The Theosophical Forum — September 1943

THE RISE AND FALL OF NATIONS — Kenneth Morris

The title of this lecture is taken from a saying of perhaps the very greatest of Chinese Emperors, T'ang Taitsong, who was not only a great ruler and a very great gentleman, but also a very wise thinker. He put his father on the throne in 618, and succeeded in 627; and the saying of his I quote from is this: "Just as by looking in a mirror I can see to adjust my crown, so by looking into history I can see to foretell the Rise and Fall of Nations." He didn't say crown really, because they didn't wear crowns; what he said was imperial headdress, but crown sounds better so I put it that way.

 Now he was right. By looking into history you can see to foretell the rise and fall of nations. But you have to look intelligently, and to look into History and not the history of one or two nations, or even the history of one continent. I know a professor of history at one of the English Colleges who, I declare to you, I believe could tell you pretty much what was happening in any village in England on, say, January 14th, 1154, or any other date you may like to mention; and yet he knows nothing about History at all. History has been going on, what we can know of it, for about five thousand years, more than five thousand in some parts. English history, strictly speaking, has been going on since — 1066 if you like. If you have a mole's-eye view of English history you learn nothing, but crowd your mind with a lot of useless stuff, you must, to know history and to learn what it can teach you — among other things to foretell the rise and fall of nations — you must have a bird's-eye view of the world during those five thousand years.

When I went to school in England I gained the impression from the history I learned there that England was the only country that mattered in the world, that English soldiers had never been and could never be defeated. Later I found that French boys acquired just the same view, but with France in the limelight instead of England, so did German boys, but with Germany as the superior race; so did Italians with Italy; Americans with America, and so on. Even when they grow out of that foolish view, most people who think about history at all think that it concerns only the white peoples. They have a notion that civilization has been a steadily growing stream among the whites with Greece and Rome at the start, and then Europe of the Dark and Middle Ages, and Europe and America since. Asia, they think, has counted for nothing at all; has had a kind of stagnant unprogressive civilization which gave the world nothing. That's all pure ignorance. That kind of history teaching is what leads to ill-feeling between nations, envy, hatred and all uncharitableness — and war. There is no kind of truth in it. There is only one Superior Race, and it is Humanity; there is only one Chosen People — mankind.

Let us take Europe, and see how much of the five thousand years it has filled with its greatness. Greece for a couple of centuries was extraordinarily illumined. Rome for a century or so had great civilization, great writers, for a few centuries wielded great political power. Modern Europe began to leave barbarism in the eleventh or twelfth century, and seems to be sinking back to barbarism now. But when did modern Europe become greater than Asia? Up to about 1560 a European army could no more face a Turkish army with hope of success than a black African army could face an English, French, or German army now; with less success, in fact, because the Zulus did out-general and defeat white (English) troops at Isandlana. We cite Hannibal's, Charlemagne's, and Napoleon's crossing the Alps as great feats of military genius, but now I'll tell you of an Asiatic feat.

In 1792 the Ghoorkas invaded Tibet. Everyone knows that the Ghoorkas are tremendous fighters, a foe not to be despised by anyone. Twenty years later they fought the English with considerable success, Sir David Auchterlony fought two difficult campaigns against them. Everyone knows likewise that the Chinese now, and at any time in the last century, have been very easily defeated — a foe not to be feared by anyone. And everyone knows that compared to the Alps the Himalayas are Mountains and the Alps molehills. Well, the Ghoorkas invaded Tibet, and the Emperor Chienlung sent an army to meet them. And there in the high Himalayas among the crests of Everest and Kunchinjinga, the Chinese met those mountain fighters and whipped them; met them again and whipped them again, whipped them down to India, and there took their submission. "You are subjects now of the Son of Heaven at Pekin." "Yes," said the Ghoorkas, "we are subjects of the Son of Heaven at Pekin and proud to be his subjects." "And you shall pay tribute yearly to the Son of Heaven at Pekin." "Yes," said the Ghoorkas, "we shall proudly pay tribute to so mighty a potentate, who could whip fighting mountaineers like ourselves down out of our own mountains." And they paid that tribute year after year long after China had become too weak to make anyone pay tribute; they stopped paying tribute only in 1910, when the revolution did away with the Chinese Empire and put a republic — what Ku Hung-ming, a Chinese author, recently dead, called a "Rob-public" in its place. Well, in time Sir David Auchterlony had a conversation with the Ghoorkas. "Now we have defeated you," said he, "you are subjects of the King of England." "Nothing doing," said the Ghoorkas, "we have the honor to be subjects of the Son of Heaven at Pekin. Come on, we'll fight again if you don't believe it." But Sir David didn't want to fight again. "But you must pay tribute to the King of England." "Tribute we pay to our Lord the Son of Heaven at Pekin. If you want to change that, come on, we'll fight some more." "Oh well," said Sir David, "we'll waive that. But you must fight in the King of England's armies." "Oh sure," said the Ghoorkas, "fighting is our business, and it isn't likely that the Son of Heaven would want us to fight for him. He has better fighters than we, so we'll be only too glad to fight for the King of England." And that's how they arranged it: remaining Chinese subjects, proud of the fact, and paying the tribute till the Chinese Empire fell.

