"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 20, 2023

The Fall Of The American Empire - Lessons From Ancient Rome And Dostoevsky

There are many reasons why the Roman Empire declined and fell – conflicts between the Senate and the Emperor, political corruption, overly ambitious expansion of Roman territory, the increased ability of barbarian tribes to counter Roman military strategy, the restive slave population (Spartacus) and increasing unemployment among others.


One of the most often cited reasons is perhaps the hardest to quantify – a decline in morality. Yet there can be no question that Rome’s transition from a society with a strict code of moral discipline, rectitude, and ethical leadership to one of dissolution, excess, and sybaritic pleasure had to play a part. Sir John Bagot Glubb (Glubb Pasha), British general and historian wrote about this decline:

For example, in the early Roman Republic, students received a basic education that stressed character development and virtue. But in the later Roman Empire, teachers taught rhetoric (the art of speaking) when emotionally persuading assemblies was no longer of political or practical value. Finally the corrosive effects of material success encouraged the upper class and the common people both to discard the self-confident, self-disciplined values that helped to create the empire. Then the empire eventually collapses

Over the last years of the Roman Empire, the lack of this classic moral discipline was particularly evident in the ruling classes. 

Emperors such as Tiberius kept groups of young boys for his pleasure, incest by Nero who also had a male slave castrated so he could take him as his wife, Elagabalus who forces a Vestal Virgin into marriage, Commodus with his harems of concubines who enraged Romans by sitting in the theatre dressed in a woman's garments.

The decline in morals also affected the lower classes and slaves. Religious festivals such as Saturnalia and Bacchanalia where sacrifices, lewd acts and sexual promiscuity were practiced. Bestiality and other sexually explicit acts were exhibited in the Coliseum arena to amuse the mob. Brothels and forced prostitution flourished. Widespread gambling on the chariot races and gladiatorial combats. Massive consumption of alcohol. The sadistic cruelty towards both man and beasts in the arena.


The advent of Christianity hastened the decline of the Roman empire, for it challenged both its secular excesses and materialism, but also the very principles of polytheism and faith-based monotheism.  The reign of Constantine was important because he understood that Christianity linked with Roman administration and military rule could be an unbeatable combination.  Christian spiritual rule would assure a civility governed by religious principles, aspirations, and guilt; while Roman rule, without internal disorder, could strengthen and expand its empire.

Image result for images constantine roman emperor

As historian Will Durant pointed out, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.” Durant showed that when a society becomes morally corrupt, civility is destroyed, the society becomes unstable, and inevitably the nation slides towards collapse. 

Expanding on this principle Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov) argued strongly for the merger of Church and State:

If everything became the Church, the Church would exclude all the criminal and disobedient, and would not cut off their heads,” Ivan went on. “I ask you, what would become of the excluded? He would be cut off then not only from men, as now, but from Christ. By his crime he would have transgressed not only against men but against the Church of Christ.

This is so even now, of course, strictly speaking, but it is not clearly enunciated, and very, very often the criminal of to-day compromises with his conscience: ‘I steal,’ he says, ‘but I don't go against the Church. I'm not an enemy of Christ.’ That's what the criminal of to-day is continually saying to himself, but when the Church takes the place of the State it will be difficult for him, in opposition to the Church all over the world, to say: ‘All men are mistaken, all in error, all mankind are the false Church. I, a thief and murderer, am the only true Christian Church’ 


Ivan did not argue that the Church should be subsumed within the State, but the other way around.  The Church should be the principal institution of rule, and the State only responsible for governance.

This of course goes contrary to the jealously held American notion of the separation of Church and State.  Any thought of an established religion forming part of government is anathema.  Yet the Founding Fathers never intended for religion to disappear from civic life.  On the contrary, the first words of the Declaration of Independence state unequivocally that the rights of Man are conferred on him by his Creator; and it is the job of the State only to protect and guarantee these rights.  

