Some scholars believe that cultures rise and fall in a vast and undending cycle, which they describe as follows:
The state where a group knows no cities or written language, although they may have many arts to distinguish themselves from the beasts, such as domesticated herds, or complex systems of kinship. Indeed some claim that the barbarian is further developed in virtue than the civilised.
Some scholars divide the barbaric mode of life into three types:
Hunter-Gatherers who have no agriculture or domesticated animals, except perhaps hunting dogs or the like.
Nomads who have domesticated animals but no agriculture, and thus must wander from place to place, since their herds quickly eat all the grass in a given area.
Sedentary Barbarians who have both domesticated animals and agriculture.
The state of living in cities. It is characterised by written language, and by arts unrelated to wringing a living from the soil. Where the barbarian tribe may have a single shaman, and many hunters and gatherers, the city will have an unending variety of trades. Some say that the scholar is the representative of civilisation. Others point to the merchant, the noble, and the thief (perhaps with a rhetorical questioning of what essential difference divides the three). Still others, perhaps more practically-minded, point to the fact that each city-dweller is fed by many farmers.
At some point, it is said, a civilisation may develop to the point where it develops not just new devices, but a new kind of person. The inhabitants of enlightened cultures are said to be supremely virtuous. Some say that they disdain eating animal flesh as we disdain cannibalism. Some are said to watch ghouls feasting on corpses, that they may gain a horror of meat-eating. Indeed it is rumored that some cultures develop the ability to live without food altogether, surviving entirely on prana, the energy of the sun.
They are also said to possess wondrous mental powers including the ability to fly, to sense the emotions of others no matter how well hidden, and to cause those with weaker minds to be unable to move. Although magic and technology may be able to achieve all these results, these methods are expensive and unreliable.
Although some speak of enlightened beings as long-lived or even immortal, others say that, on the contrary, they have a serene acceptance of death, which gives them courage, but may inhibit their survival.
Some daring souls have claimed that a state of enlightenment is the same as godhead; either that the gods were once people, or that the gods are memories of a time of enlightenment blurred into legend.
By contrast, others claim that there is no enlightenment, only higher and higher levels of technology, each seeming godlike to those below, but in reality differing only in degree rather than kind.
In this phase a society is said to become, as it were, the victim of its own success. Removed from the need to struggle for mere physical survival, yet unwilling to engage in higher pursuits, the people turn to ever more ruinous pleasures. The inhabitant of a decadent society is said to be physically wasted by their pleasures (yet, due to higher tolerance, most resistant to poisons and intoxicants). Finally, dark magic becomes ever more common; perhaps in a search not for power, but for mere distraction from boredom.
Scholars differ as to whether decadence follows enlightenment, or is an alternative fate to it. Others have claimed that civilisation and decadence are the same: that everyone simply denounces the present as decadence, while holding up the past as civilisation.
If a civilisation falls due to its own decadence (as opposed to destruction by natural disaster, or conquest which is not facilitated by decadence), the survivors will be tainted by moral weakness and the effects of the strange practices of the decadent. They may be twisted further by inbreeding. Often they will seek dark places. In short, the degenerate resembles the barbarian in the level of technology, but is far removed in both mind and body.
Some scholars say that degenerate populations that do not die out evolve back into human form, beginning the cycle again. Others claim that degeneracy is a permanent change; the survivors become literal beasts, prowling mute and uncomprehending in the ruins of their works, which finally crumble to dust, unremarked and unlamented - for who is left with tongue and brain to remark or lament?
Comparison to the Life of an Individual Person
Some say that the rise and decline of a culture is like the age of a single person. Barbarism is said to be childhood, civilisation is adulthood, enlightenment is old age, decadence senility, and degeneracy death.
Alternatively enlightenment may be compared to one who gains the wisdom of age, and decadence to one who attempts to recapture their youth.
Some claim that this cycle applies to humans only. Species such as dwarves and elves are said to have reached an unchanging state, although perhaps they were subject to change in the past. Others claim that non-humans are subject to the same rise and fall as humans, but on a vastly slower scale. Yet others say that humans and those kindred who resemble them may have once been a single species, until one branch fell into degeneracy then rose, or conversely became enlightened then fell. The so-called Ancestral Dwarves and Elves are claimed as evidence for many of these theories.
There is also disagreement as to how a group moves from one state to another. Some say that this is a natural development, while others argue that a group can only be uplifted by the gods, or by the technology or magic of an advanced species (although this raises the problem of how the first civilisation arose).