- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

No Barbarians at the Gates of Paris

In the wake of the Paris attacks, historian Niall Ferguson has suggested that Western Civilization is now reprising the story of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D., with Muslims cast in the roles of the invading barbarians. But his recent invocation of “The Fall of Rome [1]” is a rhetorical maneuver and not a serious attempt to engage with the history of the late Roman Empire: rather than a genuine search for insights, Ferguson has summoned a weary specter from a haunted mansion, knowing well even before he did so just what words of warning it would wail.

Ferguson opens by summoning of the spirit of Gibbon, only to reject his main thesis:

True, Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire represented Rome’s demise as a slow burn over a millennium. But a new generation of historians, such as Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather, has raised the possibility that the process of Roman decline was in fact sudden — and bloody — rather than smooth: a ‘violent seizure . . . by barbarian invaders’ that destroyed a complex civilization within the span of a single generation.”

However, as James J. O’Donnell notes [2], Ward-Perkins and Heather focused on the material and military aspects of Roman history, and ignored the spiritual and cultural dimensions of what occurred. Ferguson does not quite suffer from the same blindness, but he does not really face up to what he sees through a glass darkly:

Advertisement

Let us be clear about what is happening. Like the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, Europe has allowed its defenses to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its shopping malls and sports stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.

So, Europe’s “self-belief” has shrunk, and it has become “decadent.” Perhaps there is a reason that this has happened, other than the fact that Europe has not been listening to Niall Ferguson’s call for empire [3]? Perhaps as Europe rejected its Christian heritage, and embraced the moral nihilism of Nietzsche and Foucault, it ceased to have any basis for “self-belief”? And perhaps decadent consumerism is a symptom of a civilization that no longer believes [4] in anything more than “utility maximization”? And, if that is so, what will adopting a more aggressive attitude towards the Muslim world avail it?

Certainly, every decent person wants all governments to prevent murderous attacks on their citizens. But how will increasing Europe’s military prowess or the efficacy of its border patrols solve the more fundamental problem that many of its residents no longer see any point to life other than acquiring nicer electronic gadgets, great vacation homes, and good champagne [5]?

Ferguson continues with the interesting observation that, “As Gibbon saw, convinced monotheists pose a grave threat to a secular empire.” Note the conclusion that follows logically from Ferguson’s hypothesis: Rome was correct to persecute Christians, as they were the “convinced monotheists” of the time! And in any case, describing Rome as a “secular empire” overlooks the fact that the Roman emperors themselves understood the extreme difficulty of maintaining a purely secular empire, and were always desperately seeking a spiritual basis for their rule, at various times trying a return to paganism, Stoic philosophy, the cult of Sol Invictus, and, finally, Christianity.

But Ferguson then lets the cat out of the bag:

I do not know enough about the fifth century to be able to quote Romans who described each new act of barbarism as unprecedented, even when it had happened multiple times before; or who issued pious calls for solidarity after the fall of Rome, even when standing together in fact meant falling together; or who issued empty threats of pitiless revenge, even when all they intended to do was to strike a melodramatic pose.

Ferguson here admits that his whole analogy is flimsy, and he really has no idea how similar these two different situations are. “The Fall of Rome” was invoked not as a concrete historical situation which we might carefully study for hints as to what we might do today, but as an instance of what Michael Oakeshott called “emblematic characters and episodes,” such as “Caesar crossing the Rubicon… Canute on the seashore, King Arthur, William Tell… Davey Crockett… Colonel Custer making his last stand.” “The Fall of Rome” here is part of a “storehouse” of “fables” in which interested parties may “spend an afternoon routing round for themselves in the hope of picking up a bargain,” a storehouse in which “parties of schoolchildren will be shown round by their teachers.”

Ferguson quotes Ward-Perkins putting this fable to the use for which it was processed and placed in the storehouse: “Romans before the fall… were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.” (As Oakeshott wryly notes, “The Huns and Vandals are always with us…”).

But, as O’Donnell notes in the review linked to above, “Ward-Perkins too is so Rome-centric that he misses important questions also missed by Heather. Any account of how Rome declined and fell is obligated, I think, to say what it imagines the alternative to have been.”

The Romans’ civilization was spent: actual Romans had ceased to man the Empire centuries earlier, as the impetus which had motivated them, the pagan ideals of the Roman Republic, had disappeared by the first century B.C. (My book, Oakeshott on Rome and America, documents this breakdown, and it is hardly the first to do so.) From early in the second century, the Emperors were generally not only not Roman but not even Italian, and the legions were increasingly recruited from outside Italy as well. By the fifth century, Rome was employing barbarian generals and mercenaries not because of Roman “complacency,” but because there was no one else to take the job. As Voegelin writes, the civilizational force of Rome had collapsed with the Republic, but “historical factors had tipped the scale for the survival of Rome just long enough to carry the state over into the imperial expansion and then keep it going by the organized plunder of the orbis terrarum…”

So essentially, what Ward-Perkins and Ferguson are asking is, “Is there any reason that this organized plunder of most of the known world couldn’t have continued a while longer? If the Romans had just been more self-confident and less complacent about robbing everyone else, they might have go on for a few more centuries!”

