2014 June 19 Thursday
John Lukacs: Man Is Both Angel And Brute

We need to look at humans as they really are.

Schlesinger once quoted Pascal as saying that “man is neither angel nor brute,” which Lukacs calls a “safe, liberal, gray, centrist view of human nature. To the contrary: man is both angel and brute.”

The left-liberal model of human nature is wrong and its embrace by our elites is causing rising costs that threaten (only threaten?) to cause a decline in Western civilization.

Do you agree with his view of patriotism and nationalism?

One of his criticisms of American “conservatives”—he usually uses quotation marks—is that they often conflate patriotism with populist nationalism: “It may be enough to say that patriotism is defensive, while nationalism is aggressive; that patriotism means the love of a country, while nationalism is the cult of a people (and of the power of their state).”

I first came across Lukacs stating this view recently in his very interesting book The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler. 1940 was one of those years where history could have branched in very different directions. One of the books I'm currently reading (mind you, I cycle between about 50 books at a time reading a few pages of each before switching) is Lukacs' The Legacy of the Second World War. I think that legacy is fading and we get into the declining empire phase of US history.

I am struck by how the the fading British Empire played such a valuable role in World War II. It got me thinking even more about the decline of empires and civilizations and caused me to shift my reading more heavily toward books on the subject.

Speaking of declining empires, among the books I am reading: Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Good stuff. Makes me think that soil erosion played a big role in the decline of the Roman Empire and of the Greek city states too. Ditto the Mayans.

I've also finally gotten around to start reading Joseph Tainter, a very reasonable scholar who has spent his life studying why civilizations fail. I'm in early pages of his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology). I also just read his essay in the collection The Way The Wind Blows where he looks at competing theories of why civilizations fail. That came out in 2000, before Montgomery's book on soil erosion. Tainter is popular among Peak Oil theorists (where I first heard about him) because he writes about civilizations that faced rising costs of resource extraction. However, Tainter does not hang his theorizing just on that. He sees rising complexity as sometimes a solution and sometimes a problem.

I am also reading Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail by William Ophuls. This is where I came across Sir John Bagot Glubb (Glubb Pasha, who commanded the Jordanian Arab Legion for over 2 decades) and I keep linking to Glubb's essay The Fate Of Empires. Hits home. Every day America becomes more like the societies that Glubb describes.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2014 June 19 10:35 PM 

destructure said at June 20, 2014 6:31 AM:

"Do you agree with his view of patriotism and nationalism?"

IMO the real difference is that patriotism is emotional while nationalism is rational.

James Bowery said at June 20, 2014 1:05 PM:

Here's an explanation of civilizational collapse from the perspective of political economy:

"Indeed, given the centralization of asset ownership that has resulted from the subsidy of non-subsistence property, a subsidy inherent in civilization, it may be the failure to use this tax base is the ultimate cause of the repeated decay of civilizations from ancient times."


Michael said at June 21, 2014 6:54 AM:

I also read Glubb with interest. I remember being fascinated by his description of early Medieval Baghdad and its close parallels with today's West. My question is, since every single civilization known to man, at the height of its power and wealth, developed these traits - i.e became 'decadent' - maybe 'decadence' is actually the preferred end state for mankind? Maybe we all secretly yearn for 'decadence' and develop it the moment conditions - power and wealth - permit? Is it not a bit odd, if not perverse, to describe as deficient the state that every civilization reaches at the acme of its power and success?

Of course 'decadence' is extremely unsafe if you live in a world filled with warlike - non-decadent - peoples. That is a valid point that deserves serious consideration. But the evidence suggests that these warlike peoples, were they to succeed in conquering us, would themselves end up decadent. So the problem is simply that the world is divided between peoples in different stages along the path to the ultimate desired goal of all humans - 'decadence'.

What we call decadence, of course, has many attractive features. Its main drawback is that in a world filled with non-decadent people, it can be very dangerous to become decadent. But that isn't a reason to condemn it. Are the values that lead to success on the battlefield the only values? The most we can say is that battlefield values are appropriate to a particular set of conditions - a world filled with warlike peoples - and 'decadent' values are appropriate to a peaceful, wealthy world. The problem is the division of the world into two camps representing these opposite values.

WC said at June 21, 2014 2:31 PM:


Britain was far less decadent at the height of its wealth and power in the Victorian period than it is now in its current pathetic form. Decadence may follow success, but surely it is not the "preferred end state of mankind."

destructure said at June 21, 2014 5:16 PM:


It's interesting that 100 years ago leftists would have condemned the decadence of the bourgeoisie. Today, anyone arguing for 'decadence' is likely to be a leftist. Leftists only condemned 'decadence' because they thought wealth inequality was 'unfair'. It was a way to attack the bourgeoisie because the proletariat couldn't afford to be decadent. I doubt leftists ever really minded the decadence itself.

Unbridled lust, no matter the form it takes, is the only concept of freedom that "progressives" take seriously. If anything, progressives demand the government remove any barrier and any objection to decadence. All other freedoms are verboten, and must be placed under government control.

