From Dust, To Dust: An Analysis of Thomas Cole’s Series of Paintings, The Course of Empire, Through Social Cycle Theory
(Posting an essay I wrote for school here as a stopgap while I polish some other pieces I’m writing. Expect a political economy piece soon)
Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire paintings are widely regarded as some of the most important paintings in the history of American art. The writer James Fenimore Cooper called them “one of the noblest works of art ever wrought” (Davidson). What makes The Course of Empire so fascinating, at least to myself, is that it tracks a civilization’s rise and fall. We see five stages of an imaginary city, from its incipient state of savagery, to its height and grandeur as an imperial city, and finally to its post-apocalyptic remains after its destruction. The defining narrative of Cole’s work is a reflection of what some sociologists and historians call “social cycle theory”. Proponents of social cycle theory believe that civilizations rise and fall in a, as the name suggests, cyclical fashion. Many individuals point to the annals of history, where countless civilizations, even fantastic civilizations, have been lost to time. There are a variety of social cycle theorists, but I wish to engage with three in particular who I believe offer a diverse set of perspectives on how civilizations grow, prosper, decline, and fall: Ibn Khaldun, Oswald Spengler, and Pitirim Sorokin. While Spengler and Sorokin both lived after Cole and it is unlikely Cole would be familiar with a 14th century Islamic thinker, Cole appears to have intuitively grasped the concept of social cycle theory. In this paper, I intend to present an original analysis of the motives behind, and meaning of, Cole’s The Course of Empire paintings by examining them through the lens of social cycle theories provided by Ibn Khaldun, Spengler, and Sorokin.
As stated earlier, Thomas Cole was born in Bolton le Mors in Lancashire, England. At the time, Bolton le Mors was a mill town, and Cole was exposed from a young age to the realities of the Industrial Revolution: “He would have witnessed firsthand the pollution and destruction of the natural environment caused by industrialization” (The National Gallery). He worked in the textiles industry, where he almost certainly would have been exposed to the social impact of industrialization: the dehumanization of man in wretched working conditions that individuals like Marx denounced so strongly. One group he may have been exposed to at the time was the Luddites. The Luddites were originally a “19th century labor movement that railed against the economic fallout of the Industrial Revolution. [They] were British weavers and textile workers who objected to the increased use of automated looms and knitting frames” (Andrews). The Luddites would become infamous for destroying machines after their calls for help from the government were ignored (Andrews). While Cole was not a painter at this time, British landscape painting was at its height, with the likes of Constable and Turner portraying not only the British landscape in stunning manners, but also “an England under transformation in the Industrial Revolution, full of fire and smoke” (The National Gallery).
The next phase of Cole’s life would begin when his family emigrated to America in 1818, when Cole was just 17 years old. Shortly afterwards, Cole began to teach himself how to paint, and it was apparent that he had prodigious talent. His primary focus at the time was the American wilderness. (The National Gallery) In many ways, Cole’s depiction of the vast expanses of “unspoiled/untouched” territory on the American continent played a major role in shaping the American imagination, especially with regards to the concept of Manifest Destiny, an idea that plays a major, albeit subtle, role in The Course of Empire. It is quite likely that, after leaving the heavily industrialized England where he was born, the expanse of wilderness in his new home would be jaw-dropping (Carrigan). As he developed his craft of painting, he decided to return to his birthplace, and engage with the highly developed world of British landscape painting. “There was so much to be seen [there] at the Royal Academy, at the brand new National Gallery, and in studios around the city” (The National Gallery). While here, he may have first been exposed to the concept of landscape painting as allegory, through the works of individuals like John Martin. Furthermore, Cole developed a friendship with the painter John Constable, and appropriated Constable’s interest in skies, declaring “skies are the soul of all scenery” and “American skies are unsurpassed”. (The National Gallery) Unfortunately for him, he was received more as a student than as a professional artist in London, and he was disappointed. Within a couple of years, Cole decided to move south to Italy.
