Tytler’s Cycle of Civilizations

In our recent article Dangers of Democracy we briefly touched on Tytler’s Cycle of Civilizations, named after Scottish historian and writer Alexander Fraser Tytler. The cycle is described in the quote below:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage”

Source unknown. Commonly attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler

Though widely attributed to Tytler, no evidence exists linking Tytler to the quote, and its actual origins are unknown. Regardless, the cycle presented is an interesting description of the long-term destiny of a civilization. Let’s explore the stages in further detail so we can understand where modern American society rests within the cycle.  

Bondage

The first stage in Tytler’s Cycle is “Bondage”. During this stage a population is in servitude to a monarch, dictator, oligarchy, or authoritarian regime. A society in this stage has little freedom to pursue their own interests and are beholden to the interests of their leaders. The people’s will is not reflected in the polity’s governance, and its laws are maintained for the benefit of the ruling regime. 

There are countless examples of nations in the bondage stage throughout history. Recent examples include the U.S.S.R, Nazi Germany, North Korea, and Communist China. A common thread among these societies is that the majority of citizens have little say in how their government is run and are at the will of the ruling members.

Spiritual Faith and Great Courage

The second stage of Tytler’s Cycle is “Spiritual Faith”. Spiritual faith can either be a literal religious awakening or the proliferation of more broad ideals like liberty and freedom. Once a nation realizes that there are powers and values beyond their rulers’ whims (like God or human rights), it’s only a matter of time before they progress toward these ideals through social and political movements.

Thus they proceed to the “Great Courage” phase. In this stage, a nation takes concrete steps, often at high risk, to move toward the ideals proliferated during the previous stage. The spiritual fervor attained earlier is converted into tangible action directed at a common goal. This can take the form of revolution, mass social or political movements, or conquest. Often in this period, people are united against their “oppressors” or the leaders who previously held positions of power during the Bondage period. 

A classic example of these stages would be the events leading to, and including, the American Revolution. As the ideals of independence and liberty spread throughout the colonies, a considerable portion of the populace were supportive of efforts to break free from British rule. Events such as the “Boston Tea Party” and Patrick Henry’s famous “Liberty or Death” speech fueled the spirit of the revolutionaries and plunged the fledgling nation into the seemingly impossible task of defeating the mighty British army. No doubt this took great courage, and fortunately for the colonists, their courage paid off. The United States of America was born, adopting freedom and liberty as its most cherished values. 

Liberty and Abundance

Once a people have won their freedom or developed into a geopolitical power, they enter the Liberty and Abundance stages of Tytler’s cycle. The economy, culture, and the arts flourish as the civilization’s spirits are high. A tone of nationalism likely sets the mood for the society as they take pride in their nation’s accomplishments. Heroes of the nation’s origin story are held in high regard and looked to as examples to emulate. The future is anticipated with excitement and possibility. 

The Liberty and Abundance stages represent the high-point of a civilization. The late twentieth-century United States may fit this stage. With the collapse of the U.S.S.R, America was left as the most powerful nation on the planet, and its citizens were left extremely wealthy due to this envious position in world geopolitics. Other examples could include 19th century Great Britain or the Roman Republic at its heights in the 1st and 2nd century B.C.

Selfishness and Apathy 

Nothing good can last forever.  Great nations, tribes, and empires have risen and inevitably fallen since the dawn of man. During the Selfishness and Apathy phases of Tytler’s cycle, we begin to see cracks in a once seemingly indestructible civilization. 

As a society becomes comfortable in their abundance – having enough food, adequately protected borders, and an established culture – the citizens begin to search for a purpose. There are no more great wars to fight, no tyrannical king to win their freedom from, and no great invader that must be warded off. There are no more adventures for the populace to unite around. This lack of a societal struggle leaves personal ambition as the highest value. Therefore, members often try to gain personally from “the system.” Corruption runs rampant, and law and order fail to reign in criminal activity. 

Consequently citizens become apathetic toward the health of their civilization as they feel alienated from the greater society they are a part of. As citizens pursue their own interests, their apathy toward their heritage and culture leaves society in a state of decay. Any existing bonds between citizens stretch ever thinner as the populace fails to cultivate any shared values amongst themselves. Edward Gibbon’s classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire records the general sentiment felt during this stage in the Roman Empire:

“This long peace and the uni­form government of the Romans introduced a slow and secret poi­son into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evapo­rated….”

 Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Dependence

Our final stage before the cycle repeats is dependence. Dependence occurs after a populace grants responsibilities to their government that should be reserved for the people. Over time, the populace begins to rely heavily and becomes dependent on the benefits of these programs. 

Welfare is an obvious example, where the responsibility to care for the poor is siphoned off to the governing authorities, and over time a percentage of the population becomes completely dependent on government care for their food, housing, medical needs etc. Dependence only increases as those responsibilities once left solely to the people are paired with “rights” that political candidates use to demonize the opposition party of trying to remove if elected. These supposed “rights” only ever increase as politicians promise greater and greater subsidies if elected, which in turn increases the populace’s dependence on government programs. 

This brings us full circle to the bondage stage, where the nation is so dependent on its government that they are completely at the will of their leaders. 

Where Are We?

After reviewing the stages of Tytler’s cycle, the natural question arises about where our 21st century American society lies in this progression. We should keep in mind that this cycle is not necessarily inevitable or even reliable, it is simply one man’s opinion about how civilizations develop over time. I do believe that it works as a general guide, as it’s easy to see trends across the history of civilizations in hindsight. 

My opinion is that America currently rests in the “Selfishness” and “Apathy” stage of the cycle while quickly progressing toward the “Dependency” stage. Rampant political corruption, rising crime in large cities, and a general feeling of animosity and distrust amongst citizens remains high. Combine this with economic problems stemming from decades of poor policy, and the decline from previous abundance becomes clear. In addition, an ever-expanding welfare state and a dependency of citizens upon government programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and social security proves that many citizens are developing an unhealthy reliance on the government to provide for basic needs. 

Hopefully, by understanding the cyclic nature of past civilizations we can redirect the course of our own and break the cycle. Ultimately, posterity will have the gift of hindsight and be able to understand our present society from a better vantage point. 

So what stage of Tytler’s cycle do you think we currently occupy? Is Tytler’s cycle an accurate representation of society’s progression? Let us know what you think in the comments. 


One thought on “Tytler’s Cycle of Civilizations

  1. Thank you for this article. I remember studying this years ago and thinking that we were in the selfish and apathetic category, I still think we are there, but we have moved further and further in, especially with the ideological movements, gender, and trans movements, abortion, BLM, and so many other selfish movements.

    Liked by 1 person

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