A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s acco

The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: A Reader Course

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2022-01-15 15:00:13

A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.

              In my mind there are four central parts to this tale: first, there is the story of state capacity. Polities vary in capability; some are better at ordering their realms than others. Next is the story of wealth, economic innovation, and productive capacity. Prosperity is a fruit of greatness, yet prosperity also feeds greatness. The sources of prosperity and technological progress are therefore just as critical to to the tale. Following this is strategic acumen. Rising and falling is relative and competitive; winning in the great power game means maneuvering—and outmaneuvering—both rivals and dependents. If the first two dimensions mentioned above center on institutional and societal sources of greatness inherited by any given statesmen, strategy is the element of greatness most dependent on the decisions and calculations of individuals in power. Finally, social and elite cohesion are an undervalued factor in the rise and fall of nations. Fortune favors the united. Civil war and civic violence derail any climb to grandeur; societies able to motivate their citizens, soldiers, and leaders towards sacrifice without recourse to coercion out compete those who cannot do the same.

               The reading course that follows is oriented towards the first two concerns. The forum member did not specify the length of time his two-man reading group would be devoting to their quest, so the main constraints I imposed on the list were financial. I have tried to be as comprehensive as possible in as few books as possible. Thus the readings emphasize large, encyclopedic surveys over more focused monographs.  Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization, the first two volumes of Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power, Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order and its sequel Political Order and Political Decay, Ronald Findley and Kevin Rourke’s Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium, Henrik Spruyt’s The World Imagined: Collective Beliefs and Political Order in the Sinocentric, Islamic and Southeast Asian International Societies, and Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers serve as the mainstays of this course. These books are huge—Gat’s book is over 800 pages; Fukuyama and Mann write their multivolume opums in 700 page increments—but someone who has read through them all will have a strong grasp of the course of human civilization, from stone age tribes to the internet.

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