Perhaps the definitive work on the rise and fall of civilizations was published in 1934 by Oxford anthropologist J.D. Unwin.
In Sex and Culture, Unwin studied 86 human civilizations ranging from tiny South Sea island principalities to mighty Rome. He found that a society’s destiny is linked inseparably to the limits it imposes on sexual expression and that those sexual constraints correlate directly to its theological sophistication and religious commitment.
Unwin noted that the most primitive societies had only rudimentary spiritual beliefs and virtually no restrictions on sexual expression, whereas societies with more sophisticated theologies placed greater restrictions on sexual expression and achieved greater social development.
In particular, cultures that adopt what Unwin dubbed “absolute monogamy” proved to be the most vigorous, economically productive, artistically creative, scientifically innovative, and geographically expansive societies on earth.
Absolute monogamy is a very strict moral code. Under absolute monogamy, sex can occur only within one-man/ one-woman marriage. Premarital and extramarital sex are not tolerated and divorce is prohibited.
Understandably, the only societies that practice absolute monogamy are the ones that take their religion very seriously. Whether monotheistic or polytheistic, they believe devoutly in God or gods, and they order their society according to divine moral laws.
Unwin himself was raised in Christian England, but he did not appear to be a believer in orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, he was honest enough to acknowledge what his research revealed—that absolute monogamy, the key to societal health, is deeply consistent with the sexual regulations laid out in the Bible, particularly in the moral code Unwin described as “Pauline.”
Unwin’s contemporary, British historian Arnold Toynbee, was much more explicit about the centrality of religion in history. Toynbee’s masterpiece, his 12-volume Study of History, charted the rise and fall of 26 civilizations. In Toynbee’s view, “The course of human history consists of a series of encounters…in which each man or woman or child…is challenged by God to make the free choice between doing God’s will and refusing to do it.”
Why exactly does absolute monogamy, the Pauline moral code, bring vitality to a society? Absolute monogamy fosters cultural growth by solving what anthropologist Margret Mead called the “central problem of every society”— that is, to “define appropriate roles for the men.” Monogamous civilizations require men to choose either lifelong celibacy or the responsibilities of a husband: fidelity, breadwinning, and fatherhood. Most men choose to marry, to their good fortune, because married men tend to be healthier, happier, and more productive than bachelors.
Those committed husbands create stable marriages, which offer the greatest opportunity for raising healthy, productive children who can keep a society strong and growing.
Likewise, the great economist Joseph Schumpeter attributes the success of capitalism not to the entrepreneur’s lust for money or status, but to his love of family. To Schumpeter, the central pillar of any healthy civilization is the self-sacrificing married man who doesn’t spend his income on his pleasures, but prefers “to work and save primarily for his wife and children.”
And in Family and Civilization, Harvard historian Carle Zimmerman concludes that “the creative periods in civilization have been based upon” the strongest form of family, which he terms the “domestic” type: “The domestic family affords a comparatively stable social structure and yet frees the individual sufficiently from family influence to perform the creative work necessary for a great civilization.”
If devotion to God, a Pauline moral code, and strong marriages and families are the key to cultural success, then what causes civilizations to decline?
Zimmerman warns of “periods of family decay in which civilization is suffering internally from the lack of basic belief in the forces which make it work.” Unwin’s explanation would be that if people lose their faith in God, they tend to lose their motivation to live by the strict moral code.
In This Present Age, sociologist Robert Nisbet writes, “What sociologists are prone to call social disintegration is really nothing more than the spectacle of a rising number of individuals playing fast and loose with other individuals in relationships of trust and responsibility.” Moral standards begin to erode when a society’s members chafe at the discipline imposed by absolute monogamy and begin to gratify their personal impulses without regard for the consequences inflicted on others.
In other words, in an amoral, hedonistic society, you can’t trust the people you need to trust, not even your spouse. Moreover, if people can make and break relationships at will, with no legal repercussions or social stigma, they are much more likely to abandon their marriages—at their children’s expense—when the going gets tough. Husbands with roving eyes are much more likely to trade in their wives for new models.
Thus, the founder of Harvard’s sociology department, Pitirim Sorokin, warned that if individualistic selfishness and self-seeking are not checked, a society will lapse into a state of “sexual anarchy.” In The American Sex Revolution, Sorokin writes that “both man and society are degraded” as a culture becomes “sexually obsessed:”
The members of such a society are habituated to look at the opposite sex as a mere instrument for pleasure…To these individuals, talk of human dignity, religious, and moral commandments, and rules of decency is just bosh…The society degrades the values of womanhood and manhood, of motherhood and fatherhood and venerable age, of marriage and family, and even of love itself.
—Brian Fitzpatrick, Whistleblower, Nov. 2010, pp. 38ff