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Brooks Adams’ The Law of Civilization & Decay

[1]1,132 words

Czech version here [2]

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.

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