Not too long ago, world-renowned Harvard historian, Niall Ferguson, lectured and wrote on the collapse of great empires in history. While I disagree with a few of his ideas, his presentation is solid, and his contributions have an important theme: that of monumental changes in societies happening not gradually, but suddenly.
Our savior, of course, taught the lesson more simply, more accurately, without all of the academic baggage:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it (Matt. 7:24–27).
This carries two important features not widely discussed by experts, but vital to our understanding of what goes on around us as we speak. First, the social collapse does not primarily originate with politics, economics, government, etc. Failure in these areas arises merely as a symptom of the real problem. Social collapse begins with a failure of ethics. Jesus says it pertains to “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them.” Ethics first, then politics. Secondly, while social collapse can indeed come suddenly and from unexpected or unforeseen triggers, it does not come randomly, nor do we have to live constantly on the “edge of chaos,” as Ferguson suggests, in constant fear of some minute “trigger” of social catastrophe. Rather, as Christ says, the collapse comes due to a recognizable event—a storm, a flood—and only happens because the seeds of collapse existed from day one of the structure. Collapse loomed inevitable because of a faulty foundation in sand. A society established by ignoring God’s commandments will inevitably and predictably collapse at some point. It will happen; it is a law of the universe, of the Word of God.
We are already seeing the failures of a fiat money and deficit spending welfare system, just as ancient Rome’s currency failed as the government mounted massive debts. This is what Prof. Niall Ferguson has wonderfully documented for us in his presentation. While Ferguson did not discuss these same failures as they occurred in classical civilization, they do apply, and are worth looking at for a moment.
We live in a delusion in the West, and it is not as that popular British atheist Richard Dawkins has suggested, a “God delusion,” but rather a humanist delusion. We have deluded ourselves into accepting that western civilization thrived because of the humanism and rationalism of classical culture. That great father of sociology, Fustel de Coulanges, wrote a very important book, The Ancient City, in which he openly targeted the classical delusion. He introduces the book by saying, “Having imperfectly observed the institutions of the ancient city, men have dreamed of reviving them among us. They have deceived themselves about the liberty of the ancients. . . .”1
Coulanges relates just how tyrannized by superstition that ancient world really was; he describes the daily life of the average person:
He finds [in his house] his worship and his gods. His fire is a god; the walls, the doors, the threshold are gods; the boundary marks which surround his field are also gods. The tomb is an altar, and his ancestors are divine beings.
Each one of his daily actions is a rite; his whole day belongs to his religion. Morning and evening he invokes his fire, his [household gods], and his ancestors; in leaving and entering his house he addresses prayers to them. . . .
He leaves his house, and can hardly take a step without meeting some sacred object—either a chapel, or a place formerly struck by lightning, or a tomb; sometimes he must step back and pronounce a prayer; sometimes he must turn his eyes and cover his face, to avoid the sight of some ill-boding object.
Every day he sacrifices in his house, every month in his [parish], several months a year with his gens or tribe. Above all these gods, he must offer worship to those of the city. There are in Rome more gods than citizens.
He offers sacrifices to thank the gods; he offers them, and by far the greater number, to appease their wrath. One day he figures in a procession, dancing after a certain ancient rhythm. . . . Another day he conducts chariots, in which lie statues of the divinities. Another time . . . a table is set in a street, and loaded with provisions, upon beds lie statues of the gods, and every Roman passes bowing. . . .
There is a festival for seed-time, one for harvest, and one for the pruning. . . . Before corn has reached the ear, the Roman has offered more than ten sacrifices, and has invoked some ten divinities for the success of his harvest. He has, above all, a multitude of festivals for the dead, because he is afraid of them.
He never leaves his own house without looking to see if any bird of bad augury appears. There are words which he dares not pronounce for his life. If he experiences some desire, he inscribes his wish upon a tablet which he paces at the feet of the statue of a divinity.
At every moment he consults the gods, and wishes to know their will. He finds all his resolutions in the entrails of victims, in the flight of birds, in the warning of the lightning. . . .
He steps out of his house always with the right foot first. He has his hair cut only during a full moon. He carries amulets upon his person. He covers the walls of his house with magic inscriptions against fire. He knows of formulas for avoiding sickness, and of others for curing it; but he must repeat them twenty-seven times, and spit in a certain fashion at each repetition. . . .
This Roman whom we present here is not the man of the people, the feeble-minded man whom misery and ignorance have made superstitious. We are speaking of the patrician, the noble, the powerful, and rich man.2
The Latin poet Horace expressed the subjection of the rulers to ancestor worship:
Though innocent, Roman, you will pay for the sins
Of your fathers until you restore the crumbling temples
And shrines of the gods
And their filthy smoke-blackened images.
You rule because you hold yourself inferior to the gods.
Make this the beginning and the end of all things.