Michael said at June 21, 2014 5:26 PM:

And shortly after reaching that level of power, the Victorians seem to have decided that it was hardly worth it, and became 'decadent'. Thus following the pattern laid down by every civilization known to man. That people think this is an aberration or something that can be prevented if just properly understood is a great folly. At a certain point you have to accept that human behavior reveals more about their true preferences than their words.

Michael said at June 21, 2014 7:09 PM:

Destructure, leftists still condemn that kind of decadence. They still condemn wealth in general and unequal distribution of wealth in particular. I wouldn't think in such binary categories. Elements of leftism are authoritarian and seek to limit personal freedoms and expression, and are thus opposed to decadence. The left also doesn't support a broad, sophisticated skepticism, which is at the basis of all decadence (or intelligent thinking, for that matter), but rather seeks to establish an official set of values and views, criticism of which is not tolerated. Other elements of the left clearly support decadence. A similar analysis can be made of the right. A firm, unquestioned faith supports battlefield values, but are not consistent with intellectual values. When intellectual values predominate, we call it decadence. But it's only a problem if other parts of the world don't follow suit.

WC said at June 22, 2014 5:11 PM:


Whether or not decadence is inevitable (as Glubb would seem to argue), it appears to have some very unhealthy characteristics quite apart from the fact that it leaves a civilization vulnerable to "non-decadent" peoples. Glubb points to selfishness, frivolity, and intellectualism. Intellectuals enjoy their thinking, but can they keep the bridges standing and the sewers functioning? Do they have any interest in such things?

Interestingly, Glubb identifies the end of the Roman Empire as AD 180, rather than AD 476. Rome did not fall to warlike enemies in 180, but to Glubb the internal disintegration that followed the reign of Marcus Aurelius was the real end of the empire.

Michael said at June 22, 2014 5:44 PM:

I would say the West is quite decadent, yet our bridges and sewers function better than in the warlike countries. Frivolity is the ultimate refinement of culture, which is based on skepticism. Frivolity recognizes that things have no real value and it would be absurd to take anything too seriously - perhaps the highest philosophy possible. The terrible earnestness of Americans make them seem childlike. Frivolity is only a problem in a warlike world. A great deal of the wit and sophistication and style of British writing and life is based on an intelligent insouciance and frivolity. Selfishness merely means an unwillingness to sacrifice oneself for the nation - only a problem in a world where national defense is of paramount importance.

Decadence is merely a shift away from faith and warlike values towards intelligence, sophistication, and enjoyment. That too much intelligence can make you weak is true - generally, the stupider the country, the more willpower it has. But being 'strong' isn't intrinsically valuable, but only important if you're facing an outside threat.

Why should having an empire have value, anyway? At a certain point, all great empires decided it simply wasn't worth it and there were better things in life. They usually gained their empires because in a violent world, it was the best option - dominate or be dominated, plunder or be poor. But in wealthy, non-violent times, everyone seems to have thought there was no longer any point to an empire.

jrackell said at June 22, 2014 7:43 PM:

thanks for the link to the Glubb piece.

You may be interested in:

"System Failure: Eric H. Cline on 1177 B.C. -- The Year Civilization Collapsed" by Thomas Bertonneau.
http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5134 about the collapse of Bronze age civilization in the Mediterranean.

and also by the same author: "Bayblon the Great is Fallen: Gregory R. Copley on Un-Civilzation."

jrackell said at June 22, 2014 7:45 PM:

thanks for the link to the Glubb piece.

You may be interested in:

"System Failure: Eric H. Cline on 1177 B.C. -- The Year Civilization Collapsed" by Thomas Bertonneau.
http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5134 about the collapse of Bronze age civilization in the Mediterranean.

and also by the same author: "Bayblon the Great is Fallen: Gregory R. Copley on Un-Civilzation."

Check it out said at June 23, 2014 4:46 PM:


This is a man we ought to read more. i think

Libertarian Socialist said at June 23, 2014 5:48 PM:

"We need to look at humans as they really are."

To be human is to care for your fellow human beings and protecting the environment. Capitalism, Socialism, Fascism, Communism, the Free-Market .... What good are these approaches for? These attempts are made by men who are cerebral insufficient. We have to take back your brain, which they took away from us in schools and in your upbringing. The world works in a very different way. So if you want a better world, you have to get up off your ass and make it better.

What kind of competition is there in your body? Suppose your brain said "I'm the most important organ", and the liver said "I am, and I want to go in a free enterprise-system." You would rot away in a month, if every organ of your body, were out for itself. Same is with a society.

We're running into a lot of new problems today because of what we emphasize in this culture. The word 'success' to the average person means earning a lot of money and having a home, two cars, children in college. Success to me is entirely different to what success is to the average person. Success is being a successful human being in terms of pursuing what you believe in. If you believe in making paintings, writing poetry, writing music. If this is what you really want, you're successful to yourself. But to be successful to your culture means to sell yourself short of what you really want.

