Saint Augustine Among the Ruins

#CivDei

We Americans find ourselves at a most unique period in our short history. The vast majority of us live as if our way of life is sustainable, as if some things in fact do last forever, as if the empire will never, indeed can never fall into ruin. Know this: nothing lasts forever. The American materialistic reality and its larger empire is not immune. It too will fall, adding itself to the ash heap of history, and something else will perhaps rise therefrom. No one knows the day or the hour in which the fall will take place. There are many who would say that we are already in the midst of such a fall from hegemony. Whether it is too late or there is still time to reverse course will be addressed in a later essay. The question that matters now, the question that few beyond Rod Dreher seem willing to address is, what will remain after the fall? What will remain when the way of life – living in excessive, godless abundance – is no longer possible, even to the very rich? To begin to offer an answer it would be helpful to revisit our increasingly forgotten past.

Students of history are familiar with the signs, particularly (and interestingly) students of Church history, for the student of Church history will inevitably have read much if not all of Saint Augustine’s City of God, and thus will have read his scathing indictments of the former Roman Empire. St. Augustine concludes early that Rome fell not due to threats from without, but rather from within, and the form those threats took were not solely the result of power hungry politicians, though they certainly had a hand in the chaos, but much more insidiously from the moral decay brought on by a love of pleasure and the worship of false gods.

To read City of God is to read a contemporary critique of the West in general, and so provides a certain speculative insight into what citizens of the West may expect. Augustine paints a picture in chapters 18-20 of Book 2 of a Rome that the honest reader will recognize. In chapter 18, quoting Sallust, Augustine writes,

“The degradation of traditional morality ceased to be a gradual decline and became a torrential downhill rush. The young were so corrupted by luxury and greed that it was justly observed that a generation had arisen which could neither keep its own property or allow others to keep theirs.”

Augustine comes back to this line, “the degradation of traditional morality…” numerous times in the proceeding chapters. It is in chapter 20 of the second book, however, that the modern man will see that human depravity is not new, but in fact exceedingly old and, given the context, always disastrous. It is worth quoting Augustine at length:

“’So long as it lasts,’ they [Romans talking of Rome] say, “so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of peace, why should we worry? What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place. It is alright if the poor serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat and to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make use of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride; if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer salutary advice; if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights; if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers or material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect. The laws should punish offenses against another’s property, not offenses against a man’s own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s property, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his own, or with others, if they consent. There should be a plentiful supply of prostitutes, for the benefit of all those who prefer them, and especially for those who cannot keep private mistresses. It is a good thing to have luxurious houses imposingly furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend nigh and day in debauchery, and eat and drink until they are sick: to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and of every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence. Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom loving majority: he should be kicked out and removed from the land of the living. We should reckon the true gods to be those who see that the people get this happiness and then preserve it for them. Then let them be worshipped as they wish, let them demand what shows they like, so that they can enjoy them with their devotees or, at least, receive them from their worshippers.”

Thus writes St. Augustine, citizen of the empire. Here, the wise saint is describing not only the behavior, but also the psychology of Roman society. Not only was it steeped in its own depravity, but its collective mind and soul alike were so far gone that they believed the serpentine lie that what was wicked was in fact good. From the passage above it is plain to see that sensuality drove Roman society, and that this sensuality was brought on by an abundance of wealth and the materialism that the worship of such wealth brings. This was Rome at its fall – a society blind to and uncaring of the truth, and trusting more in their own personal desires as a means to happiness.

Rome, like its leaders, grew fat and spiritually lazy. When the Visigoths arrived what they found was not legion after legion of fearful Roman soldiers prepared to fight to the last man for the good and preservation of the Empire. No, what they found instead was a society interested only in pleasure and comfort. Earlier, in Book 1, chapters 30 and 31, Augustine presents a brief flowing picture of a Rome that in the aftermath of having raised Carthage in totum, began to tear itself apart through bloody civil wars. Having vanquished their external enemies, all that was left was to turn on one another in order to conquer Rome itself. He writes,

“And the lust for power, which of all human vices was found in its most concentrated form in the roman people as a whole, first established its victory in a few powerful individuals, and then crushed the rest of an exhausted country beneath the yoke of slavery… For when can that lust for power in arrogant hearts come to rest until, after passing from one office to another, it arrives at sovereignty? Now there would be no occasion for this continuous progress if ambition were not all-powerful; and the essential context for ambition is a people corrupted by greed and sensuality.”