While not spending a tremendous amount of time in Italy, his time spent there taught Cole a number of lessons, some of which were crucial to the development of The Course of Empire. First, while in Italy, Cole took up the “landscape oil sketch” which “infused new energy into his art” (The National Gallery). It was also here that Cole encountered the ruins of Ancient Rome, some of which he depicted in his paintings. And it was this encounter that would be transported back to America and form the basis of the mindset that led to The Course of Empire. For Cole was not only intellectually aware of fallen civilizations, but had physically encountered the ruins of one, and when combined with his romantic environmentalism, his motivations for The Course of Empire began to take shape.
To further examine those motivations, we must return to the notion stated in the introductory paragraph that, while it was unlikely Cole had access to the works of a social cycle theorist (or at least a prominent one), he seemed to intuitively grasp the concept of cyclical history, and the rise and fall of civilizations. An intuition that was only solidified by his time in Italy observing the ruins of ancient Rome (Davidson). The outsize importance placed on the 19th century as a time of transition (the Industrial Revolution, Manifest Destiny, etc.) may be sufficient to grant that Cole was a remarkably prescient thinker. Yet, his apparent prescience was almost certainly due to his life experiences. As noted earlier, Cole worked in the textiles industry as a youth in England, and was almost certainly exposed to the Luddites, perhaps the first victims of modern technological unemployment. Implicit in the Luddites message was that earlier forms of society and production were better. The vicious quashing of the Luddite uprisings by the British government may have elevated their movement to an almost martyr-like status in the eyes of some (Andrews). Furthermore, America was in its “glorious youth” in the 1830s, perhaps a few steps behind England in terms of development; and this may have frightened Cole (Davidson). Cole’s love of the American wilderness may have morphed into a protective attachment to it, as he feared what might happen to the expanse of forests and hills and rivers if industrialists got their hands on them. In fact, he abhorred the fact that, in his own words, the “‘dollar-goaded utilitarians’” were cutting down the pristine forests (Davidson).
But it wasn’t just industrialization that bothered Cole. While America was still in a “glorious youth”, the time period around which he painted The Course of Empire, 1833–36, was a period of turmoil in American politics. Andrew Jackson was president. And Cole was not a fan. In fact Cole had serious concerns about “industrial growth under Andrew Jackson” (The National Gallery). Also, some interpret a central figure within The Course of Empire paintings as being symbolic of Jackson (Rhakotis). The centralization of power in state apparatuses and/or individuals plays a major role in social cycle theorists description of how the rise of powerful states engenders their own downfall. And again, while Cole was not a scholar of social cycle theory, he appears to fear this centralization and industrialization, these “imperial” or “global” cities. Interestingly, Cole’s fear of the Jackson’s populism has strong parallels in Spengler’s theory of social cycle theory; unfortunately for Spengler, Cole got there first by a few decades.
Finally, an analysis of the motivations behind the paintings cannot be done without at least discussing the commissioning of the series. Cole was commissioned by Luman Reed to create the series of paintings to cover a wall of Reed’s private art gallery; unfortunately, Reed passed away prior to the completion and the paintings found their way to the New York Historical Society (Davidson). In response to Reed’s commission, Cole laid out his idea for the paintings as follows:
“‘A series of pictures might be painted,’ he wrote Reed in September, 1833, ‘that should illustrate the history of a natural scene, as well as be an epitome of Man, — showing the natural changes of landscape, and those effected by man in his progress from barbarism to civilization — to luxury — to the vicious state, or state of destruction — and to the state of ruin and desolation.’” (Davidson)
These questions likely preoccupied Cole’s mind ever since his trip to Italy when he came into physical contact with the ruins of not only a great civilization, but Rome, the great civilization that almost every subsequent Western power has tried to emulate or appropriate. While we cannot be positive Cole was preoccupied with this question for years, it was at the very least on his mind when planning The Course of Empire:
“The philosophy of my subject is drawn from the history of the past, wherein we see how nations have risen from the savage state to that of power and glory, and then fallen, and become extinct” (Davidson).
So, even though Cole was not a scholar of social cycle theory, The Course of Empire reflects the same ideas found in the works of many of these theorists. While there are many theorists who believe in a cyclical theory of history, three in particular present interesting ideas for analyzing Cole’s works: Ibn Khaldun, Oswald Spengler, and Pitirim Sorokin.
Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis in present-day Tunisia in 1332 AD, although his family originated from South Arabia and had migrated to Tunis through Serville. (Okene & Ahmad, 82) During this time, Ibn Khaldun came to disdain the apparent moral corruption that accompanied economic and societal development in cities. He also possesses a romanticized vision of the Bedouin people, the more “primitive” desert nomads of the Middle East. (83) From his observations of society, Ibn Khaldun would write the Muqadimmah, a masterful work of sociology, history, and anthropology that is still celebrated today. While the Muqadimmah covers a number of topics, one of the biggest contributions Ibn Khaldun made was establishing arguably the first truly systematic social cycle theory. This theory centered around two concepts: Umran and Asabiyya. Umran is more literally translated as “cooperation” or “culture,” but it would make more sense to describe it as “the extent of society” (Önder & Ulasan 238). An individual can rarely live successfully in an independent fashion. As individuals come together to form tribes and then, later, civilizations, umran grows. It is from this concept that Khaldun distinguished between only two types of societies: Badawa or desert life/uncivilized, and Hadara or urban/sedentary/civilized culture (238). This distinction reflects his observations of the sedentary, “civilized” Islamic peoples standing in opposition to the nomadic, “uncivilized” Bedouins. But how does Umran develop? And how does it collapse? Ibn Khaldun did believe that “civilized” society had a limited life span. Here Ibn Khaldun introduces his second concept of Asabiyya, which can be loosely translated to something akin to “group-feeling”, “blood bond”, “solidarity”, or “social cohesion” (241). In Ibn Khaldun’s theory, the societies of the desert like the Bedouins possess a very strong asabiyya, while asabiyya deteriorates and eventually disappears amongst people in sedentary life. Ibn Khaldun believed strong (but just) leadership and religion contributed positively to asabiyya; on the other hand, wealth and political corruption broke asabiyya down.
Ibn Khaldun’s theory only differentiated between two stages of civilization. While it is possible to universalize his theory to some extent, since the concepts of asabiyya and umran are broad enough to do so, it does leave something wanting when it comes to developing a universal systematic theory of history that demonstrates social cycles. This type of theory would arguably be best formulated and described by Oswald Spengler in his monumental tome, The Decline of the West.
Spengler was born in Blankenburg in central Germany in 1880. After an unfulfilling career in teaching, following his mother’s death in 1911 and the acquisition of his inheritance, he left his teaching position, settled in Munich, and began to write a book that, at the time, was tentatively titled Conservative and Liberal. The work was intended to examine the current social, economic, and political trends in Europe, but Spengler soon came to a realization that would change his work’s scope dramatically: Europe’s current predicament could only be understood in global and “total-cultural” terms. As his work exploded in scope, the advent of the First World War seemed only to confirm his hypotheses. And after years of writing, Spengler would release a book that would change how Europeans saw themselves and the world. (Stimely)
Published in 1918, the Decline of the West was an immediate success. The trauma inflected on the West from the war, and especially inflicted on Germany, seemed like needless violence and the fatalist approach of Spengler’s work seemed to have a perverse emotional appeal, even to the “victors” of the war. While Spengler agreed with Khaldun that there are different stages of development of a society, Spengler extended the developmental timeline; however, Spengler did take after Khaldun in the sense that Spengler identified two overarching phases of every society: Culture and Civilization (Spengler 31). A society begins as a Culture which then develops into a Civilization. Spengler benefitted from the fact that, in the early 20th century, the historical records available to him were vastly more numerous and accurate than the records available to Ibn Khaldun. Through this, Spengler identified eight “High Cultures” (Stimely); interestingly, while the modern West exists as one of those eight, Spengler does not privilege the modern West above any of the other civilizations, a surprising attitude for a German in the early 20th century (Spengler 23). Central to Spengler’s argument was that societies are akin to organisms, and go through processes of growth and decline. In Spengler’s opinion, the seed of each society’s destruction exists within it from the moment the society is born (31–32). Furthermore, Spengler argued there was a fundamental element of each society’s soul (303). This was partly expressed in the concept of the “prime symbol”. Important for Cole’s work, the prime symbol of the modern West (which Spengler refers to as “Faustian” culture) is the infinity symbol, denoting infinite/boundless space. (304–309) The very name Faustian comes from Goethe’s Faust, the man who made a deal with the devil for knowledge and power in exchange for his soul; Faust’s demise (and, metaphorically, Faustian society’s demise) occurs when his creative energies have been exhausted (Bartleby). Much of Spengler’s work is relevant to Cole’s paintings, but he isn’t the last of the social cycle theorists. And the final social cycle theorist breaks from Spengler significantly.
