Every generation struggles towards a certain self-understanding as its members move from immaturity to adulthood and walk through the trials of growing, thinking, discovering, and confronting responsibility. This path of maturation cannot be trod by a substitute, nor can it be avoided through deliberate torpidity—time marches onward and compels all men to move forward whether they like to or not. However, the solitary activity of growing up and growing old need not be performed in isolation. Travelers further along the path leave messages and instructions for those who follow, and many times they set an example worthy of imitation. It is in this regard that George Santayana’s famous dictum, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” is a lure and a goad to study the course of human events.
Consider, then, the example of Rome—a great civilization and one of considerable importance to all Western societies. The Roman Empire covered vast tracts of land, assimilated countless cultures and languages, dominated world affairs for hundreds of years, and fell with a reverberating crash, hollowed out by greed, lust, and vice. The reasons offered for the fall of Rome are varied, and often reflect the prejudices of succeeding cultures. However, when the analysis of the degeneration of the Roman Empire is shared by two men who have little in common but their Roman citizenship, it may be worth sitting up and taking note.
Gaius Sallustius Crispus, whose mother most likely affectionately called “Sallust” (apparently the name stuck), is considered the first Roman historian due to his attempt to interpret rather than simply chronicle historical events. Born in 86 B.C., he lived to be a friend of Julius Caesar and wrote a Histories of the Roman people that was heavily relied upon by St. Augustine in his analysis of the fall of the Roman Empire.
Augustine, writing at the end of the Roman era and minutely examining its history, shares little in common with Sallust other than Roman citizenship. Where Sallust claims, “Justice and goodness prevailed among [the first Romans] as much be nature as by law,” Augustine sees ambition fed by lust for power and fame. Sallust wrote his Histories in order to defend Rome and promote action that would restore her peace and prosperity and paints a glowing portrait of Roman virture. Augustine penned his City of God in defense of Christianity, criticizing the immorality and incontinence of Rome.
However, both men agree upon the basic cause of Roman greatness: Fear.
In his explanation of the cause of Rome’s great expansion after the expulsion of her kings and the rise of the consuls, Sallust states, “The rule of equitable and moderate law lasted, after the banishment of the kings, only until the fear of Tarquin and the grievous war with Etruria were ended.” Once the fear dissipated, oppression and injustice were the norm, to be checked only by the need for unity in the face of a common enemy during the second Punic War. Similarly, Augustine acknowledges the unifying power of fear and traces the fall of Rome to the inequity, immoderation, and various vices that arose once fear was removed. If two men who disagree on almost every point can agree that fear has great power to constrain men and vice, it may be worth taking heed to the warning latent in this analysis of Rome.
If fear gives rise to unity, and unity is necessary to the growth and flourishing of a civilization, then America and the West ought to be inextricably united against the fear of terrorism and growing into a vast, powerful, virtuous and exemplary civilization. But this is not the case and the implications are profound.
Americans briefly united in common cause following the devastating attack on September 11, 2001. Banners flew, flags were visible in windows, hanging from porches, snapping from windows of cars zipping down the interstate, and plastered on bumpers, telephone poles, and t-shirts. Since the initial movement towards unity, however, America has become woefully disunited. Opinion polls reflect an increase in polarized politics with a large portion of Republicans demonizing Obama and the Left, and an equally large share of Democrats returning the favor with gusto. Every issue is turned into a politically divisive issue by pundits on both sides and those few politicians who strive for bipartisan cooperation and moderation are villainized by the Left and the Right. The past two elections were both won on the popular level by slim margins, and states continue to remain split in their constituencies. The presence of such radical disunity and polarization in the face of the terrorist threat is unsettling.
Are American differences so radical, so deeply divisive, so irreconcilable that even the presence of a common enemy cannot motivate unity? I’m not sure. It may be that there are other forces driving the disunity, or at least the apparent disunity, that need be examined. However, if fear is not motivating America to unite and establish security and protect her position in the world, what will? If Sallust and Augustine are correct, the end may be at hand. I’m hoping that a fear of our foolhardy fearlessness might do the trick.