Tumbling Empires & the Taming Church

In the late 1970′s the genial science historian James Burke wrote and presented a ten-part series entitled Connections, which became appointment-tv for my husband and me. He had a way of applying past lessons to present circumstances that was both fascinating and entertaining and sometimes–as in this video–loaded with the prescience that comes from actually listening to history.

At about the 3:30 mark, you find Burke once again presenting past as prelude:

” The last time a world empire fell apart, it was about 1500 years ago. Then, the empire was Roman…. … What led the Barbarians walk over Rome is something that won’t take you a second to sympathize with. The taxes were too high, to pay for the army that was losing all the battles, and a bunch of freeloaders in government, and of course, and to pay for thousands of civil servants.”

Stick with this all the way through; you will be very, very surprised as to where it leads. Well, regular readers of The Anchoress might not be.

This comes from reader John H., who ends his email: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Oh, watch the next onewatch them all; it’s a holiday, and we need the perspective of history to help us understand the present.

UPDATE: Little Miss Attila watched all five parts of this “Connectons” episode and wrote:

The final establishing shot will make you gasp. At least, it did that to me.

It did me, too. What a different world, and just 30 or so years have passed.

Related:
Hot Air: The CEO Problem; We Don’t Have One
Why Obamanomics are Failing
We Need a President
The Unforgettable Fire

About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • http://wintersoldier2008.typepad.com john jay

    dear anchoress:

    you are erudite, you are analytical, and you are extremely well versed in history, religion, philosophy and political science.

    and, you are right, as in, correct.

    here’s the problem i have with you. two problems, actually.

    you do nothing.

    you do not confront the natural and irresistible consequences of your analysis, and you do nothing to prepare for them.

    you are a wonderful lady. and, this blog is a wonderful read. and, you are useless as tits on a boar hog, because you do not prepare, and you do not urge others to prepare.

    john jay

    [We all prepare in our own ways, I think. As to solutions? I leave to better minds than my own. I suggested supertankers vacuuming up the oil in the gulf over a month ago, as did others. It meant diddly; I can write my own ideas for solutions til the cows come home. I'm still a wee and un-influential voice in a vast field. -admin]

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  • Liberty60

    Why look 1,500 years ago, when a more recent example will do?

    The final straw for the Soviet Union was squandering billions of dollars on a war to pacify Afghanistan, even as their own economy was stagnating.

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    Would that more people would do as much “nothing” as the Anchoress does.

  • Robb76

    John Jay
    What in the hell was your post all about?

  • Jake Was Here

    Robb: Jay was saying that the natural conclusion of anyone who reads what Liz has written is that the s___ is about to hit the fan and that immediate action is advisable: start digging a bunker in the back yard and stock up on gold, guns, canned food and bottled water. Since she doesn’t encourage anyone to do this, he considers her irresponsible.

    Ludicrous, of course.

    [Actually the way to make anything hit a fan quickly is to call me Liz. "Lizzie" is fine, particularly if someone is teasing, "Elizabeth is best," but "Liz," oh...that brings on the pain. Oh, pain. -admin :-)}

  • Warren Jewell

    And, John Jay, what are you ‘doing’ to prepare that gives your air its smug feel?

  • Last Sphere

    Mr Jay,

    Start here:

    “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” -Matthew 6:30-34

    For further instructions consult some of these other fine books: Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinth…………

  • Feeney

    Great to see James Burke again. He and Jacob Bronowski were my favorites. Wouldn’t it be great to go back to the times when there were great teachers, and most of us were willing to learn?

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  • http://littlemissattila.com Little Miss Attila / Joy McCann

    Mr. Jay:

    The pen is mightier than the sword. It’s just, uh . . . Common Sense.

  • Richard M

    Burke is of course an insightful historian of technology and its relationship to human society, and that’s in evidence in Connections.

    It’s a pity, then, that he’s sloppy with broader history in trying to make his point. Rome was not a “world empire” – even if we stretch a point to merely include the then-known world – it did not fall in the 5th century (only the western half did), and there have been plenty of vast (even truly “world”) empires that have fallen in the intervening years, most recently the Soviet Union. Even had he removed the qualifiers, however, it’s hard to accept his diagnosis of why the Western Empire fell in 406-476. Rome fell first and foremost because its military resources simply could not cope with the simultaneous attack of so many increasingly sophisticated barbarian tribes at once. It’s not to say the Empire wasn’t flawed (not least by its division), but then so was the Empire of previous centuries, in certain ways.

    This is the verdict of the revisionist school (typified by Peter Heather, Bryan Ward-Perkins, et al) which emerged after Burke’s series, to be sure; but even in 1970 there were not many historians (not just the Marxist ones) who would have ascribed Rome’s fall to high taxes and an excessive welfare state, or certainly not to them alone or even primarily. To be sure, the Roman tax burden was increasingly heavy and unpopular by the 400′s, but there’s little evidence that provincial elites abandoned the Roman center until Roman military power had actually collapsed, and apparently for good.

