Twilight of the Gods: Rome II
Considered in the spirit of analogy, this period appears as chronologically parallel — “contemporary” in our special sense — with the phase of Hellenism, and its present culmination, marked by the World War, corresponds with the transition from the Hellenistic to the Roman age. Rome, with its rigorous realism — uninspired, barbaric, disciplined, practical, Protestant, Prussian — will always give us, working as we must by analogies, the key to understanding our own future. —Oswald Spengler, written around the time of WWI
We do not know very much of the future / Except that from generation to generation / The same things happen again and again. / Men learn little from others’ experience. —T. S. Eliot
Experience has shown, with this blog and more so with the previous one, that certain topics consistently get fewer views than average—especially decadence, death, and poetry. But I write what is of interest to me, and this may be something really important, and is well worth considering, so what the hell.
This is a huge topic (especially if one ignores topics like exploding galaxies), really a huge one, humanistically speaking, and should be discussed in a book rather than in a blog post. Such books have already been written. In fact at present I’m slowly grinding through Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, which is fascinating in a way, yet very difficult to read and more than a thousand pages long, so I’m not very deep into it. I hope that the observations I intend to make will not be debunked by my reading of Spengler within a few days of my posting them.
One of the main points of Spengler’s classic book is that the history of the world is not a simple continuous story depicting the progression of one human civilization, and certainly not a progression with European culture as the highest stage of it, or at the center of it. Rather, each civilization tells its own story, with its own way of interpreting reality; which may or may not include an appreciation or even a concept of history. Every human culture, like a living organism (which in a sense it really is), is distinct from all others, and tends to go through a natural life cycle of birth, youth, maturity, senescence, and death.
Some advanced civilizations may not go through the entire life cycle because, like some people, they die a violent death in the prime of life. The History of Herodotus, for example, begins with the story of how the Lydian Empire was destroyed at the peak of its power, when it was still in its glorious ascendancy, by coming into violent contact with a more vigorously ascending Persia. Even Classical Greece seems to have avoided a natural death of old age by a quirk in its political system: every town was a sovereign nation, and the Greeks exhausted themselves with wars amongst each other until Philip the Macedonian swooped in and conquered them all, ushering in the less aberrant Hellenistic civilization. But most great civilizations go through a natural progression of rise, decline, and fall.
At the time of the First World War, when Spengler wrote The Decline of the West, he considered modern western civilization to be in late middle age, the stage of relatively early decline—not yet feeble or senile, but no longer inspired or really creative, and relying heavily on the past for its present momentum. Charles Murray, in his own monumental book Human Accomplishment, backs up this idea with statistics: with regard to the arts and sciences, western science is evidently, arguably flagging in its vitality and inspiration, and art obviously is. (To put it plainly, modern art sucks.) We appear to be following the same general pattern as most of the great civilizations before us, which are now dead.
Although I’m still just starting on Spengler, one book that I have read from start to finish about three times, which has a direct bearing on the subject at hand, is Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That book, especially the author’s account of the fall of the western, Latin half of the Empire, is a sad, even heartrending tragedy; a true story not just of one person or one family meeting with destruction, but of an entire civilization collapsing into ruin—a truly great civilization too, even though it, and just about any other premodern urban society, would be abhorred as fascistic by postmodern progressive types.
It is a trying experience for me to read of the last 150 years or so of the Western Roman Empire, especially the final century. A few good emperors, like Julian “the Apostate” and Majorian, struggled vehemently to save their world, but corrupt officials, selfish elites, demoralized masses, world-hating Christians, and invading barbarians didn’t know or care that civilization was beginning to collapse—except for some of the Germanic tribes, who despised cities and learning as effeminate, and some of the Christians, who actively cheered it all on. In fact Roman Christianity often assumed the form of a kind of hysterical suicide cult.
