Fall of Western Civilization? A Lesson from the Romans

While doing some maintenance on my blog the other day, I happened to notice a trend in the topics on which I post. It started me thinking about something, and since then I have been going back and forth about which of the Big Two "-isms" is the greatest threat to Western civilization in general, and America in particular. To me, the Big Two are:
  • Radical environmentalism
  • Islamism/radical Islam/jihad/totalitarian Islam/Islamofascism (Note: I'm not sure if there is one, all encompassing term for this, or if they are generally interchangeable. I think they are not fully interchangeable, but I don't know which is most appropriate.)
Because both are very real and are impacting my day-to-day life -- mostly indirectly through the government policies crudely designed to address them -- I don't think I'm just wasting my time trying to decide which is the more imminent threat. While I recognize that my contributions in combating either one are currently limited, I do think it's worthwhile to pursue this line of thought. What kicked this all off, you ask?

The Roman Example
I bring this up because I read a particularly cogent passage in Burgess Laughlin's Aristotle Adventure today that made me stop and think for awhile. This book is "a guide to the Greek, Arabic, and Latin scholars who transmitted Aristotle's logic to the Renaissance." To set the context of the passage, I'm currently reading about what he terms the "Latin-Christian branch" of scholars, one of three such branches that tortuously transmitted the works of Aristotle to the future. At this point in the book, the last of the Roman scholars/philosophers has died, the Roman empire is collapsing, and the Dark Ages are looming. Quoting two brief paragraphs from the beginning of ch. 23 of Laughlin's book:
The disintegration of the Roman Empire proceeded unevenly. Roads fell into disrepair, piracy and brigandage increased, long-distance trade shrank, random brutality replaced rule by law, and schools of higher learning disappeared--but not everywhere at the same time. Of the former Roman provinces, Gaul [roughly, Western Europe, primarily what is now France --ed] disintegrated first, c. 375; then Spain, c. 410; Britain, c. 425; Italy, c. 570; Greece, c. 580; and finally Africa, c. 660.

In all cases, the immediate cause of the final disintegration was invasion by barbarians, that is, brutal illiterates; and in all cases, the victims greatly outnumbered the attackers but still lost. Why? Because military weakness had followed cultural disintegration, which had followed the gradual disappearance of a philosophy of reason (in however dilute a form) as the foundation of Roman culture.
After a thorough reading of this, I started thinking about parallels to America's situation today, and the thought I had already given to environmentalism and Islamism. I wonder if the same type of total disintegration could happen in modern times as the Roman fall described above?

We are certainly not at risk of military weakness right now, and our culture is still more tied to reason than any other. But are the signs there for a future fall? If so, how close is it, and what can be done to turn the tide? These questions often flood my mind when I start down this line of thinking. Thankfully, many capable minds are dedicated to the task of turning the tide, so I won't dwell on that here.

Regarding my question of "could this happen in modern times?", I realize that's a rather silly one because the answer is obviously "yes!" I'm sure all empires felt invincible at certain points, and later felt that "we may be declining, but we're too big to fail", and later they collapsed. That is the way history has worked for thousands of years and nothing fundamental has changed.

It's important to note that maintaining "empire" for empire's sake is worthless. What we're talking about here is creating and maintaining a world we want to live in. The one fundamental change that could turn this historical cycle around is the acceptance of a fully consistent political philosophy respecting individual rights -- capitalism -- grounded by all the necessary foundations as outlined in Objectivism. To put it glibly, that's the one thing we haven't tried yet, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that it would work. It is also the only proper system, but that topic is too big to address here.

Getting back on track, because American civilization is a mix of reason and unreason, it is vulnerable to the same rise/fall cycle as past empires. So we return to the Big Two major threats.

The Big Two
Radical environmentalism and its nature as a near religious movement -- picking up idealistic, fanatical "converts" and going on crusades -- while taking on the guise of real science and thus infecting the minds of otherwise generally reasonable people, has the capacity to do immense damage. From the direct and dire economic impacts of environmental regulation to the package of terrible anti-life ideas that underlies the movement -- statism, collectivism, altruism, etc. -- radical environmentalism (now combined with Evangelical Christianity) has the potential to wreak havoc.

