The Course of the Empire
Thomas Cole -1836
Cedar Grove - The Thomas Cole National Historic Site

The Savage State
The first painting, The Savage State, shows the valley from the shore opposite the crag, in the dim light of a dawning stormy day. A hunter clad in skins hastens through the wilderness, pursuing a deer; canoes paddle up the river; on the far shore can be seen a clearing cluster of wigwams around a fire, the nucleus of the city that is to be. The visual references are those of Native American life.


The Arcadian or Pastoral State
In the second painting, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, the sky has cleared and we are in the fresh morning of a day in spring or early summer. The viewpoint has shifted further down the river, as the crag with the boulder is now on the left-hand side of the painting; a forked peak can be seen in the distance beyond it. Much of the wilderness has given way to settled lands, with plowed fields and lawns visible. Various activities go on in the background: plowing, boat-building, herding sheep, dancing; in the foreground, an old man sketches what may be a geometrical problem with a stick. On a bluff on the near side of the river, a megalithic temple has been built, and smoke (presumably from sacrifices) arises from it. The images reflect an idealized, pre-urban ancient Greece.


The Consummation of Empire
The third painting, The Consummation of Empire, shifts the viewpoint to the opposite shore, approximately the site of the clearing in the first painting. It is noontide of a glorious summer day. Both sides of the river valley are now covered in colonnaded marble structures, whose steps run down into the water. The megalithic temple seems to have been transformed into a huge domed structure dominating the river-bank. The mouth of the river is guarded by two pharoses, and ships with lateen sails go out to the sea beyond. A joyous crowd throngs the balconies and terraces as a scarlet-robed king or victorious general crosses a bridge connecting the two sides of the river in a triumphal procession. In the foreground an elaborate fountain gushes. The overall look suggests the height of ancient Rome.


The Destruction of Empire
The fourth painting, The Destruction of Empire, has almost the same point of view as the third, though the artist has stepped back a bit to allow a wider scene of the action, and moved almost to the center of the river. The action is, of course, the sack and destruction of the city, in the course of a tempest seen in the distance. It seems that a fleet of enemy warriors has overthrown the city's defenses, sailed up the river, and is busily firing the city and killing and raping its inhabitants. The bridge across which the triumphal procession had crossed is broken; a makeshift crossing strains under the weight of soldiers and refugees. Columns are broken, fire breaks from the upper floors of a palace on the river bank. In the foreground a statue of some venerable hero stands headless, still striding forward into the uncertain future, reminiscent of the hunter in the first painting. The scene is perhaps suggested by the Vandal sack of Rome in 455. A possible homage to Destruction was seen in the 2004 film Troy, when Achilles (played by Brad Pitt) decapitates a statue atop a hill during the ravishing of a magnificent imperial city.



The fifth painting, Desolation, shows the results, years later. We view the remains of the city in the livid light of a dying day. The landscape has begun to return to wilderness, and no human beings are to be seen; but the remnants of their architecture emerge from beneath a mantle of trees, ivy, and other overgrowth. The broken stumps of the pharoses loom in the background. The arches of the shattered bridge, and the columns of the temple are still visible; a single column looms in the foreground, now a nesting place for birds. The sunrise of the first painting is mirrored here by a moonrise, a pale light reflecting in the ruin-choked river while the standing pillar reflects the last rays of sunset.
Sic transit gloria mundi ("thus passes the glory of the world")


Collapse of the American Empire: swift, silent, certain
Commentary: Historians warning of a sudden 'thief at night,' an 'accelerating car crash'

By Paul B. Farrell
March 9, 2010, 12:01 a.m. EST

ARROYO GRANDE, Calif. (MarketWatch) -- "One of the disturbing facts of history is that so many civilizations collapse," warns anthropologist Jared Diamond in "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." Many "civilizations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society's demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power."

Now, Harvard's Niall Ferguson, one of the world's leading financial historians, echoes Diamond's warning: "Imperial collapse may come much more suddenly than many historians imagine. A combination of fiscal deficits and military overstretch suggests that the United States may be the next empire on the precipice." Yes, America is on the edge.

Dismiss his warning at your peril. Everything you learned, everything you believe and everything driving our political leaders is based on a misleading, outdated theory of history. The American Empire is at the edge of a dangerous precipice, at risk of a sudden, rapid collapse.