The new settlers in America, whether Puritans or Cavaliers never doubted that any new independent republic would have a religious foundation.  They insisted that there be no one established religion which would impose its will on others; but religion itself was the sine qua non of a civil society.

Image result for images thomas jefferson

Over the centuries, the reasoning behind the Founding Fathers insistence on the separation of Church and State – to avoid any religious, publicly-sanctioned monopoly – has gotten lost.  All religious expression must be kept out of government, schools, and civic life. In a profoundly religious nation this, of course, is impossible; and the rise of the political influence of religious fundamentalism is only to be expected.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said it best in his dissent on Obergefell:

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

Moreover most Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that morality as well as dignity has existed since the Law of Moses, the teachings of Christ, and the lessons of the Prophet Mohammed. The first chapter of the Gospel of John explicates the concept of logos – an eternal, universal Word that has existed even before God the Creator.  The Word is light, reason, and in moral terms, truth.

St. John

In other words morality – the precepts enunciated in the Torah, the New Testament, and the Koran – are universal, permanent, and unchanging.  Governments, as Jefferson said, are there only to facilitate the creation and protection of moral society which follows these religious principles.

There are two Americas – a profoundly spiritual one which continues to believe in the religious foundations of the nation and the permanence of Judeo-Christian-Muslim values; and an aggressive secular one which contends that a uniform, universal morality does not exist; that all moral judgments are relative; and that the words Scripture (Torah, the New Testament, and the Koran) are meant as metaphorical examples of righteous behavior not absolutes. Within such a secular, relativist context, the role of government is not to protect and preserve a moral community, but to engineer a more perfect society according to secular principles.

For religious conservatives it is hard not to look at the final days of Rome when society had come loose from its moral moorings.  The principles of Cato the Elder taught to aristocratic future leaders of Rome – honor, discipline, honesty, courage, and compassion – were things of the past. Moral rectitude which was derived from a sincere worship of the gods, had dissipated into pagan idolatry.

Image result for images cato the elder


Christ’s incessant and unremitting criticism of the Jews was not because he rejected The Law, but that the Pharisees had forgotten the essential principles of Moses and Jewish society had become one of ritual, cant, and observance without respect and belief.

Even those Christians whose interpretation of the Bible is not absolute and literal cannot ignore Christ’s repeated references to Adam and Eve, the sexual union of man and woman, the nature of fatherhood and the foundational nature of the procreative family.  They might dismiss the many Biblical injunctions against homosexuality because the real ‘abomination’ was a rejection of the human family which replicated the divine one, not a curse in and of itself; but the overall message of the centrality of the procreative family is never lost. 

Image result for images st paul


The current parsing of gender and sexuality, dividing sexual distinctions into smaller and smaller categories, is particularly troublesome.  Few sincere Christians deny the existence of aberrant (from the norm) sexual patterns and choose to condemn those who follow them; but they object to the normalization of these new paradigms. The centrality if not sanctity of the traditional male-female family has, in their opinion, has been ignored in favor of outliers.

Civilizations at their height have all followed the same rules, have adhered to the same moral and ethical principles enunciated by Cato the Elder, the Gospels, and the Koran. Even a cursory look at history shows that there are indeed universal moral principles.  Even those who do not believe in the Holy Spirit or logos still accept them as permanent secular features of society.  No civilization has survived without them.

So at times America does feel like the last days of Imperial Rome.  Anything goes. ‘'’The business of America is business’, said Engine Charlie Wilson of General Motors; and capitalism passes for a cultural center in the United States; but the moral center is not so clearly identified. Doomsday-sayers note image, PR, public apologies, undisciplined individualism, materialism, and amoral relativism as Signs of the Coming Apocalypse; but there are many more.

Image result for images engine charlie wilson

America may only look Baroque or decadent Roman to some; while to others there should be no discounting our entrepreneurial spirit, energy, positivism, and ambition.  These can only be possible in a diverse, non-committal, and non-prescriptive society.

Yet, if history is any indicator, the American moral ship needs righting.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.