Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall

Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall

Amy Chua
New York: Doubleday, 2007. xxxiv + 396 pages.

This book is about what makes a great society great and what causes a great society to self-destruct. It is clearly intended by its author, a chaired professor of law at Yale, to be a cautionary tale for the United States. However the book's message can be applied to any organized society, not just to nations, and its message resonates strikingly with Theosophy.

In Chua's use, the term "hyperpower" refers to a nation of vast economic and military might whose influence extends widely over its world and affects multitudes of people. Chua's thesis is that historically every such nation has been marked by extraordinary tolerance and pluralism during its rise, and by intolerance, xenophobia, and racial, religious, or ethnic "purity" during its fall. That thesis is what resonates with Theosophy.

The Theosophical Society from its foundation—in both its formal statement of objects and in its actual practice—has espoused an openness to the unexplained, an encouragement of comparativeness, and a dedication to practical fraternity without distinctions of any kind. Theosophy's attitude to "tolerance" is not just forbearance, but respect, sympathy, and adaptation.

Chua's examples of hyperpowers are the Persian empire founded by Cyrus the Great; Rome during its golden age of Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius; China's Tang dynasty; the Mongol empire founded by Genghis Khan; the Dutch commercial empire of the seventeenth century; the British empire after the Glorious Revolution of 1688; and American hegemony after World War II. Her examples of potential hyperpowers that fell before they had properly risen include Spain after the Inquisition, Nazi Germany, and twentieth-century imperial Japan.

"Tolerance," Chua emphasizes, is a relative matter. All of the hyperpowers have been intolerant in certain ways and often, especially the Mongols, calculatedly cruel. But all have practiced "strategic tolerance." That is, they have embraced such diversity as was seen to be helpful in achieving their aims, and that generally included religious and racial inclusiveness. There is another kind of tolerance, however, which Theosophy promotes, namely a tolerance advocated by the eighteenth-century European Age of Enlightenment.

The Age of Enlightenment urged reason rather than prejudice as the basis for action and affirmed that all of us have a natural right to live according to our own lights so long as we do not interfere with the same natural right of others. The founders of the United States were advocates of Enlightenment, as testified by the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Declaration stated the doctrine of natural rights in traditional religious, but nonsectarian, terms. However, it is not clear exactly where or how the "Creator" stated that endowment. The founders simply took it as a given. What modern Theosophy has done is to make it possible to link Enlightenment tolerance as a natural right with the Indic concept of monism. The latter, found in Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., is that only one ultimate reality exists in the universe and that we and all else are expressions of it. If all of us share the same life, then none of us has a right to force others to conform to our expectations. All of us have a natural right to tolerance as respect, sympathy, and adaptation.

The Theosophical Society has been called both a bridge between East and West and (by the Mahachohan) "the corner-stone, the foundation of the future religions of humanity." It is a bridge because it joins the Eastern concept of the unity of all life with, and as the basis for, the Western Enlightenment concept of natural rights. It is the foundation for the future of humanity because the "Day of Empire" is over. An empire is a political unit dominating and controlling many peoples. Such a political unit is incompatible with either the unity of life or natural rights.

A religion or dharma is that which "ties us again" or "holds us firmly together" (the etymological meanings of those two words). The ideals of the unity of life and of natural rights must be the basis of a future global political unit on this planet. Because those two ideals are at the core of the Theosophical Society, that Society—not as an organization, but as an inspiration—is the foundation of humanity's future. Theosophists need to live up to that ideal.

John Algeo

The reviewer is past president of the Theosophical Society in America.