That is to say, the military superiority of Europeans over Asiatics is only about 130 years old; and then I'm leaving out of account the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.

Now look at Chinese History. About 600 b. c. China began producing great men, writers, thinkers, philosophers; and went on doing so till about 1300: eighteen or nineteen centuries of progressiveness, of fertility, in first rate genius, as against our white Europe's three centuries, say, of Greece and Rome, and say seven of Christendom.

Go back to the world in 1200, and what do you find? Christendom in appalling barbarism, in a condition like Afghanistan or Abyssinia today. Asiatic (Arabic) civilization, on the other hand, very brilliant, very scientific, stretching from the borders of India and Turkestan to Spain. Chinese civilization, very old but very beautiful — not like ours which is very ugly (if you don't believe me go up to the Rhondda) — still highly and wonderfully productive. So things had been for centuries; ever since, in Europe, the fall of Rome, say in 400; ever since, among the Mohammedans, about 650; ever since, in China about 800 b. c. and we don't know how much earlier. We know, in these modern times, that Africa does not produce first class genius and that Europe does. People knew in those times that Asia did produce first class genius and that Europe did not.

Then in the thirteenth century a portentous happening occurred. Genghis Khan arose among the Mongols, a tremendous military genius among a nomad barbarous people, and learned in Chinese military science. He and his successors fell upon Asiatic civilization and broke it. He conquered half of China, his grandson Kublai conquered the rest. Various of his generals smashed Persia and depopulated it; destroyed million-peopled city after city and killed all their inhabitants, and where they marched is now a desert. They conquered Russia, took a look at Europe and decided it wasn't worth their conquering, or nothing could have prevented them reigning in Germany, France, and England. They broke Asiatic civilization, Kublai completing the Conquest of China in 1268. Wonderful was the Chinese resistance. Emperor after emperor, members of the Imperial family, had fallen; Chinese resistance at last was confined to a fleet on the Yangtse, surrounded by Mongol fleets; the last of the Imperial family was a baby in arms on that fleet. Ship after Chinese ship was taken, fighting to the last man. On the last ship stood the Prime Minister with the baby in his arms, and when the last Chinese was killed fighting, the Prime Minister with the baby Son of Heaven leaped overboard. China never recovered. No more first-rate genius was born.

Nor any more in Persia. Moslem Spain went down before the Christians, much as if England were now conquered by an Abyssinian army. Asia went to sleep, became utterly unproductive of genius. No more great books were written, no more great pictures painted. That brings us to 1268. And in 1274 the first fruit of European genius, first-rate genius, was born in Italy: Dante Alighieri. And ever since, till our own time, Europe has been productive, Asia sterile. Till our own time? Well, till Japan appeared as the conqueror of Russia, perhaps. For since the War [1914-1918] Europe has seemed to many to be going down, to be becoming less fertile of genius; and in Asia you have had some striking figures.

Now watch how European civilization was born. In 1100 or 1200 Europe was barbarous; no genius, no amenities of life; just like Afghanistan or Abyssinia. But there had been civilization in Europe before. Roman civilization, covering England, France, Spain Italy. That civilization grew old and died. Barbarians from the north — Saxons in England, Franks in France, Goths and Suevi in Spain, Lombards in Italy — poured down and smashed it. The barbarians mixed with the peoples they conquered. And eight hundred years passed.

