In the current edition of ‘The Wilson Quarterly’ one Arthur Herman has an article entitled ‘The Pessimist Persuasion’.
Lots of people have talked about America’s decline before – as far back as the generation immediately following the Revolutionary-Founding generation, who felt – perhaps in the accents of Alexander – that there were no more worlds to conquer. I think that’s always a problem: you look at the previous generation and figure that there’s nothing left to do. (But then there were the Boomers: they looked at the previous generation and figured that there was everything left to do – and to do right now – and that, sportsfans, is how they went off the rails.)
Folks who felt that virtue was declining were, Herman thinks, the original traitorous clerks. And it was the Romans – or at least, traitorous Romans. That sounds like something they’d like to hear at neocon think-tanks and ‘The Wall Street Journal’, which are venues that have published some of Herman’s work.
But Herman points out that there is a “breathtaking” record of such traitorous maunderings, and he’s got a little list. Sallust, after the defeat of Rome by Carthage in 146 BC, claimed that Romans before that time “had been better and nobler” – and their armies more competent; “To such men no toil came amiss, no ground was too steep or rugged, no armed foe to formidable; courage taught them to overcome all obstacles”. Their goals in life were glory and honor; “at home they lived frugally and never betrayed a friend”. Then came the growing lust for cash and power.
Livy saw the entire history of Rome from its founding as “the decay of national character … until it reaches in these days in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies”.
Historians following Livy saw the entire Imperial era as a depraved decline from ancient ideals.
Tacitus saw a “trickle-down” effect that started at the top, with the emperors (Nero and Caligula, certainly, could play that role); and long before the trickle reached the common folk, Rome’s best families were corrupted. (One recalls here that a full fifth of the officer corps of the SS were German titled aristocrats, and that Hitler’s ‘gift logs’, meticulously kept, showed that he showered his most competent but less-than-fanatic generals and field marshals with frequent gifts of cash and goodies).
Now it gets interesting. Herman snidely notes that while Tacitus was regretting the fall of Roman virtue, the Empire had increased to 2.2 (nice touch, the decimal place) million square miles with 120 million inhabitants, 50,000 miles of roads, and all sorts of new folk from Greece, Syria, Africa, and the lower regions of now-Central Europe infusing fresh talent and vigor into “the Roman government and Senate”.
Yes, but no.
He shrewdly slides by the fact that by the time of the great Imperial expansion the Republic had gone. And the Senate’s storied role was – at best – hugely reduced, the Senators truckling to the emperors – who themselves were an unpredictable when not deranged lot. And by the last couple of centuries, few “Romans” were actually left in place.
But Herman sees it as a trahison that “when Rome did run into problems beginning in the third century, its best and brightest reacted with resigned despair”. Of course, the moral rot had set in before that time, and it had been noted acutely, even if the policies and decisions made under the influence of that rot did not bear their poisoned fruit until the beginning of the third century AD.
Augustine, he noted, retreated into Christianity, and since Rome had lost the loyalty of its elites “at the height of material success” there was no elite skill it could call on as things started to slide.
But Augustine joined the old stodgy pagans in thinking that the gods punish moral rot. And that, thinks Herman, is simply a reprehensible fairy-tale to discourage the robustly enterprising.
I think one could as rightly say that moral rot punishes itself. And still hold that the gods or God work at one remove, through the ‘natural dynamics’ of moral rot.
Herman gives his game away: “The Roman example illustrates how a belief that the best days are behind us can take hold in the midst of success and prosperity”. Apparently, Nero and Caligula and the rest of the bad emperors – and their name was Legion – are still to be classified as parts of the “success and prosperity”.
Which indicates to me that Herman’s definition of “success and prosperity” is … well, kind of materialistic. And isn’t the lustful materialism of the past two decades, especially among the elites, what has brought Us to the present unhappy situation?
“The sense of decline from ancestral standards”. Herman sees it also in Habsburg Spain, and in the US of the early 1800s and the mid-1800s. James Russell Lowell mentioned “mediocrity”; the entire post-Civil War generation felt irreparably inadequate to the truly momentous exertions of the Civil War soldiers and citizens.
