Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Understanding Change (III): the Declining Stages

~ Continued from Part II: "Understanding Change: the Rising Stages",
by Dr Sam Holliday ~

We can view changes as either progress or cycles. Today progress is the assumption of most Europeans and Americans. Yet this "progress" is the pursuit of many different Utopias. Yes, it is change, but is it building (true progress) or is it decline, the outcome of manipulation by those with a political agenda. Cycles provide an attractive alternative to "progress".

Following the two rising stages discussed in Part II, Part III looks at the declining Stages, the last two that make up a full four part Cycle. The Conclusion will be followed by a practicle example from current affairs, the ongoing US Presidential elections.

Declining (Fall) Stages

Over-sophisticated and corrupt "elites" advancing self-interests--and desires--is the fundamental cause of decline during the Contentment and Decay stages. No longer do all of those with political power work for the interests of the whole group; instead they increasingly advance the agenda of factions, and/or personal interests.

During the declining (fall) stages there is an increase in humanization along with a softening of both customs and laws, and a greater reliance on the rule of law (secular authority). Also the feminine increasingly replaces the masculine.

Edward Gibbon spent his life studying the declining stages and recorded his conclusions in several volumes of "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". He attributes decline to the disappearance of vitality and creative power. He saw the start of the decline with the people replacing their vigor and public spirit with pleasure seeking and factionalism. He saw evidence of the decline in the degeneration of art and literature combined with obsession with materialism. He saw the completion of the decline with the degeneration of the military, first in discipline and then in courage.

- Caption: Edward Gibbon -

The Contentment stage of cycles is a time of eclecticism, easy, comfort, and sophistication with nothing original. Its art is decadent and rarely supports traditional institutions, yet it is widely acclaimed. Its science and technology are complex and costly, yet do little to advance the human spirit. Intellectuals are concerned with causality, feelings, and intentions; they stress thinking rather than action and the ideal rather than the practical. Yet the Contentment stage is often considered a "Golden Age", since there is usually peace, prosperity, rights, a complex legal system, and a privileged intelligentsia.

Respect for authority, discipline, and common identity give way to humane and easy tolerance-to benign, nonjudgmental behavior. Feelings replace reason and right. Many of the characteristics of an organism are lacking in a group in the Contentment stage; it becomes a special kind of aggregate of individuals and factions with patterns of relationships. Roles, rules and standards are either absent or are largely symbolic. Behavior is increasingly controlled by the rule of law rather than shared convictions of right and wrong.

There are increases in material prosperity, social security, humanitarianism, and bureaucracy. With the erosion of virtues (shared moral, ethic and religious beliefs) there is an increased reliance on secular authority (rule of law), which results in an escalation in the wealth consumed on litigation. Secular authority dominates sacred authority (the inner compass of individuals), and even secular authority is "flexible". There is an increase in the number of intellectuals, materialists, and hedonists who believe they are living beyond values, beyond right and wrong. There is advocacy for universal laws to achieve equality among all people in wealth, economic outcomes, and rights.

The Contentment stage is a time of refinement and sophistication. In defending his humanist code of ethics Kug Fu-Tse (Confucius) said: "Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men" While Socrates wished to counter those Sophists who saw the best life as one of self-indulgence or tyrannical power he was not a man of action, and thus he only looked into the human soul, uncovered assumptions, and questioned certainties while the society around him began its slide into chaos.

In the Decay stage the group has become a polyglot, borrowing from others to create a vulgar and violent underclass, yet a delicate, refined, and dissolute upper class. It has crude, disturbing art, and sterile, ethereal beliefs. There is disintegration and a lack of common identity. A group in the Decay stage has become simply an aggregation of individuals with no purpose beyond those of the individual--its organism roots have deteriorated into artifacts of the past.

There is no spirit of sacrifice for the group or sense of duty. Factions within the group are as competitive with each other as they are with those outside of the group. Only secular authority remains and it is often ignored. Equality of outcomes has replaced equality of opportunity. There is economic depression, and a decline in the standard of living. License has replaced freedom. Votes go to demagogues who promise the most. There is ever-increasing hostility and violence between factions, which sometimes becomes a civil war.

