Choosing the Future

This essay was published some years ago (and the historical sections recycled for lectures), but is more relevant today than when it was written.

Every schoolboy knows the story of the choice of Herakles, how the young hero, coming upon a crossroads, met Virtue and Vice, the one a noble and modest maiden, the other an alluring and lasciviously trollope dressed in a fashion that exposed her charms.  Herakles, destined for greatness, chose Virtue, and the rest, as they say, is mythology.  (We shall return to the fable near the end of our own tale.) 

It is not only mythical heroes who are faced with such choices.  Nations make choices, usually unconsciously, though it is too late, when a later generation complains about their teeth being set on edge, to refuse to drink the cup of sour wine that was offered to their fathers.  Christians in a postchristian world are understandably bewildered by the march of Progress that has left Christianity far behind in the dust, and disgruntled Americans of every sort ransack their memories of history (a task that takes most of them only a few seconds) in search of useful analogies for what they see as their current predicament.  

Some American leftists turn to Roman history, particularly to the rise of the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, which they use as an ideological backdrop for the presidency of Donald Trump.  Strain as I might, with the texts of Cicero, Sallust, and Caesar himself, I cannot make sense of the analogy even by turning the books sideways and upside down.  Julius was a gifted Machiavellian and a brilliant soldier.  He had little room in his character for either sentimentality or revenge.  At a time when institutions, traditions, and established truths were crumbling into dust, he saw a clear way to power.  Conservatives like Cato dreamed of restoring republican virtue, and Cicero was content to be a power broker, a great compromiser who might pursue a useful and noble career by preserving what is essential from the path while dealing with the ugly realities of naked power. What he left us is the reflections of a brilliant man who had lived to see the end of his world.

At an early age Abraham Lincoln, who modeled himself (at least in dreams) on Caesar, expressed the matter with a candor he would never again employ:  

Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

It used to be American conservatives, who invoked the Roman Empire as a paradigm for American decline.  How many times did Birchers, Goldwaterites, and National Review editorialists declare that the United States had entered a decadent period something like the later Roman Empire?  

Unfortunately, since no one in America, neither authentic leftists nor phony conservatives, study history, their parallels with Roman history reveal nothing more than the shallowness of their own minds.  The conservatives, whether decrying the death of the republic or the failure of empire, were never very clear on the period they had in mind.  I have heard people refer to the  age of the Antonines, as a kind of dark age of sexual depravity and failure of nerve and the age of Cicero and Caesar as a moral golden age. 

Usually, though, the conservatives had in mind, however, vaguely, the period of the Third and Fourth centuries, when the Empire was up for sale to the highest bidder, when gangster armies fought over the spoils of the Empire, when Oriental Emperors like Elagabalus stained the city’s ancient streets with vice unknown in the more wholesome days of Nero and Caligula.  

Apart from the disorders, however, the Empire was not a lost cause in the Third and Fourth Centuries, largely because of the solid virtues of the class that produced the officers and bureaucrats who organized the defenses, kept the roads and aqueducts in repair, and maintained some semblance of public order.  We who live in the age of The Osbournes, and the Kardashians, of Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, can hardly afford to sneer at an age that produced Augustine and Basil the Great, or, if we are of a pagan bent, Proclus and Ammianus Marcellinus.

We, alas,  are not living in the age of Caligula or Comodus or even in the age of Honorius and Arcadius, Theodosius’ two degenerate and incompetent sons.  This is not the period before the collapse of civilization: In a moral and cultural sense, at least, the collapse has already taken place.  Reasonable people might disagree on the decade in which civilization ended.  I would vote for the 1930’s, but a good case can be made for the 1950’s.  

No cultural transformation is uniform.  There were prominent republicans who made their case under Vespasian, a full century after Augustus had made himself sole ruler of the Roman world,  and there were still a few rational minds left even down to 2000.   Like the collapse of the Roman West, the modern West’s failure has been a gradual process, and, like the proverbial frog in the kettle of water, we have so gradually grown used to the heat that we are hardly aware of the bubbles boiling around us.  On a spiritual level, the collapse began perhaps 500 years ago, but on a cultural and moral plane, the stench of decay was already perceptible long before the first World War.  

Poets, though not the legislators of mankind, are the secular prophets who are the first to realize and declare what is going on, and the poets of the teens and twenties, Eliot, Pound, and Jeffers (to name only three), were clear: civilization was almost extinct.  Eliot’s readers were shocked by his depiction of their world in The Wasteland, though the poem now reads as a banal description of everyday reality.  Jeffer’s harsh condemnation of the decay of the American republic into a sleazy Empire Pound, by the 1990’s, was a commonplace among Libertarians who are not accustomed to reading poetry.