By that time a very high civilization had arisen next door to Europe: the Mohammedan. Mohammed, an illiterate Arab, had inspired his people with the idea that they had a mission. Of course you know the religious part of it: that there was One God; that the Christians in making Jesus god were idolators; and so forth. That part of it is unimportant, but he thundered two ideas that were important. One was that expressed in the text, "There shall be no compulsion in religion." They were to be tolerant, especially of Jews and Christians; were never to force people to become Moslems; he said a great deal on this point. The other was a perfectly extraordinary one for an ignorant Arab to have: he expressed it in the text, "The ink of the doctors, professors, and scientists is more precious in God's sight than the blood of the martyrs. Blessed is he that goeth on the road of learning; angels sweetly hover over him until his return home." Among the results of these teachings was that only one Mohammedan sovereign persecuted the Christians, and that was al-Hakim Biamrillah, Caliph of Egypt at the end of the tenth century. His persecutions however brought about the Crusades, and — al-Azhar University in Cairo. Now supposing you were a Welshman in the year 1100, and got the desire to be learned, to get a higher education than you get in Christendom — by the way, it is probable that at that time you could get a better education right here in Wales than you could elsewhere in Christendom, except maybe Ireland. Well, you had heard of the great learning of the Paynims; perhaps you had been on a Crusade and noticed that the people you fought against were a deal more civilized than your own side. Anyhow you made your way, begged your way, to Egypt. And knocked at the door of al-Azhar. "Who comes?" "A Pilgrim on the Road of Learning." And the door was opened to you. None asked your religion; you came on the Road of Learning, and the angels were sweetly hovering above your head. You came without money; never mind, the Egyptian Government would attend to that. It would lodge you, feed you, clothe you and educate you; I am not a bit sure it wouldn't provide you with pocketmoney as well! Now I ask you: Have we any institution of learning, any college or University, in Christendom, quite as civilized as that? They were Mohammedans, and you were a Christian; it made no difference, they cared for you while you were there. You mixed there with students from all countries, of all religions. Egypt was taking care of them all on the same terms: fed them all, clothed them all, housed them all, educated them all; and probably introduced them all to the use of soap!

As was Moslem Egypt, so was North Africa, so was Moslem Spain. Abderrahman II, Caliph of Cordova, received more in tribute than all the Christian kings of Europe combined.

So you see, barbarous Europe had next door to it highly civilized Islammiyeh, the Mohammedan world, as we say Christendom, the Christian world. And just as Japan in 1871 began learning western civilization from America and Europe, just as I have taught Japanese students in an American university, so Europe began sending pupils to al-Azhar and other Moslem seats of learning; began presently to start universities in imitation of the Moslem ones. The professors gave their lectures as a matter of course in Arab costume. You know the gown the college professors wear? Mohammed when he went into the mihrab or pulpit of his mosque at Medina used to put a loose shawl over his shoulders, to be impressive, I suppose. His successor followed his example. When the universities started in Islammiyeh, the professors regarding themselves as preachers, regarding all learning as sacred, wore it too. Japanese professors atTokyo and other universities always lecture in European costume. Our professors lecture in Mohammed's shawl!

Now in Europe the old remains of Latin learning, the desiccated remnant of Roman culture, remained, but utterly sterile, in the monasteries. This new learning came in from the Mohammedans and united itself therewith. Result, a new impulse to culture in Christendom. Then, when the Mongols had broken Asia, Europe started on the path of progress, the road of learning. Perhaps the angels are sweetly hovering over her head still!

Now you know that for any human being or animal to be born, to start its life on earth, two elements have to unite: an element from the father called the sperm, and an element from the mother called the ovum. Now see how that took place in Western Europe or Christian civilization: in two ways, materially and culturally. Materially, the ovum, the race-ovum, was supplied by the peoples of the Roman Empire; the race-sperm by the barbarians who poured down and conquered them. Culturally, the race-culture-ovum was supplied by memories of Roman literature; the race-culture-sperm by the Mohammedan learning that poured into Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Now look at England in the second century a. d. It was highly civilized; plenty of prosperous towns, elegant villas dotted about the countryside; schools where you could get a good education. You could travel from York to Baghdad in safety (there wasn't any Baghdad really, but to Ctesiphon, say, not far off) or to the cataracts of the Nile, or Constantinople — Byzantium, that is; and never need to change your money. Your house had a good sewerage system, water-flushed and so on; you bathed daily; you were a civilized man. The children in Baghdad, Constantinople, or the Nile Cataracts were taught all about Britain in their schools; as your children were taught all about those other places. You spoke a language, Latin, that would carry you all over that huge stretch of territory.

A few centuries pass. Gone are the houses with water-flushed sewerage; gone everything else. The children at Constantinople, the most civilized place now in Europe, are taught that Britain is a fabulous island in the west to which the souls of the dead are ferried nightly by invisible ferrymen.

So you see, civilizations fall as well as rise; they fall and disappear, and then after centuries begin to grow up again. I suppose it was not until Victoria's reign that England reached the point, in domestic sanitation, that it had reached under the Romans.

