Freedom, justice, education, and equality seem to have little to do with the ingredients required to produce a great civilization. Slavery, despotism, illiteracy, and inequality often help and certainly do not hinder the building of an empire. The essentials are low labour costs, abundant natural resources, abundant energy supplies, monopoly markets, military superiority, and social and political stability at home.
To concentrate all of these in a single society is difficult enough, which is why historians have no need of a calculator to count the “great civilizations.”
To hold on to them, however, is as unlikely as true love that lasts a lifetime, which is why even the greatest of great civilizations have dissolved in the blink of an historical eye.
The desire for freedom, justice, education, and equality, far from being among the essential causes producing a great civilization, appear to be the fruits of such greatness. Prosperous citizens of a dominant society begin in their affluence to acquire education, to philosophize, to yearn for freedom, justice, and equality. (Freedom and equality are incompatible, of course, as Will Durant points out in The Lessons of History: “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.”) Affluence, however, produces other, less benign fruits: corruption, decadence, laziness, self-indulgence. The dissolution begins at the same moment that the greatest heights are achieved. Sophocles writes his tragedies and Plato writes his dialogues as Athens descends into the imperial despotism of corrupt oligarchs. Phidias sculpts the gods out of marble as the slaves mine silver and row the Athenian galleys into a war with Sparta that destroys Pericles’ great society in a single generation.
Most people live their lives apart from these cyclical struggles. If lucky enough to avoid being swept up by wars and revolutions, they grow from children to adults, fall in love, find ways to earn a living, raise families, amuse themselves as they can, grow old, and die. In every society only a small percentage of people (men, mostly) strive obsessively to take more than their share, using the tools available to them, whether they be spears or hedge funds. From among these narcissists and sociopaths arise the “great men” of history with their compulsions to rule, to horde, and to erect monuments to themselves.
The immediate pleasures of life lie in physical health: strength, energy, movement, eating, sleeping, and sex. Longer-term consolations come from nature, art, music, literature, and the vast corridors of knowledge in all its forms. Ironically, most science and “high art” emerges from the wars, violence, and inequalities of great civilizations. As Orson Welles famously ad-libs in The Third Man, “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed—they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!”
How many of us, I wonder, would hesitate to trade the Renaissance for five hundred years of democracy and peace? A few brave and noble souls venture into politics in the true spirit of public service to battle against the ambitious egotists who tend to dominate that world. Most people, however, simply pray to be left alone by the Caesars, Napoleons, and Rockefellers. Like Voltaire’s Candide, they long only to cultivate their gardens, happily leaving history to others. Most people, I am inclined to think, would gladly trade ten Renaissances for five hundred years of democracy and peace, if only they could.