Walker Percy is our most astute analyst of what ails the American soul.
Is our world growing old? We are literally growing older, nearly everywhere on the globe. Birth rates have plummeted well below replacement. China’s “One-Child” Policy and Singapore’s feminist indoctrination programs lowered birthrates more dramatically than those in America, Europe, or Iran. Nearly everywhere they converge at historical lows. The overall trajectory is not traceable to a country’s particular situation or complex of laws. It is a cause for wonder.
Having children is a sign of hope, a belief that the world we live in is worth preserving and perpetuating. Children connect us to eternity. Beloved political communities can connect citizens to eternity, instilling citizens with a sense of purpose and mission, just as a connection to a church can. Declining birthrates signal political and spiritual decadence.
Modern Italy stands out as the preeminent example of a modern nation living amidst the ruins of a great Empire and a Church whose strength and ambition its people admire but could never summon. No wonder their birthrate is among the lowest in the world. What good is an Eternal City when its people no longer believe in eternity?
Rome fell (at least) twice and its falls were traceable to decadence and loss of spirit. The great motions of Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Octavian kicked the dead republic to the side and established imperial rule. The rule of the Caesars could’ve been worse, but imperial rule covered a deepening decadence that, eventually, led to the collapse of this most interesting experiment in politics. What explains these changes of regime and political form?
Decadence in the Roman Republic
Rome had a republic but she did not keep it. In Rome’s beginning, kingship and aspiring to positions of great executive authority were anathema, but Rome established the princeps, which concentrated just about all authority legislative, executive and judicial into one office. How did this change come about?
Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture traces Rome’s demoralization. The people of Rome were increasingly alienated from the gains at the top after Rome’s conquest of Carthage and Macedonia near 150 B.C. “By the conquest of the world,” Cochrane writes, “the Romans had prepared a virtual servitude for all but a few in whose hands lay the means of exploitation in the control of economic and political power.” Various populist movements, headed first by the Gracchi brothers in 133 and 121 BC and then by Marius in the next generation and Julius Caesar in the next yet, reflected worries that power was concentrated too much within Rome’s imperial elite. These populares sought to limit the amount of land wealth one person could own and to set up commissions to redistribute ill-gotten land.
These regime-level disputes, which oligarchs and their partisans won for two generations, were symptoms of a deeper loss of civic purpose. Rome had stood for Roman honor and its heroes lost their lives in the service of Rome’s good. Inequalities in wealth reflected, to a large extent, differences in service to Rome’s good. Concerns about inequality after the defeat of Carthage reflected a rotting civil friendship and a deterioration of Romanitas, the way of life lived among Romans, as Cochrane calls it. The “old morals” of austerity and chastity “no longer existed,” as Montesquieu writes. When those morals didn’t rule, wealth and power did. The great spoils of state, which came from imperial rule, became prizes conquerors could distribute to friends and partisans under the cover of serving the public good. The imperial elite no longer justified its rule in terms of the common good and Roman honor. Public spiritedness became cover for personal ambitions and grudges.
This moral Rubicon was crossed well before Julius Caesar crossed the physical one. Between Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar, the big men of Rome subjected and looted much of the known world and doled out the spoils to their loyalists. Their conquests of Syria, Egypt, Gaul, and Pontus reflected and aided the corruption of the imperial elite and the debasement of the people. Soldiers on long missions lost their citizen spirit, while generals became used to ruling and refused to obey the Senate.
Rome became cosmopolitan in its ethnicity, mixing all Italian people in a new, diluted version of citizenship. Conquests changed Rome from a city known (metaphorically) for burger joints and iceberg lettuce to ones with sushi and arugula. Romans acquired an insatiable desire for novel experiences. Sulla brought elephants and giraffes; Caesar displayed Cleopatra and their spawn. Animals and circuses appeared. Aristocrats debauched themselves on an orgy of extravagance; the people did what they could. Tigers ripped human beings apart and were hunted in arenas. As Cochrane puts it, “[t]he last shreds of traditional restraint had been contemptuously flung aside, and the dominant note was one of individual freedom and self-assertion.”
A people loving such spectacles was no longer free, as Cato worried. Even at this early date, Roman life was utterly demoralized. Birthrates plummeted as common faith in Rome eroded. People who live only for themselves and for their amusements are unlikely to reproduce or serve a higher good.
When self-assertion is the ethic, those most able to assert come to rule: this is a principle of oligarchy or worse. “There was nothing in the armory of their [republican] ideas” by which Romans could deal with these challenges. Powerful men fought two civil wars over who would deliver what the people needed in their decadence. A new power had to tower over the oligarchs, promising even greater riches with popular support and with the promise of genuine service to the good of this more or less corrupt people. Thus the alliance between caesars and the decadent people against the Senate.
The princeps of Caesar Augustus was the best arrangement, as Tacitus writes, for a people “capable neither of complete servitude nor complete freedom.” As Cochrane writes, it “offered a way of escape from the violence, the political corruption, and the money-power which, by paralyzing the operation of the law, had destroyed all confidence in the senate and the people.”
Augustus’s great achievement lay in accommodating changes to the Roman way while adhering to Rome’s republican forms. Emperors would now deliver goods to the Roman people and control most levers of political power and patronage. Augustus established an extensive bureaucracy, defended by his Praetorian Guard, that delivered the goods to Romans. Augustus established “regulation and control” of food supply, highway commissions, and aqueducts. His princeps became the source for public finance and private loans, bypassing the exploitative old order.
