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Sociology - Cycle In Civilization

Does civilization itself have a cycle? In so far as the dominant peoples in the world organize their states in the same way, use the same mechanical devices, share in the same commercial system, have a common kind of morality — in short, have one social mind — their civilization as a whole might be expected to go through a cycle. It would be longer than that of a state or any single institution, because when a single institution suffers a collapse, say like France in 1789, its contemporaries help to reestablish it. They do this partly by design to save themselves from suffering the same fate. The Revolution, and the wars which grew out of it, constituted a recession in the world civilization; but the collapse was not general, and the year 1815 marks the beginning of a new era of progress.

So far there has been only one great cycle of civilization about which we have full information. It is the Greco-Roman of ancient times. It began about 1000 B.C., grew slowly for five hundred years, then rapidly for the next five hundred ; then it declined for five hundred years and ended in collapse.

This downfall of ancient civilization is usually regarded as a unique occurrence, due to special causes. Special causes there were in plenty, such as have come together at no other time, but there is evidence now at hand to show that the experience as a whole was not unique. About 1500 B.C. there was a mature civilization all over the Orient. It covered Egypt, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, and the Tigris-Euphrates valley. It was not like our civilization, nor like the Graeco-Roman, but it was well developed after its own ideals, as the excavations recently made give abundant proof. Yet by the year 1000 B.c. that Oriental civilization had declined or been swept away, to be replaced everywhere by a cruder social organization until a new civilization could grow. In the island of Crete, for example, the old order disappeared so suddenly that the Cretan language was lost and the inscriptions, which exist in considerable quantity, remain undeciphered to this day. The same thing happened to the Hittites in Syria. But the Babylonian and Egyptian inscriptions have been deciphered, and they tell us more about that civilization of 1000 to 2000 B.C. than is known about the Greeks of 1000 B.C., or the Romans of 500 B.C., or our own Teutonic ancestors of 900 A.D.

There are also traces of other great retrogressions in human progress. Some four or five thousand years before Christ the most advanced people in the Tigris-Euphrates valley were the Accadians, a non-Semitic stock. It was through their subjection and the taking over of their culture by Semitic invaders that the Chaldean or ancient Babylonian civilization began. And then what happened to the Cliff Dwellers in the valley of the Colorado River? To the cities of Yucatan which now lie in ruins ? Did the Indians give up the stationary life which produced the mounds in order to chase the buffalo and so become nomads again? What became of the Lake Dwellers of Switzerland? Of the Cro-Magnon cave-dwellers in France and Spain who decorated the walls and ceilings of their homes with paintings and whose art perished with them? Conquest by outsiders may be presumed in some of these cases, but the example of the Romans shows us that there may have been internal decay which made the conquest easy.

These few instances — only two about which much is known — do not amount to proof that there is a fifteen-hundred-year cycle in the advance of civilization, or that what we call modern civilization is due to have a general downfall within the next century. But they do show that general recessions have come in the past and should be expected in the future. The hopeful feature in modern civilization is that it has never become unified. Great recessions take place, such as the Hundred Years' War, the Thirty Years' War, and the French Revolution ; but being local they leave progress to go on in other countries ; civilization as a whole does not collapse, but rather gathers new impetus after each recession.

Socialism appears to-day to be the gravest of the dangers that threaten the European peoples. It will doubtless complete a decadence for which many causes are paving the way, and it will perhaps mark the end of Western civilization. — Le Bon, The Psychology of Peoples, p. 225.

Civilization and Secular Cycles in Nature

It was observed a few pages back that the tendency of social life to fall into rhythms or cycles becomes synchronized with rhythms in the natural world such as those which give us the day, the year, and the 8-year and 33-year cycles of rainfall. The theory propounded by Jevons that commercial crises are due to sun-spots may not be so absurd as some economists have tried to make it appear. Ellsworth Huntington, an American geographer, has given the best part of his life to working out still longer cycles. One of his books has the suggestive title, The Pulse of Asia. This, like his other books, gives conclusive evidence that climate is not a fixed characteristic of a region but has its pulsations, chief of which is variation in the amount of moisture. Such variation of course has its effect on society, and Huntington tries to correlate the variations of climate, of which material evidences remain for the geographer to study to-day, with the literary record of disturbances in society which the historians have studied.

