How declining Morals cause Civilizations to Die

Wrong way streetGreat civilizations are not timeless. During their lifespan, they produce great innovations, stunning technological advancements, and archive vast caches of knowledge, but inevitably – they will collapse and die. The reasons for civilizational decline are varied and hotly debated. In general though, there are but a small number of common requirements for a civilization to thrive and only a handful of reasons why they inevitably collapse.  For some ancient civilizations, we have little or no records documenting the religious or moral state of the empire immediately preceding their collapse but even for those, there are clear clues that morality declined before the nation’s collapse. For most dead civilizations however, we have sufficient documentation to demonstrate that religion and moral values are a requirement not only for the success of a civilization, but for its very survival.

Why Civilizations Fail

Throughout history, great civilizations have come and gone with the end of one great civilization often overlapping the beginning of a new great civilization. Great nations cease to exist in one of three ways: (1) They may be slowly absorbed and assimilated into another, more thriving civilization. (2) They may be forcefully conquered by another nation. (3) They may slowly, but methodically, degenerate into a collapsed state. In many cases, the first two causes (assimilation and conquest) often follow a long period of slow, drawn out degeneration of moral values. Hence, it is important to understand how a great empire can fall into disarray and find themselves unable to maker corrections. But before we understand why societies degenerate, we must understand what it takes to form and function as a great civilization.

Requirements for a civilization to thrive

Civilizations are extremely complex entities with enormously complicated and intertwined methods of operation. There have been many models developed in an attempt to define the requirements for a nation to prosper and to delineate the precarious balance that must be maintained between each requirement in order for the civilization to thrive. The balance of requirements necessary to thrive is very important and often difficult to maintain. For instance, a centralized population is required for efficient productivity. If the population is too lean, maximum productive capacity cannot be achieved. Alternatively, too large of a population can exceed production capacity causing a shortage of resources. The civilization must maintain a balanced population in order to succeed.

A basic model for an ideal civilization consists of six requirements.

Large, centralized population for productivity

First, a civilization must have a large, centralized population to drive the economic engine. Production centers can be spread throughout the nation but localized population centers, situated near the production centers, are required to provide efficient production capacity. The size of the population should be large enough to provide efficient productivity but not so large as to exceed the available resources. Extraneous factors, such as war or disease, can throw the population out of equilibrium. Similarly, a society dependent upon growth will eventually run out of conquests required to fuel the growth. To further complicate matters, there are numerous external factors that can cause a shift in the population, throwing the population out of balance and eliminating one of the basic requirements for a civilization to thrive.

In modern civilizations, technology has allowed the population to remain connected even if they are not geographically located near each other. In these instances, some part of the population can remain distant from the general population and the society may still thrive.

Surplus of resources or excess production capacity

Secondly, a civilization requires a surplus of resources or production capacity. The smaller the surplus of resources, the more efficiently the civilization must process those resources into the final product. Depleted resources, a common problem in thriving civilizations, can lead to collapse, especially when leaders are insulated from the problem or unwilling to rectify the situation (usually due to greed).

Centralized government for infrastructure and protection

Thirdly, a civilization must have a centralized government supported by an appropriate level of taxes. The tax rate must be high enough to maintain the society’s infrastructure and to provide protection for its citizens but no more. Excessive taxes can result in poor citizen morale and decreased productivity and in many past civilizations, have been a precursor to collapse.

Effective, fair division of labor for efficiency

Fourth, a civilization must have an effective division of labor separated between leadership and productive workers. Effective leadership is required to motivate workers and coordinate their labor activities and must be fair to earn and retain the respect of the workers.

Immigration can cause an imbalance between leadership and workers as migrant workers rarely operate in a leadership capacity. As migrants are made available, leadership uses them as a source of cheap labor. This leads to a lower average labor cost which can create an earnings disparity between the two classes. As the Nation progresses, strife between the classes, prompted by an ineffective or unfair division of labor, is often a precursor to collapse.

Ability and motivation to innovate for revenue generation

All great civilizations are born in an environment that allows them to produce innovative solutions to problems. Many great empires began their ascent from a particularly useful innovation while others continued or accelerated their growth through a ground-breaking achievement. In an environment that allows and promotes innovation from its citizens or government institutions, major advancements are realized and those achievements can propel a civilization well in front of competing nations.

