Psychologists might be best placed to discern why some people seem to derive a pornographic delight in imagining their own generation is the worst of times and is witnessing the End of Civilization. With that self-absorption goes a grandiose fantasy that among the ruins, they will be with the few who emerge to rescue what little can be salvaged. While psychologists jot down notes on such delusions, historians can point out facts about civilizations declining and falling.
Time and again doomsayers assert fatuous claims that a new Fall of Rome descends upon us and a new Dark Ages looms around the corner. Therefore, we must wait for a new Saint Benedict to set up remote enclaves and again save Western civilization. Spiritual survivalists thus become the new heroes, new knights in the new Middle Ages to slay modern dragons.
However, dragons to target seem to be selective. One cultural critic sees the End of Civilization heralded by legal rulings upholding gay marriage, while decades of easy divorce wrecking the institution of marriage seem not to have been the last straw. Another sees the End indicated by Communion in the hand, a diagnosis overlooking the Venerable Bede writing matter-of-factly in the early 730s about an Anglo-Saxon lay brother, Caedmon, in the previous century, receiving Communion, as Bede said in the language of Rome, in manu.
Every age is a time of transition, causing nostalgia for the good old days. Although Christian monks in the medieval centuries kept continuity with the classical past, they read ancient books to learn more about virtue and to discover truths they could use in their search for and service to God. Whatever Saint Benedict meant to accomplish, it was not playing the role of Aeneas, Rome’s legendary forefather, who fled the burning city of Troy with only his father, his son, and the little statues of their household gods.
Saint Benedict set up his monastery and wrote a rule for it not because four years before he was born the last Roman emperor in the West was pensioned off into early retirement, thereby giving compilers of timelines a date of 476 for the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Rather, Saint Benedict established a monastic community because Roman society was thriving.
To illustrate this point, one aspect of the Benedictine Rule can suffice. In Chapter 33 of his Holy Rule, Saint Benedict forbids his monks to give or receive gifts without the abbot’s permission. Over the centuries, that injunction has led monastic superiors to intercept Granny’s Christmas gift of socks or to inspect monks’ outgoing mail for contraband. Long forgotten was Saint Benedict’s concern for keeping his monks from becoming enmeshed in the longstanding Roman custom of gifts always coming with strings attached.
That is to say, in the 500s alive and well was Roman society’s pervasive network of patrons and clients, each tied to the other by obligations symbolized by gifts. As far back as 1982, Richard P. Saller, in Personal Patronage under the Early Empire, discussed in detail this sociological phenomenon, whereby up and down the ranks of Roman society people were bound to one another by pledges of mutual benefit, those pledges taking various forms, from delivering baskets of food to bestowing political plums.
What Saint Benedict sought to cut off was someone outside the monastery, even a family member, being able to manipulate a monk by calling in personal debts based on gifts, and equally, Saint Benedict wanted to avoid monks themselves setting up little fiefdoms within the monastery, monks bound to another monk because of the old societal implications carried by a gift.
Saint Benedict would not have taken such pains to escape Roman culture if it had gone to flinders. He withdrew from a strongly functioning society in order to create a model of a new kind of life, where Christian relationships could stand apart from the prevailing snares of “You do a favor for me, and maybe someday I’ll do a favor for you.”
As Saller put it, “the basic notion that a man’s social status was reflected in the size of his following,” the extent of his clientele, had carried on from “the aristocratic social milieu” of the Roman Republic. A moment’s thought shows why Saint Benedict insisted on disentangling from such a web of vanity and control. In their quest for Christ, he needed to keep his monks free from such worldly “devices and desires,” to quote the Book of Common Prayer, and copying out old books was as necessary as working in the monastery’s garden or mill.
Although history does not repeat itself, certain patterns hold true, such as wage and price controls never working, whether under the Roman emperor Diocletian or at any other time. Such timeless patterns notwithstanding, the Roman world of Saint Benedict is long gone, making parts of his monastic rule, such as its strictures about gifts, open to misunderstanding. Another example would be Saint Benedict’s reluctance to let his monks take baths; in his day, clearly to his disapproval, still functioning in any Roman town were the baths, where public nudity and locker room ribaldry were the norm.
Civilization is going to the dogs, as it always has been, fallen human nature being what it is, and sometimes dogs seem to be better for running it than humans. Still, as Proverbs reminds us, dogs return to their vomit, and some humans return to the cheap titillation of seeing the End Times ticking closer and closer.
Instead of watching a remake of Rome’s fall, it could be we are facing a world foretold by Ray Bradbury in his novel, Fahrenheit 451 (1953), a fragile yet self-esteeming society where books are burnt lest they offend or upset someone. In that world, having children is seen as selfish, and people inform on their neighbors and immerse themselves in interactive reality television shows.
Bradbury envisioned men subversively coming together to keep old books alive, and, regarding the civilization conveyed by books, one character tells another, “That’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing.” While monastic communities work and pray, history teaches that any system that trades liberty for security and that cuts off posterity from ancestry is asking for subversion.