But Twain decried the moral corruption of the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons, an era that Herman and the WSJ no doubt look upon as a glorious era of success and prosperity, as the ‘Journal’ also saw the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s (or … most of them). Dreiser and Tarbell limned the effects of all that moral decline, and even Teddy Roosevelt saw that something had to be done (although, following McKinley, he also reached out to grasp and grab ‘coaling stations’ throughout the Pacific, including the Philippines).
The “idea of declension” is very real. There is moral decline and there is material decline. They do not follow the same rhythms; one could be in trough and the other at peak. But over time, eventually, they might come together. And then what?
Or, in the very best possible outcome, the moral can ascend as the material descends. But that’s only in certain individuals. For such wondrous maturing to work on a critical mass of an entire nation’s citizenry … that’s a pretty tall order. And to work on a critical mass of this nation’s elites, so called and as presently constituted, is even more improbable. Perhaps the best that can be imagined is that a Remnant will emerge. Refined in the fire, tempered, ripened.
There is, of course, nothing written in stone insisting that material success and moral maturity cannot exist simultaneously.
Although Jesus did mention that bit about the camel through the eye of the needle easier than the rich man get to heaven. But the ‘eye’ was actually one of the smaller City gates of Jerusalem, and so the meaning was not that it was ridiculously impossible, but that it would take some serious extra care to accomplish the thing.
But taking serious extra care with one’s moral maturity is not something that can be reasonably expected in postmodern America. There is a monstrous undertow pulling Us out into a trackless, bottomless sea of meaninglessness, where the only options are Rorty’s pathetic adolescent just-don’t-take-anything-seriously or Identity Politics’ permanent revolution and war, especially against Men, Reason, Virtue, Knowledge, and anything else that smacks of solidity.
We no longer live on solid ground; We are trying to hold Our lives and Our culture and Our society together while standing on quick-sand. It isn’t working and it will never work. Even if all the material wealth lost in the past two years comes back, and all of the pre-eminence in world industry and trade, and even if We were to ‘win’ all the present (and perhaps the future) Overseas Contingency Operations including Iraq and Afghanistan, it will never work.
Is it a matter of either decency or power? Either material success or integrity? Were Twain and all the rest right 130 years ago?
If We are to get through the eye of the needle, We will need to do more than pretend that ‘decline’ is only in the mind. It is real, just as the soul and character are real. Soul and character are not in essence socially constructed, nor can they simply be socially deconstructed. We have a long postponed rendezvous with that destiny. With, as Tolkien would say archaically, that ‘doom’.
But the archaic ‘doom’ was not a fore-ordained disaster. It was a destined challenge that could not be avoided without derailing one’s life and one’s very self. It had to be met. But it could be turned to a successful outcome, if one had the chops to deal with it correctly. So it’s about chops.
Yes, fewer pork chops for a while, but that might give a better shot at concentrating on the more important chops. If We have them. If We can develop them.
And the good news is, you don’t have to be ‘elite’ – not in any way known to postmodern theory. In fact, to get through the eye of this needle, that’s going to be an advantage.
*Nor does Herman deign to mention that in the middle of the 2nd century the Empire launched a major military invasion – needlessly – into Parthia, a desert land far from Rome. Although after great exertion and expense and casualties the Romans won, the returning army brought back the plague. And subsequently, the population of the civilized and urban Empire (and the army) was hugely killed off. Which in turn prompted the German tribes to rebel against the greatly reduced forces holding the Danube frontier, which resulted in the German tribes invading the Roman heartland. Subsequently, the Roman treasury was so reduced that Emperor Marcus Aurelius had to hold a sale of the furnishings of the imperial palaces. Leading a combined punitive-defensive expedition beyond the Danube against the tribes, with Romans still afflicted by the plague, the bookish and thoughtful Aurelius lost his health, and took to jotting down his ‘Meditations’. Having put down the tribes in that instance, the Romans would never be free of the unending pressure of occupied tribes and coalitions of tribes, put down with increasing violence against women and children as well as military-age males, which over wore the Empire down to a final frazzle, though not before the citizenry of the Empire had been reduced merely to being a grain and tax source for increasingly ragtag and patched-together legions, composed no longer of the citizen-legionaries of old but of any ‘barbarian’ or tribesman who could be induced into service. Desperate to keep some traditional order, the failing Aurelius appointed his under-age son, Commodus, as emperor-to-be, and that did not work out well for Rome at all. Parthia as it was then known is presently known as Iraq.