All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1985

The Disease From Which Civilizations Die



Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the entire people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law. . . . And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in relation to each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because [the law] commands our deep respect . . . especially . . . those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break. It seems just as natural to us to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products . . . and our city is open to the world . . . . We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than something to boast about, and as for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it. The real shame is not in being poor, but in not taking practical measures to escape from poverty. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs, but in the affairs of [Athens] as well[1]

Now it must be confessed that this description of the Athenian way is not a little idealized. The institution of slavery was a reality in Athens, just as it was in all Greek city-states of the fifth-century B.C. Again, power in Athens could be said to be “in the hands . . . of the entire people” if and only if women did not count as people. Yet for all this, Thucydides’ description accurately captures something of what was so magnificent about his beloved Athens, a civilization that gave birth to thinkers, writers, and artists whose insights and works still live, having become part of “civilization itself.” Yet the civilization that was Athens did not live. It died.

Early in the work from which I have quoted, Thucydides describes a mysterious plague which swept through Athens, elaborating in detail the symptoms those suffering from the disease displayed. At one level this section of his history is simply history, a painstaking record of a significant event which most certainly did occur. Yet more than a simple description of what happened is intended. Thucydides uses this description as a controlling symbol for his entire work. Athenian civilization itself suffered, he asserts, from a “disease,” a disease characterized by particular symptoms. This disease, which in the case of Athens proved fatal, is the disease all men and women of good will must fear. For it is the disease from which civilizations die.

Human Beings and Human Nature

Thucydides frequently uses the phrase, “human nature being what it is” and similar phrases. By so speaking, he is indicating at least two realities, two constants about men and women. First, human beings are rational. Men and women are capable of thought. They can formulate goals and rationally seek out ways to realize these goals. They can recall, consider, and learn from the past and thereby plan for the future. They can envisage not simply an immediate and given present, but a distant and possible future. Human nature is rational.

Now rationality dictates, insists Thucydides, the rule of law. Long-term objectives can be realized by an individual if and only if he or she can count upon other people behaving in an essentially predictable way. By this is meant not that the individual cannot or should not be spontaneous and creative, and thus unpredictable, but that some rules and conventions governing the way people relate to each other must exist and must be respected. Rule by a tyrant’s whim or a mob’s caprice is undesirable, apart from anything else, precisely because such rule is erratic and unpredictable, precluding cooperative, long-term endeavors. What is permitted today might be forbidden tomorrow; undertakings made in the present might not be fulfilled in the future. Social coordination and cooperation demands, insists Thucydides, the rule of law. And as rational beings, men and women can perceive that this is so.

The Rules of Law

Like many of his contemporaries, Thucydides divides “laws” broadly defined into four groups or sets. First, and perhaps weakest, are the rules signified by the word manners. People breaking these rules tend to be regarded as somewhat uncivilized and uncouth, but that is all. Ill-mannered people may not be invited to dinner parties, but they are not perceived as “bad” people.

Then come the rules signified by the word morals. These rules are significantly stronger than the rules we call “manners.” People breaking these rules are perceived not simply as irksome, antisocial irritants but as evil people.

Third come the rules making up the written laws of a community. These rules, stronger than both manners and morals, are the rules which, if broken, incur a penalty imposed by a court. While some “immoral” actions may also be “illegal” actions, not all are. Thus the sexual license so uproariously depicted in the plays of the Athenian comedian, Aristophanes, while certainly not illegal, was no less certainly regarded as immoral. The sphere of morality, and the sphere of legality, were not perceived by the Greeks as identical.

Manners. Morals. The written laws. And a fourth set of rules: the “unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.” These laws were perceived as so basic, so fundamental, so important, that they did not need to be written down. For the Greeks, these laws were two: honor the dead, and honor the gods, including the gods of others. In a sense, these two laws reduce to a single imperative: respect other people as people, possessing a worth in and of themselves, and respect the values other people hold, even if those values are other than one’s own. In more contemporary language, we might define the “unwritten laws” as what some philosophers call reciprocal respect for autonomy, a respect for the personhood of other people and their capacity to formulate and strive to realize their own peaceful, noncoercive visions of the “good life.” The “unwritten laws.”

Rationality, then, dictates obedience to these laws. It is in one’s own interest that one is part of a community where certain expectations can be held and long-term goals can be pursued. To be sure, one cannot, given these rules, do exactly what one might wish at a given moment, but neither can anyone else. There is thus an incalculably valuable payoff, a pay-off more than compensating for the irksome restraint of not always being able to behave with impunity. So affirms reason. So asserts the rationality that is part of human nature.

Alongside rationality is found a second characteristic of “human nature”: a drive to seek immediate, here-and-now pleasure. Men and women resent whatever curbs their freedom to seek such pleasure. Regardless of the dictates of sweet reason, they chafe at the bit. Thus if a person can acquire the power to defy the rules social cooperation and coordination demand, that person will defy them. If a person can acquire the power to defy the rules and get away with it, that person will, asserts Thucydides, tend to do precisely that.

The first rules to go are usually manners. Then morals bite the dust. Then the written laws are defied. Finally, the “unwritten laws” are forgotten. Resentment and envy are fostered, the powerless detesting the powerful. Factions proliferate. Barbarism reigns.

A Tyrant is Born

And then, asserts Thucydides, comes the end, in one of two forms. A social order without coordination is powerless to defend itself against the disciplined onslaughts of an external power. Or—and more frequent]y—a people sinking into the chaos of barbarism panic. They cry out for someone—anyone—who will restore some semblance of cohesion and order. And invariably that someone emerges. He promises to give the people what, in desperation, they are grasping for. He promises to restore social order and the rule of law. But at a price. In exchange, men and women must surrender their liberty. In this way, the tyrant is born.

Thucydides describes in great detail the symptoms observable as this disease—the disease from which civilizations die—inexorably works its way toward its terrible end, progressively eroding the structures and practices that are, so to speak, the central nervous system of a civilized community. I quote him at some length.

“Revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late, the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances . . . in the methods of seizing power and . . . unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying that one was a coward . . . . Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man . . . ; [anyone] who held violent opinions could always be trusted; anyone who objected to [such opinions] became a suspect . . . . Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were . . . ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but simply to acquire power . . . .”

Continues Thucydides: “Love of power . . . was the cause of all these evils . . . . Leaders of parties in the cities had programs which appeared admirable—on the one side equality for the masses, on the other side safe and sound government by an aristocracy. Yet by professing to serve the public interest, party leaders and members in truth sought to win . . . prizes for themselves . . . . [With] the conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself in its true colors . . . . repealing general laws of humanity which . . . give a hope of salvation to all.”[2]

Thus the symptoms. Then the end. Whether externally imposed or internally generated, tyranny and despotism triumph. Liberty dies, and with it a civilization. The joyous songs of a free and civilized people are silenced. The disease from which civilizations die has worked its way to its end.

Here endeth a brief and sketchy lesson from a volume penned by a genius whose name is never heard by many students. They prefer, you see, “relevant” books and contemporary names. And those of us who should know better capitulate, fearful of incurring our children’s wrath. We proffer amusing mini-courses about ephemeral interests instead—then wonder why it is our young know little about the heritage that is rightly theirs.

Moral Decline

As a preacher, I might be expected to point to the breakdown in Western societies of moral rules. Clearly, all is not well. In his monumental volume, Modern Times: The World From The Twenties To The Eighties,[3] Paul Johnson documents the rise in the West of moral relativism and moral subjectivism. More and more, moral rules are perceived either as arbitrary prescriptions and proscriptions relative to a particular society, having no rootage or grounding in the nature of things, or as expressions of persona] taste, a difference over the merits of cruelty for its own sake being akin to a difference over the merits of a particular flavor of ice cream.

Yet in spite of this, I suggest that anyone tempted to assert that our civilization has sunk to hitherto depths of moral depravity, read some history. The eighteenth-century writer, Tobias Smollett—author of that ever-delightful work, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker—describes the highways of his day as being “infested with violence and assassination” and the cities of his age as “teem(ing) with the brutal votaries of intemperance and lewdness.” London in 1839 boasted 933 brothels and 844 houses of ill-fame to serve a population of some two million people. Hooliganism is no more rampant in New York City today than it was in nineteenth century London, where gangs such as the “Bucks” and “Corinthians” perfected traditions of sheer terrorism elaborated by their eighteenth-century predecessors, the notorious “Mohocks.” Consider this description of the Mohocks: “Nobody who was alone was safe from their cowardly assaults. They attacked at random any unarmed person who was out after dark. They assaulted unprotected women; they drove their swords through sedan-chairs; they pulled people from coaches, slit their noses with razors, stabbed them with knives, ripped the coach to pieces, and then . . . killed.”[4]

The barbaric behavior of English soccer fans which recently shocked a disbelieving world has its parallels in the eighteenth century, the major difference being not the mindlessness of the behavior but the fact that, today, we at least are shocked.

The situation is complex. There is something depraved about an age witnessing self-styled world leaders applauding a speech delivered by Idi Amin on October 1, 1975, at that cabal of tyrannies laughingly described as the United Nations. There is something profoundly disturbing about a generation of adults that seemingly has lost its moral nerve, leaving the young to improvise their manners and morals as best they can. Yet to assert that we are experiencing an unprecedented moral decline is to go beyond the evidence. Suffice to suggest that, if we take seriously Thucydides’ claim that a disregard of the rules we call manners and morals is indeed symptomatic of the disease from which civilizations die, we cannot be complacent with impunity.

The Rule of Law

What is beyond dispute is that we today have largely departed from the rule of law. “When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law,” asserts Thucydides. Citizens of Western nations not so long ago could echo this assertion. Today they cannot.

The founding fathers of this nation meant by “equality” precisely what Greeks such as Thucydides meant by the term isonomia—namely, equality before the law. There are to be no special laws for special classes or castes or elites, laws privileging some but disadvantaging others. Indeed rules which do single out particular individuals or particular sets of individuals were not, for the Greeks, properly called laws at all, but “edicts” or “decrees.” Even when such rules are backed by the majority, they remain other than laws proper, “the decrees of the demos—the people—correspond(ing),” as Aristotle puts it, “to the edicts of the tyrant.”

This truth was clearly and unambiguously perceived by those who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries defended the political philosophy of classical—classical—liberalism, and was no less clearly perceived by your founding fathers. They established a republic, not an unrestricted democracy; they advocated not the absolute rule of any majority but the constitutionally defended liberties of minorities, even minorities of one; they defended not rule by any principles securing majority approval, but by principles of conduct equally applicable to all. Justice was portrayed as a blindfolded figure. She did not see who stood before her. That did not matter, for whoever you were—rich or poor; Catholic, Protestant, Jew or “Infidel”; educated or unlettered—your “rights” were the same.

