Decay and Renewal Are the Same Movement

Featured Image is Sir John Soane’s Rotunda of the Bank of England in Ruins, by Joseph Gandy.

All human projects are akin to a plane that begins to fall apart the moment it takes off.

As time marches on, the people responsible for the plane must decide whether to repair it, replace old parts, or decommission it and replace the entire plane.

Or they can put off such decisions until it is too late. Until, at best, the plane does not make it to the runway one day. And at worst, a catastrophe occurs in the air.

Everything from family to community and nation, to the human body itself, has this trajectory from the start. No system—biological, social, or political—manages to avoid this basic reality.

We focus on Rome for its greatness, but also for its spectacular collapse. But Rome stood for a thousand years. Every step of the way it was falling apart. Many times it seemed on the brink of dissolving in the air like our neglected airplane, and very nearly did. What is remarkable about Rome is not that it fell, because all civilizations fall. What is remarkable is that it lasted, that it staved off complete disintegration for so long.

Chinese history is another interesting case of decay and renewal. Certainly, China blew apart and fell into civil war many times over its astonishingly long history. But the old empire also displayed a remarkable ability to absorb its conquerors into the existing system. The ones who were conquered were nearly always the ruling class, not China as an entity, which had such a character that it could assert itself even when a foreign military took the mantle of government.

From the ground view, I wonder if those moments that broke out into civil war appeared so very different from those which did not.

We’re always in the process of coming apart. Sometimes we get our act together and stave off the end a little longer. Sometimes something entirely new is born. Sometimes the garden must lay fallow for a season before a proper renewal. And sometimes it is simply the end.

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