“By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, until you return to the earth.”
-Gen. 3; 19
There has been an idea percolating in my brain for some time now, born of both reading history and watching my beloved and once-great nation sink into mires of madness and dissolution. The idea is this: that mankind cannot remain healthy for any long period of time without adversity and struggle and, well, pain.
This pattern seems to me to have played out again and again, not only in history but in individual lives and on the intermediary level of companies and corporations. In summary, it runs thus: “of necessity, of principle, of course.”
In the first phase, one excels of necessity: it is the only way to survive. Thus Rome developed a mighty army and a firm tradition of statesmanship because that was the only way it could survive in the turbulent world in which it found itself. It is in this stage that the greatest and most seminal achievements are often made. Rome builds the core of its empire, conquers Carthage, and produces men such as Scipio, Cicero, and so on.
In the second phase, one excels on principle: we are following the great tradition of our predecessors, we must elevate our name and never dishonor it. Rome becomes a monarchy, but still looks on its triumphs with pride. It still produces great men and great victories, though it lacks the seminal achievements of the past because it is never truly threatened.
In the third phase, one assumes that one will excel, because that is what one does. It is a matter of first principles that the Roman legions are the mightiest fighting force in the world and that Rome will endure to the end of time. Complacency sets in. One forgets the struggles and strains that led to the current prosperity. One grows restless, one doubts, one has liberty to think without consequence and hence without correction. And so the Empire rots from within and finally collapses, not because it was conquered, but because those who live within it lack either the will or the ability to the defend it.
Take a few examples. England builds an empire, not really out of conscious choice, but through a desire for trade. In the course of so doing, it achieves many great things: Clive defeats an army ten times the size of his own. Captain Cook sails around the world three times, discovering new lands and thousands of new plants and animals. A method of measuring Longitude is discovered. New ideas of economic freedom are pioneered. Then comes Napoleon; the greatest commander of his time, and a bitter struggle for the fate of Europe. England emerges victorious, indisputably the mightiest nation on earth.
For a while, it shines as a great beacon of order and liberty. Before long, slavery is abolished. New lands come under British rule. More and more wealth pours in. England no longer has to be great, for her rivals are no longer any match for her, but she wills to be great. This is the second phase.
Then, as the Empire grows and as England becomes stronger and wealthier during the reign of Queen Victoria, the rot begins. The industrialized and urbanized Europe begins to give rise to new ideas; ideas that parasite themselves onto the scientific strides being made at the same time by claiming authority they do not possess. Freud conceives of man as a mass of repressions and sexual urges. Marx conceives of him as a cog in the great wheel of economic progress, borne along helplessly by history and social conditions. Nietzsche howls a demand for untruth and the triumph of the will. And within England the arrogant assumption of greatness begins to eat away at the very greatness it assumes. America catches up with England economically. Unrest begins to ferment in the streets as the primitive industrial conditions become too much for the workers to bear. Intellectuals use this anger to spread a poisonous envy that causes men to begin to look on the aristocracy, not with admiration, but with jealous resentment.
The comes the rude awakening of the Boer War, in which England faced a modern army for the first time since the Crimea and found itself humiliated and reduced to a shameful level of brutality in order to achieve its goal. Then the First World War, in which a confident England found itself locked in a brutal, futile struggle with Germany, a conflict that broke her heart and sapped her will. After the victory, she hung on for a time, struggling to regain the same confidence and enthusiasm she once knew, but it was gone. Rotted away. England flared one last time, brightly, to stand alone against the tyranny of Hitler, but in so doing burned herself out. She exists now only as a shell.
Prosperity, and the accompanying complacency, is what killed the British Empire. Having reached the pinnacle of world power, England found the luxury to wonder whether there was really any point to it after all.
Take another example: Walt Disney. In the first phase, Disney did things no one else had. Needing a hook to draw people to his new character of Mickey Mouse, he hit on the idea of sound. Then, once his company had perfected sound and animation, he cast his sights on a greater prize: a full-length feature. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is a massive success, and suddenly Walt Disney studios is one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood. More films come out, one after another. Disney moves into live action, and then into amusement parks and television, and in everything he excels.
Yet, after the lukewarm reception of Fantasia, Disney loses confidence in his animate pictures and focuses more on his other endeavors. The studio still produces good films, but, by and large, they are no longer great films. The last great animated picture during Walt’s lifetime is Sleeping Beauty; after that, it becomes more routine. They are good pictures, but they aren’t masterpieces. Disney makes good films on principle.
Walt passes away, Disney continues its work, but to ever diminishing returns. Disney makes animated films as a matter of course. Complacency sets in, and mediocre films like The Aristocats, Oliver and Company, and The Black Cauldron are the result.
Then a renaissance. The Great Mouse Detective shows that animated films are still viable. Then The Little Mermaid becomes the first great animated film since Disney’s death. It’s followed by Beauty and the Beast, which earns a nomination for Best Picture, a coveted honor that Disney had always longed for one of his animated features to enjoy.
The cycle repeats. Disney had had to make excellent films of necessity to compete with another master animator: Don Bluth, a former Disney artist who had spun off into his own company with a series of creative and artistically daring films. Now Disney has once again created seminal achievements, and the trilogy of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin mark a string of success unknown since the first four masterpieces of Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi.
Yet again, complacency begins to set in. Disney begins to settle into a formula, growing ever less creative and less entertaining. The same tired story of a sensitive, ostracized outsider discovering his or her true worth played out again and again, whether or not it made any sense to the story (who on earth thought that should be the theme of Hercules or Tarzan?). Disney had again rotted from the inside out; undone by its own success.
Success leads to failure: only struggle and danger leads to success. That is the lesson I take away from these. As long as success is not optional: as long as your survival depends on being the very best, you will be the best. But as soon as you grow accustomed to being preeminent, the downward slide has already begun.
That’s why I opened with the quote from Genesis: God warns the new-fallen Adam that he will only be able to survive through toil and suffering. Any time Adam manages to escape that, he will find he has not escaped into life, but into decay. Man must work, and he must face consequences of failure. That’s the only way he can survive. Sharks have to keep swimming to survive and if they stop, they die. Even so, men must struggle and suffer and work to survive. If they ever stop, they begin to die. Not necessarily a physical death, but a death of the soul. They grow mad, or envious, and so destroy themselves and (all too often) the world around them.
This is also a reason why there will never be a utopia on this earth. Even if you could establish a perfect society, it wouldn’t last. Its very success would kill it. Men would grow complacent, no longer feel the need to work for the maintenance of their paradise, and it would fall. No nation, and few men, achieve real greatness. At best, they strike it in a glancing blow, shine for an instant, and then careen away into the depths of mediocrity. Such is the way of the world. The only way to avoid that fate ourselves is to keep busy and always seek new challenges and new dangers.