This understanding of the “rule of law” is utterly vital for a free and civilized community. Rules which single out special classes, castes, or elites breed the factionalism and scheming Thucydides laments, foster the envy Thucydides deplores, and precipitate the civil strife and dissension Thucydides fears. No matter what impressively high-minded terms are appealed to as justification for any departure from the rule of law properly understood-“social justice” or whatever—the outcome remains the same. And that outcome is disaster for a free and civilized society.

And let us not delude ourselves. In recent decades Western civilization has witnessed a departure from the rule of law, classically defined. Justice is no longer blindfolded, supremely indifferent as to who it is standing accused before her. She peeks! “Tell me who you are,” she asserts, “and then I shall tell you your rights.” The notion that all enjoy absolutely equal “rights”—essentially the “right” to formulate and strive to realize any vision of the “good life,” given only that such striving and such visions are peaceful, and that all are to be protected by government from violence, theft, and fraud—has been unspeakably attenuated. “Equality of rights” and “equality before the law” have succumbed to a different vision of “equality”—an egalitarian sameness secured by edicts and decrees which advantage some but disadvantage others.

The very nature of government thus changes. No longer is government given the vital but limited task of enforcing a single set of rules, protecting all from actual or threatened violence, theft, and fraud, and thereby ensuring that all are equally free to formulate and strive to realize their own visions—their diverse but noncoercive visions—of the “good life.” Rather, government becomes the means whereby one group of people seeks favors and advantages at the expense of rival groupings of people. A massive redistributive apparatus proliferates zero-sum games whereby some gain and others lose. Factionalism is encouraged, envy is increased, and government becomes not the protector of all but what Frederic Bastiat, the great French classical liberal thinker, called “the fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”[5] And according to Thucydides, this eroding of the rule of law signifies the presence of the disease from which civilizations die.

The Family

I make no apologies for drawing your attention to Thucydides’ specific reference to the weakening of family ties as a further symptom of the disease from which civilizations die. Indeed I would urge you to read a singularly scholarly volume penned by the courageous Russian dissident, Igor Shafarevich, entitled The Socialist Phenomenon.[6] While a mathematician by training—indeed until recently Shafarevich was a professor of mathematics at Moscow University—he displays in this volume an utterly awesome historical knowledge, and he uses that knowledge to document with compelling thoroughness the hatred statists and collectivists invariably have had for the family unit. It would seem to be the case that opposition to individual liberty inevitably leads to opposition to the family.

Because I am committed to the rule of law, I cannot and do not advocate laws specifying the family unit and deliberately seeking to foster and favor the family unit. I must, in the name of the rule of law, oppose all rules the objective of which is the realization of some particular vision of the “good life”—save, of course, visions involving the actual or threatened coercion of people not sharing those visions.

What I oppose in the name of the rule of law is the perhaps unintentional weakening of the traditional family by welfare schemes which in practice encourage a breakdown of the family unit. It would be impertinent for me to refer to the situation in your nation. But I can refer you to Charles Murray’s devastating critique of American social welfare policy, Losing Ground.[7]

All I ask is that governments mind their own business and get out of the way as individuals organize their social relationships. The traditional family is, in my judgment, so grounded in biological and emotional reality that it can look after itself. The only further suggestion I make is that individuals caring about strengthening the traditional family, involve themselves in voluntary organizations assisting families in trouble—financial assistance, counseling, and so on.

Be that as it may, the undermining of the family is, as Thucydides perceived so long ago, a symptom of the disease from which civilizations die.

Individual Integrity

Finally, according to Thucydides, the disease from which civilizations die afflicts the “best” members of a society, not simply the “worst.” Given immoral social institutions, the “best” are tempted to compromise their principles. By so yielding, however, those who should know better become infected cells carrying the disease, rather than healthy antibodies fighting the invader.

Some lines of George Meredith say it all:

In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be. Passions spin the plot:
We are betrayed by what is false within.

I know the alibis, being extremely gifted in the less than noble art of rationalization. I am robbed, say, by a pickpocket. At some future date, I acquire some clout over the pickpocket. Is it not proper that I retrieve all or some of what rightly is mine? Similarly, is it not right that I join in the scramble to the government trough, retrieving what has been taken from me, at least in part? But the analogy is flawed. We are not retrieving from the pickpocket what is ours; we are rather sending him out to pick other pockets—including those of our children and our children’s children—and sharing in the loot. We are partners in crime, not victims enjoying a measure of restitution.

I am not referring to forms of involvement in a less than ideal system that cannot be avoided. In my nation, the only way I can opt out of a socialized medical system is to seek out some ex-doctor, struck off the lists, and negotiate an undisclosed cash payment; and frankly I’m not prepared to entrust my physical well-being to some probably incompetent rogue. I go to the ballet, even though I know that money coercively extracted from football fans and movie buffs for the most part less affluent than am I is subsidizing my extravagant tastes. Total disengagement with a less than ideal system is acquired only by opting out, and, with like-minded souls, seeking a deserted island on which to set up a utopia—but such islands are few and the pioneering spirit is not, alas, mine.

I am, however, referring to an involvement we could avoid if we were willing to pay the price. Many of those who state that they value liberty, and a politico-economic system informed by liberty, tolerate in themselves a measure of involvement with Statist structures that is not necessary, and which makes their professed values ring hollow. In this sense we are, in Meredith’s words, betrayed by “what is false within,” becoming carriers of the disease from which civilizations die.

Conclusion

No person with eyes to see, and certainly no person with eyes alert to the symptoms detailed by Thucydides of the disease from which civilizations die, can entertain the fantasy that all is well with our civilization. Yet I am utterly convinced that our situation is far from hopeless, and that the “disease” can be curbed and conquered.

I believe the American inheritance is the greatest inheritance ever given to any nation: “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In this land the dream of the ages was earthed, and became the very foundation upon which a people began to build. The revolution that gave you birth was unique. Other revolutions ended in terror or Napoleonic empire. Your revolution challenged at its beginning, and has challenged ever since, all dominations and tyrannies, all prejudices and bigotries, all predatory institutions enslaving and debasing the free spirit of humanity. Your revolution enshrined and still enshrines the cry that people are not chattels, not pawns on a planner’s chessboard, not divided by “nature” into lords and serfs. It is therefore sacrilege to enslave them, infamous to engineer them, criminal to degrade them and seek to smother the liberty that burns in their being.

And that is your strength. For the liberty upon which this nation was and is built is not merely a value created by or equal to a taste some of us happen to have acquired. It is grounded in the very nature of human reality. In the absence of private property rights, the absence of changing relative money prices in a market economy—in the absence, to put it bluntly, of economic and individual liberty—a community literally cannot use what it has to acquire what it wants, and the hungry will not be fed, the naked will not be clothed, the destitute will not be sheltered.

More, there is in the human spirit a yearning that can never utterly be silenced, a yearning for freedom to formulate one’s own vision of the “good life” and seek to realize that vision. I know that there is another voice and another yearning—a voice that whispers fearfully of the risks and responsibilities freedom involves, and a yearning to be carried through life. Yet the voice that says, “Stand on thy feet, take up thy bed and walk,” has the last word, for it is stronger than the voice which, in the name of an illusory security, lures us toward the collective grave of statism.

You and I are on the side of life. Yes, we must act as though everything depended upon the labors of our hands, the intensity of our thinking, the devotion of our hearts. Yet if liberty is written into the very structure of our individual and social being, victory in the end is sure. If only we stop compromising; if only we as educationalists and adults do what A. N. Whitehead said we must do, and expose our children to the “habitual vision of greatness” by telling them the story of humanity’s struggle toward freedom; if only we stop apologizing or indulging in neurotic guilt, and stand tall at mention of the “American Way” as I have defined and as your forefathers defined it and not as foolish rabble-rousers define it. If only we do this the victory shall be ours. Of course there will be set-backs. Of course there will be disappointments. Since when has the long, slow journey from the slavery of Egypt to the promised land of freedom been other than through a wilderness? Yet that “wilderness and the solitary place shall be made glad, and the desert shall rejoice; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing.”


1.   Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1954), pp. 145-46.

2.   Ibid., pp. 242-45.

3.   Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (New York: Harper and Row, 1983).

4.   Cited by J. Hemming, Individual Morality (London: Nelson, 1969), p. 6.

5.   Frederic Bastiat, “The State,” trans. S. Cain, in Selected Essays on Political Economy, ed. George B. de Huszar (Irvington: Foundation for Economic Education, 1968), p. 144.

6.   Igor R. Shafarevich, The Socialist Phenomenon (New York: Harper and Row, 1980).

7.   Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984).


Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the entire people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law. . . . And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in relation to each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because [the law] commands our deep respect . . . especially . . . those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break. It seems just as natural to us to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products . . . and our city is open to the world . . . . We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than something to boast about, and as for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it. The real shame is not in being poor, but in not taking practical measures to escape from poverty. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs, but in the affairs of [Athens] as well[1]

Now it must be confessed that this description of the Athenian way is not a little idealized. The institution of slavery was a reality in Athens, just as it was in all Greek city-states of the fifth-century B.C. Again, power in Athens could be said to be “in the hands . . . of the entire people” if and only if women did not count as people. Yet for all this, Thucydides’ description accurately captures something of what was so magnificent about his beloved Athens, a civilization that gave birth to thinkers, writers, and artists whose insights and works still live, having become part of “civilization itself.” Yet the civilization that was Athens did not live. It died.

Early in the work from which I have quoted, Thucydides describes a mysterious plague which swept through Athens, elaborating in detail the symptoms those suffering from the disease displayed. At one level this section of his history is simply history, a painstaking record of a significant event which most certainly did occur. Yet more than a simple description of what happened is intended. Thucydides uses this description as a controlling symbol for his entire work. Athenian civilization itself suffered, he asserts, from a “disease,” a disease characterized by particular symptoms. This disease, which in the case of Athens proved fatal, is the disease all men and women of good will must fear. For it is the disease from which civilizations die.

Human Beings and Human Nature

Thucydides frequently uses the phrase, “human nature being what it is” and similar phrases. By so speaking, he is indicating at least two realities, two constants about men and women. First, human beings are rational. Men and women are capable of thought. They can formulate goals and rationally seek out ways to realize these goals. They can recall, consider, and learn from the past and thereby plan for the future. They can envisage not simply an immediate and given present, but a distant and possible future. Human nature is rational.

Now rationality dictates, insists Thucydides, the rule of law. Long-term objectives can be realized by an individual if and only if he or she can count upon other people behaving in an essentially predictable way. By this is meant not that the individual cannot or should not be spontaneous and creative, and thus unpredictable, but that some rules and conventions governing the way people relate to each other must exist and must be respected. Rule by a tyrant’s whim or a mob’s caprice is undesirable, apart from anything else, precisely because such rule is erratic and unpredictable, precluding cooperative, long-term endeavors. What is permitted today might be forbidden tomorrow; undertakings made in the present might not be fulfilled in the future. Social coordination and cooperation demands, insists Thucydides, the rule of law. And as rational beings, men and women can perceive that this is so.