Religious or moral framework for social unity

Lastly, a civilization must have a religious or moral framework that promotes unity and provides a model for cooperation and social cohesion. In most instances, a popular religion emerges that attracts a majority of citizens and serves as the anchor for the society’s moral guidelines. As historian Will Durant pointed out, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.” The importance of religion to a civilization’s continued existence cannot be underestimated. History has shown that when a society becomes morally corrupt, civility is destroyed, the society becomes unstable, and inevitably the nation slides towards collapse.

The lifecycle of a civilization

Surprisingly, all great civilizations move through a common lifecycle beginning at their inception and continuing to their collapse. In some instances, the civilization runs through this lifecycle multiple times, each time stopping just short of total collapse. In all cases though, the cycle will eventually be completed and the civilization will cease to exist. As strange as it may sound, history has shown us that the start and end of the civilizational lifecycle begins and ends with bondage.

Freedom from bondage

Most great civilizations can trace their origins to a period of bondage. Controlled and restricted by ruthless leaders, they dream of freedom and unhindered lifestyles. After some time, they inevitably develop the faith and courage needed to forcefully obtain the freedom they so desire. Courage leads to action and liberty is at last achieved.

Liberty leads to great accomplishments

Operating in a liberated environment that allows free thinking, the civilization achieves great accomplishments. The freedom to innovate leads to creative solutions although sometimes the creative solutions they discover are self destructive (either knowingly or unknowingly).

An abundance of riches leads to indulgences

The great accomplishments achieved by the society lead to an abundance of riches. Immigrants eager to experience the success of the empire, migrate to the area, introducing different customs (some prove beneficial to their new society) and religions (some in direct opposition to the currently established religion) and diluting the labor pool. With luxuries obtained and all desires fulfilled, carnal indulgences soon follow. Morals break down and an obsession with sex and violence takes hold. The decline in morals is often slow and subtle and unrecognized by the civilization.

Greed and selfishness leads to laziness

Over time, the rich and poor become greedy, selfish, and self indulgent. With morals in decline, the self-centered rich and poor alike begin to take advantage of the “system” with the rich seeking unfair tax advantages and government favor while the poor take unfair advantage of freely available social benefits. With all their needs met, they become lazy leading to declines in productivity and a stifling of innovation.

Complacency and short sightedness leads to apathy

The society become complacent and short sighted seeking “quick fixes” where long term solutions are required. The riches achieved by their predecessors are no longer sought after, but rather, expected. They may recklessly consume their resources with no regard for environmental collateral damage. Laziness has led to complacency which is followed by apathy. The society has become indifferent, disconnected, and self-centered.

Manipulating the System leads to Dependence reinstated

The gulf between the classes continues to widen. The rich seek more government favor in order to rule over the poor and the poor begin to steal to survive and prosper. The rich and poor alike continue to take advantage of the societal system as both classes begin to resent each other. Both classes become dependent on the government in order to prosper.

Government weakens

With all classes seeking to work the system, legal systems become impotent and government is weakened. Both classes begin to view the government as the enemy who itself may be powerless or unwilling to promote corrections to the societal system’s deficiencies. Strife between the classes may lead to revolt which further destabilizes the government.

Collapse leads back to bondage

With selfish citizens and a powerless or corrupt government, the Nation begins to collapse. A weakened government can no longer protect its citizens. The civilization is conquered or absorbed into a more efficient or desirable civilization which leads them back into bondage. The cycle begins again.

Why is the decline not corrected?

Simply put, a collapsing civilization will typically fail to recognize the stage or severity of their decline until it is too late. If by chance they do recognize it in time, those in power may be unwilling to make corrections or are powerless to do so. This is difficult to comprehend given the openly-available historical record and simplicity of the requirements needed to develop and maintain an empire: stable and sufficient population, conservation of resources, centralized government, equitable distribution of labor and wealth, emphasis on innovation, and of course, maintenance of a religious moral backbone. Regardless, as George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it”.

Factors that precede a civilization’s collapse

The cycles described above lead to three types of decay that precede a fallen civilization. History is replete with examples of fallen civilizations and inevitably, all suffered from (1) social decay, (2) cultural decay, and (3) moral decay.

