Commentariat member Dana got me reading Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. It’s short, lively, and even if it’s not totally satisfying in describing how the Irish did the saving, it’s full of smack-upside-the-head insights.
The best material is on Rome’s collapse. (The first chapter was so persuasive it darned near made me feel sorry for tax collectors.) Before I return the book to the library, I want to post a couple of paragraphs. In the first, Cahill is mostly quoting from Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (spelling Americanized).
What is really lost when a civilization wearies and grows small is confidence, a confidence built on the order and balance that leisure makes possible. Again Clark: “Civilization requires a modicum of material prosperity — enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence — confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers … Vigor, energy, vitality: all the great civilizations — or civilizing epochs — have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilization consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. These can be among the agreeable results of civilization, but they are not what makes a civilization, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.”
We have encountered Roman law already — as a dead letter, promulgated by the emperor and circumvented, first by the powerful, then increasingly by anyone who could get away with it. As the emperor’s laws become weaker, the ceremony surrounding them becomes more baroque. In the last days, the Divine One’s edict is written in gold on purple paper, received with covered hands in the fashion of a priest handling sacred vessels, held aloft for the adoration of the assembled throng, who prostrate themselves before the law — and then ignore it.
(Doesn’t that second paragraph resonate in light of the recent adoration of Emperor Obama during the State of the Union Address?)
Now, I know some members of the Commentariat are going to rush to object that nobody, ever, should “believe” in the state’s laws and of course I agree. But the phrase “to believe in its laws” can also be interpreted to mean to have confidence that a society’s mores and its institutions (governmental and otherwise) will be thoughtful and just. Because, after all, state-imposed laws are only one part (and a much smaller one than most assume) of the larger moral/ethical/social structure that keeps civilization, … well, civilized.
Even the normally faithful and carefully schooled followers of The Divine State have no such confidence today. They know laws and regulations are a con job (and a screw job). They also know they’re not going to get a fair shake from “their” banks, corporations, schools, and social institutions (even though they may not realize how far the state has infiltrated to corrupt nominally “private” organizations).
Now confidence in the philosophy of individual freedom and confidence in the self are going, too. The social-justice pecksniffs who want us to fear to hold our own views aren’t merely annoying. The shriekers who want men to feel guilty for being born male and the race-baiters who demand that Caucasians feel guilty for being born at all aren’t merely angling for political power. The Orwellians who want to bury Thomas Jefferson or the Confederate flag aren’t merely trying to impose contemporary values on the past or their personal values on others. They’re a kind of fifth column bent on the destruction of confidence. And bent on destroying the knowledge of history and the sense of continuity and meaning that helps build confidence in our own thoughts. Above all, they are bent on destruction of the individuality that was the best of our founding principles and is the best in us. Put it another way: they are termites. And termites undermine.
What they aim for is to destroy “confidence in one’s own mental powers.” And that, far more than law or temporary social or religious mores or any one particular interpretation of history, is the civilization builder. And that, millions now aim to tear down.
Of course confidence isn’t always a great thing, either. It’s always been wrong to have confidence in government. That just sets us up for con(fidence) games. Widespread confidence that “America is the freest country in the world” has enabled politicians to steal freedom. And we all know people who have serene confidence in their own abilities and opinions when in fact they’re dead wrong.
A little — or even a lot of — doubt can be a healthy thing for both individuals and societies — when doubt means people posing sincere and necessary questions. When doubt means individuals being urged by others to disbelieve their own minds and accept (or pretend under pressure to accept) someone else’s views — that’s quite a different, and dangerous, matter. Clark and Cahill are right about civilizations. Civilizations are held together by shared ideas and by the educated confidence that those ideas, however flawed they may be in execution, are valuable and worth upholding.
We’ll remain civilized, we little remnant, because we have that. I fear for the weakening civilizations that surround us. What’s left of them, anyhow.