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Brooks Adams’ The Law of Civilization & Decay

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Czech version here

Brooks Adams’ work on The Law of Civilization and Decay[1] is a reprint of the original American edition published in 1896. It was the first of a series of similar treatises and started the line followed, among others, by Spengler. Briefly its thesis is this — “As the attack in war masters the defence, and the combative instinct becomes unnecessary to the preservation of life, the economic supersedes the martial mind, being superior in bread-winning. As velocity augments and competition intensifies, nature begins to sift the economic minds themselves, culling a favoured aristocracy of the craftiest and subtlest types; choosing, for example, the Armenian in Byzantium, the Marwar in India, and the Jew in London.”

This development is accompanied by declining imagination, declining fear of the unknown, centralization, increasing mercantilism and industrialism (both of which breed heresy and unbelief), declining sensual appeal of women and declining population, until through sheer exhaustion arising from the struggle for existence, the race itself declines, and civilization goes back to await fresh energy from the infusion of barbarian blood into those who represent it.

It is a fascinating story brilliantly told and, by way of illustration, the course of history from Roman to modern times is examined under a new and vivid light. It is, moreover, to some extent a plausible story. Much that Brooks Adams shows to be consecutive, is consecutive. Imagination and faith do decline as fear of the unknown and of the danger from environment diminishes. Technological advance, by favouring the mastery over nature, kills two birds with one stone. It undermines fear by imparting a sense of security, and weakens faith by inducing a sense of self-reliance. Incidentally, it also leads to mechanized and capitalistic methods of farming and manufacture, and diminishes the economic value of children. “Hiring labour is always cheaper than breeding.”

Not quite as clear as all this are the principal links in the chain of events. Is it true that the mastery of defence by attack exerts such an important influence? Did it, for instance, undermine the martial mind in Germany, France and England? Can it be said that the soldiers of these three nations are any less efficient fighters now than they were in the Middle Ages?

Brooks Adams writes: “The change wrought in Roman character in about 300 years has always been one of the problems of history.” But does he solve this problem? It is interesting to compare his thesis in this respect with that of Dr. Otto Sieck. In his Geschichte Des Untergangs Der Antiken Welt, Sieck ridicules the historian who can be perplexed over this very problem; for he says, in effect, since the Romans had long ceased to be Romans by the time Constantine ascended the throne, how can we be puzzled by the fact that the rulers, leading figures and common people of the late Empire no longer bore any resemblance to their remote forebears of 400 B.C.? Darwin, writing as a biologist, claimed that random breeding destroyed character. When, therefore, we consider, as Sieck points out, the enormous amount of mixing, especially with manumitted Eastern slaves, which must have taken place in the Roman world, long before Constantine ruled, how could it reasonably be expected that the Roman character could remain unchanged? Could that infusion of Oriental blood have made no difference?

It is here, it seems to me, that Brooks Adams’ work is defective. Nowhere does he give sufficient attention in the influence of stock changes and stock deterioration or modification, through random breeding with peoples who may or may not influence an original type adversely. He refers to the exhaustion of the energy of a race, which occurs under the pressure of economic competition; but is this the only way in which a race may be devitalized?

The principal contribution made by this book is surely the emphasis it lays on the economic factor — the supply in raw materials, and above all of precious metals, and the discovery of fresh sources of wealth — in determining the course of history and in moulding and re-moulding human character. And this it does, as the author demonstrates, not so much by a direct effect on the population as a whole as by the power of selection whereby the types less adapted to new demands are picked out for slow elimination or destruction, whilst the more adaptable are favoured and multiply. Three generations, apparently, are required to adapt perfectly the newly selected economic type to a pace in so-called “progress” for which the imaginative and economically inferior type has not the wind.

The picture is one-sided. It leaves out of account many important features and it simplifies too much. Brilliantly as the thesis is expounded, therefore, the reader aware of other theories, accounting for many of the changes which Adams describes, leaves the book dissatisfied. He may have learned much which he could hardly expect to find in the classical historians; he may have encountered facts, especially about his own (English) history, which it is not customary for English historians to reveal, and he may be led to see connexions and relations where hitherto none were apparent. But he finds himself presented with the theory of a general law which it is hard to accept, and he is left wondering how he can reconcile Adams’ thesis with that of other pessimists who have analysed the causes of national decline.

How, for instance, reconcile Adams with Sieck? Is the supersession of the imaginative by the economic man, together with the concentration, centralization, intensive competition and social decay which, according to Adams, follow this original change, always accompanied by loss of character among a few segregated groups, previously unmixed, and exposed to random breeding three or more generations before the changes leading to decay become noticeable?

Or, if national character does not alter, except through the selection of favoured types under the pressure of economic changes, is Otto Sieck’s thesis that character changes are brought about by miscegenation wholly erroneous?

