Saturday, September 1, 2007

Probing The Ideological Underpinnings of Western Declline

by Gary Wolf

There is almost no limit to what we can learn from the ancients. Greece and Rome are the prototypes of all subsequent Western culture. Their glory has become our glory. But their downfall is also in the process of becoming ours.

The passage of Rome from republic to tyranny, and from there to utter decadence, is well known. But I don’t think I fully absorbed the extent of the similarity between this process and the contemporary West until I read The Satyricon by the Roman author Petronius. It’s an outrageous, bawdy adventure through the depths of decadence in the 1st century AD. No form of hypocrisy escapes this monument of satire. (By the way, The Satyricon was made into a film by Federico Fellini in 1969.)

The crumbling Rome/crumbling contemporary West analogy is not airtight, but there are certainly some striking parallels. The two that stand out from reading this book are (a) the sexual degeneracy, and (b) the proliferation of pseudo-intellectuals. The same mealy-mouthed nihilistic rubbish that we hear every day from our chattering classes was in full bloom at the time of Nero. Perhaps it is a permanent feature of Western culture, rearing its ugly head when decay is in the air.

Another angle is provided by the British historian H. A. L. Fisher:

The devaluation of [Roman] coinage during the third century brought about the ruin of the middle class…More important was a decline in morals, a loss of heart, evident even in the Senate, the body which should have led the Commonwealth in the civic virtues of honour and independence, courage and patriotism…Everywhere save in Egypt there was a dearth of men, and everywhere the immediate reason was the same, a reluctance to bring children into the world.*

Let us move back in time to the decline of classical Greece. Here is a sobering passage on the subject from Will Durant’s Story of Civilization:

Moral disorder accompanied the growth of luxury and the enlightenment of the mind… The individual freed himself more and more from the old moral restraints—the son from parental authority, the male from marriage, the woman from motherhood, the citizen from political responsibility. Sexual and political morality continued to decline. Bachelors and courtesans increased in fashionable co-operation, and free unions gained ground on legal marriage. The voluntary limitation of the family was the order of the day, whether by contraception, by abortion, or by infanticide. The old families were dying out. The supply of citizens for military service suffered a corresponding decrease [and] the life of comfort and domesticity, of business and scholarship, had replaced the Periclean life of exercise, martial discipline, and public office.**
The resemblence to our society hardly needs emphasizing. The question is, can we find a way to avoid the fate of Greece and Rome?

[*H. A. L. Fisher (1936) A History of Europe, Edward Arnold, London, pp 95-96. **Quoted by Gerald L. Atkinson, here.]

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