The New Dark Age, Part One of Three


What are the worst things that can happen to an aging skeptic? One of them, certainly, is the daily proof of your prophetic insight. There is no cause for rejoicing, when every newspaper headline, properly translated, declares: "You were right all along."

Two obvious cases in point: First, the reaction to the COVID outbreak that revealed the cowardice and degradation of most Americans in all classes, particularly of the members of the ruling elite. Short of the solutions adopted by a Maoist dictatorship, there is nothing that can be done to help, much less save the American "nation". They have contracted a fatal disease for which they would not seek a remedy, even if there were one. We don't need a vaccine for COVID, we need a vaccine for cowardice, stupidity, childishness, and lickspittle obeisance to authority. But this is not the subject of this essay.

The second case, fighting for headlines with the COVID panic, is the breakdown of law and order in cities across the country, not only in the great metropolitan centers of New York and Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but also in places that were once comfortable settlements of complacent members of the blue-collar and middle classes: Seattle, Portland, Kenosha--and many other burgs that only make the front page after a multiple murder or natural disaster.

In each of these cities and towns, the shock does not derive from the anarchic lawlessness of welfare dependents with time on their hands and energy that has not been absorbed by work. This is what is always to be expected from the government-created slaves who are given the free time to take drugs, live in filth, loot, rape, and murder, when the nights are warm and the moon is full. The shock comes from the public officials--mayors, city councils, governors, city managers, and some police officials, who refuse to carry out the laws they have sworn to uphold.

When I wrote this essay some 18 years ago, I was hoping to point out, to anyone who would listen, that we had already entered into a period of history that most nearly resembled the European Dark Age that fell after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. There are very significant caveats that have to be issued, distinctions that have to be made--as I then pointed out--but they are all to the credit of the former Dark Age. Few Romans wrote books in praise of Gothic superiority, barbarian morality, and neither emperors nor senates were calling for reparations to remedy centuries of inequality and mistreatment of the Vandals, Herulians, and Huns, who were destroying what was left of a classical and Christian civilization.

A new Dark Age is already upon us, and perhaps we might learn a few lessons from the last one. It was a time when the arts of civilization were dimly recalled in fairytales, when Krum the Bulgar Khan gilded a Roman emperor’s skull and used it as a drinking goblet, when the careful and equitable laws of the Romans were displaced by Germanic tribal codes that hearkened back to times before “‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre.” As in Gaul (or Britain) during the Fifth and even Sixth Centuries, a few Romanized Celts cultivated good Latin and marital fidelity, while the sturdy Franks took as many women as they could support and preferred the rough tales of their ancestors to the supple lines of Vergil and Statius. Tacitus praised the Germans for what we now might call “family values,” but the strength of their social organization lay not in the nuclear family but in the sense of blood and kin that connected them into clans, tribes, and nations.

Our American barbarians are not, of course, anything like those sturdy tribal Germans who would, in a few centuries, discipline their own vigorous customs into something like a civilization. Our post-civilized men and women lack even the healthy instincts of the wild beast: They are more like the feral dogs who know only enough of human beings not to fear them.

The reality is there for anyone to see, if he does not know only what he reads in the paper or sees on the evening news. But, it is not the gloomy spectacle of public fornicators and reptilian businessmen that should interest us. Man, made in the image of God, is a creative creature, even in dissolution. In times of social moral chaos, when law and discipline and form have disappeared, he will revert to the more primitive customs dictated by the flow of hormones and the force of genetic pressure: the amoral pursuit of individual survival and sexual gratification; and, lacking the mental discipline required to sustain a complex commonwealth, he will have to rediscover some simpler form of organization that will give him the immediate sense of identity provided by barbarian tribes.

In the previous Dark Age, the universal principles of Roman law crumbled, and the old law of blood and status was reintroduced by the invaders. Among the Germans, a man’s status was, if not everything, a quality that trumped most considerations of fairness and justice. Kill my brother, whether by malice, self-defense, or accident, and I am obliged to kill you or secure proper compensation, and the laws governing homicide specified that the amount of wergeld to be paid was proportionate to the social status of the murder victim. Considerations of kinship, tribal membership, and “feudal” (anticipating a bit of social evolution) relationship took precedence over fact and fair play. A stranger without powerful friends was nothing; a tribal leader from a powerful clan was everything.

Some minor considerations of status lingered in Anglo-American law down to the end of the 19th century. A man might be held liable for torts committed by his dependents, both children and wife, and aliens, naturalized or not, were discriminated against in many ways. Preference was given to native born Americans in employment, Sicilian criminals were repatriated to Italy, and no non-native could become the President of the United States. Even at the end of the 20th century, aliens did not have all the same rights as citizens, though Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that they should.

Marshall was an interesting case: a typical liberal in viewing all men and women as rights-bearing individuals, regardless of the accidents of birth and citizenship, but, in the more active phase of his career, he was a single-minded advocate of the rights of one group--namely his own--over all others. Marshall would, no doubt, have said that all he wanted was equality for Americans of African descent, but equality turned out to mean (as it always does) special privilege after special privilege, from the racially motivated redistricting of congressional districts to minority set-asides to affirmative action. Most of these privileges, it must be said, violated both the Federal and state constitutions--a clear indication, to those who had eyes, that our political order was no longer based on the traditions of Anglo-American jurisprudence.

When the American majority (Republicans as much as Democrats) acquiesced in a revolution that manifestly damaged their own children, they were making it clear that they, like much of the Roman imperial aristocracy, no longer cared about the people who represented the long-term future of their families and their nation. In that sense, the old America was really dead, not merely doomed, by the Kennedy-Johnson years.

To be continued

Thomas Fleming

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