The difficulty of reconciling these two theories — not to mention others that have been as skilfully expounded — would consist in drawing a connexion between increasing random breeding and increasing mercantilism. I confess I can see no such connexion. But it may exist.

At all events Brooks Adams’ book is an important contribution to the school of thought which is prepared to minimize blood influences in accounting for the changing face of nations, and it cannot be denied that he presents his case cogently and well. The book was published in England in 1895. Surely a reprint of this edition is now called for!


1. ALFRED KNOPF, New York, 1943. Demy 8vo. pp. 283 with a further 56 pages of introduction by CHARLES A. BEARD. Price, dollars 3.50 net.

Source: The New English Weekly 25, 1944, pp. 177–78.



  1. Greg Johnson
    Posted October 27, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    The connection between mercantilism and increased miscegenation seems rather clear to me. Mercantile activity brings different races into contact with each other, which makes miscegenation possible. Beyond that, from the point of view of money, racial differences hardly matter and therefore racial separation breaks down in the face of the pressure to find new markets or access cheap labor, making miscegenation inevitable.

    Adams shows quite nicely, I think, how the plutocratic mentality long preceded and made possible the racial replacement of the Roman yeomanry and eventually the racial replacement of the Roman ruling class. The loss of racial separation and integrity follows rather directly from the commercial outlook

    • Catiline
      Posted October 28, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      Greg, why do my comments always go into moderation?

      • Greg Johnson
        Posted October 28, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        EVERYBODY’S comments go into moderation.

    • Catiline
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      This is incorrect.

      “Professor Tenney Frank, of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, has approached the problem from another angle. From an elaborate statistical study of the Corpus of Latin inscriptions he concludes that Rome and the Latin West were flooded by an invasion of Greek and Oriental slaves: as these were emancipated and thus secured Roman citizenship the whole character of the citizen body was changed: on the basis of a consideration of some 13,900 sepulchral inscriptions he argues that nearly 90 per cent of the Roman-born inhabitants of the Western capital were of foreign extraction. What lay behind and constantly reacted on those economic factors which have generally been adduced to explain the decline of the Roman power was the fact that those who had built Rome had given way to a different race. “The whole of Italy as well as the Romanized portions of Gaul and Spain were during the Empire dominated in blood by the East.” In this fact Tenney Frank would find an explanation of the development from the Principate to the Dominate — the triumph of absolutism, of the spread of Oriental religions, the decline in Latin literature and the growing failure in that gift for the government of men which had built up the Empire.

      But the foundations on which this far-reaching theory rests are not above suspicion. The nationality of Roman slaves is but rarely expressly stated in the sepulchral inscriptions, and thus it is upon the appearance of a Greek name for slave or freedman that Tenney Frank has inferred an Oriental origin. The legitimacy of this inference has been questioned by Miss Mary Gordon in her able study of the “Nationality of Slaves under the early Roman Empire”, JRS xiv, 1924. A slave was a personal chattel, and slave-dealer or slave-owner could give to the slave any name which in his unfettered choice he might select: the slave dealers with whom Romans first came in contact were Greeks and thus, as Miss Gordon says, “Greek was the original language of the slave trade and this is reflected in servile nomenclature much as the use of French on modern menus and in the names affected by dressmakers suggests the history and associations of particular trades.” In fact the nomenclature of the slave in the ancient world was scarcely less arbitrary than are the modern names given to our houses, our puddings, our horses or our dogs. An attempt to determine the domicile of origin of our cats or dogs solely by the names which their owners have given them would hardly be likely to produce results of high scientific value. The outlandish names of barbarian captives reduced to slavery would naturally be changed to more familiar forms, and Latin nomenclature was singularly poor and unimaginative: the Greek names were well-known and resort to these was easy. It may be said that this reasoning is largely a priori and of little cogency. But Ettore Cicotti in a recent paper on “Motivi demografici e biologici nella rovina della civiltà antica” in Nuova Rivista Storica, Anno xiv, fasc. i-ii, has adduced an interesting historical parallel. L. Livi (La schiavitù domestica nei tempi di mezzo e nei moderni, Ricerche storiche di un antropologo, Roma, 1928) in 1928 published documents which his father copied from the State Archives of Florence. These documents record 357 sales of slaves: the transactions date from the years 1366 to 1390 — for the most part from the years 1366 to 1370. The majority of the slaves were of Tartar origin, though some were Greeks, Roumanians, etc. In these records the slave’s original name is generally given and then follows the Italian name by which the slave is known. Thus the name of Lucia occurs forty-two times and represents such original names as Marchecta, Gingona, Erina, Minglacha, Saragosa, Casabai, Alterona and many others. Similarly the name of Caterina is given to slaves of Greek, Tartar, Turkish, Circassian, and Russian origin and has taken the place of such barbarous names as Coraghessan, Chrittias, Colcatalo, Tagaton, and Melich. The parallel is very instructive.

