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Decline reading group end of term report

last modified Jun 26, 2017 02:13 PM
In 2017 the Forum on Geopolitics convened a reading group for a series of eight discussions titled: ‘From Thucydides to Trump. Decline in History.’ The reading group investigated the causes of the decline of nations, empires and civilizations, bringing together participants from the fields of history, law, business, public policy, urban studies, physics, and ecology. The group read texts by Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche, and social theorist Joseph Tainter. The texts were chosen for their theoretical power, intellectual rigour, and capacity to shed light on the state of the world in the twenty-first century. In a future effort, the Forum hopes to expand its scope of inquiry by addressing the problem of developing grand strategy in the context of decline.

‘From Thucydides to Trump. Decline in History.’

An initiative of the Forum on Geopolitics

In 2017 the Forum on Geopolitics convened a reading group for a series of eight discussions titled: ‘From Thucydides to Trump. Decline in History.’ The reading group investigated the causes of the decline of nations, empires and civilizations, bringing together participants from the fields of history, law, business, public policy, urban studies,physics, and ecology. Over five months, the group read texts by Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche, and social theorist Joseph Tainter. Participants met for one and a half hours biweekly during term, reading approximately sixty pages of text for each session.

Representing 2500 years of reflection on the problem of decline, the texts were chosen for their theoretical power, intellectual rigour, and capacity to shed light on the state of the world in the twenty-first century. The reading group embraced a decidedly pragmatic philosophy of textual interpretation, believing, in the words of J.R. Seeley, that “history, while it should be scientific in its method, should pursue a practical object; that is, it should not merely gratify the reader’s curiosity about the past, but modify his view of the present and his forecast of the future.”[1] The intention was to carefully and creatively apply each theorist’s arguments to the modern world. Yet, there was some doubt whether the causes of the decline of civilizations in the past still pertain today. As Tainter notes, no civilization has ever relied on technology to mitigate its existential risks as much as ours. Furthermore, liberal Western powers have built a post-war order on the basis of a belief in the value of, and proof of the power of, individualism, subjectivity, and commerce, rejecting traditional associations of these things with decadence and decay. Nevertheless, the participants had to suspend their preconceptions while the theorists repeatedly identified democracy, enlightenment, and science as causes and corollaries of decline.

In the end, the group did not determine whether the West is in decline, an attestation to the difficulty of assessing the historical significance of one’s own time. The participants were satisfied to mature their appreciation of the complex factors and normative considerations involved in any analysis of decline. It is hoped that all participants became more competent interpreters of trends and events, but also more cautious to embrace easy diagnoses of decline. A summary of the eight sessions follows.

Destruction, Thomas Cole
Destruction by Thomas Cole. 1836. Part of the Course of Empire series.

The series began with a close reading of book eight of Plato’s Republic, in which Plato uses the voice of Socrates to describe the nature of the decline of his ideal regime. He says that a healthy aristocracy first devolves into a timocracy, or rule of the honour-loving class, then into oligarchy, democracy, and finally tyranny. Along the way, a political culture of public virtue and obedience gives way to one of private freedom and greed. Reflecting his view of contemporary Athens, Plato argues that democracy creates demagogues who distinguish themselves from good leaders by giving the people what they want, not what they need. The strongest and least scrupulous demagogue ends the public disorder by making himself a tyrant, championing the masses that elevate him until he considers it safe to betray them. Plato provides two heuristics that would shape subsequent thinking about decline. First, in relation to regimes he asserts that ‘all things that come into being must pass away,’ suggesting an inherent propensity of societies to decline. Few would deny that Plato’s claim is true as a probabilistic claim—no ancient society has survived to the present day—but one might resist his suggestion of a mysterious internal cause of decline. To Plato, societies are more like mortal organisms than artificial machines; it is not just probable, but necessary, that they die. Second, he asserts that the regime always mirrors the citizens’ souls, being their creature and their creator. Consequently, the formation of the virtuous citizen is of capital importance to the welfare of the regime, while a society that abandons care for personal character is close to perishing. The group considered whether Plato’s warning is being ignored today, or heeded in other ways. Alongside Plato’s negative portrayal of democratic anarchy, the group read Thucydides’ description of the civil strife that ravaged Corcyra during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). This strife eroded all social and familial norms, compelled brothers to kill brothers, and undermined the traditional meanings of words. Corcyra provided an abysmal example of a ‘post-truth’ culture. 

