The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: A Reader Course

Palmyra, 2007.
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A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.

              In my mind there are four central parts to this tale: first, there is the story of state capacity. Polities vary in capability; some are better at ordering their realms than others. Next is the story of wealth, economic innovation, and productive capacity. Prosperity is a fruit of greatness, yet prosperity also feeds greatness. The sources of prosperity and technological progress are therefore just as critical to to the tale. Following this is strategic acumen. Rising and falling is relative and competitive; winning in the great power game means maneuvering—and outmaneuvering—both rivals and dependents. If the first two dimensions mentioned above center on institutional and societal sources of greatness inherited by any given statesmen, strategy is the element of greatness most dependent on the decisions and calculations of individuals in power. Finally, social and elite cohesion are an undervalued factor in the rise and fall of nations. Fortune favors the united. Civil war and civic violence derail any climb to grandeur; societies able to motivate their citizens, soldiers, and leaders towards sacrifice without recourse to coercion out compete those who cannot do the same.

               The reading course that follows is oriented towards the first two concerns. The forum member did not specify the length of time his two-man reading group would be devoting to their quest, so the main constraints I imposed on the list were financial. I have tried to be as comprehensive as possible in as few books as possible. Thus the readings emphasize large, encyclopedic surveys over more focused monographs.  Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization, the first two volumes of Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power, Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order and its sequel Political Order and Political Decay, Ronald Findley and Kevin Rourke’s Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium, Henrik Spruyt’s The World Imagined: Collective Beliefs and Political Order in the Sinocentric, Islamic and Southeast Asian International Societies, and Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers serve as the mainstays of this course. These books are huge—Gat’s book is over 800 pages; Fukuyama and Mann write their multivolume opums in 700 page increments—but someone who has read through them all will have a strong grasp of the course of human civilization, from stone age tribes to the internet.

              I have arranged these books in multi-chapter length chunks meant to be read together. Sprinkled inside these core titles are various books intended to cover some of the biases or blindspots of the course core. Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance, Paine’s The Wars For Asia, 1911-1945, and Studwell’s How Asia Works rectify two of these blind spots—a general Eurocentric bias on the part of some of these big histories, and a tendency to analyze events from such a bird’s eye, century-scale remove that the importance of individual political decisions (and the decision makers who author them) is lost. Nexon’s  The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe, Vries’ State, Economy, and Great Divergence, and Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism are meant to correct specific faulty assumptions in the state-building and great-divergence literatures. That literature also tends to portray technological advance and economic growth as mere functions of state capacity; Mokyr’s The Lever of Riches and Gordon’s Rise and Fall of American Growth provide important evidence to the contrary. Scott’s Seeing Like A State presents the downside of Fukuyama-style technocratic boosterism. Finally, Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, Turchin’s War and Peace and War, Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, and Olson’s Rise and Decline of Natuons present four important theories of societal collapse that any survey of this sort must include.

              There are holes here. The role of ideology, particularly in the modern era, is given shorter shrift than it deserves. I struggle to find one single reading for the totalitarian experience. The story of Islamic and Turkic empire building in the Middle East deserves greater space. Military strategy and diplomatic acumen are not treated theoretically; historically, they are mostly covered in aggregate, from such vast heights that individual strategists drop out of view. Most importantly, there is comparatively little here about sources of elite cohesion, the dynamics of inter-elite competition, or the process by which political and social norms degrade. Individual books on specific case studies here exist—in the case of the Roman Republic or Weimar Germany many individual books exist—but nothing that attempts to integrate the mobbings, massacres, assassinations, coups, and civil wars of human history into one coherent whole in the style of a Mann or Fukuyama. Finally, readers should heed my earlier warning to distrust big-history books until one has read several narrower histories of favorite past societies. Otherwise, one has no material to judge the pronouncements of big theorists against.

All told, there are 29 readings below. I would prefer a round 30. Readers, tell me what one reading you would add to this list!

READING I
[setting the terms; politics before power]

Mann, Sources of Social Power, vol I, ch. 1-2.
Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Pre-human Times to the French Revolution, ch. 1-5.
Gat, War in Human Civilization, ch. 7.

+ any podcast interview where D. Wengrow talks about his new book Dawn of Everything.

Optional: Gat, War in Human Civilization, chs. 1-6.

             FURTHER READING: Kelley, The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum.

READING II
[dynamics of pre-imperial political communities]

Mann, Sources of Social Power, vol I, ch. 3-5
Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, ch. 6-7
Gat, War in Human Civilization, ch.8-10

             FURTHER READING: Earle, How Chiefs Come to Power: The Political Economy in Prehistory.

READING III
[complexity theories of rise and fall (I)]

Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, entire.

             FURTHER READING: Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study.