    All of this may seem pedantic. But if we’re to learn from history – and Burke is right to say we should – the lessons are not always clear and their application may require more adjustment than we think. The dangers of excessively high taxes and dependency are certainly very real and increasing, without a doubt; but we have to be careful to certain we’re really picking valid (and the best) empirical examples of the consequences. And right now you can find no better ones than in Western Europe, right this moment.

    Certainly, however, if things keep on as they are, we may have little hope left than to share that of Alasdair McIntyre in After Virtue, hoping for a new St. Benedict to save what can be saved from the wreckage. As for the Visigoths – well, I suspect they’re already among us.

  • mark of brighton

    Anchoress:

    With respect to Mr. Jay’s comment. God plants us where he plants us and expects to work where we are. I think you are a faithful individual. This is what God expects of us.

    I also think the net is a huge underground news service. I send many of your posting to friends and family. I know they, in turn, send them to others. We are in the process of reclaiming our heritage. I think you perform a valuable service and I greatly appreciate it.

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  • newton

    Anchoress,

    I have never seen this series before.

    Remember, I’m a 70s baby. For all I know, my personal history began right before Ronald Reagan became President.

  • Maximus Decidius Meridius

    At some point during the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire into the various kingdoms, there must have been a Last Legion.

    I always imagined a “final formation” of the Legion…addressed by the Tribune Prime…a sort of medieval William Travis drawing a “line in the sand.”

    The Tribune says to the assembled Legion, “We have received no orders from any Roman authority for over a year now, and neither have we received any pay or support of any other sort. I am forced to conclude the reports of the conquest of the city of Rome is true. Even the proconsul in Londinium has ceased to communicate with me.

    You men have served your Emperor with honor and distinction here in Brittania, and so I offer you the choice of remaining here under arms and the banner of the Legion where we will place ourselves under the command of the whatever authority emerges here…or to furl our banner and chamber our Eagle, leaving you all to go your own way.”

    I suspect there was some hemming and hawing…and finally the decision. The centurions presented the Legion’s Eagle to the Tribune for his safekeeping (no man could bear to see it merely stored somewhere) and each man went his own way to attempt to provide for his family…or find one.

    I write this little imaginary vingette, because I wanted you to feel a bit of the sense of uncertainty I feel as a military officer, who has served this country my entire adult life…and the sense of emptiness and betrayal at the thought of my countrymen squandering America’s greatness “back in Rome” whilst I’m away defending “Hadrian’s Wall” in “Brittania.”

    I can’t but sometimes feel like I must be in the Last Legion…still hanging on to duty if only because if I were to forget my duty, I believe I’d likely dry up and blow away…but knowing that there will come a time when the communications and orders from “Rome” will cease.

    God bless America, please.

  • dry valleys

    I am put in mind of what James George Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough (a really glorious book, which I am reading for the 6th time now, though I should imagine one the church will be none too happy with). His analysis differs somewhat from yours! Pardon the length but it’s a long book. My version is 827 pages & even that isn’t the longest in existence! I couldn’t find a link but I suppose those who don’t care can stop reading about now :)

    “Greek and Roman society was built on the conception of the subordination of the individual to the community, of the citizen to the state; it set the safety of the commonwealth, as the supreme aim of conduct, above the safety of the individual whether in this world or in a world to come.

    Trained from infancy in this unselfish ideal, the citizens devoted their lives to the public service and were ready to lay them down for the common good; or, if they shrank from the supreme sacrifice, it never occured to them that they acted otherwise than basely in preferring their personal existence to the interests of their country.

    All this was changed by the spread of Oriental religions which inculcated the communion of the soul with God and its eternal salvation as the only objects worth living for, objects in comparison with which the prosperity and even the existence of the state sank into insignificance.

    The inevitable result of this selfish and immoral doctrine was to withdraw the devotee more and more. to concentrate his thoughts on his own spiritual emotions, and to breed in him a contempt for the present life, which he regarded merely as a probation for a better and eternal.

    The saint and the recluse, disdainful of earth and rapt in ecstatic contemplation of heaven, became in popular opinion the highest ideal of humanity, displacing the old ideal of the patriot and hero who, forgetful of self, lives and is ready to die for the good of his country.

    The earthly city seemed poor and contemptible to men whose eyes beheld the City of God coming in the clouds of heaven. Thus the centre of gravity, so to say, was shifted from the present to a future life, and, however much the other world may have gained, there can be little doubt that this one lost heavily by the change.