Assuming for the sake of argument (leaving the basic premises of the movement aside for now) that the "looming environmental catastrophe" is a complete fiction, then the environmental movement is essentially convincing us to slowly kill ourselves for no reason.

Islamism is a different type of threat, one with a militant enemy targeting us, one with violent conquest as the goal. In order for them to succeed, the fundamental impotence of their ideas requires that we enable them to succeed by evading the nature of the threat, accepting cultural relativism and the like, and essentially letting the Islamist movement fester until it reaches a breaking point.

To put it rather bluntly, assuming (I hope wrongly) that the West is determined to fall, we have two ways to go. The environmentalist way has us taking the dagger to our own flesh, pricking ourselves slowly, randomly until we either die of infection or bleed to death. The Islamist way has us using our technology and intelligence to make a really nice new sword, polishing it, handing it to the Islamists, and then guiltily putting our heads on the chopping block.

In the worst case, both could be happening at the same time. And I do think that is what is happening.

The Deeper Threat
Laughlin's characterization of the fall of Roman civilization helped me to conclude that it isn't an either/or between environmentalism and Islamism. The key is the "disappearance of a philosophy of reason" represented by both threats, and by our inability or unwillingness to counter them.

What this means is that in order to win the intellectual battle and thus save our way of life as it could and should be, it must be fought on two main fronts. The obvious front is that we must counter the major external threats of environmentalism, Islamism, and all related ideologies, movements and moralities that the anti-reason philosophies support. But it would be possible to win those battles and lose the war.

The tragically mixed and confused country of America could stall or cripple Islamism long enough for it to collapse like communism did. The climate could move toward a much colder cycle, making much of the environmentalist argument absurd enough to lose its mass appeal. But what then? Of course a new militant religion could spring up. Might we in 300 years see suicide bombing Scientologists? Environmentalists could turn on a dime and start sloganeering "Stop Global Cooling!"

Thus, if we don't at the same time open another front to build up our "philosophical defenses" and adopt a fully consistent philosophy of reason in this country, we are still vulnerable to the next ideology, or a mutation of the current ones. Only this will enable us to counter further threats and an otherwise inevitable fall. And thus, we return to the organizations, publications and individuals who have already entered the fray, working "to promote the principles of reason, rational self-interest, individual rights and laissez-faire capitalism to the widest possible audience." (From About ARI on the Ayn Rand Institute website)

When pessimism temporarily takes hold, I see the undeniable signs of statist/collectivist/environmentalist influences leading to this: "Roads fell into disrepair, piracy and brigandage increased, long-distance trade shrank, random brutality replaced rule by law, and schools of higher learning disappeared..." And with that, it seems that "invasion by barbarians, that is, brutal illiterates" would not be far behind.

It's hard for me to square how much of that is melodrama and how much is reasonable concern based on evidence. Amid the bad news, there are certainly positive signs. The key then is to fully understand the nature of the pervasive wrong ideas in the world but not be swamped by them, while training focus on positive changes without despairing at the enormity of the task. Sounds easy, right?


madmax said...

Your thinking on this subject resembles mine in many ways. I too spend (far too much) time wondering how the fall will happen if it does and seeking comparisons with Rome. And Rome does seem to offer quite a comparison. We seem to be just like Rome before it entered its Imperial period, or maybe during its Imperial period say around the time of Gladiator; strong, prosperous, seemingly invincible BUT the writing is on the wall.

As for the threats we face, you name Islam (and I actually think that our war is with Islam not Totalitarian or Radical Islam or "Islamism"; for me Islam is totalitarian and radical and warlike in essence but I am a hard-liner on this) and environmentalism. I would add that Christianity is probably a more dangerous threat than both of them. I think that it would be Christian pacifism that enables Islamic aggression and it is Christian altruism that allows for the continued existence of Marxism and Kantian deontological ethics (which make environmentalism possible).

Some Objectivists have suggested that what we will get is a religio-leftist (marxist) mix that will slowly bleed America and the West to death leaving it vulnerable in time to either the Muslims or some Asian threat. This seems possible. Sadly I think that the chances of Ayn Rand spreading fast enough are very low. I think America will hold for the first half of this century. I don't know about the second half.