... The relapse of Europe in the Dark Ages . . . was due apparently to a rapid change of climate in Asia and probably all over the world, — a change which caused vast areas which were habitable at the time of Christ to become uninhabitable a few centuries later. The barbarian inhabitants were obliged to migrate, and their migrations were the dominant fact in the history of the known world for centuries. We of to-day shall do well to ascertain whether we too are not facing the problem which faced the Romans. Parts of China have been growing drier and less habitable during recent centuries, and if the process continues, we are in danger of being overrun by hungry Chinese in search of bread. . .

... The data which I obtained in Central Asia . . . confirm the surmise of the historians. There is a strong reason to believe that during the last two thousand years there has been a widespread and pronounced tendency toward aridity. In drier regions the extent of land available for pasturage and cultivation has been seriously curtailed; and the habitability of the country has decreased. . . . After a period of rapidly decreasing rainfall and rising temperature during the early centuries of the Christian era, there is evidence of a slight reversal, and of a tendency toward more abundant rainfall and lower temperature during the Middle Ages.

In relatively dry regions increasing aridity is a dire calamity, giving rise to famine and distress. These in turn are fruitful causes of wars and migrations, which engender the fall of dynasties and empires, the rise of new nations, and the growth of new civilizations... .

The main outlines of the history of Central Asia agree with what would be expected from a knowledge of the changes of climate through which the country has passed. The favorable changes coincide with periods of prosperity and progress ; the unfavorable with depression and de-population. . . .

. . . Apparently the climate of the earth is subject to pulsations of very diverse degrees of intensity and of varying length. The Glacial Period as a whole represents the largest type of pulsation ; upon it are superposed the great pulsations known as glacial epochs, each with a length measured probably in tens of thousands of years ; their steady progress is in turn interrupted by smaller changes of climate, such as those of which we have found evidence during historic times in Central Asia ; and finally, the climate of the world pulsates in cycles of thirty-six years, and even these are interrupted by seasonal changes and by storms. . . . It is probable, though it has not been demonstrated, that the larger are also due to the same cause. Huntington, The Pulse of Asia, pp. 5, 6, 13, 14, 366, 367.

By purely mathematical methods, unaffected by any personal bias, it has been possible to obtain curves indicating the climatic pulsations of the last 3000 years. A comparison of the curves with the results obtained from other lines of evolution, both in America and Asia, shows that in spite of certain disagreements the general climatic history of both continents appears to have been characterized by similar pulsations having a periodicity of hundreds or thousands of years.

Apparently the Southwest has been first relatively inhabitable and then relatively uninhabitable during periods lasting hundreds of years. The dates of these periods are ascertainable from ancient trees. Each propitious period has probably been a time of expanding culture, and comparatively dense population, while the unpropitious periods have been times of invasion, disaster, and depopulation.

In regard to the greater climatic changes, it appears that the pulsations of the past 3000 years are too large to be due to fortuitous rear-rangements of the earth's crust. Hence we are led to conclude that they, too, are due to variations in the sun. The same conclusion seems to apply to the glacial and interglacial epochs, since their characteristics appear to be identical in nature with those of the pulsations of historic times, although differing greatly in degree. — Huntington, The Climatic Factor, pp. 3-5.