The Rules of Law

Like many of his contemporaries, Thucydides divides “laws” broadly defined into four groups or sets. First, and perhaps weakest, are the rules signified by the word manners. People breaking these rules tend to be regarded as somewhat uncivilized and uncouth, but that is all. Ill-mannered people may not be invited to dinner parties, but they are not perceived as “bad” people.

Then come the rules signified by the word morals. These rules are significantly stronger than the rules we call “manners.” People breaking these rules are perceived not simply as irksome, antisocial irritants but as evil people.

Third come the rules making up the written laws of a community. These rules, stronger than both manners and morals, are the rules which, if broken, incur a penalty imposed by a court. While some “immoral” actions may also be “illegal” actions, not all are. Thus the sexual license so uproariously depicted in the plays of the Athenian comedian, Aristophanes, while certainly not illegal, was no less certainly regarded as immoral. The sphere of morality, and the sphere of legality, were not perceived by the Greeks as identical.

Manners. Morals. The written laws. And a fourth set of rules: the “unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.” These laws were perceived as so basic, so fundamental, so important, that they did not need to be written down. For the Greeks, these laws were two: honor the dead, and honor the gods, including the gods of others. In a sense, these two laws reduce to a single imperative: respect other people as people, possessing a worth in and of themselves, and respect the values other people hold, even if those values are other than one’s own. In more contemporary language, we might define the “unwritten laws” as what some philosophers call reciprocal respect for autonomy, a respect for the personhood of other people and their capacity to formulate and strive to realize their own peaceful, noncoercive visions of the “good life.” The “unwritten laws.”

Rationality, then, dictates obedience to these laws. It is in one’s own interest that one is part of a community where certain expectations can be held and long-term goals can be pursued. To be sure, one cannot, given these rules, do exactly what one might wish at a given moment, but neither can anyone else. There is thus an incalculably valuable payoff, a pay-off more than compensating for the irksome restraint of not always being able to behave with impunity. So affirms reason. So asserts the rationality that is part of human nature.

Alongside rationality is found a second characteristic of “human nature”: a drive to seek immediate, here-and-now pleasure. Men and women resent whatever curbs their freedom to seek such pleasure. Regardless of the dictates of sweet reason, they chafe at the bit. Thus if a person can acquire the power to defy the rules social cooperation and coordination demand, that person will defy them. If a person can acquire the power to defy the rules and get away with it, that person will, asserts Thucydides, tend to do precisely that.

The first rules to go are usually manners. Then morals bite the dust. Then the written laws are defied. Finally, the “unwritten laws” are forgotten. Resentment and envy are fostered, the powerless detesting the powerful. Factions proliferate. Barbarism reigns.

A Tyrant is Born

And then, asserts Thucydides, comes the end, in one of two forms. A social order without coordination is powerless to defend itself against the disciplined onslaughts of an external power. Or—and more frequent]y—a people sinking into the chaos of barbarism panic. They cry out for someone—anyone—who will restore some semblance of cohesion and order. And invariably that someone emerges. He promises to give the people what, in desperation, they are grasping for. He promises to restore social order and the rule of law. But at a price. In exchange, men and women must surrender their liberty. In this way, the tyrant is born.

Thucydides describes in great detail the symptoms observable as this disease—the disease from which civilizations die—inexorably works its way toward its terrible end, progressively eroding the structures and practices that are, so to speak, the central nervous system of a civilized community. I quote him at some length.

“Revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late, the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances . . . in the methods of seizing power and . . . unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying that one was a coward . . . . Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man . . . ; [anyone] who held violent opinions could always be trusted; anyone who objected to [such opinions] became a suspect . . . . Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were . . . ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but simply to acquire power . . . .”

Continues Thucydides: “Love of power . . . was the cause of all these evils . . . . Leaders of parties in the cities had programs which appeared admirable—on the one side equality for the masses, on the other side safe and sound government by an aristocracy. Yet by professing to serve the public interest, party leaders and members in truth sought to win . . . prizes for themselves . . . . [With] the conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself in its true colors . . . . repealing general laws of humanity which . . . give a hope of salvation to all.”[2]

Thus the symptoms. Then the end. Whether externally imposed or internally generated, tyranny and despotism triumph. Liberty dies, and with it a civilization. The joyous songs of a free and civilized people are silenced. The disease from which civilizations die has worked its way to its end.

Here endeth a brief and sketchy lesson from a volume penned by a genius whose name is never heard by many students. They prefer, you see, “relevant” books and contemporary names. And those of us who should know better capitulate, fearful of incurring our children’s wrath. We proffer amusing mini-courses about ephemeral interests instead—then wonder why it is our young know little about the heritage that is rightly theirs.

Moral Decline

As a preacher, I might be expected to point to the breakdown in Western societies of moral rules. Clearly, all is not well. In his monumental volume, Modern Times: The World From The Twenties To The Eighties,[3] Paul Johnson documents the rise in the West of moral relativism and moral subjectivism. More and more, moral rules are perceived either as arbitrary prescriptions and proscriptions relative to a particular society, having no rootage or grounding in the nature of things, or as expressions of persona] taste, a difference over the merits of cruelty for its own sake being akin to a difference over the merits of a particular flavor of ice cream.

Yet in spite of this, I suggest that anyone tempted to assert that our civilization has sunk to hitherto depths of moral depravity, read some history. The eighteenth-century writer, Tobias Smollett—author of that ever-delightful work, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker—describes the highways of his day as being “infested with violence and assassination” and the cities of his age as “teem(ing) with the brutal votaries of intemperance and lewdness.” London in 1839 boasted 933 brothels and 844 houses of ill-fame to serve a population of some two million people. Hooliganism is no more rampant in New York City today than it was in nineteenth century London, where gangs such as the “Bucks” and “Corinthians” perfected traditions of sheer terrorism elaborated by their eighteenth-century predecessors, the notorious “Mohocks.” Consider this description of the Mohocks: “Nobody who was alone was safe from their cowardly assaults. They attacked at random any unarmed person who was out after dark. They assaulted unprotected women; they drove their swords through sedan-chairs; they pulled people from coaches, slit their noses with razors, stabbed them with knives, ripped the coach to pieces, and then . . . killed.”[4]

The barbaric behavior of English soccer fans which recently shocked a disbelieving world has its parallels in the eighteenth century, the major difference being not the mindlessness of the behavior but the fact that, today, we at least are shocked.

The situation is complex. There is something depraved about an age witnessing self-styled world leaders applauding a speech delivered by Idi Amin on October 1, 1975, at that cabal of tyrannies laughingly described as the United Nations. There is something profoundly disturbing about a generation of adults that seemingly has lost its moral nerve, leaving the young to improvise their manners and morals as best they can. Yet to assert that we are experiencing an unprecedented moral decline is to go beyond the evidence. Suffice to suggest that, if we take seriously Thucydides’ claim that a disregard of the rules we call manners and morals is indeed symptomatic of the disease from which civilizations die, we cannot be complacent with impunity.

The Rule of Law

What is beyond dispute is that we today have largely departed from the rule of law. “When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law,” asserts Thucydides. Citizens of Western nations not so long ago could echo this assertion. Today they cannot.

The founding fathers of this nation meant by “equality” precisely what Greeks such as Thucydides meant by the term isonomia—namely, equality before the law. There are to be no special laws for special classes or castes or elites, laws privileging some but disadvantaging others. Indeed rules which do single out particular individuals or particular sets of individuals were not, for the Greeks, properly called laws at all, but “edicts” or “decrees.” Even when such rules are backed by the majority, they remain other than laws proper, “the decrees of the demos—the people—correspond(ing),” as Aristotle puts it, “to the edicts of the tyrant.”

This truth was clearly and unambiguously perceived by those who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries defended the political philosophy of classical—classical—liberalism, and was no less clearly perceived by your founding fathers. They established a republic, not an unrestricted democracy; they advocated not the absolute rule of any majority but the constitutionally defended liberties of minorities, even minorities of one; they defended not rule by any principles securing majority approval, but by principles of conduct equally applicable to all. Justice was portrayed as a blindfolded figure. She did not see who stood before her. That did not matter, for whoever you were—rich or poor; Catholic, Protestant, Jew or “Infidel”; educated or unlettered—your “rights” were the same.

This understanding of the “rule of law” is utterly vital for a free and civilized community. Rules which single out special classes, castes, or elites breed the factionalism and scheming Thucydides laments, foster the envy Thucydides deplores, and precipitate the civil strife and dissension Thucydides fears. No matter what impressively high-minded terms are appealed to as justification for any departure from the rule of law properly understood-“social justice” or whatever—the outcome remains the same. And that outcome is disaster for a free and civilized society.

And let us not delude ourselves. In recent decades Western civilization has witnessed a departure from the rule of law, classically defined. Justice is no longer blindfolded, supremely indifferent as to who it is standing accused before her. She peeks! “Tell me who you are,” she asserts, “and then I shall tell you your rights.” The notion that all enjoy absolutely equal “rights”—essentially the “right” to formulate and strive to realize any vision of the “good life,” given only that such striving and such visions are peaceful, and that all are to be protected by government from violence, theft, and fraud—has been unspeakably attenuated. “Equality of rights” and “equality before the law” have succumbed to a different vision of “equality”—an egalitarian sameness secured by edicts and decrees which advantage some but disadvantage others.

The very nature of government thus changes. No longer is government given the vital but limited task of enforcing a single set of rules, protecting all from actual or threatened violence, theft, and fraud, and thereby ensuring that all are equally free to formulate and strive to realize their own visions—their diverse but noncoercive visions—of the “good life.” Rather, government becomes the means whereby one group of people seeks favors and advantages at the expense of rival groupings of people. A massive redistributive apparatus proliferates zero-sum games whereby some gain and others lose. Factionalism is encouraged, envy is increased, and government becomes not the protector of all but what Frederic Bastiat, the great French classical liberal thinker, called “the fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”[5] And according to Thucydides, this eroding of the rule of law signifies the presence of the disease from which civilizations die.

The Family

I make no apologies for drawing your attention to Thucydides’ specific reference to the weakening of family ties as a further symptom of the disease from which civilizations die. Indeed I would urge you to read a singularly scholarly volume penned by the courageous Russian dissident, Igor Shafarevich, entitled The Socialist Phenomenon.[6] While a mathematician by training—indeed until recently Shafarevich was a professor of mathematics at Moscow University—he displays in this volume an utterly awesome historical knowledge, and he uses that knowledge to document with compelling thoroughness the hatred statists and collectivists invariably have had for the family unit. It would seem to be the case that opposition to individual liberty inevitably leads to opposition to the family.