    A general disintegration of the body politic set in. The ties of the state and the family were loosened: the structure of society tended to resolve itself into its individual elements and thereby to relapse into barbarism; for civilization is only possible through the active co-operation of the citizens and their willingness to subordinate their private interests to the common good.

    Men refused to defend their country and even to continue their kind. In their anxiety to save their own souls and the souls of others, they were content to leave the material world, which they identified with the principle of evil, to perish around them. This obsession lasted for a thousand years.

    The revival of Roman law, of the Aristotelian philosophy, of ancient art and literature at the close of the Middle Ages, marked the return of Europe to native ideals of life and condusct, to saner, manlier views of the world, The long halt in the march of civilization was over. The tide of Oriental invasion had turned at last. It is ebbing still.”

    Of course the author didn’t flinch from calling Christianity one of these oriental religions. At the time he caused outrage by analysing religion as a social function rather than accepting its theological claims on thir own terms.

  • Dale Price

    “A general disintegration of the body politic set in. The ties of the state and the family were loosened: the structure of society tended to resolve itself into its individual elements and thereby to relapse into barbarism; for civilization is only possible through the active co-operation of the citizens and their willingness to subordinate their private interests to the common good.

    Men refused to defend their country and even to continue their kind. In their anxiety to save their own souls and the souls of others, they were content to leave the material world, which they identified with the principle of evil, to perish around them. This obsession lasted for a thousand years.”

    Simon-pure ahistorical drivel.

    Why is it that those who thunder so ponderously about “the Dark Ages” invariably ignore the beacon that was Byzantium? None of Frazer’s claptrap applies to that high civilization, which endured for a millenia, fighting successfully to preserve the Greek, Roman and Christian heritage. Which, as anyone who has even half-seriously examined the subject knows, was subsequently passed on to the West, spurring the Renaissance.

    Even as applied to the Christian West during the medieval era, it is nonsense, but the studied ignorance of East Rome and its achievements is a real red flag for me.

  • dry valleys

    Who’s Simon?

    It just came to mind, that’s all. I know exactly what that quote from Burke is intended to mean in the context of this blog, so I reposted another view which I thought of. I am not a student of the ancient world so I won’t claim to have any views of my own that are of any account.

    The analysis throughout the whole book has held up remarkably well, as much as the usual types say it’s outdated he was actually a great thinker in my humble etc.

  • Last Sphere

    “A really fine work of folk-lore, like The Golden Bough will leave too many readers with’ the idea, for instance, that this or that story of a giant’s or wizard’s heart in a casket or a cave only means some stupid and static superstition called the external soul. But we do not know what these things mean, simply because we do not know what we ourselves mean when we are moved by them.” -G.K.Chesterton

  • Elaine S.

    “Why is it that those who thunder so ponderously about ‘the Dark Ages’ invariably ignore the beacon that was Byzantium?”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself Dale. Not to mention the fact that other “Holy Roman Emperors” like Charlemagne, et al, kept cropping up in the West long after Romulus Augustulus (last “official” Roman emperor) called it quits. And, those so-called “barbarians” actually contributed a lot of civilizing influences to society — for example, they were the ones who got gladatorial contests abolished.

    In many ways, the Roman Empire never really died. Not only its language but a good deal of its governmental structure survives in the Catholic Church. Terms like diocese, basilica, curia, etc. were originally coined to refer to aspects of Roman civil government. Our civil law and government retain some Roman character as well. How many post offices, country courthouses, etc. are built to look like Roman temples?

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    The Roman Empire, in its last days, had a number of problems, not the least of which were its overgenerous “Bread and Circuses” programs for the poor, and the tendency of its richer, more prominent citizens to escape the city, and their civic duties, altogether, heading for the villas in the country, where they holed up with their slaves, leaving the Metropolitan areas to the poor, and the Christians.

    Also, far too many people are unaware of the Byzantine Empire, which kept learning and culture alive; for whatever reason, our schools don’t want to teach about it, although it was a powerful and important civilization. (They seem to want to ignore the Hellenic Era too—another very important and influential epoch.)

    Lastly, it should be pointed out that classic Roman culture had no problems with: 1. Slavery. 2. Exposure of unwanted children, on trash heaps. (Another reason for Rome’s decline—it stopped reproducing.) 3. Conquest, and enslavement, of “Barbarian” and non-Romans, with punishments such a crucifixion and flaying alive doled out to those who resisted; trust me, all you peaceniks out there, you wouldn’t have approved! 4. Incredible sums of money, and blood, expended on hideous games where men fought each other to the death, and children where fed to wild animals, as the “civilized’, “philosophical”, civic minded and law-abiding Romans watched, laughing and applauding.

    Kinda makes you see the “debilitating” effect of Oriental religions in a new light, doesn’t it?


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