Ferguson is brilliant, prolific and contrarian. His works include the recent "Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World;" "The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World;" "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of The American Empire;" and "The War of the World," a survey of the "savagery of the 20th century" where he highlights a profound "paradox that, though the 20th century was 'so bloody,' it was also 'a time of unparalleled progress.'"

Why? Throughout history imperial leaders inevitably emerge and drive their nations into wars for greater glory and "economic progress," while inevitably leading their nation into collapse. And that happens suddenly and swiftly, within "a decade or two."

You'll find Ferguson's latest work, "Collapse and Complexity: Empires on the Edge of Chaos," in Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council of Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank. His message negates all the happy talk you're hearing in today's news -- about economic recovery and new bull markets, about "hope," about a return to "American greatness" -- from Washington politicians and Wall Street bankers.

Collapse of All Empires:' 5 stages repeating through the ages

Ferguson opens with a fascinating metaphor: "There is no better illustration of the life cycle of a great power than 'The Course of Empire,' a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole that hangs in the New York Historical Society. Cole was a founder of the Hudson River School and one of the pioneers of nineteenth-century American landscape painting; in 'The Course of Empire,' he beautifully captured a theory of imperial rise and fall to which most people remain in thrall to this day. Each of the five imagined scenes depicts the mouth of a great river beneath a rocky outcrop."

If you're unable to see them at the historical society, they're all reproduced in Foreign Affairs, underscoring Ferguson's warnings that the "American Empire on the precipice," near collapse.
First. 'The Savage State,' before the Empire rises

"In the first, 'The Savage State,' a lush wilderness is populated by a handful of hunter-gatherers eking out a primitive existence at the break of a stormy dawn." Imagine our history from Columbus' discovery of America in 1492 on through four more centuries as we savagely expanded across the continent.
Second. 'The Arcadian or Pastoral State,' as the American Empire flourishes

"The second picture, 'The Arcadian or Pastoral State,' is of an agrarian idyll: the inhabitants have cleared the trees, planted fields, and built an elegant Greek temple." The temple may seem out of place. However, Cole's paintings were done in 1833-1836, not long after Thomas Jefferson built the University of Virginia using classical Greek and Roman revival architecture.

As Ferguson continues the tour you sense you're actually inside the New York Historical Society, visually reminded of how history's great cycles do indeed repeat over and over. You are also reminded of one of history's great tragic ironies -- that all nations fail to learn the lessons of history, that all nations and their leaders fall prey to their own narcissistic hubris and that all eventually collapse from within.
Third. Consummation of the American Empire

"The third and largest of the paintings is 'The Consummation of Empire.' Now, the landscape is covered by a magnificent marble entrepôt, and the contented farmer-philosophers of the previous tableau have been replaced by a throng of opulently clad merchants, proconsuls and citizen-consumers. It is midday in the life cycle."

'The Consummation of Empire' focuses us on Ferguson's core message: At the very peak of their power, affluence and glory, leaders arise, run amok with imperial visions and sabotage themselves, their people and their nation. They have it all.

But more-is-not enough as greed, arrogance and a thirst for power consume them. Back in the early days of the Iraq war, Kevin Phillips, political historian and former Nixon strategist, also captured this inevitable tendency in Wealth and Democracy:

"Most great nations, at the peak of their economic power, become arrogant and wage great world wars at great cost, wasting vast resources, taking on huge debt, and ultimately burning themselves out." We sense the "consummation" of the American Empire occurred with the leadership handoff from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush.

Unfortunately that peak is behind us: Clinton, Bush, Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and all future American leaders are merely playing their parts in the greatest of all historical dramas, repeating but never fully grasping the lessons of history in their insatiable drive for "economic progress," to recapture former glory ... while unwittingly pushing our empire to the edge, into collapse.
Four. Destruction of the Empire

Then comes 'The Destruction of Empire,' the fourth stage in Ferguson's grand drama about the life-cycle of all empires. In "Destruction" "the city is ablaze, its citizens fleeing an invading horde that rapes and pillages beneath a brooding evening sky." Elsewhere in "The War of the World," Ferguson described the 20th century as "the bloodiest in history, one hundred years of butchery." Today's high-tech relentless news cycle, suggests that our 21st century world is a far bloodier return to savagery.

At this point, investors are asking themselves: How can I prepare for the destruction and collapse of the American Empire? There is no solution in the Cole-Ferguson scenario, only an acceptance of fate, of destiny, of history's inevitable cycles.