Because I am committed to the rule of law, I cannot and do not advocate laws specifying the family unit and deliberately seeking to foster and favor the family unit. I must, in the name of the rule of law, oppose all rules the objective of which is the realization of some particular vision of the “good life”—save, of course, visions involving the actual or threatened coercion of people not sharing those visions.

What I oppose in the name of the rule of law is the perhaps unintentional weakening of the traditional family by welfare schemes which in practice encourage a breakdown of the family unit. It would be impertinent for me to refer to the situation in your nation. But I can refer you to Charles Murray’s devastating critique of American social welfare policy, Losing Ground.[7]

All I ask is that governments mind their own business and get out of the way as individuals organize their social relationships. The traditional family is, in my judgment, so grounded in biological and emotional reality that it can look after itself. The only further suggestion I make is that individuals caring about strengthening the traditional family, involve themselves in voluntary organizations assisting families in trouble—financial assistance, counseling, and so on.

Be that as it may, the undermining of the family is, as Thucydides perceived so long ago, a symptom of the disease from which civilizations die.

Individual Integrity

Finally, according to Thucydides, the disease from which civilizations die afflicts the “best” members of a society, not simply the “worst.” Given immoral social institutions, the “best” are tempted to compromise their principles. By so yielding, however, those who should know better become infected cells carrying the disease, rather than healthy antibodies fighting the invader.

Some lines of George Meredith say it all:

In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be. Passions spin the plot:
We are betrayed by what is false within.

I know the alibis, being extremely gifted in the less than noble art of rationalization. I am robbed, say, by a pickpocket. At some future date, I acquire some clout over the pickpocket. Is it not proper that I retrieve all or some of what rightly is mine? Similarly, is it not right that I join in the scramble to the government trough, retrieving what has been taken from me, at least in part? But the analogy is flawed. We are not retrieving from the pickpocket what is ours; we are rather sending him out to pick other pockets—including those of our children and our children’s children—and sharing in the loot. We are partners in crime, not victims enjoying a measure of restitution.

I am not referring to forms of involvement in a less than ideal system that cannot be avoided. In my nation, the only way I can opt out of a socialized medical system is to seek out some ex-doctor, struck off the lists, and negotiate an undisclosed cash payment; and frankly I’m not prepared to entrust my physical well-being to some probably incompetent rogue. I go to the ballet, even though I know that money coercively extracted from football fans and movie buffs for the most part less affluent than am I is subsidizing my extravagant tastes. Total disengagement with a less than ideal system is acquired only by opting out, and, with like-minded souls, seeking a deserted island on which to set up a utopia—but such islands are few and the pioneering spirit is not, alas, mine.

I am, however, referring to an involvement we could avoid if we were willing to pay the price. Many of those who state that they value liberty, and a politico-economic system informed by liberty, tolerate in themselves a measure of involvement with Statist structures that is not necessary, and which makes their professed values ring hollow. In this sense we are, in Meredith’s words, betrayed by “what is false within,” becoming carriers of the disease from which civilizations die.

Conclusion

No person with eyes to see, and certainly no person with eyes alert to the symptoms detailed by Thucydides of the disease from which civilizations die, can entertain the fantasy that all is well with our civilization. Yet I am utterly convinced that our situation is far from hopeless, and that the “disease” can be curbed and conquered.

I believe the American inheritance is the greatest inheritance ever given to any nation: “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In this land the dream of the ages was earthed, and became the very foundation upon which a people began to build. The revolution that gave you birth was unique. Other revolutions ended in terror or Napoleonic empire. Your revolution challenged at its beginning, and has challenged ever since, all dominations and tyrannies, all prejudices and bigotries, all predatory institutions enslaving and debasing the free spirit of humanity. Your revolution enshrined and still enshrines the cry that people are not chattels, not pawns on a planner’s chessboard, not divided by “nature” into lords and serfs. It is therefore sacrilege to enslave them, infamous to engineer them, criminal to degrade them and seek to smother the liberty that burns in their being.

And that is your strength. For the liberty upon which this nation was and is built is not merely a value created by or equal to a taste some of us happen to have acquired. It is grounded in the very nature of human reality. In the absence of private property rights, the absence of changing relative money prices in a market economy—in the absence, to put it bluntly, of economic and individual liberty—a community literally cannot use what it has to acquire what it wants, and the hungry will not be fed, the naked will not be clothed, the destitute will not be sheltered.

More, there is in the human spirit a yearning that can never utterly be silenced, a yearning for freedom to formulate one’s own vision of the “good life” and seek to realize that vision. I know that there is another voice and another yearning—a voice that whispers fearfully of the risks and responsibilities freedom involves, and a yearning to be carried through life. Yet the voice that says, “Stand on thy feet, take up thy bed and walk,” has the last word, for it is stronger than the voice which, in the name of an illusory security, lures us toward the collective grave of statism.

You and I are on the side of life. Yes, we must act as though everything depended upon the labors of our hands, the intensity of our thinking, the devotion of our hearts. Yet if liberty is written into the very structure of our individual and social being, victory in the end is sure. If only we stop compromising; if only we as educationalists and adults do what A. N. Whitehead said we must do, and expose our children to the “habitual vision of greatness” by telling them the story of humanity’s struggle toward freedom; if only we stop apologizing or indulging in neurotic guilt, and stand tall at mention of the “American Way” as I have defined and as your forefathers defined it and not as foolish rabble-rousers define it. If only we do this the victory shall be ours. Of course there will be set-backs. Of course there will be disappointments. Since when has the long, slow journey from the slavery of Egypt to the promised land of freedom been other than through a wilderness? Yet that “wilderness and the solitary place shall be made glad, and the desert shall rejoice; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing.”


1.   Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1954), pp. 145-46.

2.   Ibid., pp. 242-45.

3.   Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (New York: Harper and Row, 1983).

4.   Cited by J. Hemming, Individual Morality (London: Nelson, 1969), p. 6.

5.   Frederic Bastiat, “The State,” trans. S. Cain, in Selected Essays on Political Economy, ed. George B. de Huszar (Irvington: Foundation for Economic Education, 1968), p. 144.

6.   Igor R. Shafarevich, The Socialist Phenomenon (New York: Harper and Row, 1980).

7.   Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer based in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He has been resident scholar st FEE for the past few months.

Saint Augustine once lamented that he knew precisely what he meant by the word “time” until asked to state what he meant. I sympathize with the saint. I know full well what I mean by the noun “civilization,” but pinning down the word is a singularly frustrating exercise. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language—a work somewhat inordinately given to using the term et cetera—tells me that “civilization” is related to “social organization of a high order, marked by the development and use of a written language and by advances in the arts and sciences, government, etc.” and thus indicates “the total culture of a particular people, nation, period, etc.” and “countries and peoples considered to have reached a high stage of social and cultural development.” This helps—particularly the reference to the “development and use of a written language” and “advances in the arts and sciences, government, etc.”—but I am still dissatisfied: I know not a few men and women deeply involved in government, and not completely ignorant of the arts and sciences, whom I hesitate to describe as “civilized.” It is, as the King of Siam remarked to Anna, “a puzzlement.”

Non-dictionary definitions of and comments about “civilization” and the “civilizing process” compound confusion. Martin Crombie asserts that “the alchemy of civilization transforms vicious animals ruled by instinct into human beings governed by reason,” but Eric Berne tells us that “we are born princes and the civilizing process turns us into frogs.” José Ortega y Gasset insists that “civilization is nothing else but the attempt to reduce force to being the last resort,” but Will Rogers wryly observes that no one can “say that civilization doesn’t advance, for in every war they kill you in a new way.” On the one hand, Winston Churchill affirms that “to fight for the preservation of civilization is to fight for the survival of the human race,” but on the other hand Ralph Waldo Emerson insists that “the end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.” When these conflicting utterances are blended, and are spiced by the suggestion of Calvin Coolidge that “civilization and profits go hand in hand” and the observation of Alan Coult that “the flush toilet is the basis of Western civilization,” the search for a definition of civilization begins to look like an exercise in futility.

Civilizations Die But A Continuity Remains

For all this, while no one of us may be able precisely to say what he or she means by “civilization,” all of us understand, even if we do not agree with, the assertion that civilizations seem to die. Civilization itself may continue, and much that past civilizations have achieved may be absorbed by new civilizations and thus conserved, but particular civilizations, like individual men and women, are seemingly destined to be born, to grow, to flourish, to fade, and to die.

While it is easy to concede that such a process has characterized civilizations of yesteryear, it is not so easy to believe that this is also true of our own civilization. And yet, the cosmos of which we are a part, and thus human history itself, are vital and dynamic, not lifeless and static. Change is thus inevitable. Since change is of the very essence of reality, no particular state of affairs, and hence no particular form of civilization, are forever. And that is not terrible: rather, it is ground for hope. Tomorrow is not predestined to be a rerun of today. A world more prosperous, more peaceful, more committed to liberty than is our world, is a real and exciting possibility.

I have been unable, alas, to identify the reference, but an observation I noted in a desk calendar and wrote down says it all. “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.” The words are those of Will and Ariel Durant, but where in their writings they are found I do not know.

What happens on the banks is marked by continuity. One generation inherits and builds upon what previous generations have achieved. In this sense, the insights and discoveries of particular civilizations last. And in this sense, what is great and glorious about our civilization can last. Hence my willingness to affirm that “the American Way” can last and will last. In so speaking I am not, incidentally, seeking to fiat-ter you. The “American Way” has a long history. Insights and ideals for which innumerable people over millennia fought and died came, perhaps by an accident of history, the defining characteristics of “the American Way.” Your nation, after all, is unique in that it was “conceived in liberty.”

What can last and what, I believe, will last, are the principles so many for so long sought to establish, and which in this new nation “became flesh.” What can and will last is, so to speak, the ringing affirmation that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While we cannot pretend that our civilization as it is shall endure until the end of human history, the way to preserve and pass on to those who follow us what is magnificent and awesome about the American Way is to defend all that is excellent in our civilization as it is. Being human—being material creatures living in a spatio-temporal, physical world—we cannot defend an abstraction called “civilization itself.” Just as the only way to serve an abstraction called “humanity” is to serve particular flesh-and-blood human beings, so the only way to further the cause of civilization as such is to cherish and conserve a particular civilization.

We serve civilization as such, and can only serve civilization as such, by serving the best in our own civilization. And one way to do this is to ask what it is that we can do to combat the forces that weaken, that undermine, that erode a particular civilization. Hence the title of my address and the question I wish to explore: What is the disease from which civilizations die?

Thucydides

In using the word “disease” I am borrowing a metaphor, an image, used some two-and-a-half millennia ago by a Greek historian named Thucydides.