In the second session, the group read excerpts from Ibn Khaldun’s (1332-1406) Muqaddimah, the introduction to the Islamic scholar’s world history. Ibn Khaldun’s study of centuries of rising and falling powers in the Islamic and Mediterranean world led him to identify a fundamental, cyclical conflict between barbarians and civilizations. While settled populations nurture unwarlike individuals and decadent princes, desert peoples become ever harder and more unified through their struggle against hostile conditions. These barbarians conquer civilizations and establish new dynastic empires that eventually decay in turn. Not unlike Plato’s regime cycle, Ibn Khaldun identifies four typical generations that mark the stages of the decline of dynastic empires, from the warlike and virtuous founder to the enfeebled and spoilt last emperor. However, in a world where complex economies produce force-multiplying technologies, the group questioned whether the ‘barbarian’ still poses an existential threat to ‘civilization’ today. If the barbarian’s qualities of exceptional commitment, courage, and endurance no longer suffice to overcome complex societies, perhaps the lone-wolf cybercriminal or the lean multinational corporation will nevertheless assume the old and enduring role of the barbarian vis-à-vis civilization today.

Machiavelli’s reflections on the rise and decline of Rome provided the material for the third session. In his Discourses on Livy (1531), he reaches the hard conclusion that a republic only becomes great through internal conflict and foreign expansion, and can only revive itself from a state of corruption through mortal dangers and moral evils. To avoid the ceaseless cycle of regime change, a people must balance its regime with elements of kingship, aristocracy, and democracy, a view that strongly influenced the American founders and still guides contemporary political practice. Machiavelli warns that whoever undertakes to renew a corrupt people must above all avoid creating a Caesar. If a people wants to remain free, it must respect the rule of law; conversely, a republic falls into decline when its magistrates are no longer willing to punish criminals—even when those criminals are their sons. Machiavelli advises republics in no uncertain terms to ‘kill the sons of Brutus,’ or lose its freedom.

In the fourth session the group read Rousseau’s ‘Discourse on the Sciences and Arts’ (1750), in which he strongly denounces science, subjectivity, and free thinking as agents of the dissolution of peoples. Writing in the heyday of the Enlightenment and a contributor to the Encyclopédie himself, Rousseau contrasted Spartan and Roman simplicity with Athenian and modern decadence, claiming that the arts and sciences of the latter invariably destroy the public spirit and martial virtue of the former. To Rousseau, the philosopher is a significant threat to the public good, though he exempts Socrates for having understood the value of ignorance and virtue. As with Ibn Khaldun, the group asked whether science has not rather strengthened modern civilization since Rousseau’s time. But the proper and wise use of technology was seen to depend on the very qualities of public spiritedness, moderation, and virtue that Rousseau claims a commercial, scientific society systematically undermines.


Our fifth session considered Hegel’s Philosophy of History (1822-30), which develops themes raised by Machiavelli and Rousseau. As Hegel notes, Rome’s total victory over its greatest foe Carthage precipitated the decline of its republican ethos, giving way to a long rule by the Caesars. The republic’s success fostered the very lassitude and corruption that necessitated its transformation into an enlightened despotism, Hegel argues. The group asked whether the Roman Republic’s decline can be paralleled with how America’s enjoyment of world hegemony after the collapse of the Soviet Union has seemingly coincided with its internal decay. In a reversal of Rousseau’s analysis, Hegel claims that Socrates’ rational spirit undermined Greece’s traditional mythopoeic beliefs and customs, but that modernity will not decline through its own Enlightenment. Hegel argues that modernity will orient itself around the goal of building a world that respects the subjective freedom of all individuals. This principle provides the basis for his famous argument that the modern West represents the ‘end of history,’ in which the West will strive to institutionally and culturally recognize the individual as universally equal and free.

