The fall of civilizations is at once the most striking and obscure of all historical phenomena. Inspiring the mind with terror, it is a calamity so majestic and inscrutable that the thinker never tires of it. ... When we perceive that, after a period of strength and glory, all human societies come to decline and fall, all of them, I say, without exception; when we become aware with what fearful silence the earth displays upon its surface the debris of the civilizations that preceded our own... when the mind, reverting to our modern states, takes the measure of their extreme youth and recognizes that some, having arisen but yesterday, are already in a state of decrepitude; then we acknowledge, not without a shudder ... how rigorously the word of the prophets on the instability of all things applies to peoples--to peoples no less than to states, to states no less than to individuals..
Peoples perish because they are degenerate and for no other reason.... No longer able to withstand blows or to pick themselves up after suffering them, they place before us the spectacle of their death throes. If they die, it is because they no longer possess the vigor that their ancestors had in passing through the dangers of life. ... How and why is that vigor lost? That is what we need to know. How does a people degenerate? That is what we must explain...
The word degenerate, when applied to a people, means (as it ought to mean) that the people has no longer the same intrinsic
value as it had before, because it has no longer the same blood
in its veins, continual adulterations having gradually affected
the quality of that blood. In other words, though the nation
bears the name given by its founders, the name no longer
connotes the same race ; in fact, the man of a decadent time, the
degenerate man properly so called, is a different being, from the
racial point of view, from the heroes of the great ages. I agree that
he still keeps something of their essence; but the more he degenerates,
the thinner does this "something " become. ...He is only a
very distant kinsman of those he still calls his ancestors. He,
and his civilization with him, will certainly die on the day when
the primordial race-unit is so broken up and swamped by the
influx of foreign elements, that its effective qualities no
longer exercise sufficient influence. [In this book, I will show by examples] that great peoples, at the moment of their death, share only a very small and insignificant amount of the blood of their founders and... thereby have explained clearly enough how it is possible for civilizations to fall—the reason being that they are no longer in the same hands.
Generally the dominating peoples begin by being far fewer in
number than those they conquer; on the other hand,
certain races that form the basis of the population in immense
districts are extremely prolific—the Celts, for example, and the
Slavs. This is another reason for the rapid disappearance
of the conquering races. Their greater activity and the
more personal part they take in the affairs of the State make them
the chief mark for attack after a disastrous battle, a proscription,
or a revolution. Thus, while by their very genius for civilization
they collect round them the different elements in which they are
to be absorbed, they are the victims, first of their original smallness of number, and then of a host of secondary causes which
combine together for their destruction. ...
...I have now given meaning to the word "degeneration"; and
so have been able to show how a nation loses its vitality.
I must next proceed to prove what for the sake of clearness
I have had to put forward as a mere hypothesis; namely, that
there are real differences in the relative value of human races.
The consequences of proving this will be considerable, and cover
a wide field. But first I must lay a foundation of fact and
argument capable of holding up such a vast building...
The idea of an original, clear-cut, and permanent inequality among the different races is one of the oldest and most widely held opinions in the world. [and yet today it is often challenged] "All men," say the defenders of human
equality, "are furnished with similar intellectual powers, of the
same nature, of the same value, of the same compass." These
are not perhaps their exact words, but it is certainly the
right meaning. So the brain of the Huron Indian contains in an
undeveloped form an intellect which is absolutely the same as that of the Englishman or the Frenchman! Why then, in the
course of the ages, has he not invented printing or steam power?
I should be quite justified in asking our Huron why, if he is equal
to our European peoples, his tribe has never produced a Caesar
or a Charlemagne among its warriors....The difficulty is usually met by the
blessed phrase, "the predominating influence of environment."
According to this doctrine, an island will not see the same
miracles of civilization as a continent, the same people will be
different in the north from what it is in the south, forests will not
allow of developments which are favored by open country.
What else? The humidity of a marsh, I suppose, will produce a
civilization which would inevitably have been stifled by the
dryness of the Sahara! However ingenious these little hypotheses
may be, the testimony of fact is against them. In spite of
wind and rain, cold and heat, sterility and fruitfulness, the world
has seen barbarism and civilization flourishing everywhere, one
after the other, on the same soil.
... We often hear of negroes who have learnt music, who are
clerks in banking-houses, and who know how to read, write,
count, dance, and speak, like white men. People are astonished
at this, and conclude that the negro is capable of everything!
And then, in the same breath, they will express surprise at the
contrast between the Slav civilization and our own. The
Russians, Poles, and Serbians (they will say), even though they
are far nearer to us than the negroes, are only civilized on the
surface; the higher classes alone participate in our ideas, owing
to the continual admixture of English, French, and German
blood. The masses, on the other hand, are invincibly ignorant
of the Western world and its movements, although they have
been Christian for so many centuries—in many cases before we
were converted ourselves! The solution is simple. There is
a great difference between imitation and conviction. Imitation
does not necessarily imply a serious breach with hereditary
instincts; but no one has a real part in any civilization until he is
able to make progress by himself, without direction from others. What is the use of telling me how clever some particular savages
are in guiding the plough, in spelling, or reading, when they are
only repeating the lessons they have learnt ? Show me rather,
among the many regions in which savages have lived for ages in
contact with Europeans, one single place where
the religious doctrines, the ideas, customs, and institutions of even
one European people have been so completely assimilated that
progress in them is made as naturally and spontaneously as among
ourselves. Show me a place where the introduction of printing
has had results, similar to those in Europe, where our sciences are
brought to perfection, where new applications are made of our
discoveries, where our philosophies are the parents of other
philosophies, of political systems, of literature and art, of books,
statues, and pictures!