Augustine makes the point that the corruption rampant in the Roman ruling class was not created ex nihilo but was in fact passed along from the citizenry, since it is from the people that the ruling class must come. Here the modern American, whose fealty to democracy is not to be questioned, might turn his attention to Washington, where we find the problem that seemingly has no solution – how to find a better class of politician. Is the politician inherently corrupt? Does the work of the politician naturally attract those most prone for corruption? Is there something strange, mystical spell that is cast over anyone poor soul who takes an oath of office? Or is it something else?

The answer is all and none. There is something about politics that draws a certain type of person, and there is some strange effect that happens when one takes office. This is, simply, being human in a society that preaches materialism, power, and prestige as the three pillars of happiness. As in Rome, our elected officials come from among us. They do not change upon taking office, but rather are introduced into an environment that has been twisted over generations in such ways as to make abusing their newly assumed power both easy and expected. Scripture tells us that “those who wish to be rich fall into temptation…” that it is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil, and elsewhere that a man cannot serve two masters, particularly when one of those masters is mammon, that ones treasure is where one’s heart will be found.

Does the work of politics tend to attract a certain type of person? It certainly seems to, namely those who desire power and wealth. Can we fault these men and women? Yes, but not before repenting of our own materialism and lust for power and prestige. The answer to the question of how to elect a better class of politician is not to demand greater moral conscience from them, but rather from ourselves. A moral people will not suffer an immoral governor.

Returning to the original question of this essay, what comes after our fall is hard to predict. So much depends on what the spirit of the people happens to be. At present, Americans as a whole suffer from normalcy bias – a belief that everything is normal so everything will always be normal. Another word for this is denial. So many believe that “it” – signifying any given disaster or series of disasters – could never happen here, because this is America, where such things do not happen. The short hand version of this reads: it cannot happen because it will not happen because it never could happen. Such logic will, if followed to its source, erase all of natural existence.

To this, Augustine has yet more to say. In chapter 33 of Book 1, he writes,

“What insanity is this! This is not error but plain madness. When, by all accounts, nations in the East were bewailing your catastrophe, when the greatest cities in the farthest parts of the earth were keeping days of public grief and mourning, you were asking they way to the theatres, and going in, making full houses, in fact, behaving in a much more crazy fashion than before. It was just this corruption, this moral disease, this overthrow of all integrity and decency, that the great Scipio dreaded for you, when he stopped the building of theatres, when he saw how easily you could be corrupted and perverted by prosperity, and did not want to be relieved from the enemy’s threats. He did not think that a city is fortunate when its walls are standing, while its morals are in ruins.”

All the known world wept over the fall of Rome, and the Romans mourned by drowning themselves in the very vices that led to the ease of their sacking! It is a circle of insanity and madness, but this is what worldly seduction leads to.

Between the Republic and the Empire, Rome stood tall for 2,000 years. The world may never again know so enduring and dominant a power as the Romans. So great was their power that the only threat to Roman survival was Rome itself. It was brought down by the moral and spiritual decay that set in over generations of war and misspent prosperity. They worshipped false gods thinking all the while that the lascivious and deplorable acts demanded of them were actually good. The Romans were too spiritually lazy to consider any of this. As long as they were kept fat, happy, rich, and entertained – bread and circuses! – there were no greater worries in life.

Is modern America all that different? Certainly we do not have much to worry about in the influence or pervasiveness of prostitution in the Roman sense, but ours is a time marked by its obsession with sex, both the act itself and the larger understanding of the nature of sexuality. Where Rome had prostitutes, Americans have any number of sexual distractions – strip clubs, pornography, human trafficking, and yes, even prostitution albeit illegal. However, are we not obsessively focused on getting richer all the time, that we may live extravagantly? Are not those who do not impose disagreeable duties or forbid perverted delights seen as the banner men and vanguard of freedom? Are kings not more interested in our docility than our morality? Do they not focus more on material provision than on moral or ethical direction? Is it not a good thing to possess lavish and luxurious houses wherein may be held wild, degenerately pleasurable parties? Is not the law of the land that everyone should be free to do what they want with their own, or with others so long as there is consent? Finally, do we not consider a public enemy those who disagree with this kind of happiness, or indeed consider an enemy any who disagree with whatever idea of happiness we ourselves hold? Do we hustle out of hearing anyone who tries to change the freedom-loving majority?

And so the question remains, what will remain after the fall? That, it would seem, is up to us. The wise saint points out that amidst Rome’s collapse, even while they were being blamed for all manner of calamity, the Christian community that held to their faith managed to escape ruin. Yes, they were certainly caught up in the tangible consequences of Rome’s folly – they did not have a mystical shield of protect cast about them – but because their God was true, and because their faith was pious and sincere, they were unscathed. They did not live for the vain pleasures and empty pursuits of this world, but rather eschewed them in service to the world that is to come. Their faith sustained them and kept them after the ruin.

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