Sooner or later, most historians succumb to the urge to discover causes in history. We have had occasion to ponder causality once before when we talked about the genesis of civilization and hauled out the homely analogy of the wagon on the slope. I could belabor this figure of speech further. It lends itself, with an aptitude I had admittedly not foreseen, to the process of decline as well as to the process of growth. But I will assume that the reader is imaginative enough to invent his own images: wagons grinding to a halt, level and monotonous plains, etc. Let us, instead, go on to consider some of the factors which have been suggested as causes for the decline of Egyptian civilization: the rise of the priesthood, which not only controlled a paralyzing amount of the national wealth, but exercised a stagnating influence upon experimentation and new ideas; the power of the army and the military leader; the appearance of iron, which is not found in Egypt, as a material for weapons and tools; the pressure exerted by the great folk migrations; the corruption of the native Egyptian genius or ethos by poorly assimilated influences from without; the increasingly formalized social structure, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer; the substitution of form for content and resignation for struggle in the intellectual and spiritual realms.
There you are; a nice representative sampling. None of the above is original with me, as far as I know. Perhaps I ought to invent a couple of my own: (1) that fatal something in the psychology of the Egyptian people, the desire for regimentation and blind obedience; (2) the will of God.
I doubt if I can persuade the reader to take my second cause seriously; even devout historians assume that the Deity works through certain ascertainable rules. The first of my suggestions may not sound so immediately implausible. Its absurdity should become apparent when I explain that I copied the sentence from a context that has nothing to do with ancient Egypt—a commentary on the events leading up to World War II. I changed only the names of the people referred to. An appeal to “the fatal something” in a nation’s psychology is not an explanation of anything, only an admission of the inability of the commentator to produce an explanation.
The fact that acceptable theories of causation fluctuate is a disturbing phenomenon if we would like to believe that real reasons really exist. A number of theories have come in and gone out in the past century, in addition to the will of God. Causality is a dangerous word for a historian to play with; if he presses it too far he finds himself, sooner or later, locked in a death-grapple with a philosopher. Historians—and who can blame them?—try to avoid such encounters. Their causes are not philosophical profundities, as a rule, but prosaic, matter-of-fact explanations that are comprehensible to any well-read person. But historical causes are inevitably affected by the intellectual climate of the times. We no longer accept supernatural explanations—God and the devil are equally out of style—because our present worldview does not include a belief in the direct intervention of such forces in man’s affairs. Economic explanations are still respectable, despite the unfortunate use which has been made of poor Karl Marx, but most historians would not regard them as valid exclusive causes.
One very popular class of causes these days is the psychological, applied to nations or to individuals. It does not require much insight to identify the Egyptian who is most popular with the psychologists. Freud found Akhenaton perfectly fascinating, even though his childhood memories are irretrievably lost. One so-called psychologist has gone Freud one better: he not only supplied the missing details of Akhenaton’s childhood and pronounced him to be suffering from an Oedipus complex, but proposed the novel theory that Akhenaton was, in fact, Oedipus.
I am doing historians who employ psychological techniques a slight injustice by mentioning the Oedipus-Akhenaton theory, for it cannot be taken seriously, either as psychology or as history. It is representative of one of the lunatic schools, which flourish around the fringes of many fields of scholarly discipline, and it differs from the outpourings of the Pyramidiots only in the air of verisimilitude it creates. Its basic crime against true scholarship, the same error that mars the books of the pyramid mystics and more recent volumes on the age of the Sphinx and the identification of Akhenaton with various biblical characters, is that the author is not working with an open mind. He is not using facts to construct a theory, but is selecting facts to support a preconceived and unshakable belief. What ever the techniques a historian chooses to work with, he must use them without prejudice and be prepared to revise, or dismiss, his theory when he runs up against a fact his tools cannot handle.
An excellent example of the whimsy of historical fashion is given by the rise and fall of the Great Man theory. Simply stated, this is the biographical approach to history. The plot of the past is produced by the players; Great Men (and a few Women), by virtue of their personalities or their positions, not only influence the shape of events but bring them into being. After a period of relative respectability, this attitude was to some extent replaced by its converse, which has been called the Cultural Process. Men do not make events; events make men. Hitler did not “cause” World War II; the circumstances in Germany and the rest of Europe would have produced that fatal event even if Hitler had never been born, and some other leader would have been coughed up by the body politic to assume the role that the character of the times demanded. Akhenaton did not initiate a religious revolution; Egypt was ripe for an attempt at reform, and the general sentiment of the time would have forced such a move with or without Akhenaton.
You may feel that the Cultural Process is a rather extreme way of looking at history. I think it is; and I am happy to tell you that the Great Man is coming back into fashion. Some sort of middle ground is probably necessary; any man is the product of his culture in the broadest sense, but to deny the particularity of Hitler or Akhenaton is rationally impossible.
It seems, then, that we are still a long way from final causes. Not only do we find that categories of explanations change their status with alarming frequency, but we always have with us certain more elementary problems. We can isolate discrete cultural or political phenomena—the advent of iron, the wealth of the priesthoods—but what is a cause and what is an effect? The effect on one cause may be the cause of another effect; or it may be neither or both, but simply a—thing. Sometimes you can’t tell one from the other without a scorecard, and the scorecard has not yet been written. The situation is trying enough for the modest scholar who is only attempting to explain an isolated phenomenon in a single culture. When a historian tries to extend explanations into the world at large and compose a universal theory of history, he is really in trouble.
This has been a very superficial, limited probing of some of the types of problems we encounter when we talk about causes in history. We have not even settled the important question of whether there are causes. Yet we will probably go right on looking for them, and talking about them. The intellectual climate of our own era asks for explanations. We would like, if we could, to reduce all phenomena to systems of logical sequence. In part this is the effect of the prestige of the physical sciences, and this effect is not always for the good. History may be “scientific” in its approach, and the social studies may be “social sciences” in the sense that they apply dispassionate, critical, and rigorously logical analyses to the subjects of their discourse. But the disciplines that deal with man and his peculiar affairs cannot expect to use the methods, or anticipate the results, of the physical sciences. The human experiment will not reproduce itself under laboratory conditions; we can never control our specimens to such a degree that we can isolate a pertinent stimulus or determine a specific conclusion. My personal antipathy toward the use of the term “scientific” in the humanistic disciplines is that the very application of the word sometimes suggests to the user that such isolation and such determination are possible. Sometimes I wish they were.
We have a more personal need, in our time, to dissect the past in search of its pathology, for according to some historians our own culture is showing disturbing signs of disease. However you define the developmental stages of civilization, and upon what ever step you put us here, in this twenty-first century of the Christian Era, it seems unlikely that we are at the beginning of a process. This leaves us with the dismal possibility that we may be nearing the end. If so, it behooves us to discover, insofar as we are able, where we are, and why. If there are universal causes, and if we are able to see them plainly, we may learn how to avoid their more disastrous consequences.
That is one of the reasons why we look for reasons. Whether we have any grounds for supposing that we will find them is another question. At the moment, it appears that our only recourse, if we are about to fall, is to go down gracefully.