History is what’s happening

IV Stage one. The outburst
Again and again in history we find a small nation, treated as insignificant by its contemporaries, suddenly emerging from its homeland and overrunning large areas of the world. Prior to Philip (359-336 B.C.), Macedon had been an insignificant state to the north of Greece. Persia was the great power of the time, completely dominating the area from Eastern Europe to India. Yet by 323 B.C., thirty-six years after the accession of Philip, the Persian Empire had ceased to exist, and the Macedonian Empire extended from the Danube to India, including Egypt.

This amazing expansion may perhaps he attributed to the genius of Alexander the Great, but this cannot have been the sole reason; for although after his death everything went wrong—the Macedonian generals fought one another and established rival empires—Macedonian pre-eminence survived for 231 years.

In the year A.D. 600, the world was divided between two superpower groups as it has been for the past fifty years between Soviet Russia and the West. The two powers were the eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. The Arabs were then the despised and backward inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula. They consisted chiefly of wandering tribes, and had no government, no constitution and no army. Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa were Roman provinces, Iraq was part of Persia.

The Prophet Mohammed preached in Arabia from A.D. 613 to 632, when he died. In 633, the Arabs burst out of their desert peninsula, and simultaneously attacked the two super-powers. Within twenty years, the Persian Empire had ceased to exist. Seventy years after the death of the Prophet, the Arabs had established an empire extending from the Atlantic to the plains of Northern India and the frontiers of China.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Mongols were a group of savage tribes in the steppes of Mongolia. In 1211, Genghis Khan invaded China. By 1253, the Mongols had established an empire extending from Asia Minor to the China Sea, one of the largest empires the world has ever known.

The Arabs ruled the greater part of Spain for 780 years, from 712 A.D. to 1492. (780 years back in British history would take us to 1196 and King Richard Coeur de Lion.) During these eight centuries, there had been no Spanish nation, the petty kings of Aragon and Castile alone holding on in the mountains.

The agreement between Ferdinand and Isabella and Christopher Columbus was signed immediately after the fall of Granada, the last Arab kingdom in Spain, in 1492. Within fifty years, Cortez had conquered Mexico, and Spain was the world’s greatest empire.

Examples of the sudden outbursts by which empires are born could be multiplied indefinitely. These random illustrations must suffice.


V Characteristics of the outburst
These sudden outbursts are usually characterised by an extraordinary display of energy and courage. The new conquerors are normally poor, hardy and enterprising and above all aggressive. The decaying empires which they overthrow are wealthy but defensive-minded. In the time of Roman greatness, the legions used to dig a ditch round their camps at night to avoid surprise. But the ditches were mere earthworks, and between them wide spaces were left through which the Romans could counter-attack. But as Rome grew older, the earthworks became high walls, through which access was given only by narrow gates. Counterattacks were no longer possible. The legions were now passive defenders.

But the new nation is not only distinguished by victory in battle, but by unresting enterprise in every field. Men hack their way through jungles, climb mountains, or brave the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in tiny cockle-shells. The Arabs crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in A.D. 711 with 12,000 men, defeated a Gothic army of more than twice their strength, marched straight over 250 miles of unknown enemy territory and seized the Gothic capital of Toledo. At the same stage in British history, Captain Cook discovered Australia. Fearless initiative characterises such periods.

Other peculiarities of the period of the conquering pioneers are their readiness to improvise and experiment. Untrammelled by traditions, they will turn anything available to their purpose. If one method fails, they try something else. Uninhibited by textbooks or book learning, action is their solution to every problem.

Poor, hardy, often half-starved and ill-clad, they abound in courage, energy and initiative, overcome every obstacle and always seem to be in control of the situation.


VI The causes of race outbursts
The modern instinct is to seek a reason for everything, and to doubt the veracity of a statement for which a reason cannot be found. So many examples can be given of the sudden eruption of an obscure race into a nation of conquerors that the truth of the phenomenon cannot be held to be doubtful. To assign a cause is more difficult. Perhaps the easiest explanation is to assume that the poor and obscure race is tempted by the wealth of the ancient civilisation, and there would undoubtedly appear to be an element of greed for loot in barbarian invasions.

Such a motivation may be divided into two classes. The first is mere loot, plunder and rape, as, for example, in the case of Attila and the Huns, who ravaged a great part of Europe from A.D. 450 to 453. However, when Attila died in the latter year, his empire fell apart and his tribes returned to Eastern Europe.

Many of the barbarians who founded dynasties in Western Europe on the ruins of the Roman Empire, however, did so out of admiration for Roman civilisation, and themselves aspired to become Romans.


XII Sea power
One of the more benevolent ways in which a super-power can promote both peace and commerce is by its command of the sea. From Waterloo to 1914, the British Navy commanded the seas of the world. Britain grew rich, but she also made the Seas safe for the commerce of all nations, and prevented major wars for 100 years.

