Sunday, August 28, 2011

O tempora! O mores! Part II

We humans seem inclined to bemoan the depravity of our times at all times.  We revel in the evil we perceive in our fellows, and enjoy doing so as we do so many things, in groups.  Cicero took advantage of this tendency to great effect in one of his orations against Catalina.  And like Cicero we generally indulge in this somewhat Pharisaical practice with a purpose in mind.  It may be simply to assure ourselves we are better than most others.  It may be to urge change, usually in conduct, sometimes in thought.  It is when the powerful, or the zealous, engage in this inclination that we should be concerned.

There seems to be nothing extraordinarily perverse about these times to prompt prophecies of doom.  Nor was this the case in the past.  The Roman Empire is the quintessential exemplar of depravity in the Christian West--that is to say the Empire before it became politically Christian.  This was to be expected, as the growing Church found it expedient to portray pagan civilization as evil, and itself as the antidote to that evil.  Combine this with the tendency of the Romans themselves to look back in admiration on their stern, virtuous ancestors, supposed to have been simple, patriotic, pious and grave, and their wonderful talent for spiteful, prurient gossip and malicious invective as seen in Suetonius, Martial and Juvenal to name a few, and you have a civilization seemingly wallowing in decadence, which Hollywood and its customers delight in to this day.

However there was a great resurgence of interest in the moral and spiritual in the first centuries of the Empire, and not merely due to Christianity.   It can be seen in the later Stoics and in the mystery cults, and in the interest in figures like Appollonius of Tyana, who was often compared to Jesus (and has even been claimed to have been Jesus) to the fury of the Church Fathers.  Those times may be said to be one of the "Great Awakenings" of religious fervor our history indicates takes place every now and then.

Of course depravity is bad, decadence is bad.  And we certainly can see examples of them in our times.  But there is no reason to think their levels are greater today than they have been in the past.  Nor is there any reason to think that the means unsuccessfully employed in the past to eradicate them will be successful in doing so now.  In other words, neither religion nor government will do anything to curb our excesses if they act as they have in the past, and in attempting to do so they will merely succeed in oppressing us all.  So, do we simply go on as we have?

It isn't that we have become more depraved.  The problem lies in that there are more of us than ever and our numbers are growing, and we have fewer resources.  Our times, our morals, are more of a concern than in the past for these reasons, and we have good reason for concern.

We must learn how to control ourselves, unfortunately, and I confess I see no way to bring that about that can be imposed on us without our full cooperation.  If that won't be forthcoming, we have to find some way to balance our liberty with our need to survive, and it is to be hoped survive in such a fashion that we may flourish.

We have to impose limits on ourselves.  We can't live our lives as though we are participants in a Randian wet-dream of selfishness in a world of dwindling resources.  These limits shouldn't be religious; they shouldn't be on our thoughts or on our conduct unless our conduct causes direct harm to others.  But, unless we find a way to exercise self-restraint, these limits may of necessity have to be imposed on the quantity of what we may possess and consume.

To impose limits on ourselves we likely have to change the way we think.   How do we change the way we think, as a people?  Through the education system?

These are grim considerations for any lover of liberty.  How do we achieve this without legislating morality, something which always has adverse results? 

Can we control ourselves, or must we be forced to do so?


  1. "It is widely but mistakenly believed" writes Paul Veyne, "that antiquity was a Garden of Eden from which repression was banished, Christianity having yet to insinuate the worm of sin into the forbidden fruit. Actually, the pagans were paralyzed by prohibitions."

    That all moral systems have their arbitrary, incoherent and superstitious aspects should not deter reflective men from discerning where a moral system has the attainment of an ideal good in view. The whole problem with assertions made in our Whitmanesque democratic pantheism-cum-commercial positivism is that only taboos, moralizing and legislation remain.

  2. Well, I've never claimed antiquity was a Garden of Eden; merely that it was not what it has sometimes been portrayed to be in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    We must be careful about positing an "ideal good." Philosophers have wasted a great deal of time debating whether "happiness" or "virtue" or something else is the greatest good. Designating a summum bonum seems unnecessary.