Neglect of the gods has brought many ills
To the sorrowing land of Hesperia.3
That was the Romans, but the Greeks lived no more freely. They practiced all of the same superstitions: ancestor worship, augury, divining animal entrails, unlucky days, lucky words, oracles, obligatory rituals, etc. Coulanges exposes the modern view of the rational Greek as a delusion:
The Athenian whom we picture to ourselves as so inconstant, so capricious, such a free-thinker, has, on the contrary, a singular respect for ancient traditions and ancient rites. His principal religion . . . is the worship of ancestors and heroes. He worships the dead and fears them.4
With this fear and subjection and superstition at root in every house and institution from the common man to the highest courts, Classical civilization developed not freedom but tyranny. Like every society, it was rooted in a religion, a source of values and form of the sense of destiny. Every society has this; it’s inescapable. The fact that, as Horace has put it, the rulers ruled because they subjected themselves to these gods, resulted in a society in which rigid superstitions paralyzed the people, and where the rulers saw it as their job strictly to enforce the rituals so that the gods would never pour wrath upon the city. The problem was, obviously, a bad theology at the root of civilization; it was bad theology because it was a theology created in the image of the men who created it. It led to tyranny. Any deviation in the minutest part of the private life of any individual became a public menace, and that man a public enemy. Thus pagan religion leads to tyranny: the State sees itself as a slave of gods, yet right next to the gods. It quickly evolved into the view that the rulers were the gods, or that the state itself was god. The people below them live as secondary citizens: their lives, liberties, and fortunes expendable, and all subjugated to the life of the State. They had no independence: their bodies belonged to the State, they were bound to defend the State, and the State could, and often did, commit human sacrifices for different purposes. His property and money the State could confiscate at any time, including the women’s jewelry, business’ assets, creditors’ claims, and farmers’ produce.5
The State controlled when and whom you could marry, what clothes you wore, what kind of wine you could drink, who could drink, how you could travel; it could force exposure of children and the infanticide of deformed babies. And even those two great Greek philosophers so renowned for their powers of reason and love of wisdom, Plato and Aristotle, both incorporated this law advocating death for deformed babies.6
The State maintained absolute control from cradle to grave, and this of course included education. In fact, it focuses on it. Sparta forced children into education separated from their fathers. In Athens children walked in rank and file to school, military style, no matter the weather. They accept it as public duty. Plato justified State dominance of education: “Parents ought not to send or not to send their children to the masters whom the city has chosen; for the children belong less to their parents than to the city.”7 The State reserved the right, further, to forbid any teaching apart from its own.8
These civilizations, built on humanistic religions—gods built in the image of men, men molded in the image of corrupt and perverse self-made gods—had no freedom, not in life, not in education, not in religion, not in business, not in family. They not only did not enjoy freedom, Coulanges concludes, “They had no idea of it.”9 And while his overall explanation is deficient on the idea of the source of law and church-state relations, Coulanges does expose the fact that it was only the victory of Christianity that allowed for the type of freedom we can enjoy today, because Christianity simultaneously freed men from base, pagan religion, and broke Caesar’s claim to divinity in social life. Christ, he says, “proclaims that religion is no longer the state, and that to obey Caesar is no longer the same thing as to obey God.”10 That, coming from one influenced by Enlightenment thought, says quite a bit.
In that civilization (if it can be called that), Caesar continually grew in power, and as the State grew it taxed more heavily. It taxed the people to pay for wars until the taxation finally destroyed the middle class and the farmers. Then the State corporatized agriculture, continued taxation, and began social welfare distributions in order to maintain favor with the people. It bought them off and entertained them with bread and circuses—that is, welfare programs and professional football. The local farmer, out of a job and broke, hired himself out to the State as a soldier.11
As the money for wars, bread, and circuses ran out, the State inevitably turned to debasing the currency. They started by issuing smaller-sized coins with the same face value. Then they began debasing the metal: mixing in copper or tin with the silver. Under Nero, it was moderate: coins were still 94% silver. Buy AD 100 under Trajan in was 85%. By AD 218 it was 43%. By the time of Rome’s collapse an allegedly silver coin contained only 0.2% silver. No one would then accept them. Society collapsed and ushered in the Dark Ages.
Some years ago, neocon warhawk Victor David Hanson wrote a book called Who Killed Homer? in which he and his co-author lamented the decline and fall of classical studies in the universities as well as the takeover of that field by Marxists and feminists. Despite all of their erudition and brilliance, the authors failed to see that the Marxism, feminism, relativism, Freudianism, etc., they decried had its roots in the same humanism, both rational and irrational, that was the heart of Greek civilization. The classics carried the seeds of their own destruction. Saturn wanted to devour his children in order to secure his throne, but what’s really happened in western civilization is that Saturn’s children have devoured him. Who killed Homer? The knives in Homer’s back bear the fingerprints of his own students. Don’t forget: Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche were all originally classicists. They studied the classics and derived their most famous ideas from the humanism of that world. Then Nietzsche—a pure classical philologist—predicted the collapse of civilization in a mere matter of generations.
Now we hear the refrain from mainstream conservative PragerU, paraphrasing Hanson’s title, “Who killed the liberal arts?” All of this focus placed upon classical studies is deluded. Classical civilization was as wicked and perverse as our nation has become today, and an nation following such humanism has always devolved into degeneracy and vice. To return to classical humanism once again would be for the dog to return to its vomit.
It took some time, but that society that collapsed had the seeds of its own collapse within it from day one: false religion, fear, lust, envy, war, fraud. It was a society built on sand. What Christ had talked about in Matthew 7, grew directly out of his exposition of the second table of the law in Matthew 5: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t covet. Social collapse stems from breaking these simple commandments. Social strength and freedom appear only in keeping them. Those who wish to save our civilization need to start here. All else will fall, and great will be the fall of it.
- Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome, trans. by Willard Small (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956 [1864), 11. [↩]
- Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 211–212. [↩]
- Horace, Odes III, 3.6, trans. by David West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 63. [↩]
- Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 216. [↩]
- Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 220. On human sacrifice see J. E. E. D. Acton, “Human Sacrifice,” Essays in Religion, Politics, and Morality: Selected Writings of Lord Acton, 3 vols. ed. J. Rufus Fears (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1988), 3:395–442. [↩]
- Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 220. [↩]
- Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 221. [↩]
- Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 222. [↩]
- Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 223. [↩]
- Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 393. [↩]
- See Victor David Hanson and John Heath, Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 126. [↩]