READING IV
[imperial dynamics]

Findlay and O’Rouke, Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium , ch. 2-3.
Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, ch. 8-9.
Mann, Sources of Social Power, vol I, ch. 7-9.
Gat, War in Human Civilization, ch.11-12.

             FURTHER READING: Morris and Scheidel, The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium.

READING V
[Abrahamic polities]

Mann, Sources of Social Power, vol I, ch. 10.
Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, 13-16.
Spruyt, The World Imagined: Collective Beliefs and Political Order in the Sinocentric, Islamic and Southeast Asian International Societies , ch. 6-7.

             FURTHER READING: Crone, Slaves on Horses: The Evolution of the Islamic Polity; Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government.

READING VI
[Indic polities]

Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, ch. 10-12.
Mann, Sources of Social Power, vol I, ch. 11.
Spruyt, The World Imagined, ch. 8-9.

             FURTHER READING: Lieberman, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830, 2 vols.

READING VII
[Sinic polities]

Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, ch. 20-21.
Spruyt, The World Imagined, ch. 4-5.
Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline, selections tbd.

             FURTHER READING: Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800.

READING VIII
[Cohesion theories of rise and fall I]

Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History -Abridged Edition, entire (but esp. the first three sections).

             FURTHER READING: Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China 221 B.C. to AD 1757.

READING VIII
[Cohesion theories of rise and fall II]

Turchin, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, entire.

             FURTHER READING: Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World.

READING IX
[Western Europe takes a different course]

Mann, Sources of Social Power, vol I, ch. 12-13.
Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, ch. 17-19, 22.

             FURTHER READING: Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy

READING X
[The rise of modern states]

Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, ch. 22-26.
Mann, Sources of Social Power, vol I, ch. 14-16.

             FURTHER READING: Ertman, Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.

READING XI
[power, trade, and war I]

Findlay and O’Rouke, Power and Plenty, ch. 4.
Kennedy, Rise and Fall of Great Powers, ch. 2.
Nexon, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe, ch. 1, 3-6.

             FURTHER READING: Rogers, ed., The Military Revolution Debate: Readings On The Military Transformation Of Early Modern Europe.

READING XII
[power, trade, and war II]

Findlay and O’Rouke, Power and Plenty, ch. 5.
Kennedy, Rise and Fall of Great Powers, ch. 3.
Gat, War in Human Civilization, ch. 13-14.

             FURTHER READING: Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.

READING XIII
[new states, old states]


Vries, State, Economy and the Great Divergence: Great Britain and China, 1680s-1850, entire.
Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, ch. 27-29.

             FURTHER READING: Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money, and the English State, 1688–1783.

READING XIV
[drivers of industrialization]

Mokyr, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, entire.
Findlay and O’Rouke, Power and Plenty, ch. 6.

             FURTHER READING: Anton Howes, Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation.

READING XV
[industrializing societies]

Mann, Sources of Social Power, vol II, ch. 1-7.

             FURTHER READING: de Tocqueville, The Ancien Regime and the Revolution.

READING XVI
[industrialized competition]

Findlay and O’Rouke, Power and Plenty, ch. 7.
Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, ch. 4.
Mann, Sources of Social Power, ch. 8-10.

             FURTHER READING: McNiell, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000.

READING XVII
[industrialized governance]

Mann, Sources of Social Power, ch. 11-14.
Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From The Industrial Revolution to Globalization and Democracy, ch. 3-7, 12.

             FURTHER READING: Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947.

READING XVIII
[class tremors]

Mann, Sources of Social Power, vol II, ch. 16-20.
Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, ch. 8-11, 13.

              FURTHER READING: Weihbe, Self Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy; Zakaria, From Wealth to Power: On the Unusual Origins of America’s Global Role.

READING XIX
[technology and growth]

Gordon, Rise and Fall of American Growth: The American Standard of Living Since the Civil War, ch. 1-6, 16.

               FURTHER READING: Vaclav Smil, Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences, 2 vols.

READING XX
[global imperialism I]

Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, entire
Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, ch. 15-18

             FURTHER READING: Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century.

READING XXI
[industrial war I]

Mann, Sources of Social Power, vol II, ch. 21.
Gat, War in Human Civilization, ch. 15.
Kennedy, Rise and Fall of Great Powers, ch. 5.
Findlay and O’Rouke, Power and Plenty, ch. 8.

              FURTHER READING: Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy.

READING XXII:
[industrial war II]

Kennedy, Rise and Fall of Great Powers, ch. 6.
Paine, The Wars For Asia, 1911-1949, entire.

              FURTHER READING: Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi War Economy.

READING XXIII
[global imperialism II]

Young, The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective, ch. 1-5, 8-9.
Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, ch. 19-22

              FURTHER READING: Fieldhouse, Economics and Empire, 1830-1914.