Ezra Pound, lamenting the mass slaughter of the Great War, put it succinctly:

There died a myriad,

And of the best, among them,

     For an old bitch gone in the teeth,

For a botched civilization.

 The proper place to look for parallels to contemporary America is not in the declining years of the Roman Empire, when civility, the rule of law, and rigorous standards of schooling still prevailed in the better parts of the Empire, but in the period after the barbarian take-over of Italy, Gaul, and Britain, when no one knew exactly what to expect but were resigned to the steady deterioration of what we jokingly today refer to as the quality of life.  During the “Gothic” period from Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 to the death of Cassiodorus about 580, the task of civilized Roman Italians was to stay alive, hold on to their property, and pass down some of their institutions to their descendants.  From any perspective, whether of cultural or even material survival, the future was not bright.   

Though the West was increasingly Christian, this was no Golden Age of the primitive Church.  When an open war broke out in Rome over who would sit in the chair of St. Peter, the pagan prefect told the winner (Pope Damasus) that he would gladly turn Christian if only he could have the wealth and power of the Pope.  Catholics have every reason to lament the state of the Church, presided over by an oversensitive incompetent and ruled by a morally and financially corrupt hierarchy in and out of the Vatican; nonetheless, it is a mistake, perhaps a heresy, to imagine that any church was ever terribly different.  There are corrupt and wicked cardinals in the best of times, and saintly and honorable cardinals and Popes in the most degenerate ages of the Church.  Mankind being what it is, the Church was corrupt even in the time of the Apostles--as is revealed by the story of Ananias and Zephira and by St. Paul’s constant complaints about dissensions and moral disorders, including “such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles.”

Even in Jesus’ time, his followers quarreled over precedence and over priorities, and one of them, perhaps in disgust with Jesus’ refusal to lead a social revolution, betrayed his master.  In many significant ways, the church, in its first millennium of experience, improved more than it deteriorated

Though Romans had nominally ruled the West down to 476, real power was exercised not in Rome but in Milan and Ravenna, whose degenerate rulers hardly cared what happened to the eternal city.  Alaric’s sack of Rome 410 was a terrible shock to the world, and when, as the story goes, the emperor Honorius, who was a poultry fancier, heard the news that “Roma” was destroyed, he broke out in grief and astonishment, thinking that his prize rooster named Roma had been killed. “I just saw her this morning,” he complained. Once his courtiers reassured him that it was only the city, he felt a good deal better.

Italy finally lost the pretense of Roman rule once Odovacar the German deposed the last puppet emperor in 476.  Odovacar attempted to preserve the structure of the empire and kept the imperial tax system and Roman officials in place, reserving the right to relax taxes whenever he wished to do a favor to a friend or gain popularity.   But neither he nor Theoderic, the rival who murdered him, was up to the task.  The economy was in shambles, agriculture in ruins. Skilled trades were disappearing from want of work, and greedy barbarians were swarming in to take over farms they did not intend to work.  

Much of what Theoderic did in Italy was a continuation of Odovacar’s policy: Exercise power through the Gothic soldiers and keep the administration going, wherever possible, by making use of Roman officials like Boethius and Cassiodorus.  The Goths were assigned a full third of the lands--not that they intended to farm them, themselves.  There were roughly 200,000 fighting men, whose numbers, filled out by women and children, must have added up to a million--a small number, really.  In those days, there was not much assimilation among the immigrants.  Few Goths learned Latin and virtually none could read.  The King approved of their ignorance: “A child who feared the schoolmaster’s rod,” declared Theoderic, “would never wield the sword.”  He also seems to have adopted the strategy of divide and rule--he was the only man who could control both the Goths and the Romans.  Although he is praised for his astute statesmanship, Theoderic could never have succeeded in establishing a stable kingdom in an Italy divided into two nations. 

Theoderic and most of his Goths were Arian heretics who denied the equality and, in the extreme case, even the full divinity of the Son of God, but although the Arians were well known as vicious persecutors of their more numerous Catholic rivals, Theoderic was wise enough to attempt moderation, though he did intervene in Church affairs and even nominated a Pope in Ravenna rather than in Rome. He exasperated Catholic feelings when he compelled an entire community to repair the damages to Jewish property that had resulted from a riot, and in the controversy that followed, the King had the chapel of St. Stephen in Verona was demolished.  Later in life, Theoderic began to fear that his Roman subjects were more fearful than loyal, and he took steps to disarm the Italian populace, and he was always willing to listen to accusations made by the suspicious Goths against distinguished Romans.  Theoderic’s brutal paranoia is responsible for the most famous crimes that stained his regime.

 The king showed his greatest prudence in selecting distinguished Romans to staff his bureaucracy.  Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was heir to the last patrician family of republican Rome, the Anicii.  As a Manlius he claimed descent, however implausibly, from the legendary heroes of the early Republic, such as Manlius Torquatus.  He was born about 480 to a family as wealthy as it was distinguished.  His father had been consul under the last emperors, and the son was to be consul under the Goths.  He married a descendant of the great jurist Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, and he lived to see his sons made joint-consuls in 522.  