Nations, civilizations, are born as men are born: from the union of a race-sperm and a race-ovum, a race-culture-sperm and a race-culture-ovum. And they live out their span of life as we do, and then die.

That accounts for the fact that at any period in history there are two kinds of peoples on earth: one that is awake, fertile in genius, progressive; and one that is asleep, sterile of genius, unprogressive. The awake and fertile and progressive peoples always think they are racially superior to the others. They hold for the time being the leadership or hegemony as it is called of the world; but in every century or two that hegemony changes. No one holds it long. In the European cycle, from 1200 till now, it is interesting to note how one after another of the European nations has held the hegemony; how one after another has been the nation most fertile in genius. Not always, but very often, the one richest in genius has been the one with most material and military power. But this is certain: the countries and peoples that are awake and hold the hegemony now will in their time go down into sleep, rest, or death; and the peoples that are asleep or dead or resting now will in their time rise and hold the hegemony. There is but one Superior Race, Humanity: but one Chosen People, the People of the earth.

What happens to a people when it is dying? It loses its coherence, its power to meet new conditions — what we call progressiveness, its power to produce first rate genius. If there is an awake people nearby, it may be conquered and held together, somnolent but in outward good order, by that awake people; otherwise it falls from civilization to barbarism. Wales is an example of the first kind of fate; Afghanistan of the second. Oh yes, Afghanistan, or again Morocco, were in their time highly civilized and progressive, and doubtless will be again. At a certain stage in its life-growth, a nation becomes an empire. It conquers and swallows up the nations around it that have lived out their life-period and are ready to die. From these dying peoples something we may call the soul has departed their nationals, the atoms of which the body of a nation is composed, become atoms now in the body of the empire. Centuries of rest and unprogressiveness pass; the shadow of the empire is over them and keeps them in order; they become patriotic subjects of the empire.

Then the empire itself has run its course and is ready to die, and meanwhile the subject race is getting ready to re-awake or be reborn. Thus we see the Turkish empire beginning to grow about 1300. The Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars, etc., are conquered and become subjects of the Sultan. While Turkey was strong, these people became largely patriotic subjects of the Sultan who governed them rather well and protected their religion. Wherever the Turkish armies came, the Christian peasants flocked to submit to them, knowing that Turkish rule was a great deal better than the rule of their own kings. Then Turkey declined, and had no longer the strength to protect its Serbian, Greek, and Bulgar subjects. And they began to remember that they had once been free and strong peoples; nationalism arose in them, and they fought and regained their independence. In the proper time they will become progressive and fertile in genius. You come to your prime a long time after you are born, as a rule.

Now let us consider the very country in which we find ourselves: Wales. When I was a boy at school in England, I was taught that the one fortunate thing that ever happened to Wales happened in 1282 when Edward I conquered it. But when I came to study history in order to fill my duties as Professor of History at Theosophical University at Point Loma, I found that there was much more to be said about it than that. I came to regard it as neither fortunate nor unfortunate, but simply something that occurred in the way of Nature, something that occurs to every people in its time; just as birth and death are things that occur to every human being. It was just the death of that race or civilization; and death, being an inevitable thing, is not an unfortunate thing by any means.

Wales had been living its life since the Romans went there in 410; then after a long life of 870 years it died in 1282, and its atoms, the Welsh people, became atoms in the body of England, or of France, for many of the Welsh went over to the French and went on fighting England in the French armies and navies. Owen Lawgoch, for example, won so many sea victories for France that the English finally sent a man to assassinate him. Something we may call the "soul" had gone; just as the sap goes down into the roots of the trees in autumn, and in winter the tree is "dead," unproductive, puts forth no burgeoning of greenness.

But have you ever thought that there are but three books which were written in this island before the conquest of Wales that are read for pleasure now? All three are in the Everyman edition, and they are all Welsh: The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and Gerald the Welshman's Itinerary through Wales. Geoffrey of Monmouth's book he claims he translated in his youth from Latin to Welsh, and in his age from Welsh back to Latin; it became the source of a tremendous literature in many languages; all the stories of King Arthur originate in it. That is, all three books came from Wales; none at all from England or Scotland; or, with hesitation, I may say from the rest of Europe. Again, have you ever read the standard History of the Vikings? If you have you will have read that there were only two peoples in Western Europe who were successful in their dealing with those pirates, and those two were the highly civilized and highly organized Spanish Arabs and — the Welsh. Both peoples, and they only, were too much for the Danes and the Norse Sea-Rovers who smashed every other country in Western Christendom. Fact. Just as that other about the three books is fact. And doesn't it suggest to you that there were greater material and military, and even cultural, energies in that old Welsh civilization that lasted from 410 to 1282, than in the sleeping countries of the then Europe?

