Are we going the way of Rome?
There is a pervasive metaphor circulating in our time concerning the problematic future of the West in what Samuel Huntington called “the clash of civilizations” between a distracted and indifferent Occident and a resurgent Islam. It operates as a historical analogy that appears to have lodged in Western consciousness, namely, the fate of Imperial Rome, which succumbed to the twin forces of economic collapse from within and barbarian invasions from without.
The correlation was introduced most powerfully into Western historical discourse by Oswald Spengler who, in The Decline of the West, published in the wake of the First World War, developed the notion of historical “contemporaneity.” According to Spengler, this needs to be understood as a function of “corresponding phases” and “chronological parallels” between civilizations, so that, in the evolution of historical periods, the Pyramids would be “contemporary” with the Gothic cathedrals. In this sense we would be “contemporary” with late fourth century-early fifth century Rome. As Spengler put it, we are a civilization “los[ing] its desire to be, and, as in Imperial Rome, wish[ing] itself out of the overlong daylight and back into the darkness…”
Of course, such apocalyptic predictions have been made many times before, perhaps most famously by Horace in Epode 16 where he notes that Rome is about to do what its enemies never could, namely, destroy itself: “Let us be on our way, all citizens,/or those above the dull-witted herd: defeatists and weaklings/can rest indolently on their unlucky beds.” But Horace was quilling his premonitory lines many centuries before the slowly-gestating cataclysm came to pass and seemed to be indulging a standard poetic trope of the end of days. After Spengler, given two world wars, a host of comparatively lesser conflicts (though with enormous casualties) and the events of our own bloody century, it is clear that we are no longer dealing with a poetic fancy or an orthodox meme of historical speculation.
Pope Benedict XVI’s critical essay, “If Europe Hates Itself,” written in his former incarnation as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and mourning the apparent disintegration of Europe, brings Spengler’s thesis into the present moment. The Pope soberly declares that “Europe appears to be on the way out. There is a strange lack of desire for a future.” He is alluding primarily to the demographic fact that Europe has ceased to reproduce itself and is crawling toward self-extinction. The original locus of the democratic West has grown moribund, which would also explain its inability to recognize that it is under sustained attack by a triumphalist Islam or to mobilize its legal and political resources to resist the assault upon its physical and cultural integrity. “We are forced,” Benedict continues, “to make comparisons with the Roman Empire at the time of its decline: it still worked as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already living off those who would dissolve it, since it had no more vital energy.”
Edward Gibbon, we recall, attributed the fall of Rome to both “the triumph of barbarism” and the devitalizing effect of Christianity. Yet it was the militant expression of Christian civilization that later prevented the premature end of the still nascent West. Failing the victory at the Battle of Tours in 732, “Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran,” Gibbon wrote, belatedly giving Western Christendom its due, “would now be taught in the schools of Oxford” and the revelation of Mohammed would have been carried “to…the highlands of Scotland.” It was a very close call.
Today we are facing a similar menace even if the morphology of the conflict has changed. Sporadic outbursts of terrorism allied with the furtive and consistent infiltration of the cultural groundwork—including Oxford and Scotland—are gradually tilting the balance in favor of the Muslim advance into the Western heartland. At the same time Western resilience has atrophied and seems unable to produce a modern counterpart of Charles Martel—Charles the Hammer—determined to meet the enemy on its own bellicose terms. “It is unfortunate that in these dark days,” writes Robert Spencer, “we don’t seem to have any leaders who will stand up for freedom of expression.” In fact, we don’t seem to have any leaders who are prepared to stand up in any meaningful way whatsoever for the nations they were elected to serve and protect. “Every reasonable politician,” said Geert Wilders in a speech delivered in Berlin on October 2 of this year, “has a political obligation to preserve [Judeo-Christian and humanist values] against ideologies that threaten them.” It seems, however, that reason is now at a discount and a “reasonable politician” has become, at best, a living oxymoron or, at worst, a dead man talking.
Indeed, many people—especially our mainstream journalists and public intellectuals—who are at least partly aware of what is impending tend to palliate and re-interpret a crisis of civilization as a transition or accommodation toward a new and more open social dispensation. It is rather telling that a leading school of contemporary historians has rewritten the catastrophic end of the Roman Empire as merely a benign transformation to Late Antiquity. What the reputable historian Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and The End of Civilization has said about this revisionist perspective of the demise of Rome applies precisely to the modern mindset: “‘accommodation’ is now the fashionable word to explain how peoples from outside the empire came to live within it and rule it.” Like the current crop of newfangled historians of Imperial Rome, our politicians, journalists and intellectuals regard susceptibility to invasion as mere “accommodation.”
Ward-Perkins concludes his book with a not-so-veiled warning, pointing to “a real danger for the present day” in dismissing the threat of cultural displacement. The Romans were convinced of their social and cultural longevity, he reminds us. We, however, “would be wise not to repeat their complacency.” Thomas Sowell has sounded the same warning: “to follow Rome…as it degenerated and fractured is especially painful in view of the parallels in what is happening in our own time.”
Some trust that the barbarians will experience a gradual change of heart and others think that it is, after all, only a kind of Survivor TV show we are watching. But—and this is what is most unsettling—vast numbers of people, both among the illuminati and the general public, appear to be doing everything they can to arrange for their own quietus, using Islam as the weapon they are turning against themselves and their own civilization, as if following the self-immolation script to the letter. Dhimmis in the making, they really do want to concede the battle for supremacy, let alone existence, and step into the Spenglerian darkness. They have grown old and tired, and want only to be absolved of effort and responsibility. Sometimes what others do to us is only a kind of reflex of what we have done to ourselves. Sometimes the enemy is our chosen accomplice and subliminal ally.
The French Renaissance poet Joachim Du Bellay, in a sonnet titled Les Antiquites de Rome III, saw the origin of inevitable decrepitude in the corrosive passage of time and in the very nexus of Rome herself: “And only Rome has conquered Rome at last.” Similarly, the Alexandrian-Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, in his “Waiting for the Barbarians,” describes the citizens of Rome eagerly awaiting the arrival of the barbarians, without whom they feel abandoned and purposeless: “They were, those people, a kind of solution.” It is not so much the onslaught of the Vandals and the Lombards that leads to the destruction of Rome but the inner loss of the civilizing imperative, the erosion of pride in accomplishment, of political integrity, fiscal sobriety and belief in a system of core values, laws and conventions.
Perhaps the great Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico was not far off the mark in his masterwork The New Science when he postulated his four-stage cycle of social evolution: theocracy, aristocracy, democracy and ricorso (return, recurrence). Of course, despite the book’s title, this is not “science” in the current acceptation of the word but theory and speculation; nevertheless, it offers a compelling “calendar” for thought. It seems at least plausible to suggest that we in the West have entered Vico’s fourth stage, with the democratic experiment about to give way and spiral toward a renewed theocracy, represented by a confident and invigorated Islam.
This is where, mutatis mutandis, we seem to be today. The Rome that we now live in, governed by “defeatists and weaklings,” is opening its gates to a civilizational rival that has been at war with Christendom and the West for the last 1400 years. And never have its prospects seemed better for the restoration of its hegemony. The sequel seems almost foreordained unless we can resist the deciduous arc into the mulch of history. That is the question, a historical re-articulation of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” Have we inwardly chosen to collaborate in our own demise? Or can we once again find the courage, the cultural stamina and the intelligence to reaffirm the heritage of the West, wield the “hammer,” and refuse to surrender—to ourselves?