Pitirim Sorokin was born on January 21, 1889, in a small village in remote, northern Russia. In 1917, he married his wife Elena, and in 1923, they left Russia, eventually arriving in the U.S. after a year spent in Prague. Sorokin would teach at Harvard for three decades, where his interests and philosophical perspective would shift significantly. He arrived at Harvard as a positivist sociologist, but over time, he transformed into a far more holistic analyst of history. In 1937, he would publish his magnum opus, the four-volume Social and Cultural Dynamics, which “spanned 2,500 years and attempted to isolate the principles of social change as they were manifested in his studies of art, philosophy, science, law ethics, religion and psychology”. (Johnston)
Sorokin’s analysis of art, philosophy, and religion led him to the belief that, contra Spengler, there was a distinction between sociocultural systems and biological systems. “Unlike biological organisms, civilizations are not perfectly integrated, and therefore they do not “decline” or die” (Richard 94). Sorokin then differentiated between two types of values systems that shape the cultures of the societies they are practices in: Sensate and Ideational.
“During a sensate period all aspects of life are dominated by a materialistic world view, and economic and scientific activities flourish, particularly during the “active” sensate phase. During the “passive” phase hedonistic values prevail, and in the final “cynical” stage the sensate mentality negates everything, including itself. Ideational periods, in contrast, are spiritually oriented. (There are two subtypes: active and passive).” (94)
Sorokin would go on to argue, through his “law of polarization”, that it was shifts between these values systems that caused destabilization and violence; however, he does not that there occasionally happens to be a kind of “happy medium/synthesis” that occurs when the best values of each values system blend (ex: a balance of faith, reason, and empiricism) (94). When he applied his historical analysis to Western society in the early 20th century, Sorokin diagnosed the modern West as being a:
“decaying sensate civilization…moving towards a difficult and bloody period of transition” (Johnston).
From here, Sorokin would go on to analyze conflict, epistemology, and altruism, as his humanism drove him to look for solutions to the West’s issues.
Now that we have established Cole’s background and motivations for creating The Course of Empire, as well as examined three of the most prominent and respected social cycle theorists in history, we must turn our eye to the paintings themselves. For clarification, pictures of the paintings will be attached to the back of this paper, behind the Works Cited. They will be referred to by name. There are five paintings in this series and we shall engage with them in the order of the narrative that Cole established.
The first painting in the series is titled “The Savage State”. In it, we see what appears to be a tribe of hunter gatherers living in a stormy wilderness on the edge of a lake. In the foreground, a lone hunter accompanied by a hound chase a deer. Most of the humanity is seen in the middle ground, with a band of hunters in the center of the painting returning to the tribe’s settlement on the right side of the painting and some people in boats in the bottom right. Because we only see a snapshot here, it is difficult to have any idea what the nature of this civilization is, making it difficult to apply Sorokin or Spengler’s analysis to the painting. But Ibn Khaldun’s concepts are both applicable. In this scenario, umran is limited. We only see a single, small settlement on the right hand side of the painting, and while there are implications of perhaps a second settlement with the red spots in the smoke or fog rising from the coast of the body of water just to the left of the primary settlement, we can’t be sure that’s what Cole intended with that section of the painting. Without means of rapid transportation, civilization is centered around a settlement and only ventures out a small amount to get food. The umran is small, and the asabiyya is strong. It is difficult to make out, but it does appear like there are a number of small figures around the fire in the settlement, and of all the people in this painting, only the hunter in the foreground is isolated from his fellow man. But while a strong asabiyya is desirable, Cole was under no romantic delusion as to the nature of this stage of society. The dark, ominous clouds hanging over the land hide the rest of the landscape from us; just as people in the “savage state” cannot venture far from their settlement without risking death, our eyes cannot venture far from the limited domain of these people. The darkness of the forests only adds to this feeling of the unknown, of dread. Humans in this stage of society are still at the whim and mercy of Mother Nature and her ferocious and arbitrary power.
