“The Fissure of Humanity”by Gerald Heard
A key figure in the small group of British expatriate literary Vedantans who settled in Los Angeles after World War II, Gerald Heard’s psycho-histories of civilization outclassed those of Toynbee and Spengler. In this brief excerpt from his book “The Human Venture,” he issues a prescient warning about the liabilities of all empires.
The Source of Civilization, “The Fissure of Humanity”
The periodic collapse of empires is perhaps the most striking fact throughout history. There is hardly an historian who has not realized that here is a fact which of all the phenomena he studies is not only the most striking but the most mysterious. Many have felt that if the periodic collapse of authority at the height of its power could be understood we should have an explanation off the forces which make civilization and even perhaps a philosophy of history. Hence biological, physiological and genetic theories of history have been frequent. Some are based on assumptions as to human instincts, which instincts have not been established. Others depend on even less well-founded assumptions bout purity of race and race endowments. Still others depend on assumptions about stock-exhaustion, that societies grow old as the human individual grows old. Most of them are based on a discarded biology—that man survives because all life survives through incessant struggle and when—the theory of course goes back behind Gibbon to the heroic saga made to justify aggressive violence—‘martial virtue’, the love of violence, declines, man degenerates and his kingdom passes. It is, of course, difficult to explain why then violence should fail at the moment of its success. The militarist argument, as has often been shown, really runs, that the only way to preserve martial virtues is always to be fighting and always losing.
Impartial opinion might decide that there is something inherently unstable in violence, and its resultant huge empires. They and it can no more be permanent than man can live in a continuous fit of passion or an explosion be made a structure. We do not, however, have to depend only on the certain evidence that empires of violence are as brief in time as they are extensive in area and that therefore they may be based on something which of its very nature is really not a constructive but a degenerative process. There is evidence that empires are the inevitable end-process, the dissolutive crisis of a maladjusted and malignant condition in the body-politic.
Empires are essentially sterile: they do not invent, they exploit: they cannot produce but must squander. They release and waste the accumulated energy and understanding of a completely other form of society, true civilization. How fertile that original way of life is we may judge by the time it takes to bring about complete collapse and degeneration, to exterminate the will to co-operate and the creative forces it commands. Dr. [Gordon] Childe draws attention to the highly significant fact that though what may be called the first imperial phase of the Mesopotamia culture lasts 2000 years (until at last by increasing extravagance of violence the whole native social resources are exploited and reduced and the country no longer produces empires to plague its neighbors but they produce empires to plague it), throughout that long period there is no progress in culture except in two particulars, the use of Iron (essentially a militarist specialization) and perhaps the full development of an alphabet.
For all the rest of its resources, which it fatally squandered, the militarist society, having increasingly to depend on violence, drew on the original productivity, invention and discovery of the primal civilization. It itself was incapable of replacing in any real manner its gigantic wastage. Like a raging star it radiated away all the energy stored in it until even its material form collapsed and only the sterile desert and a few slag heaps marked the site of the degenerative catastrophe.
The degenerative process, as we have seen, can be a slow one but it is one from which there is no recovery. Conditions become steadily worse for the ordinary man. His inventive power is at a standstill, paralysed. His relationships with his fellows grow unremittingly more acute—we see this by the steady growth of codes with steadily increasing penalties, with torture added to death and (as in the famous code of the conqueror Hammurabi who hopes by defining violence and the surety of punishment to stay ‘the degeneration of manners’) the deadly Lex Talionis ‘an eye for an eye’—the principle of the fully exacted debt though its exaction be socially ruinous, of no benefit to the original loser and forgiveness and remission are common sense.
Relations with the outer world are equally degenerative, for empire can have no frontiers. The whole world must submit or be conquered. The whole world must submit or be conquered. Hence war becomes endemic, the ‘Natural State’ until Nature will stand it no longer, and rather than this travesty of civilization, prefers savagery. It will return whence it came to that primal condition before there were these inventions which give men of violence power to plague to extinction all their fellows, powers which not even the most plagued (as we see whenever they seize power) can imagine how to employ without brining on the same ruin. The dilemma seems absolute: Savagery and comparative peace: civilization and certain destruction. There is no way of keeping society together without violence: the more civilization, the more violence, until the inevitable anarchy and desolation. (pp. 166-169)