The thing is, lately I’ve been feeling rather like some pagan—maybe a Neoplatonist or a supporter of the Cynic philosophers—living around the middle of the 4th century, and watching helplessly as classical paganism gives way to medieval Christianity and everything slowly goes to hell, with pretty much nobody knowing or caring, and some mocking the very idea that Rome could fall, and with others, as already mentioned, cheering on the destruction of hated “Babylon.” Sometimes I’m drawn to engage in (futile) arguments with followers of the new cult of compassion and the glorification of weakness and dysfunction. In many respects, things are very similar to the way they were back then. If the Buddhist belief in rebirth is correct, then maybe I’ve been through this before.
|the Roman forum|
It seems to me that, in a sense, modern western civilization is a “reincarnation” of Classical civilization. At least we can say that it is an ancestor from which we have inherited many traits. There are many differences of course, but also some striking parallels. Some of the general themes remain the same, and not, it seems to me, simply because both are human civilizations. Going with the idea of a repeated theme, I’d say that European civilization is a sequel to ancient Hellas, the Greek world, with America a sequel to Rome.
Both Classical and modern western civilizations arose from the ruins of a dark age—Classical Greece rising after the so-called Bronze Age Collapse of around 1200BCE, which was if anything even more cataclysmic than the collapse of Rome. The Greeks at the height of their inspiration, like the Europeans of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, produced works of genius such as the world had never seen before. The civilization of the Romans arose largely due to migrations and importation of culture from the eastern end of a rather smaller Great Sea than did the American; and both societies have been looked down upon as barbarous and uncouth by the more sophisticated easterners. The ancient Greeks, even after the Romans had conquered the western world, viewed them as primitives incapable of creating respectable philosophy or literature, somehow becoming masters of the world through sheer chance, or some inscrutable whim of the gods. But the Romans had their own wisdom, their own genius.
The Romans began their republic as tough patriots who despised luxury and preferred honor and a dangerous, rough freedom to luxurious servitude. This proud toughness, with every male citizen encouraged to be an alpha, combined with an absolute refusal to give up in a struggle, resulted in their becoming a dominant world power—which of course resulted in astronomical wealth, luxury, and the progress of sophistication. They gradually became less ruthless and more concerned with peace and fairness—often to the point of buying off enemies instead of fighting them. This latter of course caused the enemies to lose respect for Rome and to see it as ripe fruit for the picking. Love of freedom gave way to craving for security; and even what freedom remained was vitiated by the people’s declining ethos and loss of honor, causing their liberty to be more of an affliction than a blessing. Effeminacy increased, and—what Gibbon and others have considered to be a hallmark of decadence—eunuchs rose to prominence in society. An increasingly multicultural society resulted in the decay of patriotism and of a sense of civic duty. With the decline of morale the people became unruly as well as unpatriotic, and more dependent upon the bread and circuses of a welfare state, which helped to usher in the fall of the Republic and the advent of Caesars and Empire. The Imperium depended more and more upon big, centralized government, which of course required more and more taxation to keep it going. This in turn oppressed the people all the more and accelerated the process of demoralization. People stopped wanting to marry, have children, or make any investments for the future, because they had no idea what the hell would happen next—probably something bad.
All this in turn helped to popularize a new cult, a “progressive movement” in modern parlance, which despised the worldliness which made Classical civilization great and prayed for the destruction of it all. The Nazarenes or Christians, as they were known, often worked themselves up to feverish hysteria and, although preaching love and compassion, kept if for their own group and loathed the conservative pagans, accusing them of being devil worshippers. Riots, other forms of violence, and defacement of public statues and monuments became commonplace. At least the ancient progressives enjoyed a kind of genuine moral high ground.
According to Gibbon, the actual fall of Rome, as opposed to its mere decline, began with a European migrant crisis. A huge population of Visigoths begged permission to migrate into Roman territory as refugees from an invasion of Huns—at this stage they feared the Huns more than they feared the Romans. A stupid emperor of the Greek half of the Empire, named Valens, allowed them to settle “peacefully” in lands west of the Danube, whereupon a controlled settlement deteriorated into an uncontrollable flood, and shortly thereafter the Goths began running amuck (largely due to contempt for the corrupt, decadent beings the Romans had become). They destroyed a degenerate Roman army at Adrianople in 378, the main force that Rome could bring against them, and the Romans were helpless. They sometimes kept the Goths peaceful through bribes, or an occasional adept general, but could never drive them out again, which heralded the beginning of the end. The Goths, and the Franks too, for starters, set up states within the state, following their own laws and culture, and became a very destructive example of “multiculturalism” for others to follow. When the end finally came it was hardly even noticed. (Many of the demoralized people welcomed the change because it meant fewer taxes and less government oppression.) A barbarian mercenary leader named Odoacer informed the last Caesar that he wasn’t in charge anymore, Italy became a Germanic kingdom, and that was that, at least in the west. The eastern half of the Empire, known as Byzantium, slowly decomposed over the course of another thousand years. By the 15th century all that remained of the glory that was Rome was one walled city, now called Istanbul, and a few scattered, disconnected patches of land, which fell to Muslims determined to conquer all of Europe.
