Orrin Woodward LIFE Leadership Team

Winner of the 2011 Independent Association of Business Top Leader Award; Orrin Woodward shares his leadership secrets.

The Rise and Fall of Civilizations

Posted by Orrin Woodward on July 8, 2011

Why do civilizations rise, decline, and fall? Civilizations as diverse as the Sumerians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese all declined, eventually falling under their own weight. Is decline the natural condition of life, with growth being a temporary anomaly in the march of history? Arnold Toynbee, an English historian, authored The Study of History, a classic multi-volume history of world civilizations. Wikipedia summarizes his tome, “Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when “creative minorities” devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Toynbee argued that ‘Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.’ For Toynbee, civilizations were not intangible or unalterable machines but a network of social relationships within the border and therefore subject to both wise and unwise decisions they made.” Despite detecting uniform patterns of disintegration in each civilization, Toynbee insisted that leaders have a moral responsibility to end the cycle of decline through courageous “challenge and response” leadership. Civilizations thrive when people unite around common visions for the future, developing specific cultural norms to fulfill the vision. But leaders must constantly arise, who evaluate the vision with the current reality facing the community, meeting challenges head on in order to continue thriving. Without leaders, the civilization will, as Toynbee said, commit suicide by no longer confronting brutal reality. God Bless, Orrin Woodward

One Response to “The Rise and Fall of Civilizations”

  1. wildtarg said

    Profound insights and reflection. Great article, Orrin.

    I remember talking this over with a couple friends, and the comment was made that when a society or nation goes through titanic struggles and achieves victory; harmony, order, and leadership only last through the succeeding generation, who had access to the ‘eyewitnesses’ who actually lived during those times. This was related to an example from my own faith.
    In Judges 1:6-11 is a synopsis of what happened to the ancient Israelites who came to possess the land. When those who had experienced the ‘Dream, Struggle, Victory’ process were no longer around to tell their stories, the culture began to deviate from its foundations.

    I find that this only reinforces the observation of George Santayana; “Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it.” Here’s to breaking the cycle.

    Keep going, we’re with you…

    Gabriel Weeden

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