Thucydides loved the city-state of Athens. His devotion was not to the buildings and environment one could point to, but to a way of life which Athens in the fifth century B.C. em bodied. In words Thucydides ascribes to a great Athenian leader named Pericles, that way of life is thus described:


Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the entire people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law. . . . And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in relation to each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because [the law] commands our deep respect . . . especially . . . those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break. It seems just as natural to us to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products . . . and our city is open to the world . . . . We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than something to boast about, and as for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it. The real shame is not in being poor, but in not taking practical measures to escape from poverty. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs, but in the affairs of [Athens] as well[1]

Now it must be confessed that this description of the Athenian way is not a little idealized. The institution of slavery was a reality in Athens, just as it was in all Greek city-states of the fifth-century B.C. Again, power in Athens could be said to be “in the hands . . . of the entire people” if and only if women did not count as people. Yet for all this, Thucydides’ description accurately captures something of what was so magnificent about his beloved Athens, a civilization that gave birth to thinkers, writers, and artists whose insights and works still live, having become part of “civilization itself.” Yet the civilization that was Athens did not live. It died.

Early in the work from which I have quoted, Thucydides describes a mysterious plague which swept through Athens, elaborating in detail the symptoms those suffering from the disease displayed. At one level this section of his history is simply history, a painstaking record of a significant event which most certainly did occur. Yet more than a simple description of what happened is intended. Thucydides uses this description as a controlling symbol for his entire work. Athenian civilization itself suffered, he asserts, from a “disease,” a disease characterized by particular symptoms. This disease, which in the case of Athens proved fatal, is the disease all men and women of good will must fear. For it is the disease from which civilizations die.

Human Beings and Human Nature

Thucydides frequently uses the phrase, “human nature being what it is” and similar phrases. By so speaking, he is indicating at least two realities, two constants about men and women. First, human beings are rational. Men and women are capable of thought. They can formulate goals and rationally seek out ways to realize these goals. They can recall, consider, and learn from the past and thereby plan for the future. They can envisage not simply an immediate and given present, but a distant and possible future. Human nature is rational.

Now rationality dictates, insists Thucydides, the rule of law. Long-term objectives can be realized by an individual if and only if he or she can count upon other people behaving in an essentially predictable way. By this is meant not that the individual cannot or should not be spontaneous and creative, and thus unpredictable, but that some rules and conventions governing the way people relate to each other must exist and must be respected. Rule by a tyrant’s whim or a mob’s caprice is undesirable, apart from anything else, precisely because such rule is erratic and unpredictable, precluding cooperative, long-term endeavors. What is permitted today might be forbidden tomorrow; undertakings made in the present might not be fulfilled in the future. Social coordination and cooperation demands, insists Thucydides, the rule of law. And as rational beings, men and women can perceive that this is so.

The Rules of Law

Like many of his contemporaries, Thucydides divides “laws” broadly defined into four groups or sets. First, and perhaps weakest, are the rules signified by the word manners. People breaking these rules tend to be regarded as somewhat uncivilized and uncouth, but that is all. Ill-mannered people may not be invited to dinner parties, but they are not perceived as “bad” people.

Then come the rules signified by the word morals. These rules are significantly stronger than the rules we call “manners.” People breaking these rules are perceived not simply as irksome, antisocial irritants but as evil people.

Third come the rules making up the written laws of a community. These rules, stronger than both manners and morals, are the rules which, if broken, incur a penalty imposed by a court. While some “immoral” actions may also be “illegal” actions, not all are. Thus the sexual license so uproariously depicted in the plays of the Athenian comedian, Aristophanes, while certainly not illegal, was no less certainly regarded as immoral. The sphere of morality, and the sphere of legality, were not perceived by the Greeks as identical.

Manners. Morals. The written laws. And a fourth set of rules: the “unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.” These laws were perceived as so basic, so fundamental, so important, that they did not need to be written down. For the Greeks, these laws were two: honor the dead, and honor the gods, including the gods of others. In a sense, these two laws reduce to a single imperative: respect other people as people, possessing a worth in and of themselves, and respect the values other people hold, even if those values are other than one’s own. In more contemporary language, we might define the “unwritten laws” as what some philosophers call reciprocal respect for autonomy, a respect for the personhood of other people and their capacity to formulate and strive to realize their own peaceful, noncoercive visions of the “good life.” The “unwritten laws.”

Rationality, then, dictates obedience to these laws. It is in one’s own interest that one is part of a community where certain expectations can be held and long-term goals can be pursued. To be sure, one cannot, given these rules, do exactly what one might wish at a given moment, but neither can anyone else. There is thus an incalculably valuable payoff, a pay-off more than compensating for the irksome restraint of not always being able to behave with impunity. So affirms reason. So asserts the rationality that is part of human nature.

Alongside rationality is found a second characteristic of “human nature”: a drive to seek immediate, here-and-now pleasure. Men and women resent whatever curbs their freedom to seek such pleasure. Regardless of the dictates of sweet reason, they chafe at the bit. Thus if a person can acquire the power to defy the rules social cooperation and coordination demand, that person will defy them. If a person can acquire the power to defy the rules and get away with it, that person will, asserts Thucydides, tend to do precisely that.

The first rules to go are usually manners. Then morals bite the dust. Then the written laws are defied. Finally, the “unwritten laws” are forgotten. Resentment and envy are fostered, the powerless detesting the powerful. Factions proliferate. Barbarism reigns.

A Tyrant is Born

And then, asserts Thucydides, comes the end, in one of two forms. A social order without coordination is powerless to defend itself against the disciplined onslaughts of an external power. Or—and more frequent]y—a people sinking into the chaos of barbarism panic. They cry out for someone—anyone—who will restore some semblance of cohesion and order. And invariably that someone emerges. He promises to give the people what, in desperation, they are grasping for. He promises to restore social order and the rule of law. But at a price. In exchange, men and women must surrender their liberty. In this way, the tyrant is born.

Thucydides describes in great detail the symptoms observable as this disease—the disease from which civilizations die—inexorably works its way toward its terrible end, progressively eroding the structures and practices that are, so to speak, the central nervous system of a civilized community. I quote him at some length.

“Revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late, the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances . . . in the methods of seizing power and . . . unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying that one was a coward . . . . Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man . . . ; [anyone] who held violent opinions could always be trusted; anyone who objected to [such opinions] became a suspect . . . . Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were . . . ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but simply to acquire power . . . .”

Continues Thucydides: “Love of power . . . was the cause of all these evils . . . . Leaders of parties in the cities had programs which appeared admirable—on the one side equality for the masses, on the other side safe and sound government by an aristocracy. Yet by professing to serve the public interest, party leaders and members in truth sought to win . . . prizes for themselves . . . . [With] the conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself in its true colors . . . . repealing general laws of humanity which . . . give a hope of salvation to all.”[2]

Thus the symptoms. Then the end. Whether externally imposed or internally generated, tyranny and despotism triumph. Liberty dies, and with it a civilization. The joyous songs of a free and civilized people are silenced. The disease from which civilizations die has worked its way to its end.

Here endeth a brief and sketchy lesson from a volume penned by a genius whose name is never heard by many students. They prefer, you see, “relevant” books and contemporary names. And those of us who should know better capitulate, fearful of incurring our children’s wrath. We proffer amusing mini-courses about ephemeral interests instead—then wonder why it is our young know little about the heritage that is rightly theirs.

Moral Decline

As a preacher, I might be expected to point to the breakdown in Western societies of moral rules. Clearly, all is not well. In his monumental volume, Modern Times: The World From The Twenties To The Eighties,[3] Paul Johnson documents the rise in the West of moral relativism and moral subjectivism. More and more, moral rules are perceived either as arbitrary prescriptions and proscriptions relative to a particular society, having no rootage or grounding in the nature of things, or as expressions of persona] taste, a difference over the merits of cruelty for its own sake being akin to a difference over the merits of a particular flavor of ice cream.

Yet in spite of this, I suggest that anyone tempted to assert that our civilization has sunk to hitherto depths of moral depravity, read some history. The eighteenth-century writer, Tobias Smollett—author of that ever-delightful work, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker—describes the highways of his day as being “infested with violence and assassination” and the cities of his age as “teem(ing) with the brutal votaries of intemperance and lewdness.” London in 1839 boasted 933 brothels and 844 houses of ill-fame to serve a population of some two million people. Hooliganism is no more rampant in New York City today than it was in nineteenth century London, where gangs such as the “Bucks” and “Corinthians” perfected traditions of sheer terrorism elaborated by their eighteenth-century predecessors, the notorious “Mohocks.” Consider this description of the Mohocks: “Nobody who was alone was safe from their cowardly assaults. They attacked at random any unarmed person who was out after dark. They assaulted unprotected women; they drove their swords through sedan-chairs; they pulled people from coaches, slit their noses with razors, stabbed them with knives, ripped the coach to pieces, and then . . . killed.”[4]

The barbaric behavior of English soccer fans which recently shocked a disbelieving world has its parallels in the eighteenth century, the major difference being not the mindlessness of the behavior but the fact that, today, we at least are shocked.

The situation is complex. There is something depraved about an age witnessing self-styled world leaders applauding a speech delivered by Idi Amin on October 1, 1975, at that cabal of tyrannies laughingly described as the United Nations. There is something profoundly disturbing about a generation of adults that seemingly has lost its moral nerve, leaving the young to improvise their manners and morals as best they can. Yet to assert that we are experiencing an unprecedented moral decline is to go beyond the evidence. Suffice to suggest that, if we take seriously Thucydides’ claim that a disregard of the rules we call manners and morals is indeed symptomatic of the disease from which civilizations die, we cannot be complacent with impunity.

The Rule of Law

What is beyond dispute is that we today have largely departed from the rule of law. “When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law,” asserts Thucydides. Citizens of Western nations not so long ago could echo this assertion. Today they cannot.

The founding fathers of this nation meant by “equality” precisely what Greeks such as Thucydides meant by the term isonomia—namely, equality before the law. There are to be no special laws for special classes or castes or elites, laws privileging some but disadvantaging others. Indeed rules which do single out particular individuals or particular sets of individuals were not, for the Greeks, properly called laws at all, but “edicts” or “decrees.” Even when such rules are backed by the majority, they remain other than laws proper, “the decrees of the demos—the people—correspond(ing),” as Aristotle puts it, “to the edicts of the tyrant.”

This truth was clearly and unambiguously perceived by those who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries defended the political philosophy of classical—classical—liberalism, and was no less clearly perceived by your founding fathers. They established a republic, not an unrestricted democracy; they advocated not the absolute rule of any majority but the constitutionally defended liberties of minorities, even minorities of one; they defended not rule by any principles securing majority approval, but by principles of conduct equally applicable to all. Justice was portrayed as a blindfolded figure. She did not see who stood before her. That did not matter, for whoever you were—rich or poor; Catholic, Protestant, Jew or “Infidel”; educated or unlettered—your “rights” were the same.