Social decay is evidenced by a society’s loss of economic discipline often brought about by a rising bureaucracy that instills so much “red tape” that the civilization is mired with inefficient processes. The bureaucracy’s resulting loss of power often gives way to a crisis of lawlessness.

Cultural decay results in a loss of respect for tradition, a weakening of the cultural foundations of the society and an increase in materialism as the civilization’s successes provide riches beyond what is needed. This rise in materialism shifts important factors, such as education and innovation, to the side.

Moral decay occurs as the excessive materialism produces a rise in immorality. As traditions are pushed aside, religion is often neglected and in some cases, restricted by the civilization’s leadership. Violence increases as the civilization’s worth of human life is devalued.

Great Civilizations of the Past

There have been many notable civilizations to date. Innovations produced by these civilizations are typically well known due to their magnificence and more importantly, the historical accounts of their achievement(s). The management methods of their leadership is typically well documented too. Sadly, societal conditions and level of morals is often not documented, except occasionally by outsiders. Still, we are able to consolidate enough information about their history to allow us to paint a fairly clear picture of their ascent, and decline.

Hittite (1800-1100 BC)

Situated near modern day Syria, what we know about Hittite’s decline is derived from bits and pieces of fragmented historical sources. Assembling these disconnected historical references, we find that wars and conflict were frequent and historical records easily destroyed. Hittites were originally thought to be a fictious invention of the Bible but later archaeological discoveries (particularly Egyptian hieroglyphics) proved that this nation did indeed exist, just as the Bible stated.

We know that the Hittites operated under a centralized form of government with Kings leading smaller cabinets beneath him. The Hittite society achieved great advancements in hydrology and engineering. They were particularly adept at military advancements and were known to have state of the art chariots in their armies. Although the Hittites existed in the Bronze Age, we know that they discovered the means to develop iron tools and weapons giving them an edge in production and military might. The Hittites culture included a religion consisting of multiple gods.

We can assume that Hittites rose to power after they discovered how to manufacture iron tools and weapons. As their power grew, their leaders began assuming more and more power. Rather than operate under a religion-based set of morals, their culture drifted into a society whose morals were dictated by the whims of their leaders. Leaders made bargains with influential citizens, often offering them tax breaks, in order to retain their positions of leadership. Morals began to decline as leaders began to assume the aura of a god. One king was accused of black magic while another began to believe that his illnesses could be projected onto citizens who were subsequently sacrificed in order to destroy the illness. Near their end, civil wars occurred as citizens began to revolt against a corrupt and immoral leadership.

Babylonian Empire (1600-500 BC)

Arising from the ashes of the Sumerian dynasty, Babylonians reasserted their independence in the north providing long desired stability for the citizens. The Babylon Empire began as a religious and cultural center on the Euphrates River located about 50 miles south of modern Baghdad, Iraq. As with other civilizations, Babylonian society appears to have gone through several cycles of prosperity and near collapse. Their prime location provided them a surplus of resources and a centralized government, operating under a “code of laws”, was established to collect taxes and provide structure and support for its citizens. Their invention of the steelyard scale allowed precious metals to be accurately weighted providing the means to operate an economy based on coinage. This lead to great economic advancements such as banking systems, loans, contracts, and leases. They were excellent brick makers and master astronomers and clock makers. Their love of science (all towns had public libraries) introduced basic concepts of medicine including the concepts of diagnosis, physical examination, and medical prescriptions. Babylon was considered a “holy city” with priests who acted as agents of god.

The Bible tells us that Babylon was once proud but that their sins became blacker than those of Judah. As riches were achieved through technological advancements and economic trading success, large government sponsored building projects were started. Resources were squandered building wasteful, unnecessary objects. Buildings were designed with lavish decoration, some plated in zinc and gold. Extravagant structures such as the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) were constructed utilizing their newfound riches. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were reported to have been built by King Nebuchadnezzar in order to please his wife. With walls 22 feet thick, it required massive amounts of scarce water (8,200 gallons per day) to maintain the complicated irrigation system required to sustain the plants.