Three eras make up the tale of history. Three great pulsations characterize the course of climate during the same period. The eras and the pulsations agree in time. The first era comprises the hazy past when Egpyt and Babylonia were at their greatest. It ends with the chaos of the Aramean migrations. The second spans the life of Israel and Palestine, the Greeks in their islands and peninsula, Italy in the most western of the great lands of antiquity, and Assyria and Persia far to the east. It also ends in chaos with the migrations of the Barbarians and Mohammedans. The last of these eras had seen the rise of great nations in lands still farther north. Already it has endured twelve eventful centuries. We dare not prophesy how long it yet may last. Perhaps it, too, may end in drought and mighty movements of the races, unless by growing knowledge we avert the ills that hitherto have been man's heritage. -- Huntington, Palestine and Its Transformation, pp. 403, 404.


Sufficient evidence has doubtless been adduced to show that social changes do run in cycles more or less, although there is lacking the precision of astronomical cycles. The subject is one to which the sociologists have not given much attention so far; greater precision will doubtless be attained in the future. One great principle which the teacher, the statesman, or the social worker of any kind, needs to hold in mind is that there are other cycles besides those set down in the calendar or on the program. There are some which will appear after a short experience, and others. perhaps after a long experience. There are probably still others which will remain undiscovered ; sometimes all we can do is to look for change of some kind, giving what help we can to have it of the right kind, but having faith that the great underlying forces will do the real work. We must accustom ourselves to look for opposites : on a day when the pupils in school are especially bright and attentive, it is well for the teacher to reflect that some future day will find them listless or mischievous ; in a year when the social surroundings seem to be about as bad as possible, we may assure ourselves that they will change sometime and change for the better, though of course they may change for the worse first. The changes which the secular cycles portend may seem too far away to be of practical importance. But with the coming of large-scale organization the range of adjustments for the future has been greatly increased, and we may expect it to be increased still more. Bonds now run for a hundred years and leases of land are made for a thousand years. Statesmen plan for future centuries, and they will plan for future millenniums as soon as science provides a sure basis of knowledge. Educators should be equally far-sighted. When the secular changes come great praise will be given to those persons who began in due time to make adjustments for them. Further-more, the habit of looking ahead is worth cultivating even though some of the particular forecasts by which it is cultivated may lack practical importance.

Cycles and Progress

According to Heraclitus of old, the world moves by opposites; the law of contradiction is a law of the universe. And many writers of history assert that human progress does not proceed in the path of a straight line, but rather in cycles, or with a to-and-fro movement like the swings of a pendulum. Thus, some 2500 years ago, after the Old, the Middle, and the New Empires of Egypt, each lasting for about a thousand years, had passed away, the world was roused by a new twofold force — the genius of the Greek and the power of the Roman. The Greek-Roman day lasted for about a thousand years also. Then the world went to sleep for another thousand years; the spirit of progress, like the apocalyptic dragon, seemed to be bound in the bottomless pit. But when the required number of days were fulfilled, some five hundred years ago, the world awoke again, perhaps to fall into another slumber five hundred years from now. — American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 13, p. 541, Elkin.

.. . The conception of "progress" is a useful conception in so far as it binds together those who are working for common ends, and stimulates that perpetual slight movement in which life consists. But there is no general progress in Nature, nor any unqualified progress; that is to say, that there is no progress for all groups along the line, and that even those groups which progress pay the price of their progress. It was so even when our anthropoid ancestors rose to the erect position ; that was "progress" and it gained us the use of hands. But it lost us our tails, and much else that is more regrettable than we are always able to realize. There is no general and ever increasing evolution towards perfection. "Existence is realized in its perfection under whatever aspect it is manifested," says Jules de Gaultier. Or, as Whitman put it, "There will never be any more perfection than there is now." We cannot expect an increased power of growth and realization in existence, as a whole, leading to any general perfection ; we can only expect to see the triumph of individuals, or of groups of individuals, carrying out their own conceptions along special lines, every perfection so attained involving, on its reverse side, the acquirement of an imperfection. It is in this sense, and in this sense only, that progress is possible. We need not fear that we shall ever achieve the stagnant immobility of a general perfection. — Ellis, Task of Social Hygiene, pp. vii, viii.

