Niall Ferguson Has His Say On the Sudden Collapse of Empire: The Paintings of Thomas Cole


Several weeks ago, I posted some comments about a 19th-century painting depicting the fall of Rome. I later found out that the painting is part of a well-known five painting series by Thomas Cole entitled  The Course of Empire . Cole, of the Hudson River School, painted the series in the 1830s.

At the time, I was interested in the fact that the painting seemed to compress hundreds of years of decline into one apocalyptic moment. And I noted that much news coverage seems to also focus on the dramatic, apocalyptic moment at the expense of the complex, historical context in which institutions and states decline and, sometimes, collapse.  Social problems developing over time often only become widely visible with the arrival of a calamity.

It actually turns out that the five-painting series depicts a more gradual decline,  and the specific painting of Rome collapsing (above) that I happened upon was the one when everything collapses. It turns out, in other words, that — while  my point about the media’s interest in sudden catastrophe still holds — Cole’s vision was, it turns out, one of incremental decline and loss of an agrarian ideal.

But get this: Yesterday, a reader of Media and Mayhem pointed out  to me that the historian Niall Ferguson, writing recently in Foreign Affairs, was also moved by the same image, and the other paintings in the Cole series, to write about how the public perceives and understands the decline of empires. The articles is called Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos.

But Ferguson reaches a very different conclusion. Empires, he says,  are eminently capable of quick and catastrophic collapse.  Things can come apart quickly.  Social scientists are trained to look for long-term cracks and fissures in social structures, but sometimes, he argues,  a cataclysmic “final-straw”  brings everything tumbling down.

While I’m still pretty certain that media and culture often elevate the visibility of catastrophe and obscure the subtleties of incremental social change, Ferguson’s argument about the fall of empire is intriguing.

And I find it fascinating that he was inspired by the same painting that led me in a different direction.

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