Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Civilizational Collapse: The Example of Rome

In The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Morris Berman identifies four signs of civilizational collapse: (1) stark inequality of income, (2) diminishing returns, (3) growing ignorance, and (4) spiritual death. In the first part of Chapter Two, “The Monastic Option” (pp. 71-76), he illustrates these four signs with examples from the fall of the western Roman Empire.

Inequality. Beginning with the rule of Octavius Caesar (known as “Augustus,” 27 BC-AD 14), the economy of the Roman Empire was one of structured disorder. The legal system itself structured the economy in ways that enabled an increasingly smaller number of ruling-class individuals to own more and more land at the expense of an increasing number of middle-class owners of small but adequate landholdings. The ruling class then used its increasing wealth to rig the economic system even more in their favor. Over time, this led to a small ruling class of obscenely wealthy individuals living at the expense of everyone else. Ultimately unsustainable, the entire economic system eventually collapsed.
The eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople, survived for another 1,000 years. Land, with its critical agricultural income, remained more justly distributed. Consequently, the middle class retained greater vitality. The whole economic system remained better balanced. Middle-class managers were also better able to maintain legal protections against a harmful concentration of income and wealth.
In the western Roman Empire, the legal exploitation by the rich of the rest had reached the point of no return by AD 200 (72). The ruling class used tax laws to increase their already excessive wealth, avoid their own responsibility for public expenses, and additionally burden an already stressed middle class.
By 300, damage to the middle class became irreversible. The problem? The middle class was the one which sustained what we call classical culture.
By 400, they were no longer able to do so. Classical cultural creativity collapsed until the middle class rose again in Florence and brought it back to life in the Renaissance.
Diminishing returns. Diminishing returns means more and more money needs to be spent to obtain fewer and fewer results. By AD 200, almost every coin collected in taxes went to pay for the bureaucrats and soldiers needed to administer and police an empire. The response by Roman rulers was predictable: they debased the coinage by cutting its silver content in half. The result was likewise predictable: a galloping increase in prices. This ruined the economy of cities. Consequently, by 400 the western Roman government lost control of its people and land to its enemies.
Ignorance and meaninglessness. For hundreds of years, the Roman middle class had striven to celebrate and add to a culture which it had inherited from Hellas. During the 300s, as societal and cultural decline deepened, a weakened middle class could no longer sustain the creativity of that classical culture. They abandoned it in favor of identifying with workers and misfits and adopting simpler new religious forms of expression “until intellectual life was brought down to the lowest common denominator” (73).
“By the third century, if not before, there was an attitude among many Christians that education was not relevant to salvation, and that ignorance had a positive spiritual value…” (74). This ignorance, however, had harmful consequences. By the 300s, the study of Greek had been abandoned and, with it, knowledge of science and philosophy. By the 500s, even intellectuals had lost the ability to speak about ideas, let alone create new ones, and consequently lost the ability to compare points of view based on different ideas. Just prior to his death in 524, a Christian named Boethius wrote his Consolation of Philosophy. His contemporaries failed to understand his point of view and to appreciate his depth of character. Yet, centuries later, both Chaucer and Elizabeth 1st valued him enough to translate his book into English.
By 650, intellectuals in Gallia “‘were conscious of their role as the last defenders of the classical culture that distinguished them from the Barbarians’” (75). When Isidore (560-636), Archbishop of Seville and perhaps the “last scholar of the ancient world,” encouraged his priests to improve their pronunciation of Latin, they mocked him.
One indication of improving intellectual vitality is an increase in literacy. Such an increase took place in Rome between 250 and 100 BC. Literacy, however, started to decline after AD 200 and dropped rapidly after 300 (75). By that time, the economic vitality of cities was declining and with it the middle class. This loss of a literate culture meant the disappearance of texts and with them any familiarity with literature, philosophy, and history.
By 400, even copies of the works of Cicero had grown rare. In 524, Boethius wrote his Consolation of Philosophy, an eloquent, coherent, insightful, and inspiring intellectual work. Only 70 years later, the History of the Franks by Gregory, Bishop of Tours, contained significant errors in vocabulary and grammar, limited coherence, and only simple arguments. “From A.D. 600 to 1000, most people forgot how to read or think, and, in fact, forgot that they had forgotten” (75).
The brilliance of even the best scholars of the age, like Alcuin of York (ca 735-804), was relatively dim. Original thinking had disappeared, replaced by the simple listing of quotes by past original thinkers. Gone were meaningful interaction and the development of new insights based on critical thinking until the 1000s with the rise of new intellectuals like Berengar of Tours (ca 999-1088).

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci.
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