Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

the Roman world and ours

So why am I reading about — I’m gonna coin a phrase here — the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? It started as part of my work on Auden.

I first learned about Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture from reading Auden’s review of it, published in The New Republic in 1944. Auden began that review by saying that in the years since the book appeared (it was first published in 1940) “I have read this book many times, and my conviction of its importance to the understanding not only of the epoch with which it is concerned, but also of our own, has has increased with each rereading.” I thought: Well, now, that’s rather remarkable. I figured it was a book I had better read too.

Auden concludes his review with these words:

Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.

That metaphor — "spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city" — is brilliantly suggestive. (And Auden knew all about benzedrine.)

More than twenty years later, in a long essay on the fall of Rome that was never published for reasons Edward Mendelson explains here, Auden wrote:

I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to.

Like the third century the twentieth is an age of stress and anxiety. In our case, it is not that our techniques are too primitive to cope with new problems, but the very fantastic success of our technology is creating a hideous, noisy, over-crowded world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to lead a human life. In our reactions to this, one can see many parallels to the third century. Instead of Gnostics, we have existentialists and God-is-dead theologians, instead of neoplatonists, devotees of Zen, instead of desert hermits, heroin addicts and beats … instead of mortification of the flash, sado-masochistic pornography; as for our public entertainments, the fare offered about television is still a shade less brutal and vulgar than that provided by the amphitheater, but only a shade, and may not be for long.

And then the comically dyspeptic conclusion: “I have no idea what is actually going to happen before I die except that I am not going to like it.” (For those interested, the unpublished essay may be found in this collection.)

Clearly for Auden, the story Cochrane tells was one that had lasting relevance. Elements of Cochrane’s narrative turn up, in much more complex form than in the late-career bleat just quoted, for decades in Auden’s poetry: “The Fall of Rome,” “Memorial for the City,” “Under Sirius,” “Secondary Epic,” and many other poems bear Cochrane’s mark. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’m now reading Christianity and Classical Culture for the fourth time, and it really is impossible for me also not to see the Roman world as a distant mirror of our own. How can I read this passage about the rise of Julius Caesar and not think of Donald Trump?

In the light of these ancient concepts, Ceasar emerges as a figure at once fascinating and dangerous. For the spirit thus depicted is one of sublime egotism; in which the libido dominandi asserts itself to the exclusion of all possible alternatives and crushes every obstacle in its path. We have spoken of Caesar as a divisive force. That, indeed, he was: as Cato had put it, “he was the only one of the revolutionaries to undertake, cold-sober, the subversion of the republic”; … A force like this, however, does more than divide, it destroys. Hostile to all claims of independence except its own, it is wholly incompatible with that effective equality which is implied in the classical idea of the commonwealth. To admit it within the community is thus to nourish the lion, whose reply to the hares in the assembly of beasts was to ask: Where are your claws?

And how can I read about this extension of the Emperor’s powers and not reflect on the recent hypertrophy of the executive branch of American government?

The powers and duties assigned to the emperor were broad and comprehensive. They were, moreover, rapidly enlarged as functions traditionally attached to republican magistracies were transferred one after another to the new executive, and executive action invaded fields which, under the former system, had been consecrated to senatorial or popular control. Finally, by virtue of specific provisions, the substance of which is indicated in the maxim princeps legibus solutus, the emperor was freed from constitutional limitations which might have paralyzed his freedom of action; while his personal protection was assured through the grant of tribunician inviolability (sacrosanctitas) as well as by the sanctions of the Lex Maiestatis. The prerogative was thus built up by a series of concessions, made by the competent authority of senate and people, no single one of which was in theory unrepublican.

But the more I read Cochrane, the more I suspect that we may not be talking about mere mirroring, mere analogies. Last year, when I read and reviewed Larry Siedentop’s book Inventing the Individual, I was struck by Siedentop’s tracing of certain of our core ideas about selfhood to legal disputes that arose in the latter centuries of the Roman Empire and its immediate aftermath. And this led me in turn to think about an ideas that Mikhail Bakhtin meditated on ceaselessly near the end of his life: great time. David Shepherd provides a thorough account of this idea here, but in short Bakhtin is trying to think about cultural developments that persist over centuries and even millennia, even when they have passed altogether from conscious awareness. Thus this staggering passage from one of his late notebooks:

The mutual understanding of centuries and millennia, of peoples, nations, and cultures, provides a complex unity of all humanity, all human cultures (a complex unity of human culture), and a complex unity of human literature. All this is revealed only on the level of great time. Each image must be understood and evaluated on the level of great time. Analysis usually fusses about in the narrow space of small time, that is, in the space of the present day and the recent past and the imaginable — desired or frightening — future.


There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) — they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival. The problem of great time.

If we were take Bakhtin’s idea seriously, how might that affect our thinking about the Roman Empire as something more than a “distant mirror” of our own age? To think of our age, our world, as functionally extensive of the Roman project?

I’ll take up those questions in another post.


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