This understanding of the “rule of law” is utterly vital for a free and civilized community. Rules which single out special classes, castes, or elites breed the factionalism and scheming Thucydides laments, foster the envy Thucydides deplores, and precipitate the civil strife and dissension Thucydides fears. No matter what impressively high-minded terms are appealed to as justification for any departure from the rule of law properly understood-“social justice” or whatever—the outcome remains the same. And that outcome is disaster for a free and civilized society.

And let us not delude ourselves. In recent decades Western civilization has witnessed a departure from the rule of law, classically defined. Justice is no longer blindfolded, supremely indifferent as to who it is standing accused before her. She peeks! “Tell me who you are,” she asserts, “and then I shall tell you your rights.” The notion that all enjoy absolutely equal “rights”—essentially the “right” to formulate and strive to realize any vision of the “good life,” given only that such striving and such visions are peaceful, and that all are to be protected by government from violence, theft, and fraud—has been unspeakably attenuated. “Equality of rights” and “equality before the law” have succumbed to a different vision of “equality”—an egalitarian sameness secured by edicts and decrees which advantage some but disadvantage others.

The very nature of government thus changes. No longer is government given the vital but limited task of enforcing a single set of rules, protecting all from actual or threatened violence, theft, and fraud, and thereby ensuring that all are equally free to formulate and strive to realize their own visions—their diverse but noncoercive visions—of the “good life.” Rather, government becomes the means whereby one group of people seeks favors and advantages at the expense of rival groupings of people. A massive redistributive apparatus proliferates zero-sum games whereby some gain and others lose. Factionalism is encouraged, envy is increased, and government becomes not the protector of all but what Frederic Bastiat, the great French classical liberal thinker, called “the fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”[5] And according to Thucydides, this eroding of the rule of law signifies the presence of the disease from which civilizations die.

The Family

I make no apologies for drawing your attention to Thucydides’ specific reference to the weakening of family ties as a further symptom of the disease from which civilizations die. Indeed I would urge you to read a singularly scholarly volume penned by the courageous Russian dissident, Igor Shafarevich, entitled The Socialist Phenomenon.[6] While a mathematician by training—indeed until recently Shafarevich was a professor of mathematics at Moscow University—he displays in this volume an utterly awesome historical knowledge, and he uses that knowledge to document with compelling thoroughness the hatred statists and collectivists invariably have had for the family unit. It would seem to be the case that opposition to individual liberty inevitably leads to opposition to the family.

Because I am committed to the rule of law, I cannot and do not advocate laws specifying the family unit and deliberately seeking to foster and favor the family unit. I must, in the name of the rule of law, oppose all rules the objective of which is the realization of some particular vision of the “good life”—save, of course, visions involving the actual or threatened coercion of people not sharing those visions.

What I oppose in the name of the rule of law is the perhaps unintentional weakening of the traditional family by welfare schemes which in practice encourage a breakdown of the family unit. It would be impertinent for me to refer to the situation in your nation. But I can refer you to Charles Murray’s devastating critique of American social welfare policy, Losing Ground.[7]

All I ask is that governments mind their own business and get out of the way as individuals organize their social relationships. The traditional family is, in my judgment, so grounded in biological and emotional reality that it can look after itself. The only further suggestion I make is that individuals caring about strengthening the traditional family, involve themselves in voluntary organizations assisting families in trouble—financial assistance, counseling, and so on.

Be that as it may, the undermining of the family is, as Thucydides perceived so long ago, a symptom of the disease from which civilizations die.

Individual Integrity

Finally, according to Thucydides, the disease from which civilizations die afflicts the “best” members of a society, not simply the “worst.” Given immoral social institutions, the “best” are tempted to compromise their principles. By so yielding, however, those who should know better become infected cells carrying the disease, rather than healthy antibodies fighting the invader.

Some lines of George Meredith say it all:

In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be. Passions spin the plot:
We are betrayed by what is false within.

I know the alibis, being extremely gifted in the less than noble art of rationalization. I am robbed, say, by a pickpocket. At some future date, I acquire some clout over the pickpocket. Is it not proper that I retrieve all or some of what rightly is mine? Similarly, is it not right that I join in the scramble to the government trough, retrieving what has been taken from me, at least in part? But the analogy is flawed. We are not retrieving from the pickpocket what is ours; we are rather sending him out to pick other pockets—including those of our children and our children’s children—and sharing in the loot. We are partners in crime, not victims enjoying a measure of restitution.

I am not referring to forms of involvement in a less than ideal system that cannot be avoided. In my nation, the only way I can opt out of a socialized medical system is to seek out some ex-doctor, struck off the lists, and negotiate an undisclosed cash payment; and frankly I’m not prepared to entrust my physical well-being to some probably incompetent rogue. I go to the ballet, even though I know that money coercively extracted from football fans and movie buffs for the most part less affluent than am I is subsidizing my extravagant tastes. Total disengagement with a less than ideal system is acquired only by opting out, and, with like-minded souls, seeking a deserted island on which to set up a utopia—but such islands are few and the pioneering spirit is not, alas, mine.

I am, however, referring to an involvement we could avoid if we were willing to pay the price. Many of those who state that they value liberty, and a politico-economic system informed by liberty, tolerate in themselves a measure of involvement with Statist structures that is not necessary, and which makes their professed values ring hollow. In this sense we are, in Meredith’s words, betrayed by “what is false within,” becoming carriers of the disease from which civilizations die.

Conclusion

No person with eyes to see, and certainly no person with eyes alert to the symptoms detailed by Thucydides of the disease from which civilizations die, can entertain the fantasy that all is well with our civilization. Yet I am utterly convinced that our situation is far from hopeless, and that the “disease” can be curbed and conquered.

I believe the American inheritance is the greatest inheritance ever given to any nation: “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In this land the dream of the ages was earthed, and became the very foundation upon which a people began to build. The revolution that gave you birth was unique. Other revolutions ended in terror or Napoleonic empire. Your revolution challenged at its beginning, and has challenged ever since, all dominations and tyrannies, all prejudices and bigotries, all predatory institutions enslaving and debasing the free spirit of humanity. Your revolution enshrined and still enshrines the cry that people are not chattels, not pawns on a planner’s chessboard, not divided by “nature” into lords and serfs. It is therefore sacrilege to enslave them, infamous to engineer them, criminal to degrade them and seek to smother the liberty that burns in their being.

And that is your strength. For the liberty upon which this nation was and is built is not merely a value created by or equal to a taste some of us happen to have acquired. It is grounded in the very nature of human reality. In the absence of private property rights, the absence of changing relative money prices in a market economy—in the absence, to put it bluntly, of economic and individual liberty—a community literally cannot use what it has to acquire what it wants, and the hungry will not be fed, the naked will not be clothed, the destitute will not be sheltered.

More, there is in the human spirit a yearning that can never utterly be silenced, a yearning for freedom to formulate one’s own vision of the “good life” and seek to realize that vision. I know that there is another voice and another yearning—a voice that whispers fearfully of the risks and responsibilities freedom involves, and a yearning to be carried through life. Yet the voice that says, “Stand on thy feet, take up thy bed and walk,” has the last word, for it is stronger than the voice which, in the name of an illusory security, lures us toward the collective grave of statism.

You and I are on the side of life. Yes, we must act as though everything depended upon the labors of our hands, the intensity of our thinking, the devotion of our hearts. Yet if liberty is written into the very structure of our individual and social being, victory in the end is sure. If only we stop compromising; if only we as educationalists and adults do what A. N. Whitehead said we must do, and expose our children to the “habitual vision of greatness” by telling them the story of humanity’s struggle toward freedom; if only we stop apologizing or indulging in neurotic guilt, and stand tall at mention of the “American Way” as I have defined and as your forefathers defined it and not as foolish rabble-rousers define it. If only we do this the victory shall be ours. Of course there will be set-backs. Of course there will be disappointments. Since when has the long, slow journey from the slavery of Egypt to the promised land of freedom been other than through a wilderness? Yet that “wilderness and the solitary place shall be made glad, and the desert shall rejoice; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing.”


1.   Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1954), pp. 145-46.

2.   Ibid., pp. 242-45.

3.   Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (New York: Harper and Row, 1983).

4.   Cited by J. Hemming, Individual Morality (London: Nelson, 1969), p. 6.

5.   Frederic Bastiat, “The State,” trans. S. Cain, in Selected Essays on Political Economy, ed. George B. de Huszar (Irvington: Foundation for Economic Education, 1968), p. 144.

6.   Igor R. Shafarevich, The Socialist Phenomenon (New York: Harper and Row, 1980).

7.   Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer based in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He has been resident scholar st FEE for the past few months.

Saint Augustine once lamented that he knew precisely what he meant by the word “time” until asked to state what he meant. I sympathize with the saint. I know full well what I mean by the noun “civilization,” but pinning down the word is a singularly frustrating exercise. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language—a work somewhat inordinately given to using the term et cetera—tells me that “civilization” is related to “social organization of a high order, marked by the development and use of a written language and by advances in the arts and sciences, government, etc.” and thus indicates “the total culture of a particular people, nation, period, etc.” and “countries and peoples considered to have reached a high stage of social and cultural development.” This helps—particularly the reference to the “development and use of a written language” and “advances in the arts and sciences, government, etc.”—but I am still dissatisfied: I know not a few men and women deeply involved in government, and not completely ignorant of the arts and sciences, whom I hesitate to describe as “civilized.” It is, as the King of Siam remarked to Anna, “a puzzlement.”

Non-dictionary definitions of and comments about “civilization” and the “civilizing process” compound confusion. Martin Crombie asserts that “the alchemy of civilization transforms vicious animals ruled by instinct into human beings governed by reason,” but Eric Berne tells us that “we are born princes and the civilizing process turns us into frogs.” José Ortega y Gasset insists that “civilization is nothing else but the attempt to reduce force to being the last resort,” but Will Rogers wryly observes that no one can “say that civilization doesn’t advance, for in every war they kill you in a new way.” On the one hand, Winston Churchill affirms that “to fight for the preservation of civilization is to fight for the survival of the human race,” but on the other hand Ralph Waldo Emerson insists that “the end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.” When these conflicting utterances are blended, and are spiced by the suggestion of Calvin Coolidge that “civilization and profits go hand in hand” and the observation of Alan Coult that “the flush toilet is the basis of Western civilization,” the search for a definition of civilization begins to look like an exercise in futility.

Civilizations Die But A Continuity Remains

For all this, while no one of us may be able precisely to say what he or she means by “civilization,” all of us understand, even if we do not agree with, the assertion that civilizations seem to die. Civilization itself may continue, and much that past civilizations have achieved may be absorbed by new civilizations and thus conserved, but particular civilizations, like individual men and women, are seemingly destined to be born, to grow, to flourish, to fade, and to die.