Of course this principle of cycles means that progress toward any goal or ideal which we may set up will be intermittent, swerving now this way and now that, with times of positive loss instead of gain. Even telic progress cannot go far in a straight line. The railroad winds its way to avoid natural obstacles and touch important centers of population.

Of more profound import is the way in which the longer cycles contribute to, or permit, the Row of human energy. Somewhat as the short cycles permit strength to accumulate for large undertakings, or more closely, perhaps, as the short cycles give fresh outlook and new spirit to prosecute large undertakings, so each long cycle has a new set of ideals and gives progress in some new direction. The spirit of the age possesses men's hearts so fully that they are sure the world is now on the right track at last. The leaders see ahead of them, through a long vista of improvements, the perfection of the system in which they are working ; that perfection is their goal; each man strives mightily to attain it, or at least to bring the world somewhat nearer toward it. But there is a limit to the progress that is possible in a given direction ; it is not perfection, but only an approximation to the ideal, for human capacity is limited. When the limit approaches and it becomes evident that no further progress can be made without exposing fundamental weaknesses in the system, then the downfall or radical reconstruction comes soon, and a new dispensation begins.

The new dispensation, however, is not altogether new. It adapts much from the old. It finds its new ideals in the visions of seers whom the old dispensation condemned to drink poison, nailed to a cross, burned at the stake, starved in garrets. The seed thoughts are old, but they are planted in a new soil, and yield a new human harvest, richer, as the people who gather it think, than any ever seen before, and of its kind perhaps the best the world ever will see.

It is, therefore, by means of the cycles of change that the idea of progress persists. Just as plants and animals grow by short cycles of anabolism and katabolism, action and eating and sleeping, and just as they are able to progress by the variation of each generation from its predecessor, so also civilization itself keeps up its progress through the centuries and the millenniums by long periods of growth following short periods of recession and readjustment. It is the privilege of the people of each generation to see themselves at a unique turn in the human episode with some principle which they exemplify for all time ; what they make out of it will always be, as we say in sports, the world's "record."

The question whether, after all, the world really does progress is not one that can be settled by an intellectual demonstration of any kind... .

In short, the reality of progress is a matter of faith. We find our-selves in the midst of an onward movement of which our own spirits are a part, and most of us are glad to be in it, and to ascribe to it all the good we can conceive or divine. This seems the brave thing to do, the hopeful, animating thing, the only thing that makes life worth while, but it is an act rather of faith than of mere intelligence. —Cooley, Social Process, pp. 406, 408.


1. Find other examples of cycles nature besides those mentioned in the text.

2. Consult the latest authorities about the cycle of sun-spots ; of rainfall.

3. An important problem from many points of view is that of the glacial epochs — their cause, whether or not they come at definite intervals, and if they do, what the length of the cycle is and where the present stands within it. Consult the latest authorities as to the progress which is being made toward the solution of this problem.

4. Review the last chapter of Huntington's The Pulse of Asia. A group of students might cooperate and give special reports on other references to Huntington.

5. If access can be had to a file of newspapers running back several weeks, select some important event as far back as possible and study out the successive changes in the nature of the communications relating to it. Consult the weekly and monthly periodicals also.

6. Trace the course of some movement in education or politics which you have studied.

7. Trace some institution with which you are connected through a cycle of change.

8. Does history justify the statement made above about the unique privilege of each generation? Have people, as a matter of fact, commonly thought about themselves in that way? Arrange for a debate on this question, preferably with reference to some period of history which the class has studied recently. Do we today so think about ourselves? Ask persons over seventy years of age if they so thought about themselves.

9. Write in full outline the stages of the war-peace cycle. Use data from the present war and preceding wars. Are high prices, for instance, the normal accompaniment of war? If so, how long after the cessation of hostilities do they keep up? Do they come down gradually or suddenly? Admit each step or phase into the outline only as it is supported by several instances drawn from different wars and contradicted by none. Patrick, The Psychology of Relaxation, pp. 219–252; Humphrey, Man-kind, pp. 118–150, 214–223; Veblen, The Nature of Peace; the references below to Burton, Jones, and Moore ; American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 23, pp. 1-66, a symposium; pp. 747–753, George; pp. 754-762, Finney.