Libertarian Socialist said at June 23, 2014 5:52 PM:

"Do you agree with his view of patriotism and nationalism"

Both, patriotism and nationalism are irrational and divide us. Patriotism means cultural attachment to one's homeland and nationalism means attachment to one's nation. Both are false beliefs; beliefs usually are.

destructure said at June 24, 2014 1:37 AM:

Michael -- Frivolity recognizes that things have no real value and it would be absurd to take anything too seriously

When people are cold, hungry and sick they quickly recognize the real value and seriousness of a roof, hot meal and medicine. So "frivolity" is merely a luxury afforded by prosperity. But it's a luxury that rots away the foundation on which that prosperity is built.


Libertarian Socialist -- Both, patriotism and nationalism are irrational and divide us.

Individuals evolved in competition with one another. But those who learned to cooperate were more likely to survive the elements than those who didn't. This cooperation later evolved into tribalism as groups began to compete with one another. So why didn't groups evolve to cooperate the way individuals did? Well, they did. Groups cooperate by forming alliances to compete with other alliances. But you'll never get rid of inter-group competition because it will always be in ones interest to take ones own side. The first group whose members fail to take their own side will be the first group to be conquered. And that's why patriotism is a valuable emotion and nationalism a rational choice. You don't see it that way because of your psychology. Your particular psychology is usually the result of being sheltered. Should you be thrust into a difficult situation such as prison, war, etc your psychology would undergo a 180 degree change.


Check it out said at June 25, 2014 5:02 PM:

For Erich Fromm patriotism and nationalisms are both forms of exagerated dependence from the mother figure -incestuous symbiosis- and therefore a pathology, regardless of how generalized it might be.

By incestuous symbiosis he means the tendency to stay tied to the mother and to her equivalents — blood, family, tribe, clan, fatherland, nation — to fly away from harsh reality.

Check it out said at June 25, 2014 5:12 PM:

“Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. ''Patriotism'' is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by ''patriotism'' I mean that attitude which puts the own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one's own nation, which is the concern with the nation's spiritual as much as with its material welfare /never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one's country which is not part of one's love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”

Erich Fromm

destructure said at June 25, 2014 6:41 PM:

According to Wikipedia, Erich Fromm was a neo-Freudian, marxist humanist and member of the Frankfurt school. Extreme leftists rate very low on loyalty, authority and purity. As such he was incapable of understanding motives based on these values as demonstrated by Dr Haidt's empathy study described on pg 287 of The Righteous Mind.

Randall Parker said at June 25, 2014 9:21 PM:


I am already reading Eric Cline's 1177 B.C. and wondering whether the Sea People are going to show up today and go on a rampage. Maybe today they call themselves ISIS.

I am reading lots more civilizational collapse books than I'm posting about so far.

Libertarian Socialist,

I think it is rational to from into groups for mutual benefit. Failure to do so amounts to unilateral disarmament.


We do not need to be invaded to become enslaved. All it takes is for the demographics of the electorate to shift in favor of large scale Robin Hood taxes and a large welfare state. Plus, the voters can just care less about freedoms. They can become more apathetic about corruption or about pickng competent people to vote for. This stuff is happening. The values of the majority are what matter most of all.

Check it out said at June 30, 2014 5:36 PM:

"Extreme leftists rate very low on loyalty, authority and purity."
In your nutshell perhaps. Extreme leftist? Fromm? I don't know what you're talking about. Rather, you don't know what your're talking about. You really don't know what extreme left is. Most Americans really ignore it, simply because they can only distinguish two forms of extreme right, which are Democrat and Republican; tight-ass and tighter-ass.

I suppose William Buckley must be your example of loyalty, authority and purity. Maybe prince Charles and the Rockefellers are your model for "authority".

In the end Americans and the rest of the World acknowledge Noam Chomsky's authority over obscenely tight-ass Buckley; Olof Palme over Nixon, Cromwell over the Queen and Prince Charles, Allende over Pinochet, Rousseau over the Pope, Bill Maher over Reilly, Harris over Craig, Castro over Pinochet, Mitterrand over Franco, Daniel Ortega over Somoza, etc, etc, etc, By the way, the word "purity" sounds to me a little revolting, too religious and a little nazilike, so I think you're right when you say that leftists rate low on "purity", whatever that means. It's really not your fault destructure. You happen to be ill from all the indoctrination you've subjected to. Sorry about that, and I mean it. It doesn't really amuse me to read such low IQ posts from you. It's really frightening to see how very many of you psichos are out there driving this world back into another dark age.

Check it out said at July 2, 2014 12:56 PM:

Funny thing is that pretty much everything that Carl Marx predicted would happen with the capitalist man is now becoming true. Americans should learn a little bit about Socialism; just a little. With that little tiny bit they would accomplish great deeds like put an end to that stinky ultra-right capitalist corporatocracy that now owns the U.S. government and people.

You are just a corporation's property destructure.

Check it out said at July 2, 2014 12:58 PM:

Creativity and mental progress requires the courage to let go of certainties.

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