As greed and selfishness took hold, there was a reduction in literacy and culture. Morals declined. Historical records reveal that kings were murdered by their own children and people began practicing various forms of magic. The Tower of Babel, intended to reach the sky, was never completed as unhappy, slothful laborers refused to work. Historian Josephus noted that the people became an affront and contempt of God. Citizen revolts broke out and civil wars erupted. As the society collapsed, Babylon was sacked and the citizens put back into violent subjugation.

Egyptian Civilization (3100-500 BC)

In less than a century, Egypt rose from barbarism to a major civilization. As with Babylon, Egypt seems to have gone through several cycles of development and near collapse. Around 3100 BC, as farming along the Nile River began in earnest, the nation began experiencing a huge surplus in food and resources. Cities began to grow along the Nile which provided a centralized source of labor for food production. At the same time, a centralized government was developed with kings leading a pool of national administrative leaders. As the society became more centralized, innovation rose. Hieroglyphic writing was developed providing a means to transfer knowledge. Engineering marvels (e.g. the Pyramids and Great Sphinx), many of which still stand today, were constructed. Complex irrigation techniques and innovative architectural methods were discovered. At the same time, religion took shape in the form of Pharaohs and astronomical gods defining the morality of the society.

As riches grew, the nation’s focus turned away from work and more towards entertainment. A more sedentary lifestyle was adopted. Large scale building projects that consumed massive amounts of resources were initiated which resulted in shortages of timber and charcoal (which was used for iron smelting). Greed grew and the Pharaohs became veritable living gods who could demand services and wealth from their subjects. Citizens became complacent as evidenced by their newfound interest in non-critical trade goods such as ebony, myrrh, frankincense, and gold. Expeditions to faraway places were launched to discover and retain quarry stone for needless royal monuments. Egypt soon became reliant on imports from other nations. As social decay accelerated, lawlessness and violence spread with historical documents revealing increased levels of crime including the systematic murder of children. Citizens turned away from organized religion and began to embrace cults. The wealthy became richer and the poor began revolting against them. Internal conflicts and civil war broke out. Inscriptions on tombs noted the pitiful state the country was in. Weakened and weary, Alexander the Great was able to invade Egypt in 332 BC and take control. He restored order with martial law.

Greek Empire (800-146 BC)

Around 800 BC, Greece came out of a mini dark age and realized a rapid increase in population. Battles between the rich and the poor allowed the mercantile class to rise to prominence. This newfound freedom, combined with a much larger labor pool, allowed for unimagined growth in commerce and manufacturing. Democracy was introduced and living standards began rapid improvement. Soon its economy became the most advanced in the world. Innovation in Greece spread as some of history’s greatest thinkers, such as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato emerged and introduced new ideas such as geometry number theory, mathematical analysis, and areas of advance science. A single religion dominated the citizens and a strict moral code was followed. Self-sacrifice was encouraged and homosexuality was a capital offense.

As Greece experienced great economic success, immigrants poured into the country and the rich quickly took advantage of the plentiful, cheap labor. History once again repeated itself; power migrated from the middle class back to the rich and a shortage of land and resources emerged as the rich began gobbling up resources and land. The citizens once again became embroiled in conflict between the classes. A decline in morality and virtue began to spread throughout the nation. There was a loss of respect for discipline and calls for change as the nations’ youth became unruly. Music of the youth became wild and vulgar and Greece slipped towards a lawless nation. Homosexuality became acceptable and was glorified in lewd and violent plays. Gradually homosexuality progressed to pedophilia and it became acceptable for older men to seduce and sexually abuse young boys. As violence peaked, a disregard for human life was embraced and human slavery was introduced. Soon it was required that every male had to kill a slave as a right of passage. Civil war erupted and the nation was brought to its knees. Severely weakened and vulnerable, Greece was conquered by the Romans who used their military authority to impose discipline and order on the civilians.

Roman Empire (800 BC – 400 AD)

As Greece collapsed, the Roman Empire began its surge towards dominance. Since Rome’s system of government became the framework for modern republics such as the United States, its history is quite relevant as a guideline for modern civilizations. Rome produced a profound impact on the development of language, art, religion, architecture, philosophy, law, language, and of course, forms of government.