Now look elsewhere again: Europe, western, had been civilized under Rome; and then it died and lay dormant for eight centuries or so, and then was born again. Persia under the Achaemenian dynasty, Cyrus, Darius and Co., had been a mighty empire; then came Alexander, and Persia died. Centuries of subjection ensued under the Macedonian and then the Parthian Kings of Turkish race; then in 220 a.d. Persia was reborn. Artakshatr, son of Papak, son of Sasan, rose and drove out the Parthians; and then under the Sassanian Kings Persia became rather more than equal to Rome — born again, a mighty empire and civilization. Then came death with the Arab conquest about 650, and quiescence, rest, then rebirth again to be the Persia of the Poets, and to die destroyed by the Mongols.

Look at Greece: 500 to 300 b.c., a beacon to the world, marvelously productive of genius; then dying, conquered by Rome; born again at Constantinople under the Greek emperors; dying when Constantinople fell before the Turks in 1453; born again as the modern state in Byron's time. Look where you will, you see life and death alternating. Every time a people is reborn, the new race is the old one mixed with the blood of its conquerors, ovum and sperm; and the inspiration that brings it to birth culturally comes of the union of the nation-culture-ovum, what learning or tradition of learning comes down from its last life period, with a new cultural inspiration from somewhere else — not by any means necessarily from its conquerors.

India was never a nation. Nationalism was utterly unknown in Asia till Japan took fire with it from Perry's American men-of-war. The world had never heard of India, in historical times, till the reign of Edward I in England. English nationalists conquer India and live there, and infect the country with Nationalism; but as it is born in India, it is Indian Nationalism. When what we may call the Soul of India, which had departed from this world long since, begins to near this world on its approach again, Nationalism in India, caught from the English nationalists, becomes Indian Nationalism.

I have nothing to say about the political side as concerns my own country, Wales; but I have, and am deeply interested, in the cultural side. The race-culture-ovum is here in plenty in Welsh literature — now what is to be the race-culture-sperm that will unite with it and produce a glorious new birth?

For Europe it was first Arab culture in the thirteenth century, and then Greek culture which flooded Europe in 1453 when the Turks took Constantinople and the Greek scholars came west from there. Because of the effect of Greek and Latin culture in the Renaissance time, and its ability to quicken and set on fire the minds of Europeans, it was thought for centuries that Greek and Latin were the only things worth teaching in schools. It was so in my school when I was there. But Greek and Latin have ceased long since to inspire.

Now will you get an effective cultural inspiration or race-culture-sperm from Europe? Because we are of the European Race, there is not sufficient difference. But — I was in Ireland when the great Irish literary Renaissance had its beginning. It produced from the nineties on the most brilliant literature in the English language; and I saw how it arose. It was born in the Dublin Theosophical Society. They were on fire with Irish nationalism, not particularly political, but cultural. George Russell, A. E., the central figure of it, painted huge pictures of the ancient Irish gods on the walls of his rooms. I don't know how many of them were gifted to see the Irish fairies. I myself, Welshman as I was, was caught into the belief that the Irish would save the world and civilize it. We knew the old heroes of the Irish sagas, Cuculain, Conall Carnach, Finn Maccool, better than we knew each other. And into this ovum-atmosphere came the high philosophy of India, of the Upanishads and of the Bhagavad-Gita. Sperm and ovum united, and the Irish literary renaissance was the child born.

Something of the kind is bound to happen in Wales; I don't know when, except that it will be soon. The ovum we have; the sperm must be the high and noble Thought of the Indian or the Chinese Philosophers. China, culturally, was only discovered this century. There is more Chinese literature than there is European and American, ancient and modern. The Inspiration, the Message, of both India and China, though differently colored, are essentially the same. They go in the west by the name of Theosophy.

— Lecture given at the Headquarters of the Welsh Section, T. S., Gwalia House Fitzalan Road, Cardiff, Wales, some time in the early 1930s. Dr Morris's study over a period of many years early convinced him of the great importance of the role that Chinese and Indian thought would play in the new awakening in the west. He was a strong and ardent propagandist of this idea, which, though today appealing to an increasing number of minds was then, some ten years ago, scarcely recognized as worthy of serious consideration Kenneth Morris, who died in April, 1937, is known for his books on Celtic mystical folklore and its interpretation, his Book of the Three Dragons (Longmans, Green, & Co, Chicago) having been a selection of the Junior Literary Guild.


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