But humans do not remain in the “savage state” forever; as Cole depicts, society develops into next stage depicted in the painting titled, “The Arcadian or Pastoral State”. The most prominent and immediately identifiable shift from the past painting to the current one is the sky. As mentioned earlier, Cole believed that the “skies are the soul of all scenery”, and the much lighter and clearer sky here, with only a few clouds to be seen, depicts a society that is far more stable. Umran, the boundaries of civilization, seem to have expanded. There is a temple, pastures, boats on the shore on the right-hand side of the painting, and what appears to be a significantly larger settlement on the shores of the body of water to the left of the temple. Here, man appears to live in harmony with nature. It is reasonable to assume that the wood for the boats and houses came from local trees which can be replenished, and the temple, while being the most prominent piece of architecture in the painting, is also not ostentatious. While not “utilitarian” or “minimalist”, it appears built more so for the direct purpose of worship as opposed to the selfish purpose of impressing others. Here we begin to see potential parallels to Spengler’s discussion of “Faustian” culture. It is reasonable to assume Cole was depicting a Western-centric concept of development and while it is true that the paintings appear to depict Classical architecture far more than Medieval or modern Western, Spengler argues that art in any society necessarily reflects the soul of that society (191). Here, we see perhaps the first instantiation of the prime symbol of infinite or boundless space. In just one painting, the span of civilization has shifted dramatically, and the horizons, the potential limits, have shifted from the nearby forests shrouded in darkness and fog, to beyond the mountains in the distance, unobstructed and visible to the naked eye.
I believe that Cole introduces a concept in this paining that carries on throughout the series: Manifest Destiny. While most people consider Manifest Destiny a peculiarly American concept, it can just as easily be understood as the instantiation in a particular territory of the West (in this case, America) of the Faustian prime symbol of “infinite space” and the Faustian drive for exploring said space (Spengler 304–309). Cole wrote during a period of American expansion and exploration on the continent, and certainly understood the magnitude of the movement across the continent. As the society in these paintings progresses, we will see how space, and therefore horizons, are affected.
Furthermore, this painting does introduce a number of other social critiques: most prominently, the tree trunk stump in the bottom right of the painting, already warning of the destruction of the environment that can occur at even such an early stage of society. The next critique I see, possibly, emanates from the pensive man in the bottom left who I will refer to from now on as “the philosopher” due to his garments and his pensive appearance.
The philosopher thinking about society, while being detached from society (he is the only one alone in the painting besides the shepherd, but the shepherd has the excuse of being at work). The prominence of the temple in the painting and in relation to the settlement and people implies that the society is in an Ideational, or spiritual, phase under Sorokin’s model; however, there is something foreboding about the lone philosopher in the bottom left, sitting in the shadows. As if he can somehow see the future. A question that might be asked is if the philosopher reflects Cole’s own concerns about how he’s seen society develop and where it might go from there.
Next, we reach the third painting in the series, and we encounter a massive shift, both in what is being depicted and how it is being depicted. “The Consummation of Empire” is the largest painting in the series and depicts what can only be described as a major imperial city (The National Gallery). The first major shift that occurs with this painting is in the title: the shift from “state” to “Empire”. While not a formal element of the painting, I would argue this pretty accurately reflects the shift from Culture to Civilization in Spengler’s writings. To understand this more fully, let’s examine that concept in more depth. Spengler believed that society roughly moved through four stages or “seasons” (since they correspond to our seasons) (Spengler 107–108). In the first stage of society, religious feeling and social cohesion are strong, and society is primarily agrarian; in other words, asabiyya is at its peak. In the second stage of society, we see the development of the town in relation to the country-side. In this stage, we have a balance between the power of the two, with them working in harmony. This roughly corresponds to the pastoral state that Cole depicted. But how does a Culture become a Civilization? As the Culture’s principles break down, it “hardens” into a Civilization (Spengler 31–34). In terms of Faustian society, we can find this breakdown by discovering where the prime symbol of “boundless space” and exploratory nature of the Faustian soul become exhausted. In other words, the horizons have been reached, and there is nothing more that can be accomplished to satisfy the Faustian soul. In “The Consummation of Empire”, wilderness is basically nonexistent, relegated to a few trees or apparent gardens sprinkled throughout the city. There are even pathways up to the boulder on the top of the mountain that overlooks each painting in the series, perhaps paralleling the total pursuit of knowledge of a Faustian society. In fact, the pathways up to the boulder almost seem like pathways up towards the sky or heaven, similar to a Tower of Babel. In this manner, the Faustian soul betrays itself. The pursuit of limitless knowledge and power can never be satisfied in our finite world with our finite lives. The imperial city depicted by Cole is the beginning of the end: it is the first stage of Civilization.