READING XXIV:
[later 20th century developments I]

Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes To Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, entire.

              FURTHER READING: Spufford, Red Plenty.

READING XXV:
[later 20th century developments II]

Findlay and O’Rouke, Power and Plenty, ch. 9-10.
Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, ch. 7.
Gat, War in Human Civilization, ch. 16.

              FURTHER READING: Brands, Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order.

READING XXVI:
[later 20th century developments III]

Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region.
Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, ch. 23-26.

              FURTHER READING: Wade, Governing the Market: Economic Theory and the Role of Government in East Asian Industrialization.

READING XVII:
[democratization and its discontents]

Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, ch. 27-30.
Carothers, Democracies Divided, introduction, Part I, Part II-ch. 3, conclusion.

              FURTHER READING: Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy.

READING XXVIII:
[the problem of growth]

     Gordon, Rise and Fall of American Growth, ch. 10-13, 17-18.

                 FURTHER READING: Hall, Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past.

READING XXIX:
[complexity theories of rise and fall II]

Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, ch. 31-36.
Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation and Social Rigidities, ch. 2-4.

              FURTHER READING: Rauch, Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working.

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20 Comments

What one book to add? Perhaps Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of An Empire. To let you know that the universe is not just, that prosperity, decline, and conquest can be caused by something as “exogenous” as a change in climate or the movement of a germ. From the publisher’s blurb: “Interweaving a grand historical narrative with cutting-edge climate science and genetic discoveries, Kyle Harper traces how the fate of Rome was decided not just by emperors, soldiers, and barbarians but also by volcanic eruptions, solar cycles, climate instability, and devastating viruses and bacteria.”

I ask a serious question and I get “Because they’re good.” as an answer. I will not be reading them.

Vinegar Joe Stilwell’s opinions on “how Asia works” would certainly be an interesting read. To my disappointment, however, he doesn’t appear to be the author of Joe Studwell’s book that you linked to

William McNeill, The Pursuit of Power, would be a good addition. Or the older book, The Precarios Balance, Four Centuries of the European Power Struggle, by Ludwig Dehio.

I am also a fan of McNiell’s book. I included it as “extra reading” for this reason; figured that between Rise and Fall and War in Human Civilization a little bit too much replication to justify doing otherwise.

I am a fox, not a hedgehog. I love histories and disdain theories.

To me you need to start with Gibbon. The Roman Empire still grips our imaginations. We live in their buildings, under their laws, worship in their churches, and speak their language. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is still a world shaping event. Gibbon lays out two thousand years of history as a compelling human drama. He was not a theoretician. He showed, but he did not tell. As a bonus, it is in my judgement, the single greatest work of English non-fiction prose. Here is a free edition:

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon in 12 Volumes With Notes by J.B. Bury
https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/lecky-the-history-of-the-decline-and-fall-of-the-roman-empire-12-vols

I would also recommend the Landmark series of Classical Histories
http://thelandmarkancienthistories.com/BooksandSamples.htm

Why theorize? Why not sit with an insider while an Empire commits suicide:
The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War Edited by Robert B. Strassler
http://thelandmarkancienthistories.com/Thucydides.htm

Have you heard of the Thucydides Trap? Analysts still refer to Thucydides while analyzing contemporary events.

My teacher, William McNeill wrote a wonderful “World History” really a history of Eurasia as a single entity. he was multicultural, before multicultural was cool. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community by William H. McNeill
https://www.amazon.com/Rise-West-History-Community-Retrospective/dp/0226561410/

Hi Tanner,
I’ve got a question on Turchin. He has been accused of cherry-picking data, having factual mistakes, etc. I am unsure about whether he is in the right. His theory sure sounds good, but I have been fooled before, and I will be fooled again. What makes you think he is right ?

My take–

His work on secular theories of rise and fall, as written in Secular Cycles and W&P&W is the least cherry picked of the bunch. I think his work on Am history overreaches, and the new Seshat stuff has too many problems. But with that said, had Turchin simply developed a verbal model of W&P&P his theory would have been allowed with much less harping, so it can be assessed on these merits. The authors represented here sometimes showed diametrically opposing understandings; in my view, this is a good thing, not a bad thing. We don’t know 100% who is “right” — better to just to collect several convincing arguments and levy them against each other.

In order to have 30 readings, i’d add a reading module between Politics before power and Pre-imperial dynamics : with Moral Origins by Boheme, and Society against the State by Clastre. And I might add The Creation of Inequality to the Pre-imperial dynamics readings.

Short, focused, extremely readable look at the macro-financial/geopolitical collapse of Weimar Republic’s position under Bruenig: “1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler” by Tobias Straumann.

A good summary book on preindustrial collapse : David Hackett Fischer, The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History