Even before the discovery of gunpowder a thousand years ago, Asians were shooting rockets skyward. As the centuries passed, inventive man improved the propellants and the rockets went ever and ever higher. But until a few moments ago, reckoned in historical time, the rockets always "ran out of gas," as we say; that is, the propellants spent themselves. The rockets soared until their momentum was spent, but they eventually up-ended and returned from whence they came — to earth.
Must everything that goes up come down? The answer is affirmative provided that whatever goes up does not go beyond our earth’s gravitational force. But what of a thrust that would propel the rocket into "outer space"? That’s different, we discover: What goes up need not necessarily come down; it is possible for an object to remain in orbit indefinitely.
Although analogies are tricky devices, they can, on occasion, assist in bringing the mind into range of an abstruse matter that may have an important lesson to teach. So, let’s see if we can apply the rocket analogy to the rise and fall of individuals, nations, civilizations.
Dean Inge inverted an old proverb and pointed out that "nothing fails like success." A famous prize fighter put the same idea more dramatically, "The bigger they come, the harder they fall!" But are these conclusions necessarily true? Now and then — not often —we observe an individual who gets himself up topside and stays there, despite the "law" that says individual failure is an inevitable aftermath of personal success.
But when it comes to nations and civilizations we look in vain for exceptions; the record is clear: what goes up has always come down! Nor is the assessing of collective rises and falls confined to the historians. Most of us, regardless of which side of the ideological fence we are on, concern ourselves with the fate of "our country" or the favorable and unfavorable trends of "America."
Individual Liberty the Key
Before recounting examples of collective rises and falls, it is well to have in mind what significantly rises and falls. The one important feature to keep the eye on is the rise and fall of individual liberty. If the rise and fall of political power and coercive dominance — liberty’s opposite — were the criterion, then we would be forced to conclude that impoverished Russia has risen beyond any nation that has ever existed, an absurd deduction.
Detecting the general rise and fall of liberty in a nation does not require that we examine the record person by person. It can be easily spotted by merely observing where liberty’s concomitant — general well-being, economic as well as cultural — has risen or fallen. Anywhere such well-being is increasing, there we know that freedom also is increasing.
The undulations of city-states, nations, civilizations began more than 6,000 years ago with the rise of Sumer. It fell so flat and its cities became so deeply embedded in the desert sands that historians knew nothing of it for the past 2,000 years — not until archeologists made some accidental discoveries about a century ago. And only during the past twenty years has anyone been able to decipher their cuneiform characters and, thus, to learn about the remarkable achievements of the Sumerians.¹
Egypt had her heyday.
There was the rise and fall of Carthage.
Edith Hamilton writes, "A new civilization had arisen in Athens, unlike all that had gone before."²
Parenthetically, so important was Athens that many of the world’s people are said to be part Greek. And, without question, all civilizations have contributed to our individual inheritance.
But Athens joined the growing list of failures; she fell from her pre-eminence.
Gibbon left us a notable record of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
After Rome was added to the scrap heap, we witness the rise and fall of Kiev, Venice, Amsterdam, and a host of other cultures, including the mighty British Empire. Nowhere at any time can we find an exception to this rise-and-fall pattern.
And there is a good deal of well-founded suspicion that the U.S.A. — the mightiest of them all in individual liberty and over-all wellbeing — has lost her thrust and is proceeding upward largely on momentum, that fateful interlude before up-ending and plunging downward into the historical has-beens.
Is this suspicion unwarranted? Will our nation be the exception to this evolution-devolution cavalcade? Can we expect the U.S.A. to break this monotony, to prove the fallacy of this cyclical theory of history? Have we the orbital secret? Or will "the bigger they come, the harder they fall" apply to our political economy as it has to the others? Assume there are grounds for this suspicion. Is there something, even at this late stage, that can be done about it?
Facing the Problem
Christianity answers this question affirmatively — man can transcend himself and break with the past — and thus this belief has been the unique promise of Western civilization. Of three points I feel certain: (1) these ups and downs of city-states, nations, civilizations are Heaven’s or Nature’s or Evolution’s diagrams, presented over and over again, writ bold and enormously large, that all but the blind may see them; (2) we must observe, study, and learn the lessons they teach; and (3) the up-ending in the case of our country is not necessarily inevitable; the question is, can we intellectually meet the challenge that is unique to our times and situation? As Demosthenes declared long ago, "The time for extracting a lesson from history is ever at hand for those who are wise." Up-ending or not depends entirely on the amount of wisdom that can be brought to bear!
Getting topside is one thing; staying there is quite something else. Nor is it too difficult to see why. Reflect on our Pilgrim Fathers and other newcomers who followed. Theirs was, as we well know, a case of "root hog, or die." But their plight, as similar plights the world over, bore the seeds for its alleviation: no way to go but up. Overcoming obstacles flexes the faculties and makes for strength; there is a common desire to achieve; self-reliance flowers, induced by having nothing else to rely upon; inventiveness is mothered by necessity; there is a spread of such survival virtues as thrift and honesty. There were other seminal or originative drives which, in certain favorable conditions, put poverty in the background and led, eventually, to a state of material and cultural well-being.