Curiously enough, the question of sea power was never clearly distinguished, in British politics during the last fifty years, from the question of imperial rule over other countries. In fact, the two subjects are entirely distinct. Sea power does not offend small countries, as does military occupation. If Britain had maintained her navy, with a few naval bases overseas in isolated islands, and had given independence to colonies which asked for it, the world might well be a more stable place today. In fact, however, the navy was swept away in the popular outcry against imperialism.


XV The Age of Affluence
There does not appear to be any doubt that money is the agent which causes the decline of this strong, brave and self-confident people. The decline in courage, enterprise and a sense of duty is, however, gradual.

The first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a moral one. Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best young men. Moreover, men do not normally seek to make money for their country or their community, but for themselves. Gradually, and almost imperceptibly, the Age of Affluence silences the voice of duty. The object of the young and the ambitious is no longer fame, honour or service, but cash.

Education undergoes the same gradual transformation. No longer do schools aim at producing brave patriots ready to serve their country. Parents and students alike seek the educational qualifications which will command the highest salaries. The Arab moralist, Ghazali (1058-1111), complains in these very same words of the lowering of objectives in the declining Arab world of his time. Students, he says, no longer attend college to acquire learning and virtue, but to obtain those qualifications which will enable them to grow rich. The same situation is everywhere evident among us in the West today.


XVII Defensiveness
Another outward change which invariably marks the transition from the Age of Conquests to the Age of Affluence is the spread of defensiveness. The nation, immensely rich, is no longer interested in glory or duty, but is only anxious to retain its wealth and its luxury. It is a period of defensiveness, from the Great Wall of China, to Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish Border, to the Maginot Line in France in 1939.

Money being in better supply than courage, subsidies instead of weapons are employed to buy off enemies. To justify this departure from ancient tradition, the human mind easily devises its own justification. Military readiness, or aggressiveness, is denounced as primitive and immoral. Civilised peoples are too proud to fight. The conquest of one nation by another is declared to be immoral. Empires are wicked. This intellectual device enables us to suppress our feeling of inferiority, when we read of the heroism of our ancestors, and then ruefully contemplate our position today. ‘It is not that we are afraid to fight,’ we say, ‘but we should consider it immoral.’ This even enables us to assume an attitude of moral superiority.

The weakness of pacifism is that there are still many peoples in the world who are aggressive. Nations who proclaim themselves unwilling to fight are liable to be conquered by peoples in the stage of militarism— perhaps even to see themselves incorporated into some new empire, with the status of mere provinces or colonies.

When to be prepared to use force and when to give way is a perpetual human problem, which can only be solved, as best we can, in each successive situation as it arises. In fact, however, history seems to indicate that great nations do not normally disarm from motives of conscience, but owing to the weakening of a sense of duty in the citizens, and the increase in selfishness and the desire for wealth and ease.


XIX The effects of intellectualism
There are so many things in human life which are not dreamt of in our popular philosophy. The spread of knowledge seems to be the most beneficial of human activities, and yet every period of decline is characterrised by this expansion of intellectual activity. ‘All the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing’ is the description given in the Acts of the Apostles of the decline of Greek intellectualism.

The Age of Intellect is accompanied by surprising advances in natural science. In the ninth century, for example, in the age of Mamun, the Arabs measured the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy. Seven centuries were to pass before Western Europe discovered that the world was not flat. Less than fifty years after the amazing scientific discoveries under Mamun, the Arab Empire collapsed. Wonderful and beneficent as was the progress of science, it did not save the empire from chaos.

The full flowering of Arab and Persian intellectualism did not occur until after their imperial and political collapse. Thereafter the intellectuals attained fresh triumphs in the academic field, but politically they became the abject servants of the often illiterate rulers. When the Mongols conquered Persia in the thirteenth century, they were themselves entirely uneducated and were obliged to depend wholly on native Persian officials to administer the country and to collect the revenue. They retained as wazeer, or Prime Minister, one Rashid al- Din, a historian of international repute. Yet the Prime Minister, when speaking to the Mongol II Khan, was obliged to remain throughout the interview on his knees. At state banquets, the Prime Minister stood behind the Khan’s seat to wait upon him. If the Khan were in a good mood, he occasionally passed his wazeer a piece of food over his shoulder.

As in the case of the Athenians, intellectualism leads to discussion, debate and argument, such as is typical of the Western nations today. Debates in elected assemblies or local committees, in articles in the Press or in interviews on television— endless and incessant talking.

Men are interminably different, and intellectual arguments rarely lead to agreement. Thus public affairs drift from bad to worse, amid an unceasing cacophony of argument. But this constant dedication to discussion seems to destroy the power of action. Amid a Babel of talk, the ship drifts on to the rocks.” – Sir John Glubb, The Fate of Empires