Although a hard-working public servant, Boethius was best known as a writer and scholar.  His was the last generation to have a command of good Latin, and he excelled his contemporaries.  He also learned Greek, though the story that he studied in Athens may well be fiction.  In a last ditch effort to preserve the Hellenic inheritance in an increasingly monolingual Italy, he translated from the Greek important works on music, geometry, astronomy, theology, and--perhaps most importantly--the logical works of Aristotle, which are the indispensable foundation for all systematic science.

Boethius was the most prominent Roman in public life, gaining positions of consul and patrician and magister officiorum--something like chancellor or prime minister.  He was no mere creature of Theoderic or toady to the Goths.  He intervened to save the lives of Romans unjustly attacked by the barbarians and in his policies attempted to relieve the provinces of the crushing burden of taxes, robbery, and exploitation imposed by the Goths.  

We shall never know what was going on during those years in Boethius’ mind: a civilized man, preserving and translating Aristotle, organizing what was left of the imperial administration, while putting up with the unwashed and intemperate barbarians who ruled Italy by the sword.  From one point of view, both he and Cassiodorus were collaborators with the enemy, but like, for example, the leaders of Vichy France, they were making the best deal they could under the circumstances.  He must have known, ought to have known that barbarians can never be trusted.  They might be honorable in their own way, true to their code, but they were--as Aristotle would have said--akrateis, not in control.  A barbarian is prey to his passions--greeed, envy, lust, gluttony, drunkenness, arrogance, and many Goths found it inconceivable and disgusting that a civilized and just Roman should wield so much authority.   

Two years after the doting father watched his sons’ inauguration as consuls, he was accused by resentful Goths of plotting to restore the authority of the only remaining Emperor--Justin, the elderly but competent uncle of Justinian.  The Goths had reason to be afraid.  As soon as Justinian was on throne, he began planning a campaign to restore Italy, which he did, and an educated Roman born in 480 could hardly be blamed for sighing after the good old days.  However, the fact is we simply do not know if Boethius was guilty even of treason in the heart.

Here is the case. Albinus, Roman senator, accused of hoping for a restoration of the liberty of Rome.  Boethius defended the accused Senator, with the rhetorical commonplace of free men: “If Albinus is guilty, then so is all the Roman Senate including me.  If we are innocent, Albinus is entitled to the same protection of the laws that the rest of us enjoy.”   The emperor drew the wrong conclusion and a document was found or manufactured, inviting the emperor to conquer Italy, signed by both Albinus and Boethius.  Boethius was thrown into jail in Pavia, not far from Milan.  The charge of practicing magic, the only basis of which was apparently his philosophical studies, was added to harm his reputation among Christians.  Without a trial or a hearing, he was pronounced guilty, and 500 miles away in Rome a servile senate, as Gibbon says, “pronounced a sentence of confiscation and death and confiscation against the most illustrious of its members.”  

The sentence was carried out in the cruelest fashion imaginable: Cords were twisted around his skull, tighter and tighter until his eyes began to pop out.  Some Goth must have taken pity, because the Senator was finally clubbed to death.  His father-in-law Symmachus mourned his loss too openly, and he was dragged in chains to Ravenna where he was executed.  He was the great-grandson of the pagan Symmachus who had argued for the restoration of the altar of victory removed from the Senate house by Gratian.  Now his worthy descendant shared the religion of his ancestor’s opponent St. Ambrose.

Boethius has been called the last of the Romans, and with good cause.  His pursuit of humane learning, decent Latinity, and civic virtue were not to be found again until Petrarch.  His most important successor, Cassiodorus, often wrote wretched Latin and treated the classical inheritance only as a propdaedeutic for the education of priests and scribes.  Though Medievalists might celebrate the transformation of Latin into a simpler language, the loss of balance and structure and precision was symptomatic of the deeper loss of those qualities in all aspects of the culture of the early Middle Ages.

Anyone who has watched the language of Eliot and Waugh and Mencken degenerate into the language of Adrienne Rich, John Grisham, and everyone who writes for the New Republic and its “conservative” clones in New York, will know how to interpret the loss of clarity and purity.  

The American character has been corrupted, from top to bottom, from Ken Lay to Larry King, from Donald Trump to Alex Jones.  No grass-roots populist rebellion against Washington can change that.  A hundred thousand principled and educated men and women, on the other hand, would constitute a revolution, but that revolution will not be hatched in public or private schools but in the institutions that can still be saved: the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, for example, where good intentions are not always matched by sound learning; or in the military academies where, if the women were once expelled and standards raised, a generation of clear-headed warriors could be reared; in the business schools that should be requiring a humane education instead of courses in “business ethics” named after criminal Wall Street manipulators; and in every home where parents can cut the plugs off the television set and game machines and read grown-up books to their children.  