The city of Rome grew from small settlements located around a ford on the river Tiber, a crossroads of traffic and trade. Its prime location resulted in the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” becoming a common metaphor. After rising from an unstable, turbulent system rife with strife between the classes, their first two centuries were times of peace and prosperity. Romans became excellent engineers, political administrators and possessed an exceptional military structure. Religion was widespread and citizens possessed high morals. Romans believed in honesty, discipline, frugality, and self-sacrifice.

When Julius Caesar took office in 50 BC, Rome had reached its peak. Immigrants moved into the empire bringing new religions and cults. Leaders began spending the nations’ riches on large palaces, monuments, and public entertainment venues. An emphasis on sports and entertainment exploded as work came second to pleasure. The government supplied grain to its citizens with as much as one quarter of the citizens’ food requirements being supplied by the government.

As riches grew, the people became greedy, self-indulgent, lazy and complacent as arrogance and luxury infected the Roman people. Morals and manners fell away and entertainment became bawdier and violent. Homosexuality and adultery became the norm and soon afterward, it became acceptable for bestiality to be practiced in the open. Roman families began to dissolve as Romans sought instant gratification. Children became a needless burden and contraception, abortion, and infanticide became common and in some cases, encouraged in order to control population growth. Violence continued to grow and gladiators were worshipped by the citizens.

To fund the extravagant spending and consumption, Rome raised taxes and began requisitioning property from the citizens to make ends meet. As oppressive taxes were imposed on the people to fund the massive public expenditures, resources began to dwindle. Rome began attacking other countries for their grain, metals, and timber and farmers were forced to sell and move into the cities. The cities quickly became crowded.

As resources tightened, citizens lost respect for religion and began stripping churches and temples of their brick to use in building homes. Citizens began to revolt and civil wars began to erupt in the various regions of the empire. A weakened government had to fight off external invasions amidst a climate of political chaos.

As the historian Edward Gibbon noted:

Leaders of the empire gave into the vices of strangers, morals collapsed, laws became oppressive, and the abuse of power made the nation vulnerable to the barbarian hordes.

Rome’s leadership clearly defined the attitudes and morals of the day. When the playboy Caesar took office in 50 BC, Rome had reached its pinnacle. Augustus took over in 27 BC and splurged on fancy buildings and expensive monuments. August had many affairs with his slaves and his daughter Julia was known to drink, stay out all night, and participate in casual one night stands with many men. By the time Tiberius took over 50 years later, Rome had already become obsessed with sex and instant gratification. Tiberius build a special villa for his wildest fantasies with walls decorated in pornographic images and bathing fountains full of boys who were trained to swim in and out between his legs licking and biting at his body as they passed through. Roman justice evolved in bizarre ways too. By law it was forbidden to execute a virgin so Roman soldiers were instructed to rape the victim before execution.

Setting the stage for perversion, Tiberius passed the torch to his son Caligula in 37 AD. The citizens loved Caligula and his violent, bloody, gladiator contests and publicly demonstrated eccentric sexual preferences. Caligula would make love with his sisters at public dinners and would often take other men’s wives out of the room to make love to them and then bring them back for a public critique of their performance as their husbands played along, laughing and peppering their wife with jokes. The public swooned as Caligula build huge, fancy buildings for their pleasure. His gladiator contests became more violent as man vs. animal contests evolved into torture and executions.

Claudius took over 5 years later and continued the pattern of degradation that Caligula had set in place. Although physically disabled, he held mass, bloody executions for the public’s viewing pleasure. His many wives had insatiable appetites for sex and would voluntarily acts as prostitutes in local brothels. One of his wives challenged Rome’s leading prostitute to a “sex marathon” where she slept with 25 men in a row. Uncles began marrying nieces and half-brothers and half-sisters were wed. The next ruler, Nero was as wicked as his predecessors and extended the perverse sexual practices to Roman law – Nero himself was married to two men.