1. Is it your experience that a congenial group becomes stale after a time?

2. Is it a helpful philosophy to always look for something to happen just the opposite of what now prevails?

3. Would it be of any present importance to know that another glacial epoch will be due in a thousand years? That the United States a hundred years from now will have only two thirds of the present rain-fall? That a commercial crisis will come within the next five years? See the table on page 283.

4. Has each war that America has seen marked the opening of a new epoch of progress?

5. Elaborate this thought

... It is well to remember that battle and aristocracy, although quite different in their ordinary associations, are after all about as nearly related as two things can be. Democracy, too, is no synonym for peace, but means only preparation for more skill, more efficiency, in conflict... American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 21, p. 13, Lloyd, "The Duplicity of Democracy."


American Journal of Sociology, Vol. i i, pp. 49-59, Ellwood, "A Psychological Theory of Revolutions" ; Vol. 13, pp. 541-560, Elkin, "The Problem of Civilization in the Twentieth Century" ; Vol. 21, pp. I-4, Lloyd, "The Duplicity of Democracy" ; ibid., pp. 2 5-29, Yarros, "Human Progress : the Idea and the Reality."

Burton, Financial Crises and Periods of Industrial and Commercial Depression, especially pp. 18-48.

Chapin, Social Evolution, pp. 140-46.

Cooley, Social Process, pp. 30-34.

Croll, Climate and Time. Attributes secular changes in climate to the eccentricity of the earth's orbit and the precession of the equinoxes. Ellwood, Introduction to Social Psychology, pp. 170-187.

Geikie, The Great Ice Age, pp. 776-816. Discussion of the causes. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of Rome, Chapter XXVI.

Harper's Monthly Magazine, Vol. 132, pp. 919-928, Huntington, "Death's Valley and Our Future Climate."

Humphrey, Mankind, pp. 78-96.

* Huntington, Civilization and Climate, pp. 220-225, climate; pp. 251-270, civilization.

Huntington, The Climatic Factor. Based chiefly on observations in America; contains technical data such as measurements of the growth of trees.

Huntington, Palestine and Its Transformations, especially pp. 373-404, "Climate and History."

Huntington, The Pulse of Asia, pp. 1-5, 216-222, 262-279; pp. 38-46, Kashmir ; pp. 169-190, Chira ; pp. 202-209, Niya ; pp. 280-294, Lop-Nor; pp. 309-34, Turfan; pp. 315-328, Iran; pp. 329-358, Caspian Sea. The results are summarized in the last chapter, pp. 359-385, "The Geographic Basis of History."

International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 23, pp. 127-43, MacIver, "Do Nations Grow Old?"

Jones, Economic Crises, especially pp. 131-152.

Kelsey, The Physical Basis of Society, pp. 45-49.

Moore, Economic Cycles: Their Law and Cause.

* Osborn, Men of the Old Stone Age, pp. 32-42. Especially good on the fluctuations of pleistocene climate.

* Patrick, The Psychology of Relaxation, pp. V-25, 255-280.

Rogers, Economic Interpretation of History, pp. 16, 56, 57, 266. See

also his Six Centuries of Work and Wages and History of Agriculture and

Prices in England for the years of famine caused by excessive rainfall. Sidis, The Psychology of Sugges ion, pp. 343-364.

Spencer, First Principles, pp. 259-281.

Spencer, Psychology Vol. I, pp. 88-91, 95, 274.

Ward, L. F., Pure Sociology, pp. 222-231.

Ward, R. DeC., Climate, pp. 338-363, "Changes of Climate." Regards the evidence insufficient to show that climate has changed within historical time. Compare with Huntington.

Wright, The Ice Age in North America.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Sociology - Cycles Of Change

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Sociology - Cycle In Civilization

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