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Opinion

April 4, 2018

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The narrative of decline

History provides a detailed record of the rise and fall of civilisations and nations. When readers goes through the story of the rise of a nation or civilisation, they are often fascinated by the energy, courage and innovative capacity through which nations suppress the selfishness of individuals and inspire them to make sacrifices for a higher national cause.

However, when they read about the decline of a nation, they are dismayed by the narratives on prevalent corruption, intrigue, inefficiency and the growing preference for self-interest over a national cause. The accounts of the rise and fall of nations are discussed by historians, philosophers and anthropologists who interpret them through their own academic lens.

One of the racial interpretations of decline is presented by the French racist intellectual, Arthur de Gobineau, in his book, ‘An essay on the Inequality of the Human Races’. Gobineau believed that the white race was polluted and had lost its purity and high character when it is assimilated by the inferior races.

His book was published at the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe — a time when society was witnessing major transformation after it lost the characteristics of the feudal age. He believed that the assimilation of Jews was one of the many causes of the collapse of European civilisation. When Hitler and his Nazi Party assumed power in Germany in 1933, Gobineau’s theory became the official doctrine of the Nazi Party to eliminate Jewish influence from German society and take steps to purify the Aryan race. This was done to ensure that the Aryan race played a dominant role in the history of Europe. The Nazi Party passed laws prohibiting people from marrying outside of the Aryan race. In addition to Jews, gypsies and nomads also fell victim to this racial policy. The motive of the Nazi Party was to produce a healthy and pure Aryan race.

Francis Galton, a British scientist, offered the theory of eugenic to produce a healthy nation and do away with people who were mentally and physically disabled and, therefore, considered a burden on society. The Nazi Party applied this theory to German society. This theory was also adopted by a few Scandinavian countries and gained currency in some states in the US. The main motive of this seemingly racist theory was to trace the process of the decline and fall of European nations.

Many people in Europe held Jews responsible for radically changing the character of European society through their commercial mentality, which was profit-oriented and provided an impetus for greed and corrupt practices.

During this period, countless scientific developments took place, especially in the field of biology. There was also a theory of degeneration that gained popularity. As per this theory, every living object loses its energy and power after passing through different stages and finally comes to the end of its life. It was often applied to the life of an individual who after his/her birth gradually acquires the power and beauty of youth and then, after it loses its youthful energy begins to wither, ultimately dies. According to this theory, nations also go through the same process and finally decline and disappear in the mist of history.

Some philosophers and historians have offered a solution to assess the process of a nation’s decline. According to them, if a degenerated nation absorbs ‘fresh blood and energy’, it will not only prevent its process of decline but will also be revitalised.

For example, once German tribes conquered the Roman Empire, they created a new civilisation. In a similar vein, when Arab tribes defeated the Sassanid and Byzantine empires, they concentrated on establishing a new civilisation. The Mongol tribes who had defeated various Muslim kingdoms also went down the same path. They built an empire that facilitated trade and commerce and encouraged the exchange of new ideas. As a result, ‘fresh blood’ helped sustain and enhance the life of a civilisation.

Others believe that when a civilisation declines, it is replaced by a new civilisation. The new civilisation inherits the past on the basis of new social, political and economic powers. This process maintains the continuity of the world civilisation.

Nineteenth-century Europe experienced the Industrial Revolution and a series of technological development. It also produced a capitalistic system that, on the one hand, was hailed as the age of progress by a group of intellectuals and, on the other, was criticised for bringing suffering and misery to the working classes who had to endure subhuman conditions at factories. It was believed that European society had lost the serenity that was associated with the medieval period in the pursuit of progress.

Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt and German philosopher Nietzsche expressed pessimism and criticised democratic traditions that created barbaric, violent and rustic patience among the people, which were not controlled by the refinement and sophistication of the previous culture.

The capitalist system resulted in European imperialism, which led to the occupation of Asian and African countries through coercive military power. The people of Europe were asked to make sacrifices for the imperialist cause in the name of nationalism, patriotism and racism. The imperialistic countries of Europe not only disturbed the system of their colonies but also involved themselves in the World Wars that brought destruction and adversely impacted the progress that had been made.

Some intellectuals are of the view that human progress should be measured through technological innovations and development initiatives. They have proudly stated that man has become so powerful that he has overpowered his surroundings and changed the rules of nature. However, this view has been criticised because man is a part of nature and any attempt to alienate him from his national roots appears futile. Seeking refuge in the artificial institutions of technology deprives people of their sensibilities and converts them into machines.

Various intellectuals have argued that the degradation of the environment to fulfil the material needs of societies leads to the exploitation of natural resources and the abuse of soil fertility and water resources. Consequently, human civilisation is rapidly decaying and losing its energy and ingenuity.

When European philosophers analyse the decline of a civilisation, they never mention the religious factors involved in their downfall. However, Muslim scholars tend to blame society for abandoning religious teachings and pushing itself towards decline. These scholars believe that the solution is to revive religious teachings and restore society’s past glory.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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