He established a new mode of administering justice. As the republic decayed, vigilante justice was covered with a patina of law. Augustus made criminal procedures more regular by adding the neutral authority of the princeps to the jury system. Caesar’s will became superior to the law and under the best of circumstances, allowed for more extensive investigation of charges. Less public-spirited emperors could abuse the arrangement by pursuing their vendettas under law’s cover, but good emperors were more common than good Romans.
Lastly, Augustus managed customs for “social reconstruction.” Augustus sought to reestablish commitment to marital morality: he punished childless aristocrats and adulteresses (including his daughter!). The old oligarchs, stuck in the ways of Rome, gave way to a new administrative elite, attached to the imperial project, but through this social reconstruction Augustus had hoped to maintain the family commitments characteristic of the old order. His effort did not bear fruit, probably because the prevailing imperial ethos was itself a sign of civilizational exhaustion, hostile to natality and marriage and public spiritedness. Rusticity and rootedness were out; cosmopolitanism was in. Within two generations of Augustus’s death, Rome turned to non-Italians and non-Romans, to invigorate and populate Rome’s armies and leadership.
Augustus established the disastrous hereditary principle for succession. Leaders of a different stripe—notably Caligula, Nero and Domitian, who used absolute authority for personal pleasures and grudges—nearly brought the princeps into disrepute. For Montesquieu, again, at this time, Rome was “prey to every ambitious man, and full of timid bourgeois.”
Age of the Antonines
The Antonines fulfilled the promise of the imperial rule by combining ambition and power with genuine public-spiritedness. They made adoption based on competence (a kind of meritocracy) the principle of succession. From Nerva’s short rule starting in 96 AD until the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, Rome’s five good emperors operated within Augustus’s broad princeps. Public works, a professional army, competent foreign policy, and the establishment of public alms for widows and orphans were how these emperors “devoted themselves to implementing the soundest features of the Augustan policy.”
Though their rule was service-oriented and solid at the top, all was not well underneath. They adopted an “imperial system of education for citizenship,” with traditional Roman virtue, more or less, at its center. Yet less and less was expected of Roman citizens as citizens. The Roman canon disintegrated. Plague and famine depopulated the richest parts of the empire, with the population of the empire declining by as much as a third during the Antonine years. Worries about “the exhaustion of virtue in a world growing old,” as Marcus Aurelius leaves the scene, common at this time, prompt Cochrane to present theories of decadence. Some entertain “environmental theories” where “drought, malaria, or the exhaustion of natural resources” cause political decline, much as we hear about today. Others look internally to faction over dwindling resources or to contradictions in the political system like the problem of succession. Others blame a variation of imperial overstretch.
Ultimately, for Cochrane, these occasional problems of Roman decadence take on significance because of a deep “moral and intellectual failure.” Every political community must deal with the very human “haunting fear of the unknown”: political communities must reflect a compelling answer to the question of why human beings should live and act (and reproduce) in the face of unknown hopes and dread of annihilation. Systems of thought arose throughout Rome’s history, both during this period of decadence and earlier, to address these questions of human destiny, but no system explained the mystery of human being as it relates to political action. Under the divine Augustan system, the person of the emperor was turned into a god, but when he proved less than a god, human beings did not know how to locate themselves within eternity. Rome had “no real immunity from disorders such as had threatened previous political experiments.” “Societies,” Cochrane writes, “die at the top” and in the head. Rome was no exception. Rome needed a political doctrine of unity and it settled on a Divine Emperor, but it was a lie exposed through experience. Rome suffered, again in Cochranes words, “a crisis of the human spirit.”
The Augustan system went to pot under military despots and warlords after Septimius Severus. Politically, it was nearly a century of murder and intrigue at the top in what is known as the Crisis of the Third Century, and Rome, at this time, was, as Montesquieu writes, “about to perish.” This turmoil reflected spiritual rot, a weakening of Roman resolve to survive. The saving Illyrians, especially Aurelian and Diocletian, while they are often thought to be precursors to the new order, were the last great exponents of the exhausted old empire, for Cochrane. They doubled down on the divinity of the emperor, actively persecuting sects like the Christians who would not bend the knee to Imperial Divinity, while expanding “civil and military hierarchies” without aid from Rome’s senate. Their rule represents, for Cochrane, a totalitarian “regimentation” of life within the universe of a collapsing order that no one believed in.
Only with Constantine’s ambiguous embrace of Christian faith as a unifying ethic would the crisis of faith and action be staunched. Cochrane calls this a “renovation” of the Roman way in part two of his book. The otherworldly principles of Christianity would not, ultimately, provide political impetus to save the Empire, mostly because its spiritual mission was always subordinate, for Constantine, to his political ambitions (though Christianity may have and indeed did save civilization).
Cochrane has two eyes on the story of Rome’s collapse and its attempted renovation and regeneration under Christian principles. (David Beer’s review emphasizes this aspect of Cochrane’s work.) He is alive to the crisis of the West, as he writes in the late 1930s. Those looking to his work for resolutions to this crisis, he writes, must recognize that “the answer will not be found in any attempted revival of obsolete conceptions associated with the life of classical antiquity.”
Nevertheless, Cochrane saw that executive authority was everywhere in the West drawing more and more power into its impetuous vortex. Emperors in Rome promised a species of political salvation if they were invested with unlimited power to create the political world anew. Entrusting supposedly fortunate and virtuous leaders is itself a sign of hopes invested where promise cannot be fulfilled. No strictly political community brings political salvation. Promises of political salvation, glibly made and gladly embraced, bespeak a marked demoralization and dispiriting—in fact a decadence and corruption—of its people, who have found neither salvation nor a reason to live.