Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Understanding Change"

Introduction and user notes

Dr Sam C. Holliday has worked out how change - in the very general sense - is effected.

Parts I, II, and III were posted earlier in separate instalments on Politeia. Here you find the integrated single dossier, to which notes and updates may be added at a later stage. At the bottom you will find a link to a printable version.

Part I: "Not Progress, Cycles"

Change has never been so rapid. Is it possible to cope with such change without anxiety, frustration, broken dreams, and despair?

We can view changes as either progress or cycles. Today progress is the assumption of most Europeans and Americans. Yet this "progress" is the pursuit of many different utopias. Yes it is change, but is it building (true progress) or is it decline, the outcome of manipulation by those with a political agenda. Cycles provide an attractive alternative to "progress".

Cycles more accurately describe reality. This conceptual framework helps us understand the past and the present while we contemplate the future, and it can be an assistance to the brave, strong and skillful in their efforts to influence events.


Plato, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam sowed the seeds for progress. However, progress did not become a common assumption until the science of Western culture surpassed religion as a belief system. Christianity and Islam had provided an end superior to that offered by the myths and mysteries, which preceded them. Then science convinced many that man had achieved mastery of nature and was not a slave to fate. As a result it was possible to consider the possibility of indefinite improvement. Sir Thomas More gave substance to this view and added the word utopia to our language.

In l8th Century Europe the idea of universal human progress through science and secular authority were core concepts of The Enlightenment. Then Karl Marx used Hegel's ideas and defined utopia as a classless society of perfect freedom and equality, which would be realized after a series of class struggles and bloody revolutions. Classical Liberalism and the logic of the hierarchy of knowledge reinforced this view of unstoppable progress.

World War I damaged the belief in science, reason, and progress. It became clear that science, and man's domination of nature, produced bad as well as good consequences. If science could not insure indefinite progress to utopia, what could? Some turned to politics: nationalism, communism, socialism, fascism, the rule of law, or world government. However, World War II showed that politics was no better than science and reason as the basis of unstoppable progress. Today Islamic true believers and postmodernists have their own paths to utopia, based not on science and reason, but on feelings and emotions.

All fundamentalism stresses unquestioned acceptance of doctrine over reason and balance. Such acceptance has produced true believers of pre-Christian mysteries, nature worship, and witchcraft. But of greater significance is the certainty offered by two movements. One is an extreme version of Islam. It is the fuel of the global Islamic revivalist movement known as the Third Jihad. The other is the homogeneity of ideas and lack of intellectual diversity in Western Culture resulting from postmodern thought.

The flaws of all true believers are intolerance for others, the danger of extremism, and the vulnerability of individuals to manipulation. Currently the leaders of the Third Jihad manipulate those seeking a way to know ultimate reality. In the other movement many in the West have sought certainty through postmodernism. This movement has used a vision of a nonjudgmental, nondiscriminatory future, in which disagreements are resolved by debate and compromise. Actually both of these movements have filled new bottles with old wine, yet they gain true believers because they claim to have found "the way" to a better life-in the next world or in this one. However, a clear Utopian message can obscure reality. Unanswered is whether the outcomes of the "progress" offered by these movements will be a rise or a decline.


Cycles are probably better than progress as the way to understand change. During the dominance of progress in Western thought, cycles were kept alive by thinkers such as Bodin, Vico, Nietzsche, Spengler, Sorokin, and Toynbee. The rise and fall of families, communities, states, nations, cultures and civilizations are no longer seen as the work of gods, as they were in ancient times. It is now understood that cycles are never identical and that no cycle is deterministic. Each group has its unique origin, growth, contentment, and decline--its own virtues and its own secular authority. However, similarities can be noted and patterns can be found.

Cycles are the oldest attempt to give meaning to change. The most primitive of people saw the natural world as stages in cycles of birth, growth, decay and death. People living close to nature through fishing, hunting or farming think in terms of spring, summer, autumn and winter. Babylonian, Indian, Chinese and Aztec myths were often placed within cycles. Hindu and Buddhist visions are those of an eternal cosmic process, which repeatedly rises to a golden age and then declines into a watery or flaming ruin. Aristotle wrote of civilizations as a continuous "coming to be and falling away." Both Stoics and Epicureans in the Roman Empire saw history as endless cycles. Although the names for the parts of the cycles often changed, the cycles were the primary way to explain change until the rise of Christianity, Islam, and Hegelian dialectic.

It is possible to describe the similarities and patterns in cycles of any group: family, gang, tribe, commune, community, polity, state, or nation. Cycles are never identical and cycles are not the results of antecedent causes. However, each collection of persons related in someway shares some virtues and have some means of governance, and it is possible to identify cycles of four stages--thus to have a conceptual framework to help us understand change.

