I am not sure if this cycle has a name—sociologists have noticed it, I’m sure—but is as old as at least civilization itself. My experience with it has been in the realm of religious studies. A number of years ago I read a study that indicated that within a decade of the founding of a religion it will have changed beyond the recognition of its original form. In other words, it will evolve. I suspect this is true of most memes. In literary studies this recognition goes by the sobriquet of “Reader Response” theory. Once an author (or any initiator of something new) produces a written work s/he has lost control over what it “means.” Each reader interprets a piece in the light of her/his own context, some perhaps close to the original intent of the author, some far distant. In the broadest sense of the word, this is a corruption. According to Reader Response theory, it is natural and to be expected.

On a larger scale, human endeavors are often beset with divergent agendas. A founder may start a school with the intention of training teachers. Soon interest and clientele grow and further program options are offered. The teacher’s school becomes a college. If the college meets a larger societal need, it becomes part of a university. Universities, despite all posturing and muttering, are becoming very much alike through the mediation of the Internet. Is this a corruption? Perhaps not in the sense of being a benign development, but it general terms it reflects the dilemma of changing ideals. Various religions point in different directions to explain it, but most explanations are mythological. The “fall” in Eden does not fit the view of the Hebrew Bible, but it is a popular Christian explanation for why corruption sets in.

A more humanistic response might call it “human nature.” We are fully capable of lofty ideals. In my admittedly limited experience, I have found that those with such ideals are often ill-equipped to realize them. Those who grow such ideals into institutions tend to have an entrepreneurial outlook that benefits from following the greatest returns. To court investors, a tangible payback must be included. We see this all the time in churches: popes, archbishops, televangelists—soon they find themselves powerful people with access to great wealth. A far cry from a working-class carpenter preaching love. The pattern is ubiquitous throughout history, and there seems to be no cure other than, as you suggest, to begin again.

Chaz and I would like to invite comments and discussion on this issue. Idealists and more pragmatic types are both encouraged to reply!

17 thoughts on “Response

  1. Hi Steve…. thanks for your response to my questions below.

    The “Reader Response” theory does describe a major portion of this cycle of corruption of most endeavors. To bring it down to a level we have all likely experienced as children, it is the old game of “Telephone” where one person tells a story to another who tells it to another and so on, and when the 10th or 20th person then recites the passed-along story to the original teller, it is often tainted beyond recognition.

    This is a natural, understandable evolution. The evolution I experience in organizations of people is often a downward evolution. Where not only does it morph into something different from the orignal intent, but there consistently appear to be strands of selfishness, greed, and pride that become woven in to the eventual demise of the original purpose.

    If this were not so, why do empires invariably crumble? Why has no earlthy empire has stood the test of time and remained true to its original intent?

    I remain curious of descriptive names or theories of this cycle exist.

    The most vivid portrayal of this cycle that comes to mind is the classsic movie, Citizen Kane. Where a humble, giving man of the people spends his resources running a newspaper at a financial loss to serve as a voice for the common people. Over time, Kane increasingly corrupts to the point where he has become a shell of his former self and dies relationally bankrupt, unable to help anyone, alone in his castle.

    I look forward to hearing thoughts and reflections on this dialogue.




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  3. It is a difficult concept that all things remain static. They just don’t. In most things we see some form of evolution. In many cases evolution happens in spite of itself, and for some, not in a good way.

    The meaning of what was started, however altruistic or meaningful it was is soon perverted into something meaningless and devoid of any resemblance to what it was to begin with.

    Christianity, over the last 200o years has morphed into something entirely new and devoid of what the original intent was. A simple message by a man of little means, trying to do something good for all those he encountered. Depending on what faction of Christian you poll, the meaning and impetus of belief has been terribly perverted into something that is not anything like the original message.

    People join a group, they get fired up about the message then over time, that message gets perverted and is transformed into a totally different message that does not even resemble the original package. People overlay their own expectations, egos and personal beliefs and you could also add to that peoples proclivities to interpret scripture and morals their own way, thereby forgetting what the real and written words meant as they were written. It’s a bastardization of the original message for other peoples needs and egos and belief systems.

    I have also seen 12 step groups come and go over the last 20 years of my life, and also I have seem people come and go as well. I have been criticized to high heaven by some over the years to the point that I dare not engage in political discussions about my own sobriety or what I write on my own blog. People have their judgement of such groups and the message that a 12 step group tries to speak. Even today I am stalked by stinking thinkers who troll my blog looking for a foot in the door to criticize me.

    These 12 step groups no matter how altruistic their intentions are, for some, for the most part, the message stays true to form. However, I have seen groups such as these morph into sick entities with sick people who forget the message and they get into their egos and attitudes and the message is lost and the purpose of the group is forgotten, until either one of two things happen, They wake up and regroup, or they shatter and fall apart.

    People cannot escape their egos and attitudes. That is the one thing that I see as detrimental to the running of any group. Where ever two or more strong egos come into blows with each other, no good will come of that situation. I try to stay way from egos and attitudes. I stick to the message, by the book, and I try to share the message in the original form and it seems to work for me.

