Monday, March 29, 2010

St. Augustine on the culture of a failing empire

As the flaws of the Western Roman Empire became too great to sustain, St. Augustine wrote:

'So long as it [the republic] survives,' they say, 'so long as it prospers, rich in resources, self-confident in victory, or, better still, secure in peace, what difference does it make to us? What matters is that there is money to be made to support our lavish style of life, and to give the stronger their hold over the weaker; that the poor treat the wealthy with compliance, to ensure their daily bread--the poor depending on the patronage of the wealthy for a quiet life, the wealthy calling on the poor for support to boost their public standing. Popularity should accrue not to those whose policies promote public welfare, but to the big providers of public entertainment.

Law should not be rigorous; low indulgences should not be proscribed. Rulers should not bother themselves with getting virtuous subjects, simply quiescent ones. Territories should view their rulers not in the light of moral educators, merely as economic managers and purveyors of satisfactions. It does not matter if they do not seriously respect them, so long as they treat them with a calculating and subservient fear. No one should be liable to court proceedings if he has not infringed or done harm to the property, real estate, or physical safety of another person without consent; but everyone should be free to do with himself, his dependents, and consenting associates exactly what he likes.

Sexual satisfactions should be freely available on the open market for those who want them, especially those who cannot afford to maintain facilities privately. Domestic architecture should be expensive and ornate, to accommodate large and lavish parties where anyone may game and drink all day and night, if he pleases, till he brings it up or sweats it out. The sound of dancing should be heard in every neighborhood, and theaters should be humming with excitement at their coarse amusements and their various brash entertainments.

Should someone disapprove of this perfect contentment, he must expect to meet public hostility; and should someone attempt to reform or abolish it, the spirit of popular freedom must know what to do with him: shut him up, pack him up, beat him up! Religion ought to make a case for itself by guaranteeing and perpetuating these conditions of life for the greatest number of people. Let the gods have all the worship they want, and all the games that they want, to enjoy them with (and at the expense of) their worshipers, just so long as they ensure this satisfactory state of affairs against threat from enemy, plague, or disaster.'

-City of God Book II Chapter 20

Perhaps excepting the shameless worship of strength and the poor man's servile compliance before the wealthy, all these vices are clearly dominant today.

Materialism, hedonism, libertarianism, even therapeutic deism. These are not ideologies but vulturous habits of mind that come at times of cultural disaster.

Their only unity comes in alliance against reformist critics.

The West has seen them before. Let us hope their age is coming to an end.

(via the Distributist Review)


Brian said...

I'm not so sure that shameless worship of strength and the poor man's servile compliance before the wealthy are not present in our society to some extent--witness the endless promotion of sports and the continuous building of expensive stadiums. In Seattle we blew up our Kingdome to make room for two new stadiums, but we still are paying off the Kingdome until 2016. And what about the justices in Connecticut upholding the taking of property for private development?

crazylikeknoxes said...

I'm sure that their age will come to and end. Whether the West survives that end is another question.

Anonymous said...

I'm jumping on the shoulders of the ancient Church Fathers. They are strong and wide. There's plenty of room . Climb on. Before the Dark Age re-emerges. Current leaders shoulders are narrow and quite pointy.

Kevin J Jones said...


Very good point about the excess of pro sports. Athlete and celebrity worship are so omnipresent I didn't notice the relevance. These flaws are magnified by the television age, I'm sure.

One danger in citing ancient writers like I do here is that we mistake the persistent flaws of mankind for the fatal flaws that brought down our forerunners. Augustine's complaints about factionalism are perennial.

However, I think the absence of civic spirit and the muting of public moral exhortation are greater now in the U.S. than before.

Sky Pilot said...

Hi Brian;

Found you via New Advent. St. Augustine - my favorite :)

I have traveled most of the US where I have many friends and family. Kevin points to the lack of civic spirit in the US. No more or less than most of those nations allied with the US. Here in Canada it is pure apathy from most of the population. What do you say about a 12% voter turnout in a Federal Riding? (=US Congressional Seat).

I am hearing similar stories from friends in France and England. St. Augustine often wrote about our duty to the family of mankind.

A friend working at NASA put it to me in stark terms. A night satellite image of Africa taken 30 years ago. Total darkness except for some light in the north and far south. The second image was taken by ISS earlier this year. The two images looked identical.

What would St. Augustine do today? He might unplug our televisions, tell us to put down our phones and unplug our ears. The western allied nations have so much and truly give very little. President Kennedy sat down with Premier Khrushchev and ended up with a treaty to halt a nuclear firestorm.

What do we do when we have a problem today? We bomb first and ask questions later. It is the people that live in these places that we must communicate with to bring a shared wealth. St. Augustine knew that the empire was failing because the wealthy had become even greedier. The people have all the power to make the changes. Start asking the people in your allied nations what they are doing. The people in the US are letting us off the hook far to easily.

Fr. Eric said...

@ Skypilot,

Good points about putting down the technological appendages that make for being inhuman.

Why is Canada so apathetic politically?

Perhaps we should also listen to Cicero. "The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance." - Cicero - 55 BC

Note on Kennedy: Threatening Naval blockade, brinkmanship, activating Guard and Reserve, bringing Krushchev to the table with military force.