The distinguishing characteristic of all groups is a common identity--a sense of kinship. Those in a group need not have common genes, or speak the same language, or even have the same culture, but they must think of themselves as "we". As Vico has stated: the past is "the record of the result of wills, of human facts themselves, the order of the succession, and the circumstance of the production.". Some groups spend a long time in one stage, yet others move rapidly through the stages. Other groups are able to reverse to an earlier stage, while others go through several iterations of decline/rally, disorder/order, and stagnation/prosperity. Therefore, it is from the cycles of past organisms with a collective biography, i.e. groups, that we can understand our present and gain a glimpse of our future.

There is no agreement on the names of the four stages of cycles. However, it is suggested that the stages be referred to as Birth, Maturity, Contentment, and Decay, and the first two stages as Building (or Rise) and the last two stages as Declining (or Fall).

A conceptual framework of cycles can only be seen confusedly. However, an attempt to dispel the mist, and to fix the outlines of the vague form that is looming through the mist, is a noble goal. Perhaps words to satisfactorily describe cycles are an impossible dream, yet that should not prevent a quest.

Part II: "The Rising Stages"

Building (Rise) Stages

Birth and Maturity are the first two stages. The building stages of cycles are a time of struggle. The overcoming of obstacles releases the energies of the group to respond effectively to challenges. The survival instinct brings out the ferocity, avarice and ambition in humans; this creates leaders able to build and defend the group. Individuals support the group in their own self-interest. Hegel often refers to each group having a particular "spirit of the people". This is his way of noting the importance of virtues (sacred authority), which are shared moral, ethical, and religious beliefs.

The building stages are the realm of the Faustian man. In literature we find such a person in Shakespeare’s Lear, and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisler. As expressed by Hegel, history "has ever decided in favor of the stronger, fuller and more self-assured life--decreed to it, namely, the right to exist, regardless of whether its right would hold before a tribunal of waking-consciousness."

While a group is rising the masculine dominates the feminine; although this is less pronounced in the Maturity stage than it is in the Birth stage. For some groups the struggles during the building stages are too great and they are destroyed and absorbed by more powerful groups. Also the tragic truth is, that after the building stages have run their course, the fall begins.

The Birth stage of cycles is a time of troubles and challenges with extinction always close at hand. The driving force of the group is intellectual ignorance and morale baseness. In the group the most violent and enterprising gain power from their ability to provide protection from chaos and extinction. This results in unprecedented effort, unity, sacrifice and loyalty to a single leader who is father, ruler, priest and prophet. The leader is the arbiter of right and wrong, good and bad.

A group in the Birth stage is clearly an organism that is more than its parts, and the parts are not interchangeable; the individual is often sacrificed for the benefit of the group.It is a time for brutish men--not for the timid; for action--not for words; of unity--not of diversity; of passion--not of reason; of myth, legend, custom and tradition--not of science and political correctness; of simple, direct behavior--not of clever, hedonistic behavior; of sacrifice--not of selfishness; of inequality and obedience--not of equality and license.

Some groups are able to skip the Birth stage because they are able to borrow from another group that has failed.

During the Birth stage individuals realize they can only be human as members of a group, for only within the group can they experience the attributes of freedom and morality. Outside of a group an individual would be no more than an animal with sensations. At the end of the Birth stage there is greater personal freedom, greater equality of opportunity, and less reliance on myth and legend.

During the Maturity stage there is an increase in knowledge, numbers, and territory; there is an accumulation of surplus, the development of new technology and new ways to do things. Moreover, the knowledge and technology uses the surplus to increase the power of the group. In the Maturity stage the group exists for the sake of its members, yet the group is still enough of an organism to be able to hold on to the customs, traditions, roles, and sense of duty developed in the Birth stage. While the parts are not interchangeable, there is greater mobility than in the Birth stage.

Heroes are the distinctive feature of the Maturity stage. They become the magistrates of order to provide protection from internal and external threats. The heroes are what some have called "great men" since they are doers and often use wealth to achieve power. They form a ruling class that has a monopoly of both secular and sacred authority, they hold all of the leadership and opinion making positions, and they know how "to win the favor of the gods", i.e., they have earned the "mandate of heaven". They use symbolic language characterized by imagery and metaphors. As Rousseau has said: "What is the object of political association? It is the preservation and prosperity of its members."

