Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Seeds of Decline

These days are days of woe. I myself have been guilty of some end of the world prognosticating, but it is difficult not to when so many social, economic and natural catastrophes pile on us one after another until we are numb to them. Many people besides myself have started speaking of the end of our civilization, or even of the entire world as we know it. These persons come from varying degrees of credibility. Some Ducth have recently been quoted as believing the world will end in 2012 (but one guy interviewed said that at least it would get rid of the Muslim immigrants that have flooded Netherlands! source). But many of the prognostications of social and economic doom are much more reputable: Alan Greenspan has predicted a more than 50% chance that the US is about to enter into a major, long-term recession (source); the world continues to be plagued by floods, earthquakes drought and other natural disasters; a recent AP story asked pointedly why everything in the world seemed to be "spinning out of control" (here), and the USA faces an ever weakening dollar against a stronger Euro and loses influence in the world to new big-time economic players like China and India.

It is not surpising, therefore, that some are speaking of the imminent crash or collapse of our civilization. If you don't believe me, try doing a Google search for the phrase "end of our civilization?" and see what comes up: people everywhere are predicting that we are done. Rather than jump on the bandwagon with more predictions, which are thought provoking but ultimately unhelpful, I decided to think on what do people mean when they speak of the "fall," "collapse," or "crash" of our civilization? What happens exactly when a civilization "falls?" How long does it take? And can we identify any certain causal connections among different factors that can enable us to sayw ith any certitude that "yes, civilization X is about to fall," or is such a prediction irresponsible and ultimately unmakeable?
It strikes me that when many people speak of the fall of our civilization, they are often speaking of a moral collapse and a political-economic collapse interchangeably. So, for example, one might cite the rise in abortions, the prominence of homosexuality, the widespread moral corruption and declining numbers of Church attendance as indicators of our decline. This is an example of a moral collapse in civilization. But then, in the same article, they may jump to talking about fuel, the weakening dollar, our impotence before the Chinese economy and our reduced role in world affairs. These are all taken as indicators of our decline as well, but they are too often lumped together with the moral indicators. But we must recognize that a moral collapse and an economic-political collapse are two different things. They are often found hand in hand, I think, but we must ask ourselves this:
Is there any necessary connection between moral degeneracy and an economic-political collapse in culture?
I think that once we draw the parallel between a moral and an economic-political collapse, we can see that the two "falls" are indeed related, though perhaps not by direct cause and effect. It has been well documented that the kingdoms of Egypt, Babylon, Persia Greece and Rome all suffered from rampant homosexuality, the breakdown of marriage, political corruption and religious indifferentism in the final days before their demise. If we take these as our models, does our current moral crisis point to an inevitable political overthrow?
If we take Rome as an example, we see that there was great moral degneracy in the 3rd and 4th centuries up until the time of Constantine. Even after the Christian period, paganism and immorality often continued unabated at the uppermost echelons of Roman society, almost until the Fall of the Western Empire in 476. However, we must ask ourselves, had Rome not been a corrupt and decadent empire in the first few centuries of the Christian era, would that have made any difference as to whether or not the Huns and the other barbarian tribes began moving to Western Europe? Everybody acknowledges that it was the barbarian invasions which sapped Rome's strength and finally did her in, yet we see that there is no direct connection between this and the moral decay of Rome mentioned above. Therefore, it is tempting to see the two declines (the moral and the political) as unrelated.
Yet I do not think this is so, for though the moral decay does not lead to political destruction, it does render the state less able to defend itself against when situations that threaten the political order arise. While political corruption and moral degeneracy did not itself bring the barbarians to Rome's borders, they did affect Rome's ability to cope with the barbarian invasions. Corruption and bribery in the army made the cost of maintaining the legions almost prohibitive. If an emperor could not afford to pay his generals and the Praetorian Guard the required donative, his time on the throne was doomed to be short indeed. Upon the accession of Septimius Severus in 193, he paid his legions an astounding bribe that was the equivalent of almost a billion dollars in modern US currency. With such bribery going on at all levels of the government, administration could not be effectively carried out and justice was frequently neglected or suppressed. As with our culture, lax attitudes towards marriage and sexuality in the later Roman Empire led to unstable home lives and a dearth of man power to fill the increasingly important Roman legions. As centralized power weakened, local power grew in the hands of generals, governors, proconsuls and local potentates.

Furthermore, religious scepticism filled people with apathy and doubt about metaphysical truth, robbing them of the almost supernatural surety of their own destiny that had characterized the early Romans up until the time of the Third Punic War and the beginning of the civil wars.

Thus, when the barbarians hit, Rome was paralyzed. It lacked man power to effectively deal with the military threat. It lacked authority to sufficiently intimidate the invading foes, who keenly saw that Rome was weak and ready to be plundered. It lacked the efficient and fiscal administration necessary to work its way out of such calamaties. Most importantly, it lacked the sense of destiny and certitude in its identity and mission that gave its people the will to fight until the bitter end, as they did when the Hannibal invaded Italy during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). So moral laxity led to political chaos.

Another parallel can be drawn. Romans, after centuries of rule, tended to become lazy and critical of menial labor. While the earliest Roman heroes (the legendary Cincinnatus, for example) were husbandmen and not ashamed of work, later Romans viewed work as a slave's task, an increasingly chose to export food and raw materials from their provinces instead of producing them in Italy. Thus, cheap grain flooded in from Egypt and fed the Empire, but bound Italy inextricably with the fate of Egypt. Thus, when famine or war struck Egypt, Rome suffered. The moral vice of laziness and pride resulted in economic distress when food production was "outsourced" to a province remote from the homeland. Isn't this the same form of economic suicide we are committing because we are too lazy and greedy to be self-sufficient?

I think we can safely say that while moral degeneracy does not lead to political overthrow, it certainly creates conditions conducive to it. Where does this leave us? It is obvious that we are morally degenerate and culturally bankrupt. But when and how will our political overthrow come? Will we suffer a massive invasion of Chinese bent on seizing our resources for their economic leviathan, a new Yellow Peril akin to the Germanic Peril that brought down Rome? Will we simply dwindle away and suffer a slow death, as our southern border evaporates even more, vast portions of our land melt into Hispanic autonomous regions, federal authority breaks down, the dollar devalues even more and we are swallowed up in a mass of non-Christian immigrants, ever so slowly effacing our Christian origins and making us into a polygot Babel? Will some terrorist group suddenly blows us up? Or perhaps, in a desperate attempt to ward off the impending ruin around us, we will throw all our eggs into some repressive dictatorship, exchanging freedom for false security and enjoy a renewed period of power and influence for a time before flinging our national life away in some suicidal war that leaves our country laid waste, our lands polluted worse than those of Mordor, the flower of our youth slain and our government in ruins. Any one of these scenarios is possible.

So, I'd say that the prognosticators of doom are essentially correct in their predictions of the end of our civilization. But, as St. Augustine reminded us, the City of God is eternal and endures, whatever may befall the City of Man. I seek not a kingdom built with hands, but one which is above, the Jerusalem made without hands. It alone endures forever.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post- I share the same perspective.