Historians are wary of moralists. That is because in the ancient historical tradition, particularly in the Roman one, historical analysis often looked to moral causality as an explanation for various, sometimes epochal, events. They excluded areas of analysis that merit application, such as demographics, economics, or a host of other social sciences, which of course were simply not yet developed. Instead writers such as Sallust, Tacitus, and Livy, looked to morality to understand and make sense of their history. A particularly distinctive theme, for Roman historians, was their sense of loss.
By the time those Roman historians whose work survives got around to writing their history, the Republic was at an end, and dictatorship had come to replace it. The question they sought to answer and address was, how did it all go so terribly wrong? How could a once fine and fair working republic have been lost and replaced with dictatorship? For Tacitus it was lust for power, driven by serious divisions between Roman aristocrats and plebeians. He traces the feuds of Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, until one man was at the top – all of it about interest in dominatio – complete and utter mastery. Sallust is more nuanced: for him it started with the return of the Roman warlord Sulla from Asia in 88 BC; with his return came huge sums of wealth. Money, lucre, and the desire for ever greater fortunes corrupted the mores of the Romans in the eyes of their historians; indeed, Sallust’s works are about nothing, if not about what the results of such corruption brought on Roman society.
Hence in the Jugurthine War, one of Sallust’s great war monographs, the deep corruption of the aristocracy was exposed for the first time; in fact, tracing the initial phases of that corruption was the inspiration for Sallust’s work. In it, he relates how Roman commanders from the nobility were bribed by an enemy king, Jugurtha, to look away from the extreme mischief he was causing, both in Africa, and in Rome. Indeed, called to Rome to stand trial, he bribed and cajoled before getting scot off with several bodies in his wake and plenty of his cash stuffed into the pockets of Roman officials who promised him protection from prosecution. As he rode out of the city, the story is he sat on his horse on the Janiculum Hill and said,
Urbem venalem et mature perituram si emptorem invenerit
The city (Rome) is for sale, and she will quickly perish once she finds a buyer.
The phrase, Romae omnia venalia, “In Rome, everything is for sale”, emerges in the work like a veritable leitmotif, appearing in one form or another at least five times. Even Sallust himself was not immune, despite his moralizing. As Julius Caesar’s first governor of Africa, he was forced into retirement for extreme corruption in the governance of his province, though it is worth noting that his family went on to become one of the richest most powerful in Rome under the early Caesars. Elite immunity from crime and corruption is nothing new.
Such corruption and venality was a far cry from the virtuous farmer-soldier of the early Republic, who worked his farm, practiced frugalitas (thrift), and was known for and prided himself in his dignitas (a word that defies translation – let’s just say, for the moment, his sense of self-respect), his auctoritas (authority), his virtus (courage), and his constantia (dedication) towards the free state.
It is not fashionable for historians, or even cultural critics, to speak in these terms now, and there are many parties to blame for the degradation of the culture leading to Black Tuesday. Yet I would argue that we have dismissed the place of virtue and morality as a partial explanation for our current moment at our peril, and to the impoverishment of our historical understanding. That is not a call to abandon ourselves to a strict moralist interpretation of history by any means. It is a call for a limited reintroduction. There is a degradation and putrefaction of the moral content of our lives that now pervades our society. In this, ironically, I believe the Left is a central culprit (although the Right, as it so often does, is quick to coopt and assume some of the ornaments of counter-culture: witness “conservative” biker groups with their long hair, an affectation of the sixties counter-cultural Left, as but a single example). And so now, by demanding that we tolerate everything, we are now on the verge of tolerating nothing (to rework a phrase from Cornelius Fronto).
The sexual revolution, the degradation of language, the pervasiveness of pornography, the ever cruder limits to which the media culture has pushed us, eventually gave large segments of society permission for some of the most heinous actions. Do you really think that Linndie England would have been able to sink to this
were it not for the mainstreaming of pornography? No one has had the courage to call this out. The increasingly tabloid like nature of the news, its increasingly “entertaining” nature over the last forty years, its normalization of the outrageous as those of us who mused (never vocally until now) that the coarsening of the culture has consequences, held our peace because we were deemed prudes, or Jesus freaks (and no, I am not a Jesus freak, I’m what can best be described as an ecumenical agnostic), or out of touch. To be clear, one’s personal life – their sexual mores, their ideas about reproductive choice – is the business of none but the individual, and private. Yet we have ceased to have anything remotely resembling private life, and through osmosis over time, what should be held as private has seeped, in mass, into an all too public sphere.
Gradually, as contentious shows about shocking behavior of all sort became all too public, our fascination turned all too unhealthy, and network and cable markets, smelling the stench of corruption, thought the odor not putrid but savory. The media started to decide, as it began increasingly to drive the culture at large, not just what shows we would watch or products we would buy or news we would hear, but how we would raise our children, with what mores, and in what moral environment; and what choice did we have if we didn’t want our children to be bullied in schools if they did not fit in? How could you properly raise a child and deprive him or her of the proper socialization if one did not acquiesce. We have done them no favors.
Add to this a crude barrage of messages from various sectors – our politicians who believe that the creation of wealth is the ultimate value, evangelical churches that preach a gospel of “prosperity”, and a media culture whose ultimate value is material comfort and wealth over spiritual well-being and simplicity, and the end result is that wealth and pleasure become the ultimate value.
Those of us who participated or gave acquiescence by our silence to this permissive coarsening, gradually paved the way, first for trench warfare that was the crude behavior of Clinton, and now for the final Blitzkrieg against any moral or ethical standard that is our presidential elect. Indeed, virtue, for all intents and purposes, is now actively scoffed at, under siege from virtually every quarter including the highest offices in the land.
Is this the entire explanation concerning why we elected the creature that we did, one who aptly lives in a Penthouse? Of course not, it is not even a good start. But a coarsening culture does, in part, explain why almost half the electorate felt they had permission to vote for a man that was accused of rape by a former spouse, accused by countless women of sexual assault, walks into womens’ dressing rooms, makes childish remarks about or gives childish monikers to his opponents (when he’s not threatening them with jail), makes open comments about incest fantasies, talks about penis size, was a regular on the professional vulgarian Howard Stern’s show, feels it is alright to have a candidate that incites to violence, and has no trouble with the use of expletives either himself or by those at his rallies. This is how a former game show host, former beauty pageant sponsor, two-bit walk on movie personality, and wrestling sponsor with clear mob connections that even he himself does not deny obtains the seat of Lincoln and Jefferson. This is how the republic ends: not with a bang but a zipper.
And we are all at fault – at fault for not saying get that crap off my television and radio; for not teaching that virtue can have rewards; for not demanding and adhering to some basic standards of decent behavior in the culture at large. For not being better parents to our boys and teaching them the hard lesson about practicing basic decency and respect, which is by admission anything but easy. For not teaching our girls that there are certain ways they should refuse to be treated. In what possible world did we get to the point that some woman would think it right to put a naked prisoner on a leash and photograph it for all the world to see? In what world would we embrace that which we apparently have?
I am what moral collapse looks like. You are what moral collapse looks like. And most dangerously of all, he is what moral collapse looks like.