The liberal democrat Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) predicted slavish submission during the Decay stage: "The internal strains which have threatened society will be relaxed and eliminated, and the community will settle down upon that servile basis which was its foundation before the Christian faith, from which that faith slowly weaned it, and to which in decay of that faith it naturally returns."

The history of each group with a collective biography has an end. Just as individuals recognize their own mortality, each group will someday be extinct. The group might die from external blows, but most likely the end will come from self-destruction. However, before a group’s end there are usually transfers, which start new groups. The lands a group claims will someday belong to others; their language might remain on paper, their art might remain in museums; other groups might take many of their ideas and much of their technology, but the authority of every group will lose its power--the kinship will no longer survive.


The cycle of Rise through Birth and Maturity, and then Fall through Contentment and Decay is a hypothesis, yet it does not satisfy the rigid requirements some associate with science or the expectations of academic scholarship. Nevertheless, it is a useful way for any one to view the present and consider the future. It does allow us to see more clearly the groups of which we are a part.

As with all hypothesis that presented here it is subject to revision. If the words do not accurately describe reality they need to be changed, or defined, so as to insure communication of the concept. No words are perfect; words are only tools that help or hinder communication. The words must be sufficiently well defined to achieve clear communication, yet accurately describe what happens in the real world.

- Caption: "End of Time", illustration by Lester Ralph in "Eve's Diary" by Mark Twain -

Some groups are able to skip the Birth stage because of transfers from a previous group that has failed; some groups are able to remain in a stage for a long time while others go rapidly from one stage to the next; some are able to reverse to an earlier stage and gain new impetus; some decline then rally for several iterations; and some groups never make it through the full cycle--they collapse from within or are destroyed from without.

The cycle presented here will surely not receive academic acclaim; hopefully it will be a help to anyone who wants to understand why groups rise and fall and to determine what action should be taken to affect the process. Hopefully, it will be of benefit to the brave, strong and skillful who want to influence events.

What are the advantages of this conceptual framework of cycles? It gives an accurate, simple, generalization of the cycle of any collection of related persons. Rather than seeing history as facts of specific events and times and studying parts, it permits the study of wholes. It dispels the mist that obscures vague conditions, thus helping us understand the past and the present as we contemplate the future. It provides a check on mindless pursuit of some utopia in the name of progress. It helps us cope with change.

The American Presidential Elections

Change has become a key issue in the Presidential campaigns. The candidates seem to define "change" as anything different and expect their version of some Utopia to carry them to victory. This is only surface level change.

So far there seems to be little interest in whether this "change" is an improvement or not. Of course, in keeping with the assumptions of progress, each candidate claims his "change" is an improvement. Why? Because he considers his vision of progress superior to that of others.

- Caption: Cartoon related to the campaign of the United States’ eighth president, Martin Van Buren -

This is certainly a very limited view of change. But it is no surprise since that is the focus of most policy debates--and the adversarial approach in general. It is easy to critize past decisions and easy to make promises. Demagogues have always sought power through promises, although their goals are self-interests and self-aggrandizement.

The presidential candidates seem to calculate what they say in terms of political advantage, rather than public interest. They want to win votes, not solve problems. Can our politics handle anything beyond surface level change?

It is more difficult to understand the future and to develop policies for the long-term general good. Yet this is what national interests require. This is how any nation builds, grows, and lasts. Has postmodern thought become so dominant that most Americans are only interested in surface level change and their own self-interests?

Is there a better definition of change? It is time we become free from the bitterness and pettiness that are the outcomes of the Hegelian dialectic and the adversarial approach to progress. If we are a nation worthy of the name, it is time to stress both cooperation and conflict; it is time to work with our rivals for the common good. It is time to insure that any change is an improvement, not a decline.

Copyright © 2008 Armiger Cromwell Center

More on the author and the "Armiger Cromwell Center" on Articles.

The entire essay is filed on Articles in "Understanding Change", cat. Philosophy (includes a printable format).


RatePoint Business Reviews