Subsequent rulers, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian allowed the decay of Rome’s morals to  continue while spending vast amounts of money on extravagances. The lavish gladiatorial games accelerated and Rome’s leaders took many lovers, their wives often joining them in orgies. When a lover became pregnant, the baby was simply aborted. Life and death matches between men soon became life and death matches between women and occasionally physically disabled children. Homosexuality ran rampant and pedophilia soon followed as rulers kept young boys with them at all times for their sexual pleasure. Commodus, who ruled from 177-192 AD, put the final nail in the Roman coffin. Commodus furnished the public with free food and expected to be worshipped as a god in return. He had the empire combed for the most attractive women and formed a harem 300 women strong. A homosexual himself, he took pleasure in watching men and women have sex with children (he himself kept a pageboy lover with him at all times). He began to practice human hunting as a sport and often used handicap citizens as the prey. The citizens applauded as Commodus shut down the entire city so citizens could attend the races and matches rather than work. His government was thoroughly corrupted, operating using bribes and favors. As a result, Rome began to run out of money. As Rome neared bankruptcy, and lavish entertainment and gifts were slowly discontinued (to the public’s discontent), the public began to revolt and the once-great nation collapsed.

Persian Civilization (650 BC – 637 AD)

Cyrus the Great lead the rebellion that freed the Persians from the Median Empire. Upon taking leadership of the area, Cyrus introduced a centralized system of government that included equal rights for all people (as long as they paid their taxes). The system was unique in that it allowed satellite cities to develop their own local customs and religions (some of which allowed bloody human sacrifices). This created an empire that was disconnected and a central government that spent much of their time trying to rule disjointed groups of people around the empire.

The Persians established an extensive road system that included military patrols to ensure the safety of travellers and frequent relays for fresh horses. Conveniently-located Inns for travellers could be found all along the routes. The Persian government established coinage and was active in the promotion of agriculture and irrigation projects. They were masters at water management and transport. One ancient Persian water delivery system was nearly 50 miles long.

Their system of religion included a “good and evil” doctrine similar to modern day Christianity. Good people were rewarded with an afterlife spent in heaven while evil doers were punished to an eternity in hell.

As the Persian nations experienced success, riches expanded and were shared amongst the people. Taxes remained modest although those in leadership positions still became very rich. Lavish building structures were constructed in the capitol, the high costs of which burdened the nation with a higher level of debt. After some time, taxes became more burdensome and oppressive which eventually lead the Persian Empire into economic depression. As the depression deepened, greedy leaders began hording gold and silver without circulating it amongst the people. Citizens began to revolt which weakened the civilization further. A weakened and struggling civilization, Persia was easily conquered by Alexander the Great.

Mayan Civilization (2000 BC – 1500 AD)

The Mayan empire made dramatic breakthroughs in sciences such as astronomy and left behind a rich library of books and knowledge. The economic success realized from their innovations lead to the consolidation of riches into the hands of the civilization’s leaders. With more power in hand, the upper class began working the peasants harder, building lavish entertainment venues and other non-essential structures. It is theorized that the Mayans built their vast structures so quickly that they stretched the capacity of their land and systematically destroyed much of their natural resources (i.e. forests). The increased burden of work left little time for anything else which caused the peasants to abandon church and their system of moral values. Eventually they revolted and the civilization began a rapid decline.

Inca Civilization (1200 – 1533 AD)

The Inca Empire began much later than the Mayan empire but collapsed around the same time. The Incas produced revolutionary changes in architecture and sciences. Their religious framework was founded on the motto, “Do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy”. As they grew economically, the upper class began to utilize slavery which weakened the nation’s moral fiber. Eventually civil war stressed their military and destabilized the Inca Empire. While in the middle of a revolution, Spain, with superior military weapons, including guns and full armor, invaded the Inca Empire.

Great Nations of the Future

Great nations of the future include China and the United States.  Although China is just beginning its ascent, the United States has a long history of prosperity.

United States

Professor Allan Bloom in his book The Closing of the American Mind, said,

This is the American moment in world history, the one for which we shall forever be judged. Just as in politics the responsibility for the fate of freedom in the world has devolved upon our regime, so the fate of the philosophy in the world has devolved upon our universities, and the two are related as they have never been before.

The examples above demonstrate the path civilizations take from birth to collapse. It is easy to align America’s path with the examples above, particularly Rome, the civilization we have the most in common with (and which in many cases, was used as the “blueprint” for American society). Morals continue to decline, slowly, sometimes unnoticed, as generation after generation become willing to accept lower moral standards. Given the past historical record, it is quite simple to predict the ultimate outcome.