The absolute decadence depicted in the painting would almost certainly disgust Ibn Khaldun, who noted that money and corruption lead to a decline in asabiyya, and it was the decline in asabiyya that heralded the end of a society and its defeat at the hands of a new frontier society with greater asabiyya. Sorokin too would almost certainly describe this as stage of the society as having shifted from an ideational stage to a sensate stage, and particularly to a passive sensate stage, defined by hedonistic consumption. One final point in this painting is that, while the architecture and people of the city are clearly designed to evoke a feeling of Classical (or as Spengler would refer to it, Apollinian) society, certain elements may have contemporary connections.
While the figure crossing the central bridge certainly seems designed to evoke a Roman emperor’s appearance, it is quite possible that the depiction was also a not-so-subtle criticism of the populism of the current president, Andrew Jackson. (Rhakotis) As noted earlier, Cole feared the industrial development that was ruining the wilderness which Jackson was pushing under a populist agenda (Atack). Even the emperor here appears to be feigning a “man of the people” image, as Cole may have felt Jackson was doing in order to secure power. And just as Ibn Khaldun noted that the centralization and corruption of power was the deathknell of asabiyya and therefore society, Jackson’s open defiance of the Supreme Court may have struck serious fear in Cole’s heart as to the direction America was moving in (Rana, Sultana).
I mentioned earlier that there was an element of Spengler’s theory that may have applied to Jackson; or, in other words, Cole may have perceived Jackson in the same way Spengler perceived members of a category he referred to as “Caesars”. In the declining, “winter” phase of a society, political systems degenerate into competitions between powerful, charismatic individuals. Ideology is pushed aside and it becomes battles between personal armies (Spengler Tables 1 and 2 & 36–38). I believe Cole may have perceived Jackson as one of these “Caesars”. A populist who flouted established rule of law and the Constitution to do as he pleased seems to fit the bill of this kind of charismatic, personal leader. Now, while it is true that Spengler argues that Faustian Culture hardened into Faustian Civilization in the 19th century, it is difficult to argue that Jackson was truly a “Caesar” (Spengler 32). Perhaps a proto-Caesar, but if he was a Caesar, it seems far more likely that Faustian Civilization would’ve fallen by now. Either way, Spengler probably would’ve agreed with Cole that Jackson was a dangerous figure.
This fear of Jackson’s potential “Caesarism” and its consequences is depicted in a viscerally unsettling fourth painting titled simply, “Destruction”. There is lots to unpack in this painting, but the first element that caught my eye was the sky, due to the importance Cole attaches to it. Unlike the clear sky of the previous two paintings, this sky is dark, clouded and obscured by the smoke rising from the conflagration consuming the city. The last time we saw this kind of dark sky was in “The Savage State”; however, there is a significant difference between the two. The sky in “The Savage State” appears to present opportunity, as it opens up over the body of water to let the sun in; on the other hand, in “Destruction”, the smoke from the city is coming up from the outer edges of the sky and cutting off the sun. There is no longer any opportunity; the society has run its course. There is no hope. This is the end.
Another interesting aspect of the painting is the fact that while there is a staggering degree of violence, it is very difficult to make out different “sides”. Certainly we see people in different clothes, but they appear to have different connotations depending on the battle they are in. Take the encounter in the center foreground of the painting: the woman in white attempting to commit suicide to get away from the warrior.