    But no group can remain static, there will always be conflict when strong heads meet in the same area or group. It is the way we deal with the big issues that any said group either prospers or fails.

    just a few of my thoughts.


    • Yo Jer! You spoke volumes.

      I have experienced similar things in both Church and 12-step. Neither of these are exempt from the “Cycle of Corruption”. It appears almost universal. When DOESN’T it happen?

      A point you make about egos is important. It seems no matter how humble we start, not matter how beaten we are at times, ego, like a weed, finds its way back in. Like a dandelion growing through pavement. It seems to be that strong.

      One thing that baffles me is how this pattern, while so clearly observable and common, does not have a name society at large still appears to be relatively oblivious to it. We repeat it over and over and over.

      As a fellow Canadian, you are no doubt aware the Bronfman family and the Patriarch having supported the notion of…. “Shirtsleeves to shirt stleeves in 3 generations”.

      Hey…. wait a sec…. there is one of the names for the cycle…. at least in part. Describing humble beginnings, resourcefulness, sacrifice, prosperity, complacency, corruption, implosion, humble beginnings (again).

      I guess my point is that I remain baffled at the fact that humaninty has not shown that it has become largely wise to this prevelant phenomenon. Man are we thick!

      I am currently working my way through “The Tudors” series…. a depiction of the adult life of King Henry VIII of England… the story line of which gives numerous and unmistakable accounts of this cycle of self-destruction.

      Thanks for contributing to the dialogue and clarity Jeremy.




    • Hi Anna… sure, there is sin woven through this cycle. The greater mystery to me is how we are still oblivious to it in virtually all our endeavors and organizations of humans. And many professing to be the very ones who are on guard against sin… (in others at least)…. can be equally or even more oblivious to it.

      Intersting how the main people Jesus angrily opposed were the Religious Elite and supposedly most holy and learned of the day. Once again, probably well-meaning people starting out.

      Yet so many of our churches and Christian and religious leaders go through the cycle over and over again.

      I just don’t feel we give the cycle enough regard for its power over any of us and its insidiousness.




  4. Steve Wiggins

    The concept of the “Peter Principle” keeps coming to mind, although it is not the same thing. It may be a corollary. Those who are of a more pessimistic inclination might just say it is human nature; we are biological entities toying with things transcendental. Can we ever live up to such expectations? I suspect sociologists do have a name for this degeneration, but I’m a bit behind on my sociology reading. I’ll keep looking.


  5. alice.j

    I have to say this is one of my favorite blogs, and what a great subject to tackle, thank you for inviting your readers to participate. First I have to apologize as I am a housewife, and not college educated, so my words do not flow as my thoughts do, or I have not been taught to fix the errors :).
    Where to start.. I must admit, I found your Blog, after reading “the Cryptonomicon” and I was perusing Neal Stephenson’s website, and it said checkout my brother-in-laws blog… so I did and I have been hooked ever since. I am now currently reading “the Baroque Cycle” I just finished “The Confusion”. Wow, so my head is spinning (I can’t even describe the awesomeness of the books, not to mention there is so much detail) . The Baroque Cycle very much applies to the subject at hand, Just as Chaz stated earlier about the Tudors and the cycle of destruction, which was an amazing series and very well done!
    Having grown up on the West coast, and now residing in the bible belt, I am often astonished at the hypocrisy I encounter, and find myself participating in to survive. I cannot tell people I believe in evolution, my children go to a private christian school, which my in-laws have paid for. I have to be very careful as to how I present myself. I choose not to go to church, until I can find one that does not condemn homosexuality, because the guy sitting next to me in the pew is having sex with his secretary, and half of the congregation knows about it, and will forgive him, because that is what “Christians” do, but the poor teenager that is struggling with his/her sexuality is cast out into the street as dirt, or even worse force the kid to change. But you see, if I were to say, or try to change anything… I am sure like this wonderful topic has brought up, it would get distorted. I think that everyone has there own Ideas and prejudices. Also like Anne said, can be thrown in there, either literally or metaphorically, especially regaring the seven deadly sins. You get a salad mix of greed and lust and gluttony and my favorite, SLOTH, and every good intention has a chance to go bad! If you ever get a chance to watch Full Metal Alchemist (watch the original and then go back and watch the remake Brotherhood) the are both on Netflix instant stream, the Anime, it is so good, and has characters depicting the Deadly sins. And here is where I really have to say again how much I love your blog and how you always use pop cutlure or a modern reference to explain your topic, Your Dogma post the other day, was awesome. Another favorite movie of mine is SAVED! with Mandy Moore, and Mary Luise Parker. One more thing.. things always seem darkest before the dawn, the last episode of Smallville was last week, and Clark defeated Darkside and became Superman! So maybe we have these cycles to give ourselves something to fight for and to believe in while we are here. Hope. Just some thoughts, I am not going to edit them or I won’t ever post them. I haven’t thought them all through so don’t jump on me if they seem nuts. Also, I do love where I live, and I love my family, even if I do not have the same ideas, and ideals, I choose to be here because I love them.


