Anterus Smith Interviews the Philosopher Proclus

This morning, I took my time about getting up.  The sunlight had awakened me some time after six. Opening my hotel room window, which looked out on the slow-moving Arno, I propped up the pillows and watched energetic young men sculling up the river in the light rain.  There were a already few fishermen on the Solferino bridge, before Pisa’s brief morning rush hour, and they were bundled up as for a cold day in winter, when in fact it was over 50.  A few trucks were on their way to make deliveries to the restaurants on the Via Roma leading up to the Tower and the Duomo.  The proprietors were men of imaginative vision, who knew how to get rich selling some of the only thoroughly bad food in small-town Italy.  In Florence, one got used to anything, but Pisa—so long as you stayed a mile from the Tower—was another story.

Food that bad in Italy is a mystery, like rock and roll ‘music’, television quiz shows, departments of sociology, and American presidential candidates.  Remember the joke from a few years back about the shortest books in the Library of Congress?  Jewish athletes, Arab military victories, great Mormon scholars?  What about qualified presidential candidates?

A letter from a friend in the States had set me thinking along these familiar but depressing lines.  My friend was down in the dumps.  The election had triggered his dark mood:

Can the Democrats be that brazen and that stupid in their antics (e.g., barring election inspectors, covering up windows so observers can’t see in, keeping observers back well beyond any possibility for being able to see anything, etc.)… It’s almost too easy to conclude they are just brazen or that stupid and that those attributes have put all of them into a place of some rarified unreality and arrogance. 

But his unhappiness went deeper than a stolen election I did not really care about.  With this plague panic, I may never be able to return to the USA to try to put the pieces of my shattered life back together.  He was puzzled by what he imagined to be a descent, if not from glory, then at least from routine decency.

Or is this just another in the dismal annals of fogginess that envelops the populace such as our thinking during the Civil War, the world wars, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and every other dismal episode in our country’s history?  If so, it still strikes me that we are in a worse predicament because those who wield power today really do want to control our every day lives whereas in the past such intentions were not announced so openly as they are now.

The America he describes is not a place I can return to any time soon, and the panic over King COVOID is a symptom of the degeneracy my friend was lamenting.  This America, though it is a world I have lived in, was not the world I could recall growing up in, though admittedly my powers of recollection are not in good repair.  Music, in my family, meant piano lessons twice a week and old recordings of Walter Gieseking and Rudolf Schnabel playing Beethoven.  The girls I knew were vivacious but reserved.  It was as if they knew they would some day have to hold up their heads as wives and mothers.  Of course, there were the wild ones that guys went out with but never married.

Politicians were corrupt, as they are now, but they were reasonably articulate and on occasion made decisions more in the interests of the country than their own.  Yes, it happened.  But even then I knew that the American “civilization” my gloomy friend was celebrating was not in its Springtime or even Indian summer.  It was Eliot’s midwinter spring that was soon to be followed by—what’s the Italian expression?, the days of the blackbird, proverbially the coldest three days of winter.  

I knew this early on and watched, as every decade went by, people—not just Americans—growing duller and dumber, ruder and more indifferent to all the little customs and courtesies that had separated us from savages.  It was a long time since I had given any thought to developments I took for granted as inevitable, but I wondered if any other people had committed suicide on this scale or vandalized their own homes and monuments?  The Romans got overrun by barbarians, Byzantines were conquered by Turks, but we Americans were the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the history of mankind.  We had no excuse for our capitulation in the face of evil.

Of course I knew at least some of the reasons.  When a people gives up its reason for existing, it will cease to exist.  A poet I loved in my youth, Robinson Jeffers, had diagnosed a large part of the disease in the 1920’s and 30’s, and we are simply going through the paces that have been choreographed for us by earlier generations of fifth columnists.  Pick any date you like—Lincoln’s decision to invade the South, Wilson’s decision to go to war with Germany, FDR’s New Deal, and you can construct a narrative that will be partly true in explaining some part of the problem, but one might as easily pick the dishonest rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, whose preamble is a tissue of false platitudes no one but a complete fool would accept.  

The concept of human equality was not simply false; it was a nightmarish proposition to reduce all the human differences—the source of most of the beauty and significance in human existence—to one common denominator defined by government.  Distinctions of intelligence and wisdom, beauty and craftsmanship, race and nation, sex and gender all boiled down to a mass of undifferentiated gray.  Moral and cultural Play-dough, good for nothing but hard to get out in the wash.  Frost put it in personal terms:

My friends all know I’m interpersonal

But long before I’m interpersonal

A way way down inside I’m personal.

Just so before we’re international,

We’re national and act as nationals.

The colors are kept unmixed on the palette,

Or better on dish plates around the room…

The Declaration was only the executive summary of revolutionary principles that were first suggested here in Tuscany, and I wonder what my old friend Pico would say if he could taste the fruits of his celebration of human dignity?  Man was going to storm Olympus and join the gods!  I had spent years, brooding on the devolution of western man and reached certain conclusions, but it was and is the cowardice of the so-called champions of the West that is most inexplicable. It is as if they have never believed in anything but the ineluctable force of progress. 

To be continued...

Avatar photo

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

3 Responses

  1. theAlabamian says:

    Dr. Fleming,
    Very intriguing and well written as always. Unfortunately I’m not well versed in the classics at all, I have some knowledge of certain facts or written works but very little of real substance. I am beginning to be inspired and see the value through your work. The way you weave Greek or Roman thought through your work and bring it to light in today’s struggles, or rather bring today’s struggles some light through history and culturally through the classics is impressive. I was listening to a lecture you gave for the Mises Institute, via YouTube, entitled “Did the South Have to Fight”, and it in your same signature impressivness in weaving Greek classics (in this case The Illiad) and the Southern cause in the War of 1861 is present. I have much to learn.
    As for this column, in relating what you were saying: “We had no excuse for our capitulation in the face of evil” to what I see among the Southern masses in particular, I am frightened by the lack of defense of anything truly culturally valuable by our people. One example is the masses of Southerners unwilling to simply stop watching college football in light of it’s going hand in hand with progressivism and BLM, and support of universities no matter how progressive they get. Another example is rabid support of sending mercenaries (their sons and daughters) to foreign lands where we have no business at the heavy expense of the taxpayers. Alabama has not been invaded since the 1860’s. You get the point.
    Thank you Dr. Fleming!

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks for the kind words. You are probably not aware that Mr. Smith, who narrates this piece, has been accused of projecting himself or his mind at least backwards and forwards in time. The best guess made by those who wish to get hold of him is that he was growing up in the 1930’s and 40’s, hence some of his anachronistic and antiquated attitudes.

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    For more on Anterus Smith search for Ched Rayson on this site.