Since classical antiquity, historians have tended to think that empires, like individual organisms, evince a discernible rhythm. They come into being, mature, and then, soon or late, decay and decline. What Edward Gibbon did for historical literature in performing this kind of imperial autopsy on Rome, Thomas Cole did for the world of art. In The Course of Empire, a series of five elegant paintings that hang in the New-York Historical Society museum, Cole captured this imperial life cycle in painstaking brushstrokes.
In Civilization: The West and the Rest (which won’t be published in this country till November, but which has made quite a stir in Britain), Niall Ferguson has come along to tell us that it need not be this way. Taking the long view of history has not, however, inclined him to the cheerful Whig presumption that civilization “shall not perish from the earth.” The study of history — described by Auden as “breaking bread with the dead” — is presumably too melancholy an endeavor to justify such vain hopes. Ferguson’s prodigious communing with the dead has led him to believe that not only will the forces of composition yield to those of decomposition, but they may do so with dramatic speed. If at times history appears to have a cyclical quality, he reminds us that it is actually far more haphazard. Contrary to the impression left by The Course of Empire, there is nothing historically determined about the life cycle of empires: “There is no such thing as the future. There are only futures, plural.”
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