In a banquette at the Stanford Starbucks yesterday je-suis-votre-compère Peter Robinson and I sat poring over our post-election depressions. I mentioned that I’d given a dinner party recently themed–effervescently!–on decline. Peter entertained my consignation (though I think he’s been hopeful here at Ricochet) and we found it easy to list instances from long ago in which men have predicted decline. And do you know what? They’re usually right.
Herewith, five or so morsels from antiquity to the recent past. It turns out that when someone says it’s all over and has a good reason for saying so, then most probably it’s all over.
Here’s Pericles, as recorded by Thucydides, suggesting that the spirited men of Athens, with little on their side but a genuine belief in freedom, might lose out to favor-givers:
Now he who confers a favor is the firmer friend, because he would rather by kindness keep alive the memory of an obligation; but the recipient is colder in his feelings, because he knows that in requiting another’s generosity he will not be winning gratitude but only paying a debt. We alone do good to our neighbors not upon a calculation of interest, but in the confidence of freedom and in a frank and fearless spirit. To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace. This is no passing and idle word, but truth and fact…
Athens falls in the Peloponnesian Wars a couple of decades later.
Or Walter Bagehot, writing in 1872 (which may have been during the time when he was Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, before John Micklethwait brought all his learned middle-roadedness to its pages):
History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.
The movements of the world are more attuned to weakness than ever before! Here’s Shakespeare in Measure for Measure, reminding you that rich and elderly bodies can be enjoyed about as much as rich and elderly nations, which is to say they can’t:
Thou hast nor youth nor age,But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep,Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youthBecomes as aged, and doth beg the almsOf palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,To make thy riches pleasant. What’s yet in thisThat bears the name of life? Yet in this lifeLie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,That makes these odds all even.
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” Tancredi writes in The Leopard. But things are not changing. Can anything the conservatives and libertarians might do change voters’ behavior–can anything? Dostoevsky:
Oh, tell me, who first declared, who first proclaimed that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own real interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else….Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child!
India was once a wild and free place, under the British yoke, and Rudyard Kipling rejoiced in growing up there. (Today it denied Wal*Mart the right to compete with mom and pop shops.) After his first extended time in India, Kipling goes back to London, sees it, and recoils in In Partibus:
The sky, a greasy soup-toureen,Shuts down atop my brow.Yes, I have sighed for London townAnd I have got it now:And half of it is fog and filth,And half is fog and row.
And when I take my nightly prowl’Tis passing good to meetThe pious Briton lugging homeHis wife and daughter sweet,Through four packed miles of seething viceThrust out upon the street. [...]
It’s Oh to see the morn ablazeAbove the mango-tope,When homeward through the dewy caneThe little jackals lope,And half Bengal heaves into view,New-washed—with sunlight soap.
But back in London,
I consort with long-haired thingsIn velvet collar-rolls,Who talk about the Aims of Art,And “theories” and “goals,”And moo and coo with women-folkAbout their blessed souls.
But that they call “psychology”Is lack of liver pill,And all that blights their tender soulsIs eating till they’re ill,And their chief way of winning goalsConsists of sitting still.
That’s not to say a word against velvet collar-rolls. Dress is a very important thing. Is Brooks Brothers*, in the final analysis, all that separates us from the barbarian hordes among us?
*This cannot be, perforce, because Brooks Brothers is now owned by an Italian.