Marching to a Different Drum

You turn on the radio for the weather report: “Sunny and warm today, with a high near 80.  Light breeze out of the South at five miles per hour.  Chance of rain less than 10%.”  Outside your window, you watch the winds rage and the rains pour.  Which are you going to believe, your senses or government-backed science reported in the government-controled media?

Coming away from the window, you pick a modern history textbook off the shelf, and you read that modern times are marked by progress.  The past was  a sewer of racism, sexism, bigotry and ethnic oppression, but in the past 150 years, mankind has reached ever higher levels of technology, enlightenment, and humanity.  You experience a brief moment of doubt:  Two world wars, terrifying dictatorships that killed hundreds of millions of people, the disappearance of all standards in the arts, manners, and morals, and an upsurge in prejudice and violence against your own dwindling minority of straight white Christian males.  Which are you going to believe, the evidence you can see and hear all around you or academics living off government subsidies?

Wanting to avoid trouble, you quickly shake off all doubts and pass the good news on to the children: Liberated from history, they—and not just individual men and women but the entire human race—“will rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things.”  The civilization of their ancestors, with all its racism and bigotry, is dying to be replaced by a higher civilization in which all distinctions of ethnicity, sex, and religion will disappear.

Credo quia absurdum, as Tertullian is supposed to have said but probably did not: Christians are rarely as dumb as US Weather Service climatologists or academic historians with government grants.  Christians—and I am not speaking of Social Gospelers, Marxist Catholic bishops, or the Dr. Feelgoods that fleece their megachurch brethren in Texas but of old school believers—Christians look with a jaundiced eye upon the limitless capacity of the human race for self-improvement.  History culminated in the events of 2000 years ago, and the human race can only progress by regressing to that reality.

Progress, nonetheless, is the American creed subscribed to with equal fervor by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives.  It took a great Republican legislator to give the theory of progress its most poignant expression:

Charleston was once the rage, uh huh

History has turned the page, uh huh

The miniskirt’s the current thing, uh huh

Teenybopper is our newborn king, uh huh

Salvatore Bono, though the protégé of A&R legend and wife-killer Phil Spector, was too residually Catholic to think that the basic reality of love and hate would ever vanish entirely  from the scene:

Little girls still break their hearts, uh huh

And men still keep on marching off to war.

But as a budding scientologist, Sonny Bono could not fail to believe in a march of progress that could not be arrested or arrested: “Electrically they keep a baseball score.”

In historical scholarship, this way of thinking leads inevitably to classification into periods, hermetically sealed compartments with no intercommunication.   After the fall of Rome—or the Lombard invasion—came a Dark Age in which knowledge of the classics disappeared.  And many centuries earlier, they say, some time between the death of Euripides and the establishment of the Alexandrian Library, the music of Greek drama was entirely lost, and not just in the sense that musical manuscripts were either lost or never existed, but so completely lost as to be unintelligible to later generations.  This seismic interruption in cultural transmission would have taken place in the lifetime of Aristotle, whose student Aristoxenus of Tarentum wrote the most influential works on ancient music.

To all of this, I can only say in the words of a celebrated Montenegrin detective, “Pfui!”  Greeks in the first Christian century could still whistle all the airs of that infernal nonsense Euripides’ Orestes.  After the terrible shocks of the sack of Rome in 410, the coups of Odovacer and Theoderic in the late 5th century, the reconquest of Italy by Justinian’s generals, and the Lombard invasion, there were still a few fairly learned men in Byzantine Italy: the poet and hymn-writer Venantius Fortunatus or, later still, the Lombard Paulus Diaconus, a prodigy of learning at the savage and immoral court of Charlemagne.

Long before I had heard even the names of Venantius and Paulus, I wondered, as a boy, what it might have been like to be a semi-civilized person in a barbaric age.  Later, I was haunted by the thought of Ovid living among the uncouth Sarmatians on the Black Sea, of Boethius “biding his time among suspicious Goths,” and of Gennadius, the first Patriarch of Constantinople under the Turks, keeping the faith as everything else in his world was being destroyed and corrupted.  The examples of such men are a more relevant inspiration for us in these dark times than Cimon or Cato or George Washington or even Calvin Coolidge.  I intend no offense to the Father of our Country or the last American President possessed of good sense and common dignity.

At the age of twelve, I wasted time in class inventing a history of our solar system in which a great civilization had once flourished on the planet Athena, only to be blown up by nuclear missiles into the smithereens that now make up the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.  Of course I was extrapolating from what I could already see was the death of our own civilization, and I wonder if Plato, possibly, had something similar on his mind when he dreamed up the lost continent of Atlantis out of his own imagination.  Only a genius could have foreseen the eclipse of Athens two generations before Philip and Alexander subjugated Greece, but any child with his wits about him should have been able to smell the cultural death in our own popular culture of the fifties and sixties.

One did not have to read Oswald Spengler or even James Burnnham to know, by the early 1960’s, that three thousand years of civilization had come to an end in a generation that watched too much television (before going on to smoke too much dope and pop too many pills) to know what was happening to them.  I had reached that conclusion before I turned 20, though I did not try to reconcile adolescent smugness over the end of all that with a growing devotion to the classics that was the only force strong enough to keep me from hitting the bars before noon.

Little did I know that this apocalyptic vision was old hat before I was born.  Surrealists, Communists, and Dadaists did not merely embrace the death of meaning and civility; they positively exulted in the death of the West and everything Western.  They hated Christianity, especially the Catholic Church; they hated Europe, France in particular; they hated the classics; they hated white people.  They hated men.  By contrast they celebrated Asian religion and African culture.  Decades before the active phase of the war against the West took on the slogans of anti-colonialism, minority rights, and multiculturalism, Western intellectuals were full to the brim with self-loathing.  The origins of the disease lie in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but it was only in the later 20th century that it became pandemic, first in the educated classes, and then among anyone who went to school or owned a television set. Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Voltaire were pioneers in Western self-hatred, which must be why they are so much admired by conservative intellectuals in our own time.


A version of this was published in a magazine three years ago.


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Frank Brownlow says:

    Oh yes! “The origins of the disease lie in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment….” The dispensers of orthodoxy at places like Harvard & Cambridge never forgave C.S.Lewis for the great prefatory essay to his Oxford History of 16th-Century Eng. Lit, pointing that out.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Dear Andrei,
    Who had the nerve to publish this three years ago? It’s Damn good, in my opinion. Without reading the peroration I would normally hesitate to compliment but since it’s you, thanks for contributing this post.

  3. Robert Reavis says:

    Oops! Dear Tom, ….. etc

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Sorry, I was busy editing Andrei’s piece for today and switched attributions!