Heroes shaped events and are considered the wisest, bravest and best; they are found in different spheres of human activity. Their status is based on merit and is earned by successful performance of duties related to the growth of the group. Among heroes Thomas Carlyle listed: Odin of Scandinavian mythology, Mohammed, Dante, Shakespeare, Luther, Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, Cromwell and Napoleon. To these could be added: Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Thomas Jefferson, Otto von Bismarck, Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt, Cecil Rhodes, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Indira Gandhi, and the Chinese leaders that followed Mao Tse-tung.

In the Maturity stage heroes are examples of loyalty, dedication, and patriotism. Their behavior demonstrates honor, discipline, duty, and a sense of purpose. Their demeanor is stern and severe. They are usually motivated by God’s will and the ecstasy of belief. They enjoy a high degree of individual freedom because a strong internal compass controls their behavior. Most heroes favor rule of the few who have demonstrated dedication to the group’s interests, and are united by their wealth, ability, and vigor. Also most heroes favor the structures and processes of governance that discriminate against those that would shift wealth from the "haves" to the "have-nots" or would create a welfare state.

By the fifth century B.C. in the Greek city-states a ruling-class of heroes had taken power from their Kings, and had evolved into the Maturity stage. From then until the end of the wars with Persia (479 B.C.) there was a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy. This period saw the development of the essence of Greek culture: philosophy of Thales, science of Anaximander, mathematics of Pythagoras, Greek drama, Greek architecture, and the idea that every group has a history. The rich and powerful quarreled and dominated both sacred and secular authority. But the rights of all citizens and the overall, long-range interests of the group could not be ignored.

While most of those living in Greece (foreigners, women, and slaves) were ignored, discontent among merchants, craftsmen, and small farmers created effective political opposition. The phalanx of farmer-citizen hoplites, rather than the cavalry of the heroes, became the decisive element in combat. Yet in Greece the Maturity stage came to an end with the degeneration of the proud citizen-soldier into a mercenary tempted by bribery and

Part III: "The Declining Stages"

Over-sophisticated and corrupt "elites" advancing self-interests--and desires--is the fundamental cause of decline during the Contentment and Decay stages. No longer do all of those with political power work for the interests of the whole group; instead they increasingly advance the agenda of factions, and/or personal interests.

During the declining (fall) stages there is an increase in humanization along with a softening of both customs and laws, and a greater reliance on the rule of law (secular authority). Also the feminine increasingly replaces the masculine.

Edward Gibbon spent his life studying the declining stages and recorded his conclusions in several volumes of "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". He attributes decline to the disappearance of vitality and creative power. He saw the start of the decline with the people replacing their vigor and public spirit with pleasure seeking and factionalism. He saw evidence of the decline in the degeneration of art and literature combined with obsession with materialism. He saw the completion of the decline with the degeneration of the military, first in discipline and then in courage.

The Contentment stage of cycles is a time of eclecticism, easy, comfort, and sophistication with nothing original. Its art is decadent and rarely supports traditional institutions, yet it is widely acclaimed. Its science and technology are complex and costly, yet do little to advance the human spirit. Intellectuals are concerned with causality, feelings, and intentions; they stress thinking rather than action and the ideal rather than the practical. Yet the Contentment stage is often considered a "Golden Age", since there is usually peace, prosperity, rights, a complex legal system, and a privileged intelligentsia.

Respect for authority, discipline, and common identity give way to humane and easy tolerance-to benign, nonjudgmental behavior. Feelings replace reason and right. Many of the characteristics of an organism are lacking in a group in the Contentment stage; it becomes a special kind of aggregate of individuals and factions with patterns of relationships. Roles, rules and standards are either absent or are largely symbolic. Behavior is increasingly controlled by the rule of law rather than shared convictions of right and wrong.

There are increases in material prosperity, social security, humanitarianism, and bureaucracy. With the erosion of virtues (shared moral, ethic and religious beliefs) there is an increased reliance on secular authority (rule of law), which results in an escalation in the wealth consumed on litigation. Secular authority dominates sacred authority (the inner compass of individuals), and even secular authority is "flexible". There is an increase in the number of intellectuals, materialists, and hedonists who believe they are living beyond values, beyond right and wrong. There is advocacy for universal laws to achieve equality among all people in wealth, economic outcomes, and rights.

The Contentment stage is a time of refinement and sophistication. In defending his humanist code of ethics Kug Fu-Tse (Confucius) said: "Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men" While Socrates wished to counter those Sophists who saw the best life as one of self-indulgence or tyrannical power he was not a man of action, and thus he only looked into the human soul, uncovered assumptions, and questioned certainties while the society around him began its slide into chaos.

In the Decay stage the group has become a polyglot, borrowing from others to create a vulgar and violent underclass, yet a delicate, refined, and dissolute upper class. It has crude, disturbing art, and sterile, ethereal beliefs. There is disintegration and a lack of common identity. A group in the Decay stage has become simply an aggregation of individuals with no purpose beyond those of the individual--its organism roots have deteriorated into artifacts of the past.