While it is easy to concede that such a process has characterized civilizations of yesteryear, it is not so easy to believe that this is also true of our own civilization. And yet, the cosmos of which we are a part, and thus human history itself, are vital and dynamic, not lifeless and static. Change is thus inevitable. Since change is of the very essence of reality, no particular state of affairs, and hence no particular form of civilization, are forever. And that is not terrible: rather, it is ground for hope. Tomorrow is not predestined to be a rerun of today. A world more prosperous, more peaceful, more committed to liberty than is our world, is a real and exciting possibility.

I have been unable, alas, to identify the reference, but an observation I noted in a desk calendar and wrote down says it all. “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.” The words are those of Will and Ariel Durant, but where in their writings they are found I do not know.

What happens on the banks is marked by continuity. One generation inherits and builds upon what previous generations have achieved. In this sense, the insights and discoveries of particular civilizations last. And in this sense, what is great and glorious about our civilization can last. Hence my willingness to affirm that “the American Way” can last and will last. In so speaking I am not, incidentally, seeking to fiat-ter you. The “American Way” has a long history. Insights and ideals for which innumerable people over millennia fought and died came, perhaps by an accident of history, the defining characteristics of “the American Way.” Your nation, after all, is unique in that it was “conceived in liberty.”

What can last and what, I believe, will last, are the principles so many for so long sought to establish, and which in this new nation “became flesh.” What can and will last is, so to speak, the ringing affirmation that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While we cannot pretend that our civilization as it is shall endure until the end of human history, the way to preserve and pass on to those who follow us what is magnificent and awesome about the American Way is to defend all that is excellent in our civilization as it is. Being human—being material creatures living in a spatio-temporal, physical world—we cannot defend an abstraction called “civilization itself.” Just as the only way to serve an abstraction called “humanity” is to serve particular flesh-and-blood human beings, so the only way to further the cause of civilization as such is to cherish and conserve a particular civilization.

We serve civilization as such, and can only serve civilization as such, by serving the best in our own civilization. And one way to do this is to ask what it is that we can do to combat the forces that weaken, that undermine, that erode a particular civilization. Hence the title of my address and the question I wish to explore: What is the disease from which civilizations die?

Thucydides

In using the word “disease” I am borrowing a metaphor, an image, used some two-and-a-half millennia ago by a Greek historian named Thucydides.

Thucydides loved the city-state of Athens. His devotion was not to the buildings and environment one could point to, but to a way of life which Athens in the fifth century B.C. em bodied. In words Thucydides ascribes to a great Athenian leader named Pericles, that way of life is thus described:


Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the entire people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law. . . . And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in relation to each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because [the law] commands our deep respect . . . especially . . . those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break. It seems just as natural to us to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products . . . and our city is open to the world . . . . We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than something to boast about, and as for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it. The real shame is not in being poor, but in not taking practical measures to escape from poverty. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs, but in the affairs of [Athens] as well[1]

Now it must be confessed that this description of the Athenian way is not a little idealized. The institution of slavery was a reality in Athens, just as it was in all Greek city-states of the fifth-century B.C. Again, power in Athens could be said to be “in the hands . . . of the entire people” if and only if women did not count as people. Yet for all this, Thucydides’ description accurately captures something of what was so magnificent about his beloved Athens, a civilization that gave birth to thinkers, writers, and artists whose insights and works still live, having become part of “civilization itself.” Yet the civilization that was Athens did not live. It died.

Early in the work from which I have quoted, Thucydides describes a mysterious plague which swept through Athens, elaborating in detail the symptoms those suffering from the disease displayed. At one level this section of his history is simply history, a painstaking record of a significant event which most certainly did occur. Yet more than a simple description of what happened is intended. Thucydides uses this description as a controlling symbol for his entire work. Athenian civilization itself suffered, he asserts, from a “disease,” a disease characterized by particular symptoms. This disease, which in the case of Athens proved fatal, is the disease all men and women of good will must fear. For it is the disease from which civilizations die.

Human Beings and Human Nature

Thucydides frequently uses the phrase, “human nature being what it is” and similar phrases. By so speaking, he is indicating at least two realities, two constants about men and women. First, human beings are rational. Men and women are capable of thought. They can formulate goals and rationally seek out ways to realize these goals. They can recall, consider, and learn from the past and thereby plan for the future. They can envisage not simply an immediate and given present, but a distant and possible future. Human nature is rational.

Now rationality dictates, insists Thucydides, the rule of law. Long-term objectives can be realized by an individual if and only if he or she can count upon other people behaving in an essentially predictable way. By this is meant not that the individual cannot or should not be spontaneous and creative, and thus unpredictable, but that some rules and conventions governing the way people relate to each other must exist and must be respected. Rule by a tyrant’s whim or a mob’s caprice is undesirable, apart from anything else, precisely because such rule is erratic and unpredictable, precluding cooperative, long-term endeavors. What is permitted today might be forbidden tomorrow; undertakings made in the present might not be fulfilled in the future. Social coordination and cooperation demands, insists Thucydides, the rule of law. And as rational beings, men and women can perceive that this is so.

The Rules of Law

Like many of his contemporaries, Thucydides divides “laws” broadly defined into four groups or sets. First, and perhaps weakest, are the rules signified by the word manners. People breaking these rules tend to be regarded as somewhat uncivilized and uncouth, but that is all. Ill-mannered people may not be invited to dinner parties, but they are not perceived as “bad” people.

Then come the rules signified by the word morals. These rules are significantly stronger than the rules we call “manners.” People breaking these rules are perceived not simply as irksome, antisocial irritants but as evil people.

Third come the rules making up the written laws of a community. These rules, stronger than both manners and morals, are the rules which, if broken, incur a penalty imposed by a court. While some “immoral” actions may also be “illegal” actions, not all are. Thus the sexual license so uproariously depicted in the plays of the Athenian comedian, Aristophanes, while certainly not illegal, was no less certainly regarded as immoral. The sphere of morality, and the sphere of legality, were not perceived by the Greeks as identical.

Manners. Morals. The written laws. And a fourth set of rules: the “unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.” These laws were perceived as so basic, so fundamental, so important, that they did not need to be written down. For the Greeks, these laws were two: honor the dead, and honor the gods, including the gods of others. In a sense, these two laws reduce to a single imperative: respect other people as people, possessing a worth in and of themselves, and respect the values other people hold, even if those values are other than one’s own. In more contemporary language, we might define the “unwritten laws” as what some philosophers call reciprocal respect for autonomy, a respect for the personhood of other people and their capacity to formulate and strive to realize their own peaceful, noncoercive visions of the “good life.” The “unwritten laws.”

Rationality, then, dictates obedience to these laws. It is in one’s own interest that one is part of a community where certain expectations can be held and long-term goals can be pursued. To be sure, one cannot, given these rules, do exactly what one might wish at a given moment, but neither can anyone else. There is thus an incalculably valuable payoff, a pay-off more than compensating for the irksome restraint of not always being able to behave with impunity. So affirms reason. So asserts the rationality that is part of human nature.

Alongside rationality is found a second characteristic of “human nature”: a drive to seek immediate, here-and-now pleasure. Men and women resent whatever curbs their freedom to seek such pleasure. Regardless of the dictates of sweet reason, they chafe at the bit. Thus if a person can acquire the power to defy the rules social cooperation and coordination demand, that person will defy them. If a person can acquire the power to defy the rules and get away with it, that person will, asserts Thucydides, tend to do precisely that.

The first rules to go are usually manners. Then morals bite the dust. Then the written laws are defied. Finally, the “unwritten laws” are forgotten. Resentment and envy are fostered, the powerless detesting the powerful. Factions proliferate. Barbarism reigns.

A Tyrant is Born

And then, asserts Thucydides, comes the end, in one of two forms. A social order without coordination is powerless to defend itself against the disciplined onslaughts of an external power. Or—and more frequent]y—a people sinking into the chaos of barbarism panic. They cry out for someone—anyone—who will restore some semblance of cohesion and order. And invariably that someone emerges. He promises to give the people what, in desperation, they are grasping for. He promises to restore social order and the rule of law. But at a price. In exchange, men and women must surrender their liberty. In this way, the tyrant is born.

Thucydides describes in great detail the symptoms observable as this disease—the disease from which civilizations die—inexorably works its way toward its terrible end, progressively eroding the structures and practices that are, so to speak, the central nervous system of a civilized community. I quote him at some length.

“Revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late, the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances . . . in the methods of seizing power and . . . unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying that one was a coward . . . . Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man . . . ; [anyone] who held violent opinions could always be trusted; anyone who objected to [such opinions] became a suspect . . . . Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were . . . ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but simply to acquire power . . . .”

Continues Thucydides: “Love of power . . . was the cause of all these evils . . . . Leaders of parties in the cities had programs which appeared admirable—on the one side equality for the masses, on the other side safe and sound government by an aristocracy. Yet by professing to serve the public interest, party leaders and members in truth sought to win . . . prizes for themselves . . . . [With] the conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself in its true colors . . . . repealing general laws of humanity which . . . give a hope of salvation to all.”[2]

Thus the symptoms. Then the end. Whether externally imposed or internally generated, tyranny and despotism triumph. Liberty dies, and with it a civilization. The joyous songs of a free and civilized people are silenced. The disease from which civilizations die has worked its way to its end.

Here endeth a brief and sketchy lesson from a volume penned by a genius whose name is never heard by many students. They prefer, you see, “relevant” books and contemporary names. And those of us who should know better capitulate, fearful of incurring our children’s wrath. We proffer amusing mini-courses about ephemeral interests instead—then wonder why it is our young know little about the heritage that is rightly theirs.

Moral Decline

As a preacher, I might be expected to point to the breakdown in Western societies of moral rules. Clearly, all is not well. In his monumental volume, Modern Times: The World From The Twenties To The Eighties,[3] Paul Johnson documents the rise in the West of moral relativism and moral subjectivism. More and more, moral rules are perceived either as arbitrary prescriptions and proscriptions relative to a particular society, having no rootage or grounding in the nature of things, or as expressions of persona] taste, a difference over the merits of cruelty for its own sake being akin to a difference over the merits of a particular flavor of ice cream.

Yet in spite of this, I suggest that anyone tempted to assert that our civilization has sunk to hitherto depths of moral depravity, read some history. The eighteenth-century writer, Tobias Smollett—author of that ever-delightful work, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker—describes the highways of his day as being “infested with violence and assassination” and the cities of his age as “teem(ing) with the brutal votaries of intemperance and lewdness.” London in 1839 boasted 933 brothels and 844 houses of ill-fame to serve a population of some two million people. Hooliganism is no more rampant in New York City today than it was in nineteenth century London, where gangs such as the “Bucks” and “Corinthians” perfected traditions of sheer terrorism elaborated by their eighteenth-century predecessors, the notorious “Mohocks.” Consider this description of the Mohocks: “Nobody who was alone was safe from their cowardly assaults. They attacked at random any unarmed person who was out after dark. They assaulted unprotected women; they drove their swords through sedan-chairs; they pulled people from coaches, slit their noses with razors, stabbed them with knives, ripped the coach to pieces, and then . . . killed.”[4]

The barbaric behavior of English soccer fans which recently shocked a disbelieving world has its parallels in the eighteenth century, the major difference being not the mindlessness of the behavior but the fact that, today, we at least are shocked.

