Hegel, the German philosopher (1770-1831) knew that just because men and women learned about the past, that didn't mean they'd make better decisions about the future. He once commented, "What experience and history teach us is this -- that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it."
For years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, America towered over the world as a great giant -- economically, culturally and militarily. But now for nearly a decade since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, its armed services have clashed with the forces of Islamic extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere in the world.
If that weren't bad enough, the worldwide economic crisis has laid the country low with high unemployment, an immense federal government deficit, rising inflation and depressed home values. Other challenges loom ahead, flowing from the European Union's growing political and economic integration, Russia's increased strength and assertiveness, and the new rising economy of China, India and Brazil.
The Path of Past Empires
Clearly, America's present superpower status is being increasingly challenged. Could it be lost completely? While it clings to a general preeminence right now, could America still decline and fail? The other great empires in the past, such as those of Britain, Spain, Rome, Persia, Babylon and Egypt have seen such decay and downfall. Is America and Europe's future more secure today than they were yesterday? There is a common pattern fitting the history of rise and fall of empires. They went through a cycle of stages as they started, expanded, matured, declined and collapsed.
By knowing history better, we can better project our likely national futures. America is the youngest nation among the nations of Europe and Americas. It has hardly passed its tumultuous years of 250 and has seen the two world wars. It is still in infancy of its age. The vigor, the strength, the hopes and aspirations of the nation are still running the spirit of life in their vitals. If history is the testament of a nation's life, the current setbacks of America are surmountable, and it is believed to re-emerge from the present predicaments. Regarding the other empires in Europe, Asia, Africa and SE Asia, it depends on their competitive factors in the fields of economy, political, military, and technological advancement in the nations of the world.
The Rise of Empires
In the initial stages, the warrior's adventuresome and manly values drive an empire to gain power as it conquers land from others. Later on, during the following ages of commerce and affluence, businessmen and merchants -- who normally value material success and dislike taking unnecessary risks -- take over at the highest levels of society. They normally do this not from motives of conscience, but rather because of the weakening of a sense of duty in citizens and the increase in selfishness, manifested in the desire for wealth and ease.
During these middle stages, empires stop taking more land and start building walls instead. They switch from the offensive to the defensive. Examples include the wall built near the Scottish border by the Roman emperor Hadrian; the Great Wall of China constructed to keep out intrusion by certain nomadic groups, and even 20th century France's Maginot Line, placed along the German border.
Consolidation starts after conquests and business investment promoted by the empire, builds the wealth that leads to the age of intellect and awakening. Even the brutal Mongol Empire, by bringing most of Asia under its rule, encouraged the caravan trade along Eurasia's famed Silk Road. In this stage, the empires spend lots of money to establish educational institutions resembling modern universities and high schools.
The Seeds of Decline
The age of intellect and awakening brings skepticism and lack of confidence in intellectuals. They oppose the values and religious beliefs of their empire's early leaders. The medieval Muslim philosophers Avicenna and Averroes, by accepting much of ancient Greek philosophy, were not orthodox in belief. The corrosive effects of material success encourage the upper class and the common people to discard the self-confident, self-disciplined values that helped to create the empire. Then the empire eventually collapses. This collapse may eventually affect different empires for different reasons. Barbarians were the immediate cause of collapse in Rome's case; while an energetic internal force, such as the pro-capitalist reform, was the cause of collapse for Soviet Union.
The growth of wealth and comfort clearly can undermine the values of character, such as self-sacrifice and discipline, that lead to a given empire's creation. Then the empire so affected by moral decline grows weaker and more vulnerable to destruction by forces arising inside or outside of it.
Not surprisingly, God in the Bible specifically warned the ancient Israelites against departing from worshipping Him once they became materially satisfied after entering the Promised Land (Deut. 8:11-20; and 31:20). God understood this human tendency.
Has the US entered the later phases of the empire life cycle? It's only been independent from Britain for somewhat two and a half centuries. It's young, compared to those of Europe or Asia. But does America today have the same values or cultural developments that past empires such as Rome had before they fell? Late 19th century middle-class Americans wanted their children to learn the values of prudence, saving and foresight as found in the stories of author Horatio Alger, whose heroes lead exemplary lives striving to succeed in the face of adversity and poverty. Intellectuals are also increasingly respected during the age of intellect.
During the last stages of decadence and decline, an empire's people often think most highly of and imitate athletes, musicians and actors -- despite how corrupt these celebrities' private lives are. In 10th century Baghdad during the Muslim Abbasid Empire's decline, its writers complained about the singers of love songs having a bad influence on the young people. It seems the old adage is true: The more things change, the more they stay the same (or, perhaps, become the same again).