There is no spirit of sacrifice for the group or sense of duty. Factions within the group are as competitive with each other as they are with those outside of the group. Only secular authority remains and it is often ignored. Equality of outcomes has replaced equality of opportunity. There is economic depression, and a decline in the standard of living. License has replaced freedom. Votes go to demagogues who promise the most. There is ever-increasing hostility and violence between factions, which sometimes becomes a civil war.

The liberal democrat Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) predicted slavish submission during the Decay stage: "The internal strains which have threatened society will be relaxed and eliminated, and the community will settle down upon that servile basis which was its foundation before the Christian faith, from which that faith slowly weaned it, and to which in decay of that faith it naturally returns."

The history of each group with a collective biography has an end. Just as individuals recognize their own mortality, each group will someday be extinct. The group might die from external blows, but most likely the end will come from self-destruction. However, before a group’s end there are usually transfers, which start new groups. The lands a group claims will someday belong to others; their language might remain on paper, their art might remain in museums; other groups might take many of their ideas and much of their technology, but the authority of every group will lose its power--the kinship will no longer survive.


The cycle of Rise through Birth and Maturity, and then Fall through Contentment and Decay is a hypothesis, yet it does not satisfy the rigid requirements some associate with science or the expectations of academic scholarship. Nevertheless, it is a useful way for any one to view the present and consider the future. It does allow us to see more clearly the groups of which we are a part.

As with all hypothesis that presented here it is subject to revision. If the words do not accurately describe reality they need to be changed, or defined, so as to insure communication of the concept. No words are perfect; words are only tools that help or hinder communication. The words must be sufficiently well defined to achieve clear communication, yet accurately describe what happens in the real world.

Some groups are able to skip the Birth stage because of transfers from a previous group that has failed; some groups are able to remain in a stage for a long time while others go rapidly from one stage to the next; some are able to reverse to an earlier stage and gain new impetus; some decline then rally for several iterations; and some groups never make it through the full cycle--they collapse from within or are destroyed from without.

The cycle presented here will surely not receive academic acclaim; hopefully it will be a help to anyone who wants to understand why groups rise and fall and to determine what action should be taken to affect the process. Hopefully, it will be of benefit to the brave, strong and skillful who want to influence events.

What are the advantages of this conceptual framework of cycles? It gives an accurate, simple, generalization of the cycle of any collection of related persons. Rather than seeing history as facts of specific events and times and studying parts, it permits the study of wholes. It dispels the mist that obscures vague conditions, thus helping us understand the past and the present as we contemplate the future. It provides a check on mindless pursuit of some utopia in the name of progress. It helps us cope with change.

The American Presidential Elections

Change has become a key issue in the Presidential campaigns. The candidates seem to define "change" as anything different and expect their version of some Utopia to carry them to victory. This is only surface level change.

So far there seems to be little interest in whether this "change" is an improvement or not. Of course, in keeping with the assumptions of progress, each candidate claims his "change" is an improvement. Why? Because he considers his vision of progress superior to that of others.

This is certainly a very limited view of change. But it is no surprise since that is the focus of most policy debates--and the adversarial approach in general. It is easy to critize past decisions and easy to make promises. Demagogues have always sought power through promises, although their goals are self-interests and self-aggrandizement.The presidential candidates seem to calculate what they say in terms of political advantage, rather than public interest. They want to win votes, not solve problems. Can our politics handle anything beyond surface level change?

It is more difficult to understand the future and to develop policies for the long-term general good. Yet this is what national interests require. This is how any nation builds, grows, and lasts. Has postmodern thought become so dominant that most Americans are only interested in surface level change and their own self-interests?

Is there a better definition of change? It is time we become free from the bitterness and pettiness that are the outcomes of the Hegelian dialectic and the adversarial approach to progress. If we are a nation worthy of the name, it is time to stress both cooperation and conflict; it is time to work with our rivals for the common good. It is time to insure that any change is an improvement, not a decline.

Copyright © 2008 Armiger Cromwell Center

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More on the author and the "Armiger Cromwell Center" on Articles.

Earlier by Dr Sam Holliday in Politeia:

- "Reforming Islam: Beware of the Fifth Column"
- "Civil Right vs Human Rights"
- "The Corruption of Patriotism"
- "The Fable of the Water Buffalo and the Sparrow"
- "The Fable of the Knife"
- "Effectively Communicating Jihad: a spade is a spade"

Filed on Articles in "Understanding Change", cat. Philosophy

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