Systemic Dissonance, and the Decline and Fall of Civilizations

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Civilization, like life, is a perpetual struggle with death.”1 These are the words of Will Durant (1885-1981), an American historian known for his authoritative work on the history of civilizations, The Story of Civilization. Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), a British historian also known for his expertise on the history of civilizations, concurs with Durant when he says, “[C]ivilisation … is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed.”2

Why is civilization a perpetual struggle with death? Why does civilization get destroyed? In short, why does civilization rise and fall, come and go? It is important to confront and examine this question if we are to figure out what we need to do to prevent the decline and fall, let alone the death, of a civilization, especially that civilization is the one that has brought us to where we are and defines the way we lead our existence today.

As historians Durant and Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) see it, the death, or the decline and fall, of a civilization is due mostly to internal decay. As Durant puts it, “The death of a civilization seldom comes from without; internal decay must weaken the fibre of a society before external influences or attacks can change its essential structure, or bring it to an end.”3 Spengler sees civilization going through two stages—an earlier stage, which he calls ‘culture,’ characterized by vigorous creativity and a later stage of ‘civilization’ characterized by the weakening of moral fiber and the pursuit of selfish interests.4

The decline and fall of a civilization, in addition to internal decay, is also brought about by external threat. This is so because no civilization exists by itself but is subject to the constant process of interaction with other civilizations. As the British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) sees it, the life of a civilization is the story of challenge-and-response, that is, the constant process of challenges coming from other civilizations and its responses to them. A civilization rises and continues to prosper as long as these challenges are successfully met, but declines when it fails to come up with successful responses.

From a systems perspective, both internal decay and external threat that contribute to the decline and fall of a civilization can be explained as the case of “systemic dissonance.” A civilization, which can be defined as a social system composing of subsystems of culture, economy and polity, is an open system that exists in the space of interaction with other civilizations and the natural environment. The term “systemic dissonance” refers to a disturbance, or an imbalance, created in a civilization as a social system composing of these three subsystems. It can originate from any one of the subsystems, which would be an internal decay, or from other civilization(s) or the natural environment, which would be an external threat. The term “systemic dissonance” is employed here because, whether a disturbance comes from within or without, it causes conflict and friction among the three subsystems of culture, economy, and polity, resulting in the decline and fall, even the death, of a civilization.

What took place in the Indus valley around 1,500 BCE illustrates how an external threat coming from the natural environment causes the decline and fall of a civilization. For the period of about 2,500 through 1,500 BCE, a fairly sophisticated civilization with urban planning, sewer, and septic system flourished around Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. This civilization disappeared almost overnight around 1,500 BCE before the Aryans invaded the region. It is speculated that a catastrophic flood triggered by an earthquake was probably responsible for the disappearance of this civilization. It appears that a natural disaster caused systemic dissonance in this civilization by destroying the infrastructure, or the economic subsystem, judging from the skeletal remains that seem to indicate that people left the area in panic.

The Black Death in the Middle Ages that wiped out almost half the population of Europe in the fourteenth century can be cited as another example of a natural disaster that caused the decline and fall of a civilization through its impact on the economy. The plague began in 1347 with a merchant ship returning to the Sicilian port of Messina, bringing back the disease from the Black Sea. In 20 years half the population of Europe was wiped out. The countryside was damaged and the farmland went uncultivated. The resulting starvation further contributed to the people’s misery from the plague. In fact, it took nearly three centuries before the population of Europe regained the pre-plague level and what we now know as Western civilization started to rise as a dominant civilization in the world.

The rise of Western civilization as a dominant civilization in the world is a familiar story by now that owes to a number of dramatic events that have taken place in Europe since the sixteenth centuries, notable among which are the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. The Reformation, originally intended to offer an alternative to the Church doctrine regarding salvation, has turned out to be a transformative event in the character of Western civilization by causing changes in all three subsystems of civilization—the division among different denominations in the Christian world in the cultural realm, the rise of Calvinism as the driving force of capitalistic development in the economic realm, and the spread of democratic ideas and institutions in the political realm. On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution, which was made possible by advances in science and technology, has been responsible for the rise of global industrial civilization with an increase in the material standards of living in the realm of economy. As Marx (1818-1883) and Engels (1820-1895) pointed out, “The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization.”5

It is clear by now to historians and astute observers of world events that the kind of civilization that has evolved under the influence of dominant Western civilization for the last several centuries is facing a crisis, even showing signs of decline and fall, as exemplified by the deep gulf between rich and poor not just in the West and but in other regions of the world as well. Reflecting on the phenomenon of the decline and fall of civilizations is pertinent now as we are going through a critical phase in the evolution of a dominant civilization that has been shaped by the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. There is no question that the introduction of industrial capitalism has drawn all nations of the world into the sphere of industrial civilization for the past couple of centuries. At the same time, the spread of industrial civilization has created a systemic dissonance between economy and culture in the form of obsessive pursuit of material progress at the cost of degradation and destruction of the natural environment. Indeed, we are at a critical stage in the evolution of humans as a species, for systemic dissonance between human economic activities and the natural environment is not an external threat but a sign of internal decay of global human civilization.

  1. Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954, p.218.
  2. Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York: Harper & Row, 1969, p.3.
  3. Durant, op. cit., p.914.
  4. Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  5. Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.