“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9
As homeschooling parents, my husband and I are students of history and try to pass on this interest to our daughters. Anyone with a passion for the past appreciates the cyclic nature of human governance and the repetition of historical behavior and events, hence the well-known adage by George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” When you stop to think about it, those words are quite eerie – and prescient.
Eerier still is the quote misattributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler. While this Scottish historian probably never actually wrote it, the words are nonetheless sinister:
“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is 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.”The reason my husband and I find this quote so unsettling is because we can find endless historical examples of just such a sequence taking place. The Greeks, the Romans, the rise and fall of Europe’s nation-states …
Now let’s apply this sequence to America. Where are we on this timeline?
One day after a discussion of the rise and fall of nations, our older daughter asked the obvious question: “Why don’t people ever learn from this?” Scholars could no doubt dissect such a question in endless ways, but in truth the answer is simply the fallen nature of Mankind.
Early in Christianity’s history, theologians began defining the nature of sin, producing numerous lists of transgressions usually based on the perceived severity of those sins. Through time these lists have been distilled into what we now call the Seven Deadly Sins: Wrath, Greed, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Envy and Gluttony.
I think you’ll agree that these Seven Deadly Sins encapsulate the worst attributes of humanity. They are the driving force and hidden justification for historic tyranny. And today they are presented by the many phony flavors of socialism.
Socialism is a flim-flam game, a scam, a fraud. It is conducted by con artists of the highest magnitude. Using greed and envy, these world-class cheats incite the simple, the naïve and the ignorant to wrath. With a lust for power and a gluttony for the consumption of the freedom of others, these charlatans promise their useful idiot followers unearned rewards “liberated” from the productive in the name of “fairness.” And they instill a false pride in these same followers. Sloth becomes a virtue, and a work ethic becomes a vice.
And in the end, as history shows time and time again, these “great leaders” of socialism, these champions of egalitarianism, these firebrands for equality … become the privileged elite. Their disciples (as well as their opponents) become their slaves.
Getting back to the earlier question: Where is America today on Tytler’s timeline?
Because our nation is large and complex – and because we had the unusual advantage of individual liberty enthroned in our supreme law – we’ve managed to hold off tyranny beyond the 200 year average associated with the completion of Tytler’s series.
Other things helped as well. For a long time, we kept the concept of sovereign states. And we had room to grow. For those unhappy with government intrusion, we had the western wilderness available as a migratory relief valve.
Of greater importance, for many years we maintained the strong religious values of our forefathers, which helped us counter the temptation to wholly embrace the Seven Deadly Sins.
But today we no longer have the freedom to run away from our government. Our states have surrendered their sovereignty for federal handouts. Our Constitution is now considered a “living document,” little more than a relic and a useful prop for governmental power grabs instead of remaining the Supreme Law of the Land.
Worst of all, our faith has been watered down. The absolutes of right and wrong have been blurred, and the virtues of godly behavior (which are necessary to counteract the Seven Deadly Sins) are maligned and ignored.
(Isaiah 5:20-21: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. …”)
Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote “Democracy in America” in 1835/40, said of our early national history: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” After studying America and its government, he added, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”
Liberty, morality, faith. They are intertwined, three legs of a stool. Take away one, and the other two topple.
So again, where are we in Tytler’s sequence? I believe we are transitioning from apathy to dependence (some argue we’re beyond the dependence mark). It’s worth noting that this sequence is not necessarily made up of equally-spaced divisions. The time it takes to go from apathy to dependency may be relatively long. But the time from dependency to bondage can be frighteningly short.
One last thing should scare all historians to pieces, and it concerns the historical rise and fall of democracies. First you have to create a democracy before you get 200 years of relative freedom. Countries like America are few and far between, and we’re tossing it away in favor of the fiasco of socialism.
The quote says nothing about the rise and fall of tyranny. And history has shown that tyranny can last a whole lot longer than 200 years.