The best way to describe Sir John Glubb is “Lawrence of Arabia — but smarter.” We can learn a lot from this dead white male.
Sir John Bagot Glubb, decorated British Army Officer, became the commander of the Arab Legion in 1939 and transformed it into the most effective fighting force in the Arab world. If you have a few minutes, take a look at David Castlewitz’s fascinating article, Glubb Pasha and the Arab Legion.
A soldier for much of his life, John Glubb was also a historian who wrote a number of books on Middle East and Arab history, including The Life and Times of Muhammad. But it is his prescient book “The Fate of Empires,” that I will focus on here.
Glubb examined eleven empires over a timespan of almost 3,000 years, from Assyria to the British Empire, and found that each followed an astoundingly similar path of growth and decline.
He found that empires have a lifespan of about ten human generations, two hundred and fifty years, and that changing technology and methods of warfare do not affect this life expectancy.
Glubb also found that empires were remarkably consistent in their growth and decline, moving through six readily identifiable stages, which he called the Age(s) of Pioneers, Conquest, Commerce, Affluence, Intellect and Decadence.
About the USA, Glubb wrote: “The United States arose suddenly as a new nation, and its period of pioneering was spent in the conquest of a vast continent, not an ancient empire. Yet the subsequent life history of the United States has followed the standard pattern … the periods of the pioneers, of commerce, of affluence, of intellectualism and of decadence.”
Glubb has much to say on the first four stages of empire, but I’m going to focus on what Glubb writes on the Ages of Intellect and Decadence. Published in 1978, The Fate of Empires is highly relevant to our discussions at The Spearhead. I make no apologies as I quote at length from The Fate of Empires. If you get bored, skip ahead to the bolded text and just read that.
“In a wider national sphere, the survival of the nation depends basically on the loyalty and self-sacrifice of its citizens. The impression that the situation can be saved by mental cleverness, without unselfishness or human self-dedication, can only lead to collapse.”
“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 onto the rocks.”
“True to the normal course followed by nations in decline, internal differences are not reconciled in an attempt to save the nation. On the contrary, internal rivalries become more acute, as the nation becomes weaker.”
“As the nation declines in power and wealth, a universal pessimism gradually pervades the people, and itself hastens the decline … Frivolity is the frequent companion of pessimism … The resemblance between declining nations in this respect is truly surprising … The Roman mob, as we have seen, demanded free meals and public games … Gladiatorial shows, chariot races and athletic events were their passion. In the Byzantine Empire, the rivalries of the Greens and the Blues in the hippodrome attained the importance of a major crisis … The heroes of declining nations are always the same – the athlete, the singer or the actor.”
“The works of the contemporary historians of Baghdad in the early tenth century are still available. They deeply deplored the degeneracy of the times in which they lived, particularly the indifference to religion, the increasing materialism and the laxity of sexual morals. They lamented also the corruption of the officials of the government and the fact that politicians always seemed to amass large fortunes while they were in office. The historians commented bitterly on the extraordinary influence acquired by popular singers over young people, resulting in a decline in sexual morality. The ‘pop’ singers of Baghdad accompanied their erotic songs on the lute, an instrument resembling the modern guitar. In the second half of the tenth century, as a result, much obscene sexual language came increasingly into use, such as would not have been tolerated in an earlier age.”
“An increase in the influence of women in public life has often been associated with national decline. The later Romans complained that, although Rome ruled the world, women ruled Rome. In the tenth century, a similar tendency was observable in the Arab empire, the women demanding admission to the professions hitherto monopolized by men. “What,” wrote the contemporary historian, Ibn Bessam, “have the professions of clerk, tax collector or preacher to do with women? These occupations have always been limited to men alone.” Many women practiced law, while others obtained positions as university professors. There was an agitation for the appointment of female judges, which, however, does not appear to have succeeded. Soon after this period, government and public order collapsed, and foreign invaders overran the country. The resulting increase in confusion and violence made it unsafe for women to move unescorted in the streets, with the result that this feminist movement collapsed. The disorders following the military take-over in 861, and the loss of the empire, had played havoc with the economy. At such a moment, it might have been expected that everyone would redouble their efforts to save the country from bankruptcy, but nothing of the kind occurred. Instead at this moment of declining trade and financial stringency, the people of Baghdad introduced a five day week.”
“When I first read these contemporary descriptions of tenth-century Baghdad, I could scarcely believe my eyes……The resemblance of all the details was breathtaking – the break-up of the empire, the abandonment of sexual morality, the ‘pop’ singers with their guitars, the entry of women into the professions, the five day week. I would not venture to attempt an explanation! There are so many mysteries of human life that are beyond our comprehension.” [We have a better understanding of this now, thanks to the MRM - Charles Martel]
“The people of the great nations of the past seem normally to have imagined that their pre-eminence would last forever. Rome appeared to its citizens to be destined for all time to be the mistress of the world. The Abbasid Khalifs of Baghdad declared that God had appointed them to rule mankind until the day of judgement. Seventy years ago, many people in Britain believed that the empire would endure for ever … That sentiments like these could be publicly expressed without evoking derision shows that, in all ages, the regular rise and fall of great nations has passed unperceived. The simplest statistics prove the steady rotation of one nation after another at regular intervals.”
“We have not drawn from history the obvious conclusion that material success is the result of courage, endurance and hard work – a conclusion nevertheless obvious from the history of the meteoric rise of our own ancestors. This self-assurance of its own superiority seems to go hand-in-hand with the luxury resulting from wealth, in undermining the character of the dominant race.”
“When the welfare state was first introduced in Britain, it was hailed as a new high-water mark in the history of human development. History, however, seems to suggest that the age of decline of a great nation is often a period which shows a tendency to philanthropy and to sympathy for other races … The rights of citizenship are generously bestowed on every race, even those formerly subject, and the equality of mankind is proclaimed. The Roman Empire passed through this phase, when equal citizenship was thrown open to all peoples, such provincials even becoming senators and emperors. The Arab Empire of Baghdad was equally, perhaps even more, generous. During the Age of Conquests, pure-bred Arabs had constituted a ruling class, but in the ninth century the empire was completely cosmopolitan. State assistance to the young and the poor was equally generous. University students received government grants to cover their expenses while they were receiving higher education. The State likewise offered free medical treatment to the poor. The first free public hospital was opened in Baghdad in the reign of Harun al-Rashid (786-809), and under his son, Mamun, free public hospitals sprang up all over the Arab world from Spain to what is now Pakistan. The impression that it will always be automatically rich causes the declining empire to spend lavishly on its own benevolence, until such time as the economy collapses, the universities are closed and the hospitals fall into ruin. It may perhaps be incorrect to picture the welfare state as the high-water mark of human attainment. It may prove to be merely one more regular milestone in the life-story of an ageing and decrepit empire.”
“Neither is decadence physical. The citizens of nations in decline are sometimes described as too physically emasculated to be able to bear hardship or make great efforts. This does not seem to be a true picture. Citizens of great nations in decadence are normally physically larger and stronger than those of their barbarian invaders … Decadence is a moral and spiritual disease, resulting from too long a period of wealth and power, producing cynicism, decline of religion, pessimism and frivolity. The citizens of such a nation will no longer make an effort to save themselves, because they are not convinced that anything in life is worth saving.“