But to really depress you, if the predictions about a global cooling period are correct and I think they might be, then the world is heading for some type of ice age in very short order. The last mini ice-ages had ice sheets covering half of North America. If this happens again, America and most of Northern Europe will be destroyed. Further there will be a major migration towards warmer geographical climates. Can you imagine the chaos and warfare that will occur if 6 billion (or more) people try to fit in to an area that now only holds one or two billion? Under global capitalism this would be a cakewalk. But under a world plunging into the abyss of statism and drowning in altruism and collectivism, mankind could be in for a major hit. The next dark age could make the old one look tame.

Now that's depressing.

C. August said...

Thanks for the detailed comment, Madmax. You raise some interesting, and as you said, depressing points. Rather than dwell on that aspect, I'll comment on some of your specific points.

1) Islam vs. Islamism. I see your point about focusing on Islam itself, and what I take to mean the inherent violent nature of the religion. The reason I picked Islamism instead is that I think it would be possible, if we eradicated the military threat of the Islamists in a full and complete way, that the majority of mild-to-moderate Muslims could co-exist in the world. Just like McArthur said after the surrender of Japan, it was OK for the Shinto religion to still exist, but all state sponsorship of it had to cease. I think that could work with Islam.

2) Christianity. I know there is an upwelling of Christian thought in the country right now, but I was looking to history here when I determined that it isn't the same type of imminent threat. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment happened in Christian nations, and the religion didn't wipe out reason. I know that "In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit." (Ayn Rand Lexicon) But in comparison to Islam in recent history, Christianity has had a much more cordial, or at least grudgingly neutral relationship with reason. (assuming we can't rid the world of religion with a wave of the hand, unfortunately)

However, your identification of Christian pacifism and altruism as key enablers is quite interesting. Perhaps it should be included in the new "axis of evil" along with Islamism and environmentalism. I recognize that it's hard to separate all of these ideologies when they share so many essential characteristics. That's why I picked the two I did. Maybe it's the newness of them compared to the "devil we know" (i.e. Christianity) that made them stand out.

3) Some Objectivists have suggested that what we will get is a religio-leftist (marxist) mix that will slowly bleed America and the West to death leaving it vulnerable in time to either the Muslims or some Asian threat.

Oy. I totally forgot about China. I certainly hope the modernizing influence of trade and pseudo-capitalism has a moderating impact on their ideology. That may not matter though, if they adopt a virulently nationalistic outlook. I haven't thought enough about that to comment more. The focus generated by the Olympics is certainly interesting, though. The reactions of both the Chinese government and its people (even kids studying abroad in the US!) has been fascinating and worrisome.

4) I'm more wary of the ice age argument. What I said in the post is that a period of some cooling (if it happens, and some trends indicate it will) would expose the absurdity of the environmentalist's main argument. I understand that it is likely an inevitability that another ice age will happen at some point, in the next... 1,000 years? 10,000 years? I've heard it said that "we're due for one any time now", but it's hard to give that much credence without significantly more evidence.

Just like if one was to say it's a statistical likelihood that a significant asteroid will crash into the earth again some day, my response is, at this point, I don't think either concern merits much thought right now, at least at a philosophical/political level.

Still, your "what if" scenario if an ice age actually happens is chilling. (pun not intended, but funny in a twisted way)

C. August said...

One quick update... after seeing Yaron Brook's Ford Hall Forum talk, I may have underestimated the threat of Christianity in America, especially when combined with environmentalism. I did draw the parallel, but only in passing.

I'm still sorting it out in my mind, and I'm trying to determine if the increased base level of Christian religiosity is a bigger immediate problem than environmentalism or Islamism.

Regardless, we have a lot of work to do to bring reason and individual rights back to the forefront of American culture. And I still think we're at a tipping point, where it could go either way.

Steve D said...

madmax/C.August: Is there evidence that the world is cooling or is this simply speculation about the future? When I last looked into the data carefully about a year ago, it appeared that there might be a cooling trend in the southern hemisphere but it seems to be matched by an equal and opposite trend (warming) in the northern hemisphere - a good thing since most of the land mass is in the north and it would open up a lot of acres for agriculture.
The arguments about the fall of the Roman Empire are interesting - It was certainly not the first of the dark ages, nor will it be the last - the one at the end of the Bronze Age (ca 1200 BC) was far worse.
AS far as historical/cultural arguments are concerned, I agree that of all historical periods, the Hellenistic Age and late Roman republic probably most resembles ours.