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The Decline of Civilizations

by Orrin Woodward

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


Orrin Woodward is the co-founder of Team, a leadership development and training company, and the New York Times best-selling co-author of Launching a Leadership Revolution.

Named by the International Association of Business as a Top 10 Leadership Guru, he is dedicated to building leaders and entrepreneurs and promoting freedom and prosperity.

Orrin blogs regularly at Orrin Woodward. He lives in Port St. Lucie, Florida with his wife and four children.

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  1. The same happens of businesses. Those that are lost in the mire of a changing industry or product category have lost sight of the beauty of innovation and are mired in the ways and rules of the past. Look at the innovators of today’s business world, thriving in an economy where so many mired business (automobile industry) are laying off and closing doors, when social innovators like Blake Mycoskie is expanding his 1:1 shoe business into sunglasses and the like. http://www.startsomethingthatmatters.com

    Our world is facing one of the challenges of extreme difficulty, and we are seeing those ‘creative minorities’ stepping out. Here’s to innovation!

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