While the rest of the painting depicts a mass of fighters and it just appears to be senseless, “every man for himself” violence, the connotations in this particular scene are clear: the woman in white, stereotypically Classical/Greco-Roman robes represents civilization, while the man in his bland, brown warrior outfit represents the barbarian outsiders, the destroyers. While Ibn Khaldun might view these outsides as a “positive” force, destroying the decadent and degenerate settled society in favor of a civilization with greater asabiyya, it is difficult to imagine either Sorokin or Spengler viewing this scene positively. For Spengler, it represents the death of an entire High Culture. An empire in its final days. For Sorokin, this is almost certainly a transitional period and those periods are marked by intense conflict and bloodshed. I find it incredulous to suggest the deeply humanistic Sorokin would celebrate this as anything like a kind of “cleansing of the palette” of civilization.
There is one potential point in favor of Ibn Khaldun’s interpretation though. If we move to the right side of the foreground and look at the two figures underneath the now-headless statue, we see a scene that looks remarkably like the somewhat famous Amazonmachy metope from the Parthenon.
Yet, it appears as if the forces of civilization versus savagery have been switched. Here, what appears to be the barbarian outside takes the place of the civilized Greek, while the putatively “civilized” imperial citizen (denoted by the red sash over his shoulder) takes the place of the savage Amazonian woman. While this may just simply be an example of Cole depicting senseless violence with no sides, this may also be a statement in favor of these “barbarians” in opposition to the decadent and degenerate imperial citizens. Whether or not this “Khaldunian” interpretation is valid is unclear, but the senseless violence signifies not only the end of this particular city, but also the end of the civilization.
One other figure appears to return to “prominence” here: the philosopher.
Moved to the bottom right of the painting and lying on what appears to be a dead body, he stares down at the ground, perhaps in a final act of capitulation. Maybe he had seen this coming all the way back in the Pastoral State. Maybe he knew it was inevitable. His apparent absence (or at least his conspicuous diminishment) in The Consummation of Empire may signal the fact that no one listened to him. But this is not a time for flaunting one’s own prescience, and the philosopher knows this. If we continue to interpret the philosopher as Cole’s own fears and conscience regarding the future, perhaps he is taking the same kind of fatalistic approach to envisioning the future that Spengler took. At least Sorokin provided the opportunity for a synthesis of the best of the two cultures during a transition period; Spengler offers no such reprieve from the destruction. Not even the water is allowing anyone to escape, as the choppy waves cause boats to capsize, like the one underneath the bridge in the center of the painting. The Culture hardened into a Civilization and now the Civilization has met its demise.
And finally, we end with “Desolation”, the fifth painting in the series. A not-insignificant period of time has passed, as nature slowly reclaims the ruins of the civilization. I cannot help but believe that the depiction of the ruins here are specifically designed to evoke the ruins of Roman architecture Cole encountered in Italy. Perhaps this was meant as a clarion call to Americans who tended to identify so strongly with Rome that this could be their fate as well. This last painting is certainly not “Khaldunian”: there is no new frontier tribe coming in to start a new society. I have to say that the fatalism of the series of paintings most closely fits a Spenglerian analysis of the stages of society. The four paintings depicting society even roughly map onto the four stages that Spengler elaborated on, and the major shift from The Pastoral State to The Consummation of Empire appears very strongly emblematic of the shift from Culture to Civilization (although you could also certainly interpret that through a Khaldunian lens of a shift from desert/uncivilized life to sedentary/civilized life or a Sorokinian lens of a shift from an Ideational to a Sensate stage of society).
As we look back on The Course of Empire from 2019, what lessons does it have for us? Thomas Cole was clearly a prescient thinker. Deeply concerned about the future of the environment due to industrialization and political conditions, The Course of Empire is a warning sign to any and all civilizations to not become caught up in, and eventually fall prey to, hubris and self-congratulatory hedonism. By analyzing The Course of Empire through the social cycle theories of Ibn Khaldun, Oswald Spengler, and Pitirim Sorokin, the depth of Cole’s thought and worry about the future only become more obvious. The Course of Empire will go down as a masterpiece, not only because it is one of Cole’s greatest works and Cole fathered the traditions of American landscape painting and the Hudson River Valley school of painting, but because its message is a timeless warning sign to all societies and all peoples.