The parallels with our own civilization should be fairly obvious. In America the tough pioneering spirit gave way to affluence and desire for security. The government machine has grown more and more bloated and more and more controlling, with only the government running at a huge loss and going deeper and deeper in debt preventing the American citizen from being stripped bare through taxation (a huge abstract national debt was not much of an option in ancient times, when money was silver and gold, and banking still very primitive). Our military, instead of relying heavily on foreign mercenaries, relies on computerized machines (which might someday turn against us as the barbarian soldiers did against Rome—although if the EU forms an army, as some say it will, no doubt its ranks will contain plenty of Muslim “invaders” who have no love for Europe, but are essentially mercenaries); and toughness, courage, and honor are much less important now than are public relations and clerical skills to the average postmodern soldier. Instead of slaves, now we have machines and cheap foreign labor. In addition to eunuchs, we now have an entire spectrum of sexually “non-binary” people brought right into the cultural mainstream. Now a new hysterical cult has arisen also, championing the weak and unsuccessful and vilifying the strong, along with the culture in which they (the strong) have prospered, valuing a kind of abstract equality over what caused the civilization to flourish in the first place. As I’ve said before, the postmodern cultural Marxist progressive movement is the new analog to ancient Christianity, but without the moral integrity of its Roman predecessor. (For example, instead of rejoicing at one’s maltreatment at the hands of others, considering it an honor to suffer in the name of Christ, and forgiving them, the new cult encourages one to melt down and declare oneself victimized, with hatred and indignation directed toward the perpetrator of…microaggressions.) The new feminized neo-Marxist left, for example as seen on university campuses, really has metamorphosed into a kind of spiritually bankrupt religious cult which hates and wishes for the destruction of our “patriarchal” civilization.
Spengler (and others) apparently didn’t take into consideration the fact that change is accelerating at an exponential rate in modern times, presumably due mainly to science and technology, and to the Enlightenment emphasis on “progress” as opposed to upholding the traditions of one’s ancestors. There is more change now in a single decade than there was in a century not so long ago; for that matter, there is more change in a single decade now than there was in a whole millennium back in the stone age. Consequently the civilizational aging process is accelerating also, and times are telescoping together—“our” Constantine who brought the hysterical progressives into the mainstream is a contemporary with “our” Valens who invited an invasion of barbarians into Europe. In Rome I there were several decades between Constantine and Valens, whereas Obama and Merkel were collaborators. On the bright side for Americans, it appears that the eastern half of the “Empire” is collapsing faster than the western half due to its enlightened multiculturalism and general decadence. Let’s hope that our current Julian the Apostate doesn’t get killed within three years of assuming power, like the first Julian did.
We human beings don’t want to believe that our civilization will ultimately, inevitably crash, much in the same way that we don’t want to believe that we ourselves will ultimately, inevitably die. Maybe we’ll be an exception to the rule somehow. Maybe there’s an afterlife, or an immortality drug reversing the aging process is just around the corner, or we’ll be able to upload our personality into a virtual computer world with no old age or disease, or some such. Likewise, even though human nature and human foolishness remain essentially the same over the course of thousands of years, maybe it will be different this time, somehow. Maybe technology, like friendly AI, will bail us out of our growing mess. But certainly we don’t seem to learn a goddamn thing from the mistakes of the past, and history’s repeated messages to us. We just see what we want to see.
There can be little doubt that our civilization is in decline, and in danger of collapse. Whether this state is reversible or not is a subject for another time. But one thing is sure: everything that has a beginning also has an end. So our decline and fall may be temporarily reversible, and the final fall may still be a long way off, but it remains, nevertheless, inevitable.