The situation is complex. There is something depraved about an age witnessing self-styled world leaders applauding a speech delivered by Idi Amin on October 1, 1975, at that cabal of tyrannies laughingly described as the United Nations. There is something profoundly disturbing about a generation of adults that seemingly has lost its moral nerve, leaving the young to improvise their manners and morals as best they can. Yet to assert that we are experiencing an unprecedented moral decline is to go beyond the evidence. Suffice to suggest that, if we take seriously Thucydides’ claim that a disregard of the rules we call manners and morals is indeed symptomatic of the disease from which civilizations die, we cannot be complacent with impunity.

The Rule of Law

What is beyond dispute is that we today have largely departed from the rule of law. “When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law,” asserts Thucydides. Citizens of Western nations not so long ago could echo this assertion. Today they cannot.

The founding fathers of this nation meant by “equality” precisely what Greeks such as Thucydides meant by the term isonomia—namely, equality before the law. There are to be no special laws for special classes or castes or elites, laws privileging some but disadvantaging others. Indeed rules which do single out particular individuals or particular sets of individuals were not, for the Greeks, properly called laws at all, but “edicts” or “decrees.” Even when such rules are backed by the majority, they remain other than laws proper, “the decrees of the demos—the people—correspond(ing),” as Aristotle puts it, “to the edicts of the tyrant.”

This truth was clearly and unambiguously perceived by those who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries defended the political philosophy of classical—classical—liberalism, and was no less clearly perceived by your founding fathers. They established a republic, not an unrestricted democracy; they advocated not the absolute rule of any majority but the constitutionally defended liberties of minorities, even minorities of one; they defended not rule by any principles securing majority approval, but by principles of conduct equally applicable to all. Justice was portrayed as a blindfolded figure. She did not see who stood before her. That did not matter, for whoever you were—rich or poor; Catholic, Protestant, Jew or “Infidel”; educated or unlettered—your “rights” were the same.

This understanding of the “rule of law” is utterly vital for a free and civilized community. Rules which single out special classes, castes, or elites breed the factionalism and scheming Thucydides laments, foster the envy Thucydides deplores, and precipitate the civil strife and dissension Thucydides fears. No matter what impressively high-minded terms are appealed to as justification for any departure from the rule of law properly understood-“social justice” or whatever—the outcome remains the same. And that outcome is disaster for a free and civilized society.

And let us not delude ourselves. In recent decades Western civilization has witnessed a departure from the rule of law, classically defined. Justice is no longer blindfolded, supremely indifferent as to who it is standing accused before her. She peeks! “Tell me who you are,” she asserts, “and then I shall tell you your rights.” The notion that all enjoy absolutely equal “rights”—essentially the “right” to formulate and strive to realize any vision of the “good life,” given only that such striving and such visions are peaceful, and that all are to be protected by government from violence, theft, and fraud—has been unspeakably attenuated. “Equality of rights” and “equality before the law” have succumbed to a different vision of “equality”—an egalitarian sameness secured by edicts and decrees which advantage some but disadvantage others.

The very nature of government thus changes. No longer is government given the vital but limited task of enforcing a single set of rules, protecting all from actual or threatened violence, theft, and fraud, and thereby ensuring that all are equally free to formulate and strive to realize their own visions—their diverse but noncoercive visions—of the “good life.” Rather, government becomes the means whereby one group of people seeks favors and advantages at the expense of rival groupings of people. A massive redistributive apparatus proliferates zero-sum games whereby some gain and others lose. Factionalism is encouraged, envy is increased, and government becomes not the protector of all but what Frederic Bastiat, the great French classical liberal thinker, called “the fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”[5] And according to Thucydides, this eroding of the rule of law signifies the presence of the disease from which civilizations die.

The Family

I make no apologies for drawing your attention to Thucydides’ specific reference to the weakening of family ties as a further symptom of the disease from which civilizations die. Indeed I would urge you to read a singularly scholarly volume penned by the courageous Russian dissident, Igor Shafarevich, entitled The Socialist Phenomenon.[6] While a mathematician by training—indeed until recently Shafarevich was a professor of mathematics at Moscow University—he displays in this volume an utterly awesome historical knowledge, and he uses that knowledge to document with compelling thoroughness the hatred statists and collectivists invariably have had for the family unit. It would seem to be the case that opposition to individual liberty inevitably leads to opposition to the family.

Because I am committed to the rule of law, I cannot and do not advocate laws specifying the family unit and deliberately seeking to foster and favor the family unit. I must, in the name of the rule of law, oppose all rules the objective of which is the realization of some particular vision of the “good life”—save, of course, visions involving the actual or threatened coercion of people not sharing those visions.

What I oppose in the name of the rule of law is the perhaps unintentional weakening of the traditional family by welfare schemes which in practice encourage a breakdown of the family unit. It would be impertinent for me to refer to the situation in your nation. But I can refer you to Charles Murray’s devastating critique of American social welfare policy, Losing Ground.[7]

All I ask is that governments mind their own business and get out of the way as individuals organize their social relationships. The traditional family is, in my judgment, so grounded in biological and emotional reality that it can look after itself. The only further suggestion I make is that individuals caring about strengthening the traditional family, involve themselves in voluntary organizations assisting families in trouble—financial assistance, counseling, and so on.

Be that as it may, the undermining of the family is, as Thucydides perceived so long ago, a symptom of the disease from which civilizations die.

Individual Integrity

Finally, according to Thucydides, the disease from which civilizations die afflicts the “best” members of a society, not simply the “worst.” Given immoral social institutions, the “best” are tempted to compromise their principles. By so yielding, however, those who should know better become infected cells carrying the disease, rather than healthy antibodies fighting the invader.

Some lines of George Meredith say it all:

In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be. Passions spin the plot:
We are betrayed by what is false within.

I know the alibis, being extremely gifted in the less than noble art of rationalization. I am robbed, say, by a pickpocket. At some future date, I acquire some clout over the pickpocket. Is it not proper that I retrieve all or some of what rightly is mine? Similarly, is it not right that I join in the scramble to the government trough, retrieving what has been taken from me, at least in part? But the analogy is flawed. We are not retrieving from the pickpocket what is ours; we are rather sending him out to pick other pockets—including those of our children and our children’s children—and sharing in the loot. We are partners in crime, not victims enjoying a measure of restitution.

I am not referring to forms of involvement in a less than ideal system that cannot be avoided. In my nation, the only way I can opt out of a socialized medical system is to seek out some ex-doctor, struck off the lists, and negotiate an undisclosed cash payment; and frankly I’m not prepared to entrust my physical well-being to some probably incompetent rogue. I go to the ballet, even though I know that money coercively extracted from football fans and movie buffs for the most part less affluent than am I is subsidizing my extravagant tastes. Total disengagement with a less than ideal system is acquired only by opting out, and, with like-minded souls, seeking a deserted island on which to set up a utopia—but such islands are few and the pioneering spirit is not, alas, mine.

I am, however, referring to an involvement we could avoid if we were willing to pay the price. Many of those who state that they value liberty, and a politico-economic system informed by liberty, tolerate in themselves a measure of involvement with Statist structures that is not necessary, and which makes their professed values ring hollow. In this sense we are, in Meredith’s words, betrayed by “what is false within,” becoming carriers of the disease from which civilizations die.

Conclusion

No person with eyes to see, and certainly no person with eyes alert to the symptoms detailed by Thucydides of the disease from which civilizations die, can entertain the fantasy that all is well with our civilization. Yet I am utterly convinced that our situation is far from hopeless, and that the “disease” can be curbed and conquered.

I believe the American inheritance is the greatest inheritance ever given to any nation: “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In this land the dream of the ages was earthed, and became the very foundation upon which a people began to build. The revolution that gave you birth was unique. Other revolutions ended in terror or Napoleonic empire. Your revolution challenged at its beginning, and has challenged ever since, all dominations and tyrannies, all prejudices and bigotries, all predatory institutions enslaving and debasing the free spirit of humanity. Your revolution enshrined and still enshrines the cry that people are not chattels, not pawns on a planner’s chessboard, not divided by “nature” into lords and serfs. It is therefore sacrilege to enslave them, infamous to engineer them, criminal to degrade them and seek to smother the liberty that burns in their being.

And that is your strength. For the liberty upon which this nation was and is built is not merely a value created by or equal to a taste some of us happen to have acquired. It is grounded in the very nature of human reality. In the absence of private property rights, the absence of changing relative money prices in a market economy—in the absence, to put it bluntly, of economic and individual liberty—a community literally cannot use what it has to acquire what it wants, and the hungry will not be fed, the naked will not be clothed, the destitute will not be sheltered.

More, there is in the human spirit a yearning that can never utterly be silenced, a yearning for freedom to formulate one’s own vision of the “good life” and seek to realize that vision. I know that there is another voice and another yearning—a voice that whispers fearfully of the risks and responsibilities freedom involves, and a yearning to be carried through life. Yet the voice that says, “Stand on thy feet, take up thy bed and walk,” has the last word, for it is stronger than the voice which, in the name of an illusory security, lures us toward the collective grave of statism.

You and I are on the side of life. Yes, we must act as though everything depended upon the labors of our hands, the intensity of our thinking, the devotion of our hearts. Yet if liberty is written into the very structure of our individual and social being, victory in the end is sure. If only we stop compromising; if only we as educationalists and adults do what A. N. Whitehead said we must do, and expose our children to the “habitual vision of greatness” by telling them the story of humanity’s struggle toward freedom; if only we stop apologizing or indulging in neurotic guilt, and stand tall at mention of the “American Way” as I have defined and as your forefathers defined it and not as foolish rabble-rousers define it. If only we do this the victory shall be ours. Of course there will be set-backs. Of course there will be disappointments. Since when has the long, slow journey from the slavery of Egypt to the promised land of freedom been other than through a wilderness? Yet that “wilderness and the solitary place shall be made glad, and the desert shall rejoice; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing.”


1.   Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1954), pp. 145-46.

2.   Ibid., pp. 242-45.

3.   Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (New York: Harper and Row, 1983).

4.   Cited by J. Hemming, Individual Morality (London: Nelson, 1969), p. 6.

5.   Frederic Bastiat, “The State,” trans. S. Cain, in Selected Essays on Political Economy, ed. George B. de Huszar (Irvington: Foundation for Economic Education, 1968), p. 144.

6.   Igor R. Shafarevich, The Socialist Phenomenon (New York: Harper and Row, 1980).

7.   Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984).


  • The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE from April to October of this year.