Ferguson evokes this cautionary fable because he is worried that Europe will succumb to Muslim terrorists. But these terrorists (in a horrific act) managed to kill somewhat over 100 French citizens on a single day of this year. Meanwhile, French abortionists kill over 500 would-be French citizens every day of the year, year after year, and far from protecting these victims, the French government subsidizes their deaths [6]. When a civilization is wiping itself out that fast, it is a little fatuous to put the blame on opportunistic parasites who are invading its dying body.

Gene Callahan teaches economics and computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America [7].

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "No Barbarians at the Gates of Paris"

#1 Comment By libertarian jerry On November 25, 2015 @ 12:43 am

Today’s European civilization is rife with socialist welfare states. Welfare states are Ponzi schemes that require people in the Economic Class to produce real goods and services to be taxed for redistribution. By and large as European birth rates fell there were less and less people producing real goods and services. Thus,over the last few decades,”guest workers,”many of them from 3rd world Muslim countries,were allowed into Europe to work,produce and thus pay the taxes for the continuation of the socialist,welfare state Ponzi schemes. These “guest workers” often became segregated into ethnic ghettos with a separate culture,religious and worldview. As the populations of the “guest workers”increased, in relation to the native European populations,the stage was set for a tremendous amount of friction between the ever growing population of alien workers and native citizens. Many of these “guest workers” never fully integrated into the general European Culture thus setting the stage for a cultural war within Europe itself. Mr. Callahan demonstrates this dilemma in his essay. The bottom line is that the socialist chickens have come home to roost. With that said the end result is that the European Western Culture is in a war for it’s basic existence.

#2 Comment By JonF On November 25, 2015 @ 5:53 am

Re: the process of Roman decline was in fact sudden — and bloody — rather than smooth: a ‘violent seizure . . . by barbarian invaders’ that destroyed a complex civilization within the span of a single generation.”

More like a century. The Roman defeat by the Goths at Adrianople happened in 378; the last Western Emepror was deposed in 476.

Re: At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.

Except that most of the “barbarians”, Huns and Anglo-Saxons excepted, had converted to Christianity, albeit Arian Christianity, when the first set foot on Roman soil.

#3 Comment By TB On November 25, 2015 @ 8:29 am

“…Europe is largely responsible for its own decline.”
___________________

The Mongols had their way with China and, over time, were subsumed into the Chinese culture; and so it will be with the West. I expect what worrywarts see as a Europe in decline is a simply a more mature and coherent culture digesting its latest meal. Indigestion is to be expected. It is Islam that will fade.

#4 Comment By c matt On November 25, 2015 @ 8:44 am

Perhaps as Europe rejected its Christian heritage, and embraced the moral nihilism of Nietzsche and Foucault, it ceased to have any basis for “self-belief”?

This gets my vote.

#5 Comment By Patrick Gatti On November 25, 2015 @ 10:34 am

Someone might point out that Europe with military prowess did not handle it horribly well.

#6 Comment By Randal On November 25, 2015 @ 12:13 pm

But how will increasing Europe’s military prowess or the efficacy of its border patrols solve the more fundamental problem that many of its residents no longer see any point to life other than acquiring nicer electronic gadgets, great vacation homes, and good champagne?

Well for a start, closing the borders to ongoing mass immigration might buy us time to regenerate our own cultures, without being overwhelmed by the kind of racial, cultural and religious strife that is likely to follow mass immigration into decadent nations.

But I do understand that that would require facing up to politically incorrect truths that are difficult for Americans and Europeans to own up to these days.

#7 Comment By hooly On November 25, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

For Heaven’s sake, enough with this nonsense about the Decline and Fall of Rome! … it’s a myth that should be put to rest. If Rome did Fall, it was on May 29, 1453 to the Ottoman Turks, and the reason it fell was the fatal blow administered by Western Crusaders in the Fourth Crusade.

Why this constant comparison of modern Western Civilization to Rome? Because it’s self flattery really, Rome was a great and long lived Empire, just like the West is great. But instead of Rome, and its end, why not compare yourselves to Carthage (146BCE after the 3rd Punic War) or to Macedonia (148BCE after the 4th Macedonian War) ??

#8 Comment By Njguy On November 25, 2015 @ 6:53 pm

The author obviously doesn’t agree with Niall, but readily admits Romans eventually were wiped out by in their own country but not having kids and immigration? Isn’t the same exact thing happening right now with different players in Europe?

Of course many people are going to compare the contemporary “West” to ancient Rome since its probably the most well known civilization from antiquity on the continent. I don’t see how these angers anyone.