      But this is not all: the sepulchral inscriptions studied by Tenney Frank extend over a period of three centuries: suppose that Rome had during the early Empire a population of some 800,000 with an annual mortality of 20 per cent: in those three centuries the deaths would number 4,800,000. Tenney Frank has examined 13,900 inscriptions and those are derived from imperial and aristocratic columbaria: here the slaves would be better off and the percentage of accomplished foreign slaves would be higher: what of the nameless dead whom no record preserved, whose bodies lay in the vast common burial pits of the slave proletariat? These 13,900 dead who left permanent memorials behind them cannot be regarded as really representative of the general servile population of the city: we are not justified in using the percentage obtained from these records and applying it as though it were applicable to the whole class of slaves and of freedmen.

      In the light of this criticism Tenney Frank’s statistics are vitiated, and it must be admitted that the nationality of the slaves of Rome under the early Empire remains a matter of conjecture. There must have been a far greater number derived from Western Europe than are allowed for on Tenney Frank’s calculations.”

      (Norman H. Baynes. “The Decline of the Roman Power in Western Europe. Some Modern Explanations”. Journal of Roman Studies, 1943.)

      • Greg Johnson
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        What, precisely, is “incorrect” here?

        At the most, the text that you cite proves that the Roman people were replaced by slaves who might not have been entirely imported from the Eastern empire. It certainly does not undermine the thesis that the Roman system basically liquidated its own founding stock and replaced them with foreigners.

    • White Republican
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it seems strange that Anthony M. Ludovici saw a problem in reconciling the ideas of Brooks Adams and Otto Seeck, or drawing a connection between random breeding and mercantilism. Ludovici would later write in The Quest of Human Quality:

      “The fact that the ever louder clamour for democratic institutions also accompanies the biological deterioration and the maniacal pursuit of pecuniary success, shows how interdependent the three phenomena probably are.

      “There is no need to emphasize any further the obstacle the supremacy of pecuniary prestige necessarily opposes to the valuation of men according to their psycho-physical quality. For wealth and the means of advertising it are so obviously extraneous to the human organism, and so completely divorced from personal health, harmony, beauty, stamina and, in fact, good breeding, that, from the moment the cash yard-stick becomes a primary test of human worth, every form of psycho-physical decline becomes not only possible, but hardly avoidable. As Walter Bagehot says: ‘In reverencing wealth we reverence not a man, but an appendix to a man.’

      “In such conditions, quality among a people acquires secondary importance and becomes a dwindling asset. As for Aristocracy — it is out of the question.”

      Ludovici thus believed that “biological deterioration and the maniacal pursuit of pecuniary success” are mutually reinforcing.

      The problem might lie in the emphasis that Adams and Seeck respectively accorded to economic and biological factors, and the way they addressed them in their historical narratives. Pitirim Sorokin’s Contemporary Sociological Theories indicates that a common defect of sociological theories is their tendency to unduly maximize the importance of some factors and to unduly minimize or ignore the importance of other factors. Applying such theories to history might be likened to performing a play without all the actors. Writers sometimes effectively rewrite the play or have individual actors play parts that are not their own in order to establish a narrative that seems coherent but actually does violence to the facts. The actors in the play might correspond to real historical agents and factors yet also misrepresent them.

      In the above review, Ludovici wrote of Adams’ book:

      “The principal contribution made by this book is surely the emphasis it lays on the economic factor — the supply in raw materials, and above all of precious metals, and the discovery of fresh sources of wealth — in determining the course of history and in moulding and re-moulding human character. And this it does, as the author demonstrates, not so much by a direct effect on the population as a whole as by the power of selection whereby the types less adapted to new demands are picked out for slow elimination or destruction, whilst the more adaptable are favoured and multiply. Three generations, apparently, are required to adapt perfectly the newly selected economic type to a pace in so-called ‘progress’ for which the imaginative and economically inferior type has not the wind.”

      This view is quite compatible with a view that recognizes biological factors. Social values and institutions that exercise a “power of selection whereby the types less adapted to new demands are picked out for slow elimination or destruction, whilst the more adaptable are favoured and multiply” will alter the gene pool. Georges Vacher de Lapouge addressed these things in Les sélections sociales (Paris: Albert Fointemoing, 1896).

  2. Greg Paulson
    Posted October 28, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    My copy came in the mail today…can’t wait (until I have the time) to read it.

  3. Proofreader
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    A small detail: Anthony M. Ludovici seems to have consistently misspelled Otto Seeck as Otto Sieck throughout his writings. A google search indicates that Seeck is the correct spelling.

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