But there is one in "Wealth, War and Wisdom" by hedge fund manager Barton Biggs, Morgan Stanley's former chief global strategist who warns us of the "possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure," advising us to buy a farm in the mountains.

"Your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food ... well-stocked with seed, fertilizer, canned food, wine, medicine, clothes, etc. Think Swiss Family Robinson." And when they come looting, fire "a few rounds over the approaching brigands' heads."
Five. Desolation ... after the Empire disappears

"Finally, the moon rises over the fifth painting, 'Desolation,'" says Ferguson. There is not a living soul to be seen, only a few decaying columns and colonnades overgrown by briars and ivy." No attacking "brigands?" No loveable waste-collecting robots from Wall-E?

The good news is the Earth will naturally regenerate itself without savage humans, as we saw in Alan Weisman's brilliant "The World Without Us:" Steel buildings decay. Microbes eat indestructible plastics. Eons pass. And Earth reemerges in all its glory, a Garden of Eden.
Epilogue: 'All Empires ... are condemned to decline and fall'

In a Los Angeles Times column, Ferguson asks: "America, a Fragile Empire: Here today, gone tomorrow, could the United States fall that fast?" And his answer is clear and emphatic: "For centuries, historians, political theorists, anthropologists and the public have tended to think about the political process in seasonal, cyclical terms ... we discern a rhythm to history. Great powers, like great men, are born, rise, reign and then gradually wane. No matter whether civilizations decline culturally, economically or ecologically, their downfalls are protracted."

We are deceiving ourselves, convinced "the challenges that face the United States are often represented as slow-burning ... threats seem very remote."

"But what if history is not cyclical and slow-moving but arrhythmic?" asks Ferguson. What if history is "at times almost stationary but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car? What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?" What if the collapse of the American Empire is dead ahead, in the next decade? What if, as with the 2000 dot-com crash, we're in denial, refusing to prepare?

Ferguson's final message about America's destiny comes from Foreign Affairs: "Conceived in the mid-1830s, Cole's great five-part painting has a clear message: all empires, no matter how magnificent, are condemned to decline and fall." Throughout history, empires function "in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly ... collapse," a blunt reminder of the sudden, swift, silent, certain timetable in Diamond's "Collapse" where a "society's demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power."

You are forewarned: If the peak of America's glory was the leadership handoff from Clinton to Bush, then we have already triggered the countdown to collapse, the decade from 2010 until 2020 ... tick ... tick ... tick ...

Thomas Cole
Cedar Grove - The Thomas Cole National Historic Site

Thomas Cole Born: 1-Feb-1801
Birthplace: Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire, England
Died: 11-Feb-1848
Location of death: Catskill, NY
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Catskill Village Cemetery, Catskill, NY

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Painter

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: American landscape painter

American landscape painter, was born at Bolton-le-Moors, England, on the 1st of February 1801. In 1819 the family emigrated to America, settling first in Philadelphia and then at Steubenville, Ohio, where Cole learned the rudiments of his profession from a wandering portrait painter named Stein. He went about the country painting portraits, but with little financial success. Removing to New York (1825), he displayed some landscapes in the window of an eating-house, where they attracted the attention of the painter John Trumbull, who sought him out, bought one of his canvases, and found him patrons. From this time Cole was prosperous. He is best remembered by a series of pictures consisting of four canvases representing "The Voyage of Life", and another series of five canvases representing "The Course of Empire", the latter now in the gallery of the New York Historical Society. They were allegories, in the taste of the day, and became exceedingly popular, being reproduced in engravings with great success. The work, however, was meretricious, the sentiment false, artificial and conventional, and the artist's genuine fame must rest on his landscapes, which, though thin in the painting, hard in the handling, and not infrequently painful in detail, were at least earnest endeavors to portray the world out of doors as it appeared to the painter; their failings were the result of Cole's environment and training. He had an influence on his time and his fellows which was considerable, and with Durand he may be said to have founded the early school of American landscape painters. Cole spent the years 1829-32 and 1841-42 abroad, mainly in Italy, and at Florence lived with the sculptor Greenough. After 1827 he had a studio in the Catskills which furnished the subjects of some of his canvases, and he died at Catskill, New York, on the 11th of February 1848. His pictures are in many public and private collections. His "Expulsion from Eden" is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

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