The sixth and seventh discussions considered Nietzsche’s collection of notes published posthumously as Will to Power, as well as his works Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and Twilight of the Idols (1889). Nietzsche denies Hegel’s assumption that modern society will cohere around a shared belief in the equality and freedom of all individuals. He argues that this is a Christian outlook that is now collapsing with the rest of Christian mythology due to the Enlightenment’s pursuit of truth. Nietzsche diagnoses a spiritual nihilism that is leading the West towards its definitive decline or its rebirth through new values. Like Plato, Nietzsche makes the uncomfortable point that modern democracy represents the decayed form of the state and that a renewed society will in some sense have to return to aristocratic norms and institutions.

The eighth and final session considered Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988). Unlike the previous theorists of decline, Tainter shifts attention away from the personal qualities of citizens towards society’s collective capacity to acquire sufficient energy to support its level of complexity. Using his theory to illuminate the decline of the Roman, Mayan, and Chacoan civilizations, Tainter argues that a society only becomes vulnerable to threats such as barbarians or natural disasters when its further investments in complexity cease to accrue the surplus they once did. When continued investments of materiel and personnel only manage to maintain the status quo, the society becomes incapable of absorbing unexpected shocks. A fruitful parallel was suggested with modern Europe’s concurrent economic and migration crises. In Tainter’s story, Rome developed a complex war machine by plundering Macedonia, Carthage, Pergamum, Egypt, and other wealthy nations. But when those sources of wealth ran out, its population could no longer support its vast bureaucracy and military, which were incapable of growing to meet the new barbarian threat. In many parts of the Empire, overtaxed peasants welcomed the barbarians as deliverers from the oppressive Roman centre. The Roman world was ready to devolve into a lower degree of complexity; only then did the barbarians break it apart. The group judged that Tainter’s use of economic concepts and complex systems theory to explain decline make his theory powerful and attractive, but it was not convinced that one can overlook the intangible qualities of character that Plato regards as decisive to whether societies flourish or decay.


Going forward

The reading group exposed non-specialists from fields as diverse as urban studies and intelligence to a canonical and sophisticated body of thinking about the problem of decline in history. The value of a guided reading of these texts proved twofold. First, educated citizens became capable of resisting facile and reckless diagnoses of decline, which have become a trope in the public square in recent years—but enjoy a longer pedigree in western culture. The theme of decline certainly seems apropos in 2017, but it behooves an educated layperson to be neither indifferent to the symptoms of decline nor overzealous in prophesying social collapse. If the participants gained a greater appreciation for the complexity of diagnosing decline, the reading group achieved one of its chief goals.

At the same time, the participants gained powerful heuristics for thinking about how societies flourish and decay. It is hoped that their future contributions to society will be stronger for having considered the patterns of decline in history. Today’s political leaders are not exempt from the necessity of acquiring, as part of their equipage, a basic sense for the signs of rise and decline in history, which we have the privilege of acquiring through hindsight. For each of us, it is an important question whether an individual can consciously direct their actions to mitigate and prevent the decline of civilization in the twenty-first century. Our world faces new as well as old existential threats. The surest way to begin to understand these threats is by viewing them against the backdrop of history.

The reading group would reach a wider public if it repackaged its syllabus into a concise anthology of excerpted and annotated texts on decline. The result would be a portable decline reader for leaders in politics and civil society. Moreover, the reading group could expand its scope of inquiry in a future series to address the problem of developing grand strategy in a context of decline. How should a great power behave in the midst of its civilization’s decline? How must the strategic outlook of a power like the United States adapt to a rising power such as China, if indeed America’s relative power has passed its zenith? The reading group would consider how statespersons, from Nehru to Churchill to Hitler, have reflected on their declining polity and how they have sought to renew it.

Cody Valdes, convener

Cambridge, UK

June 2017




Cody Valdes Cody Valdes is a candidate for the MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge, where he writes on the theme of decline. Prior to convening the reading group, he was a teaching assistant in political thought at Tufts University for two years, and the cofounder of a non-governmental organization in Kenya seeking to mitigate political violence. 

[1]  J.R. Seeley, The Expansion of England; quoted in Francois Bernier, Travels in the Mogul Empire, ed. Archibald Constable, New Delhi: S. Chand, 1972, preface, xi.