.
If that collapses, there’s no basis for understanding human nature, so psychology collapses.
If that collapses, there’s no basis for meaning, so teleology collapses.
If that collapses, there’s no basis for morality, so ethics collapses.
Without metaphysics, ethics, knowledge, meaning, or psychology, a civilization collapses.
The shell of it might live on for a while. But once the soul of it is gone, then it’s only a matter of time. There’s a kind of multiple-systems-failure of ideas where a culture essentially “dies of old age.”
That’s the 90-second version.
A single word for it could be “forgetting.”
Another could be “forgetting who you are” on a society-wide level.
Again, it’s a basic dynamic that occurs with some regularity.
But this same basic dynamic can be described using different approaches.
For example, this might all seem dry and theoretical.
So, we could look at this in the form of a story.
For example, we could point to the movie Don’t Look Up.
In Don’t Look Up (spoiler alert), a few people discover that a planet-destroying comet is hurtling toward Earth on a course for total annihilation.
This impending doom could probably be avoided. The planet and everyone living on it could likely be saved.
But that would involve people actively taking intelligent, competent measures to save it. And to do that, they’d have to be sane and serious people.
And that’s not really the case.
In the movie, they’re living in a culture of soft nihilism. The unwritten rule seems to be that important things are trivial, and trivial things are important, and glib, superficial appearances are all that matter. As a result, they live in an unserious, narcissistic, nihilistic society run by unserious, nihilistic, narcissistic people who are relentlessly absorbed in a relentless avalanche of inconsequential nonsense.
There’s still plenty of good around, of course. But those individuals tend to have no power or say in things, and even they still get sucked into the mayhem fairly easily. But those in control – and with the ability to avert disaster – are intellectually gifted, emotionally stunted, spiritually deranged, and morally lost. They rely almost completely on technology as the solution to all problems. They live amid immense material wealth, but are so psychologically illiterate that they’re blind to their own condition. They’re caught up in nonsense without knowing it because they’ve forgotten about real “sense” – or are even in active and deliberate denial of it.
At one point, conscious denial is actively celebrated as a heroic virtue. “Don’t look up!” (or “Don’t seek truth!” or “Don’t remember!”) becomes a kind of battle cry, and even a nationwide marketing/propaganda campaign.
In some ways, it’s a modern retelling of several stories from the Old Testament.
Good art is supposed to hold up a mirror, and “Don’t Look Up” is good art. It deftly portrays a civilization that was already in the process of collapsing. The comet just sped things along.
But that said, there seems to be a major thread left hanging.
In asking, “Why do societies collapse?” – most of the answers we’ve discussed so far revolve around words like “God,” “religion,” or “spirituality.”
But is there a way to describe this dynamic without those?
How would individuals who don’t adhere to religion or spirituality explain this?
What about those with an atheistic or agnostic worldview?
This question will be covered in Part II of this article.
* A quick aside: This might seem to some like the speculations of a religious person – someone who explains the world in terms of religion due to his personal beliefs. But Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of hard labor in a Soviet gulag. He was sent there because he made a few comments that were critical of Stalin in a private letter to a friend. He later risked his citizenship (and life) to speak out, and eventually won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
All to say, his summary shouldn’t be casually dismissed as mere “personal opinion.”
More likely, it’s something closer to a profoundly concise, dense, tightly-worded summary of a hard-won lesson – what Nietzsche might describe as “truths soaked in blood.” E=MC2 is a brief, concise statement as well, but unpacking it requires a lot of explaining.)
** To be clear, psychology isn’t usually described as a branch of philosophy. It usually wants to be considered a "science." But a great deal of philosophy – from Plato on, and even before – has consisted of the effort to understand human nature as a whole - sometimes under other labels such as “philosophical anthropology.” The word “psychology” (literally psyche logos, “science of the soul”) in this sense, as the effort to understand human nature - is simpler.