#9 Comment By ged2phd On November 26, 2015 @ 12:44 pm

Actually, the Roman Empire still exists for all intents and purposes; we call it the West. But it’s problematic to say “many of its residents no longer see any point to life other than acquiring nicer electronic gadgets, great vacation homes, and good champagne.” Consumerism and materialism are out of control, granted, but you’ll notice that these impulses are vigorously promoted by government policies that are sold as economic orthodoxy. Just because most people of the West aren’t motivated by desires to conquer and convert the rest of the world to a faith that’s outlived its plausibility in the light of modern science and communication doesn’t mean they see no reason to live other than to acquire new stuff. That’s a lack of imagination and insight, mostly on the part of those who are still clinging to the kind of faith that’s at the root of many of our problems.

#10 Comment By Light On November 26, 2015 @ 12:51 pm

Nietzsche wasn’t a nihilist; he considered Europe’s embrace of nihilism to be the greatest problem of his time. He certainly rejected Christianity, as it had already provably failed to prevent nihilism from occurring, but he wanted someone to generate new values to replace it and bring humanity to higher and higher heights.

#11 Comment By JLF On November 27, 2015 @ 9:10 am

Everyone is looking for some esoteric reason why Rome “fell” to further his own critique of contemporary Western civilization, all the while ignoring the elephant in the room. Rome civilization “fell” in the same way Western civilization will “fall”: it will no longer consider it imperative to defend itself. And why would the West, especially the United States, consider NOT defending itself from foreign/alien threat? Because they no longer believe what their leaders are telling them about anything, let alone any “threats” that they don’t see in their own personal lives.

And why should they? Truman insisted we had to stop “communism” from spreading in Korea. Likewise Johnson in Vietnam. George Bush the Elder would have us believe Kuwait was no less a part of the American imperium than Coney Island. And his son, George Bush the Lesser, kicked the props out from under the only regime brutal enough in the Middle East to keep all the various enrages bottled up in their own corners of the region.

Each had his own reason for doing as he did, but all advanced the agenda of the American economic elite, whose expansion and protection from claims foreign and domestic only grew since World War II. And all lied as they called the citizenry to arms to defend the elite agenda. And all pointed elsewhere – communism, atheism, Islam, immigrants – to find the reasons for the threats to the elite agenda. But at some point people get tired of being lied to, of being played for suckers, of tugging their forelocks and begging by your leave, massa. That’s where we are now. And looking at Rome in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries won’t give us much insight, I’m afraid.

#12 Comment By Juan Jose Borrell On November 27, 2015 @ 8:46 pm

Brilliant article by Gene Callahan!! This is the clue to understand the suicide of civilization: “these terrorists (in a horrific act) managed to kill somewhat over 100 French citizens on a single day of this year. Meanwhile, French abortionists kill over 500 would-be French citizens every day of the year, year after year, and far from protecting these victims, the French government subsidizes their deaths.”

Just go back to Burke, Balmes, Tocqueville and Pope Pius X to understand the self-inflicted decline of the West.

#13 Comment By Simon On November 28, 2015 @ 6:00 pm

Ferguson’s article was exceptionally weak; he could have written it without going past the front cover of Ward-Perkins’ book (‘The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization’). The Amcon author makes good points but I would say is too dismissive of Ward-Perkins, who does a brilliant job charting the economics of decline, and demonstrates that the true collapse of Roman civilisation in the Mediterranean came, not with the Vandals and Visigoths, but with the Islamic invasions centuries later.

#14 Comment By Caise Hassan On November 30, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

There was no ISIS before Iraq was destroyed in 2003. And there was no Al Qaeda before Iraq was destroyed in 1991. Europe and the US have a legacy of attacking the Muslim world the past century and that has brought the barbarians to the gates. Defend your borders, do not invade those of other peoples and you will live peacefully.

Nobody was attacking the USA in 1945. In fact, most of the Muslim world viewed it favorably after WWII because the Americans in the region were educators and seasoned diplomats.

But after we supported the overthrow of democratic governments in Lebanon and Iran and began supporting the Israeli theft of Palestinian lands, we the USA became complicit in the destruction of the lives of Muslims.

Now some Muslims, a small amount, are becoming complicit in our destruction. And until we understand our history there, we will forever play the victim who does not understand.

#15 Comment By RP_McMurphy On December 1, 2015 @ 12:11 am

@TB:

“I expect what worrywarts see as a Europe in decline is a simply a more mature and coherent culture digesting its latest meal. Indigestion is to be expected. It is Islam that will fade.”

I think you’re on the money. Woe unto any theology/philosophy that attempts to displace epicureanism/hedonism. Alcohol and sex sell themselves, and I suspect Islam will only succeed in resisting for so long — the absence of a defined hierarchy will probably aid the assimilation. I see it myself in Somalis in Minneapolis. Though a handful have joined ISIS, a significantly larger number have become bar patrons.

#16 Comment By Steve Weatherbe On December 1, 2015 @ 4:46 am

See Rodney Stark ‘ s series on The triumph of the West after Rome fell. Something a lot better rose from its ashes,not least a civilization not based on slavery, and an economy not based on pillage. Nor is the West’s today. Most of its GDP is self generated , but the West’s imperialism still left colonies better off in many cases.