    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks for stopping in and your kind comments, Alice! I agree wholeheartedly that popular culture is where real thinking is going on these days. I have seen Saved! a few times, but haven’t posted on it yet. (Neal is the one who started me blogging in the first place, so I’m glad that my small efforts don’t disappoint too much.) Hang in there–I know the Bible Belt belly is huge, but it is also very soft.


      • Alice J.

        Thank you! I do hope you post about Saved! I think we should name it the Customer Service cycle. After the store employees that yell, “welcome to___” everytime a customer enters the store. Instead of being nice, it is superficial and so rude to the customer they are already talking to. Well intended, but totally wrong. And the poor employees know that it is annoying, but they will get reprimanded if they don’t. The employers aren’t around enough to realize this is a horrible idea, and think it is great customer service.


    • Hi Alice… thanks for your addition to our dialogue.

      I see a point in what you said about… “You get a salad mix of greed and lust and gluttony and my favorite, SLOTH, and every good intention has a chance to go bad!”…. referring to the seven deadly sins.

      I supppose the orininal identification of the seven is in fact recognition of a component of this cycle of corruption. Surely most if not all play a role in the tainting of noble intents that go bad.

      In fact, the seven change evolution to devoloution…. if this is an actual word at all… but I mean to say that our endeavors and organizations devolve or decompose when tainted with the seven or any of their similar patterns of thought or behaviour.

      History certainly does recognize the components of the cycle. We write books and make movies and tv series about it. The principle is in the air and all around us, but we seem not to commonly recognize it or name it. Strange eh? Like the cycle is so self-preserving, it has avoided being named.

      Another TV reference to this prinicple is the series, Arrested Development. A show about a wealthy family who is imploding. The father created a prosperous business which did not necessarily bless the family, but instead, helped facilitate a bunch of lay-about, unemployable, unrealistic, un-self-aware, sponges (other than Michael, played by Justin Bateman).

      But isn’t this the same thing? A man’s effort to provide a prosperous setting for his family only seemed to bring corruption to him and dysfunction to his wife and children.

      Anyway…. there it is referred to and portrayed yet again.

      Thanks again for joining the dialogue.




      • Alice J.
        I was hanging out with my best pal Google:), and I may have found one name for our “Question”. My apologies for the Wikipedia link, but it is convenient. I think it is a very good sociological theory for our discussion.
        Thank you for allowing me to participate:) This, while when personal is very frustrating, is extremely fascinating when you see it throughout history.
        Chaz, thank you for elaborating on the seven deadly sins, you really articulated what I was trying to say!


  6. Pingback: Sociologists’ input woud be appreciated | One direction – forward.

  7. Steve Wiggins

    I think maybe the reason that many facets of society do not name such cycle (I am intrigued by Alice’s Law of Social Cycle suggestion) is that many people live with the myth of progress. Certainly for many people today life is lived at a “higher standard” than in previous times, but this is not an equally distributed prosperity and some of its benefits are dubious. I know people who do not use computers. Some of them now have to make special arrangements to pay some of their bills because it is expected that it will be done online. And that is here in the United States.

    The dubious benefits come in many shapes and forms. We communicate more quickly, but how many people have not fired off an email in the heat of passion that hasn’t landed them in trouble? If we had to sit and write it out on paper, find a stamp, look up the address, and mail it, we might have time to think about what we so blithely type. Another example is our increasing lifespans. Sure, it is natural to want to keep on living, but biologically after we have reproduced and set our offspring onto the successful course to do the same, in the eyes of evolution we have lived to our potential. I think of the cicada that lives 13 years underground and survives as an adult for only a few weeks, long enough to mate and carry on the cycle. Humans react violently to the idea that perhaps we should hand over the world to others and let nature take its course. I’m not advocating, just speculating.

    As people we do not want to admit that degeneration is part of the cycle. Could it be that institutions have life cycles as well? And when they reach the end they too will “rage against the dying of the light,” in the words of Dylan Thomas. I still can’t name it, but I am seeing it in more and more places.


  8. Thanks Alice…. the Law of Social Cycle certainly is a well-explained descriptor of much of what I am talking about. He identifies phases and roles of these cycles as observed in history.

    One of the points that overlaps completely is, “During such ages humanity has faced an eternal struggle with each epoch deteriorating into a harmful exploitative phase”.

    Or as Steve puts it in his reply, “As people we do not want to admit that degeneration is part of the cycle. Could it be that institutions have life cycles as well”?

    Maybe we are meant to or built to operate by cycles? Maybe there is no remedy. Maybe we will always move through life in our endeavors and organizations taking x steps forward and y steps back. Perhaps we are all Citizen Kanes and we can only control the speed and severity of our degeneration of our cycles of corruption, but never prevent them.

    Although the author of the Law of Social Cycles does theorize a solution, we would not know of its effectiveness.

    Thanks you for adding more clarity to the matter.

    The enlightenment continues.




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