We cannot as individuals change, much less save the world, but as members of families and parishes, schools and businesses, we can help our children and colleagues take a giant step backward toward civilization.

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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

7 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Thank you, Tom. This is one your pieces I will read and re read “for heaven and the future’ sake.” And for no other reason except from top to bottom “t’is true,t’is true” and it contains the sadness and hope, joys and sorrows of speaking truth to “a diminished thing.”’
    A few weeks back you mentioned, or were wondering allowed about paradise and heaven, eternal life and the resurrection of the dead, maybe a few other mysteries of the Christian faith. Anyone who could first see and then write what you have observed and written above may need to be satisfied with seeing as through a glass darkly, or with the basic either/or reflections of Socrates before sipping his first and last cup of hemlock, but there is something noble about such honest souls and you are one too in my estimation.

  2. Roger McGrath says:

    This is an essay that reminds me why I remain a student of Tom Fleming’s work. His understanding of Classical Antiquity is profound and he writes about it with a grace and ease that make his essays highly engaging.

    The rise and fall of the Greek city-states and of Rome seem perfect examples of human nature at work. I suppose that’s why I’m not particularly optimistic about our future unless the American people are shocked into reversing our general decline by a disaster that nearly destroys us.

    Rome bounced back from the Disaster of the Allia in 390 BC to enjoy hundreds of years of greatness. Of course, I look upon the crushing defeat of the Roman legions on the banks of the Allia with unmitigated joy. What could be better than a tribe of Celts led by Brennus roll over Romans. Those were the good old days. “And it’s Brennan On the Moor, Brennan On the Moor. Bold, brave and undaunted was young Brennan On the Moor.”

  3. Vince Cornell says:

    The corruption and sexual perversion in the Church hierarchy is one thing, but their deliberate attempt to suppress the liturgical traditions and make a mockery of moral teaching does vex me, I confess. I just want to be left alone to raise my children and go to the Latin Mass, and the Pope can raid the Vatican coffers and play footsie with the homosexual activists and environmental nutballs all he wants until he and his decrepit cronies finally shuffle off their mortal coils. I feel like that’s a pretty low bar for the Pope to clear, but even that is just too much for him.

    And that’s part of my problem. I feel like the barbarians of today are getting slightly craftier and are now doing what they can to intentionally spoil the seed corn that people like me are trying to plant. I see going after that Latin Mass as an attack on my children. And I can see an attack on homeschooling in the near future. It’s hard for me to see any hope in the future unless some catastrophe is unleashed that forces the insane and perverted elites to focus their attention elsewhere, and what a bizarre and insane hope to have.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    The Mass attack, the recent, idiotic and public smear of the Rosary, the abdications, the burning of Churches, the destruction of art, the glorification of perversity, sterility and the forming of more committees … It is all of one piece. You know that. Keep your head down, enjoy the youngsters and their moment, it passes quickly. And while you still can, don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is ….

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Roger, my father-in-law, a fighter pilot in WW II and Korea, used to say that only a depression could save this country. In more recent years, I have come to believe that a major crisis–a war fought on US soil or a great depression–would result in the death or total enslavement of over half the population. Can you imagine millenials cut of from Spotify and TikTok? I do meet young people, many of them uneducated and not particularly intelligent, who are aware of what is going on and resolved to drop out, not necessarily by going full on Robinson Crusoe but basically using what does not harm them. Some are learning to garden, some fish or hunt, many have a practical trade or craft. They’ll probably survive. But the people with headphones permanently attached and eyes glued to screens, it hardly matters. They are not alive in any ordinary human sense. This is what makes some of the older dystopian fiction so interesting, I mean plays, novels, film scripts that depict dehumanization. At one point I hoped to do a podcast series that would over Capek’s RUR and War with the Newts, Ionesco’s The Rhinocerus, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (book and film), Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (not Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which is a terrific movies but it entirely misses the point), also Dick’s Scanner Darkly.

  6. Michael Strenk says:

    I would dearly love to see this podcast series made. I read War With the Newts a few years ago. It was nothing like what I expected and, although profound, I’m afraid that some of the essential points may have gone over my head. All of the other books mentioned have been on my “to do” list for some time. I’ll pick them up regardless…

  7. Curtis says:

    I suppose one takeaway is that yes, Rome experienced a substantial decline due to a decline in civic virtue, civil strife, bad policies, decadence, etc. – but it remained a very tough nut that only cracked under immense invasion pressures from the North, East, and South. If Rome had had our geographic advantages it probably would have survived and eventually experienced a revival due to virtuous men like Boethius.