Do not lose heart, brethren, there will be an end to every earthly kingdom. If this is now the end, God sees. Perhaps it has not yet come to that: for some reason—call it weakness, or mercy, or mere wretchedness—we are all hoping that it has not yet come.St. Augustine
The author of these poignant words hoped in vain. As he wrote the Vandals were pouring across the straits, and their reign would be succeeded by the cruelty and benightedness of Islam, destroying forever the Roman Africa St. Augustine knew.
Yet out of the chaos of the fifth and sixth century invasions the Christian Middle Ages was born, a culture that endured for almost a thousand years as a blessed synthesis of Christ and Romanitas. But even that Christian civilization as a public culture has ended, however it may survive in grateful memory among individuals. The signs are unmistakable: too many laws as government struggles to control with legislation what can only be controlled by the implicit consent of a common culture, an inability to maintain the borders so that another people simply move into the empire, the reprise of the social wars in which class is pitted against class, the tendency to defer to the political opinions of gladiators and actresses, the deterioration of the currency and the tendency of the government to debase it yet further, and most obviously the dramatic revision of moral norms.
Not since the days of Theodosius, when Christianity by law replaced the moral chaos of the late Roman Empire, have public morals, that which customs and social institutions approve, undergone so radical a revolution in so short a time in those three great matters that concern the human race most: sex, politics, and religion. In 1945 divorce was disapproved, homosexuality a shame, a crime, and a pity; the household remained, although “Leave it to Beaver,” Norman Rockwell, and “I Love Lucy” were precisely those kinds of hypertrophies that occur when the realities they represent are over; bastardy was rare, premarital sex a sin. Most people went to church, about twice as many Catholics as do now, and more among Protestants. Sundays were quiet. These changes are symptoms that conceal a death of the will, the failure of the courageous intention to build what makes civilization strong; and when this failure sets in, it will often run its course, as it did when the Roman Empire in the West collapsed from within in the fifth and sixth centuries.
But in one way the present end of all things moral and customary and the invasions of the fifth century are very different. Augustine’s successors knew when the Vandals, the Huns, and the Ostrogoths came upon them, for the invaders disrupted and destroyed. They arrived on shaggy ponies bearing spears, burned the Romans’ cities, debauched their daughters, and sacked their temples. Present day barbarians do not come on shaggy ponies bearing spears, but with PhDs and corrupting ideas. They need not cross the Rhine or the Rio Grande, for, as Pogo put it, they are us. They take us unawares because even after they have invaded, there are no signs of fire and sword. Everything works; indeed with our technological barbarians everything works better, and it is hard for ordinary mortals to see failure in technological triumphs: better travel, better medicine, better communications, more money for everyone. So one looks in vain for the infallible sign of barbarism: an overt appeal to violence rather than to reason.
At first sight there seems to be nothing violent about our soft and comfortable culture, but think again. The signs are there. The appeal to violence is the appeal to sensation or power unformed by reason or righteousness; and the private desire of the sensate self for comfort and satisfaction apart from goodness is the twin of that desire for domination apart from justice that afflicts economics and politics in times of cultural collapse. The new barbarians do not need to burn our cities—we have destroyed civilized urban life on our own. They do not need to debauch our children violently, for television and education will do that work. They do not need to destroy our temples, for we have all too frequently removed the token of divine presence from them and remade them in the image of an amc 6 movie theater. They do not need to reduce our population with the sword, for they have taught us to reject life and to slaughter our children through our native medical practice, when the technology of contraceptive rejection fails.
So a public civilization has ended. But civilization never ends and Christ never ends. Barbarians poured across the Limes in the fifth century, but the Church survived and the culture it sponsored stubbornly refused to die. So, too, the Church will survive and its culture also. Here are six ways you can be a survivor:
First, stay close to Christ. Rely on the tradition broadly and consistently interpreted. Pray that you will be genuinely converted.
Second, return to the household. As the cities fail, go back to your villa. The event called the Dark Ages did not represent the end of civilization, but it was the end of urban life as the late empire had known it. Towns and their institutions faded: the courts, road works, and libraries ceased to serve. What remained was the household. To return to the household is to return to the family. Civilization has always been the work of the family, and when civilizations die, the only hope of any man is the family. As when the barbarians invaded at the end of the old empire, so now.
Third, write a book and remember. In periods when tradition is under attack by the barbarians, memory matters. The West owes its soul to the men of the fifth century who wrote as their world crumbled: Augustine, Boethius and the court circle at Milan, Vincent of Lerins. All that copying in the monasteries was about memory.
Fourth, join the moral aristocracy. The late empire didn’t have the useful word bourgeoisie, so descriptive of the successful town dweller whose interest is not noble ideals or high projects but his own security. That bourgeois tendency, human and universal as it is, while productive of many goods, is destructive of the best. The best is the betting of one’s very life on behalf of Christ, the good, the self-denying and the dangerous. The triumph of barbarism makes the aristocratic life easier because security, being unavailable, is not so much a temptation. The moral aristocracy is always capable of restoring this world by believing in the next, and acting as though principles rooted in the next matter most in this present.
Fifth, multiply and be fruitful. Children are the universal sign of hope and are our testimony to our belief that the future is in God’s hands. They are also the infallible sign of charity in marriage, and the rejection of children where procreation is possible is the rejection of love.
Which brings me to the sixth and final possibility: have hope. Tolkien wrote, “All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labors with vast power and perpetual success—in vain; preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in…”