A part of the explanation —"the certain favorable conditions" — as to why these seminal drives brought results superior to those previously and elsewhere experienced was that, beginning with the late eighteenth century, several economic facts of life were discovered and extensively practiced: specialization, freedom in transactions, and the free market or marginal utility theory of value. But even more basic and fundamental was the unprecedented limitation placed on coercive political power, that is, the removal of restraints resulting in the freeing or releasing of creative energy. This felicitous windfall stemmed from the concept that man’s rights are an endowment of the Creator and not the state, a concept explicitly stated in the Declaration of Independence and fortified by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: the spiritual antecedent of the American miracle!
Yes, the U.S.A., relative to all previous instances, made it topside. But staying in this position demands an art never yet acquired in human experience. Consider the seminal drives that put us there. Up is no longer the sole direction; down has been added and is easier, requiring no more in the way of virtues than nothing; just letting yourself go, as we phrase it.
Affluent people have no material obstacles to overcome. Strength and toughness tend to weaken or atrophy in the absence of exercise. Thrift becomes "old hat," and what more is there to achieve when one believes he has it made? Necessity is turned off as a generator of creative activity.
To top it off, "the certain favorable conditions" have decreased as material well-being has increased, playing havoc with the most powerful seminal drive of all: self-reliance. Getting to the root of it, the idea that rights are an endowment of the Creator has become old-fashioned; the state as god has been substituted for God! And this shift in fundamental concepts has witnessed, as we might expect, a removal of constitutional barriers against state power. Self-reliance, in these circumstances, gives way to a reliance on omnipotent government.
That the seminal or originative drives — Nature’s handmaidens —which put us where we are have all but spent themselves seems evident enough. And short of a wisdom wholly new to human evolution, we’ll discover that we’re not in orbit; that an up-ending is upon us; and that the U.S.A. is just another in the evolution-devolution pattern, that is, one more diagram writ bold as a lesson for some future and, may we hope, wiser people.
But why should we not be the wiser people? To do the best we can in expanding our awareness, perception, consciousness — intelligence — is what’s expected of us; it’s clearly man’s destiny. Why wait for some future people? Thousands of Americans with minds potentially up to the task are among us. Realization of potentialities is thwarted only by a multitude of distractions, trivia that any such person can easily detect for himself. The time and energy all of us fritter away — our inattention to the really important matters of life — is appalling.
What is the wisdom required to avert an up-ending? I do not know; you do not know; no one knows!3 Therein is to be found my point. Looking for salvation, the wisdom in others or in organizations and institutions has no more promise than is to be found in political parties. It is this very looking elsewhere, this shiftless, disastrous, let-George-do-it proclivity that draws an absolute blank. How can there be any wisdom in any one of us when everyone is looking for it in someone else?
The Task Is Ours
The first fact to keep in mind is that all wisdom has its origin and manifests itself through discrete individuals and, insofar as you and I are concerned, only through you and me. Next, is to understand that whatever shows forth from either of us, regardless of how intelligently and diligently we labor at the task, can be no more than tiny fragments of light or enlightenment. And last is to entertain the conviction that only in a proliferation of the search for Truth — on the part of everyone who has the potentiality for abstract thought and the capability to think things through —can individual fragments of wisdom add up to a sum total sufficiently large to avert another historical up-ending.
This, in my view, is the lesson the bold diagrams have to teach. They seem to decree that settlement for anything less than our best is out of the question: that’s the price; take it or leave it; no higgling and haggling. If we fail to get the message, there’ll be a people, eventually, who will.
The fret is, of course, that while you and I may do our best — will anyone else? Will everyone who is capable of this type of thinking? It doesn’t seem likely, but it must be remembered that neither you nor I see very far.
The message of history’s rise and-fall sequence, given to us over and over again, is, indeed, writ bold. But some of the message is in fine print. The little I can read of it runs somewhat as follows:
· The only way for an individual to inspire others to do their best is to do his own level best.
· The rise and fall of the quality of individual lives account for the rise and fall of city-states, nations, civilizations.
· When selecting teachers for self, or children, or for one’s fellow countrymen, be certain that the teachers are students themselves. No one can aid others in their improvement who is not experiencing self-improvement.
· Be skeptical of all programs promising to improve the lot of mankind that do not begin with your own improvement.
· Do not be misled by the cliché, "Self-improvement is fine but it’s too slow; time is running out." The only concern an individual should have about time is his own husbandry of it.
· He who favors liberty would never think of master-minding the good society. Then let him not try to plan the rearrangement of a bad society. He is as incapable of the latter as the former. True practicality consists in each man probing for Truth and upholding what is revealed to him. A good society emerges only from countless, individual stands for righteousness.
True, the message is writ bold but, then, there is the fine print which gets ever finer and increasingly more difficult to read as one proceeds. Nonetheless, it ungrudgingly yields to all who are worthy and reveals an ever deeper wisdom in response to devout and persistent probing. And, assuredly, somewhere in the dim recesses of the message is to be found that wisdom which will make it possible for man to transcend himself, to break with his past, and to upset the monotonous rhythm of the rise and the fall.
If we will aim at our own fulfillment, we can confidently leave the masterminding of nations, civilizations, and the world to the Creator. Ortega read rather far into the fine print and there was revealed to him what the personal dividend is: "Every living creature is happy when he fulfills his destiny, that is, when he realizes himself, when he is being that which in truth he is."
1 Samuel Noah Kramer, From the Tablets of Sumer (Indian hills, Colorado: The Falcon’s Wing Press, 1956), 293 pp.
2 Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964), 212 pp.
3 The best outline I have been able to contrive of the areas where understanding must be sought is the chapter, "The human Situation," in Deeper Than You Think (Irvington, N. Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1967), pp. 28-44.