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‘Sexual Careers’ In Late Roman America

This world, I swear. Hanna Rosin’s piece in The Atlantic starts like this: [1]

The porn pic being passed around on the students’ cellphones at an Ivy League business-­school party last fall was more prank than smut: a woman in a wool pom-pom hat giving a snowman with a snow penis a blow job. Snowblowing, it’s called, or snowman fellatio, terms everyone at this midweek happy hour seemed to know (except me). The men at the party flashed the snapshot at the women, and the women barely bothered to roll their eyes. These were not women’s-studies types, for sure; they were already several years out of college and proud veterans of the much maligned hookup culture that, over the past 15 years or so, has largely replaced dating on college campuses and beyond.

One of the women had already seen the photo five times before her boyfriend showed it to her, so she just moved her pitcher of beer in front of his phone and kept on talking. He’d already suggested twice that night that they go to a strip club, and when their mutual friend asked if the two of them were getting married, he gave the friend the finger and made sure his girlfriend could see it, so she wouldn’t get any ideas about a forthcoming ring. She remained unfazed. She was used to his “juvenile thing,” she told me.

I had gone to visit the business school because a friend had described the women there as the most sexually aggressive he had ever met. Many of them had been molded on trading floors or in investment banks with male-female ratios as terrifying as 50-to-1, so they had learned to keep pace with the boys. Women told me stories of being hit on at work by “FDBs” (finance douche bags) who hadn’t even bothered to take off their wedding rings, or sitting through Monday-morning meetings that started with stories about who had banged whom (or what) that weekend. In their decade or so of working, they had been routinely hazed by male colleagues showing them ever more baroque porn downloaded on cellphones. Snowblowing was nothing to them.

In fact, I found barely anyone who even noticed the vulgarity anymore, until I came across a new student. She had arrived two weeks earlier, from Argentina. She and I stood by the bar at one point and watched a woman put her hand on a guy’s inner thigh, shortly before they disappeared together. In another corner of the room, a beautiful Asian woman in her second year at school was entertaining the six guys around her with her best imitation of an Asian prostitute—­“Oooo, you so big. Me love you long time”—winning the Tucker Max showdown before any of the guys had even tried to make a move on her. (She eventually chose the shortest guy in the group to go home with, because, she later told me, he seemed like he’d be the best in bed.)

“Here in America, the girls, they give up their mouth, their ass, their tits,” the Argentinean said to me, punctuating each with the appropriate hand motion, “before they even know the guy. It’s like, ‘Hello.’ ‘Hello.’ ‘You wanna hook up?’ ‘Sure.’ They are so aggressive! Do they have hearts of steel or something? In my country, a girl like this would be desperate. Or a prostitute.”

So there we have it. America has unseated the Scandinavian countries for the title of Easiest Lay. We are, in the world’s estimation, a nation of prostitutes. And not even prostitutes with hearts of gold.

Is that so bad? Or is there, maybe, a different way to analyze the scene that had just unfolded?

Well, yes, I suppose there is. And one could describe the aftermath of Hiroshima as a wonderful opportunity for urban renewal.

Rosin then undertakes what reads like a boosterish, Chamber-of-Commerce-meets-Erica-Jong defense of hook-up culture as empowering of women. Why? Because they have learned how to become just like men. Rosin:

At Yale I heard stories like the ones I had read in many journalistic accounts of the hookup culture. One sorority girl, a junior with a beautiful tan, long dark hair, and a great figure, whom I’ll call Tali, told me that freshman year she, like many of her peers, was high on her first taste of the hookup culture and didn’t want a boyfriend. “It was empowering, to have that kind of control,” she recalls. “Guys were texting and calling me all the time, and I was turning them down. I really enjoyed it! I had these options to hook up if I wanted them, and no one would judge me for it.” But then, sometime during sophomore year, her feelings changed. She got tired of relation­ships that just faded away, “no end, no beginning.” Like many of the other college women I talked with, Tali and her friends seemed much more sexually experienced and knowing than my friends at college. They were as blasé about blow jobs and anal sex as the one girl I remember from my junior year whom we all considered destined for a tragic early marriage or an asylum. But they were also more innocent. When I asked Tali what she really wanted, she didn’t say anything about commitment or marriage or a return to a more chival­rous age. “Some guy to ask me out on a date to the frozen-­yogurt place,” she said. That’s it. A $3 date.

But the soda-fountain nostalgia of this answer quickly dissipated when I asked Tali and her peers a related question: Did they want the hookup culture to go away—might they prefer the mores of an earlier age, with formal dating and slightly more obvious rules? This question, each time, prompted a look of horror. Reform the culture, maybe, teach women to “advocate for themselves”—a phrase I heard many times—but end it? Never. Even one of the women who had initiated the Title IX complaint, Alexandra Brodsky, felt this way. “I would never come down on the hookup culture,” she said. “Plenty of women enjoy having casual sex.”

Rosin says that research shows that far from seeing themselves as victims, young women today are managing their “sexual careers” without shame or apology, seeking sexual adventure with an eye toward eventually settling down into marriage.

Read the whole thing.  [1] I wrote the other day about how a gay culture of promiscuity is a “culture of death.” This is a heterosexual version of the same. It is a culture of spiritual death. I see one of my primary jobs as a father as raising my sons and my daughter to hate this culture, and to resist it, mostly by learning to love what is good, true, and beautiful. Nothing — nothing — about the hook-up culture is good, true, or beautiful.

A friend said to me the other day, “I sometimes think that homeschoolers are the Benedictine monks of our time.” He was referring to this much-discussed statement by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

I am tempted to believe — more than tempted; in fact, I do believe — that there is very little to be saved in our decadent culture, only things to be suffered, and endured, and preserved through this present darkness for a more sane age to come. How do we do that? That is the most serious question facing us. It’s not going to happen through politics.

UPDATE: Is this only a tiny subculture, from which Rosin inappropriately generalizes? I wouldn’t count on it. Remember PBS Frontline’s “The Lost Children of Rockdale County” [2] from 14 years ago? If you haven’t seen it, you really, really should. You can view it on that link. The dead eyes of these teenagers is the most affecting thing, and the hatred they all developed for three girls who refused to participate in their culture.

From an interview [3] on the site with a prominent medical school professor, in which he cites the pornification of society, and the loss of parental backbone, as contributing heavily to the problem the documentary highlights:

What is so disturbing about the program is not that we are witnessing a rare event in the United States, but rather an event that is quite common. First of all, the use of sex to attract friendships and maintain social connections (or to disrupt others’ social connections) is age old and the fact that this is a white upper income community does not make it particularly surprising despite the editorial comments of the commentator. Rather, there may be a perception (there appears to be this bias in the program) that these events are rare in suburban America. The events are not rare; it may be that as adults we tend to be less willing to acknowledge them in this kind of community than in lower income communities.

Another issue that was touched on in the program was access to pornography, with young people as young as 12 and 13 imitating what they saw on the Playboy Channel. In truth, we know that juveniles have easy access to pornography through the Internet, cable television and the corner magazine rack. The solution is not more laws or greater restrictions, for rarely have such interventions worked. Rather, we need to have adults continuously, visibly and actively present in the lives of young people. We need to have parents who are authoritative in their parenting, not authoritarian or laissez-faire as we saw in the program. Authoritative parents set clear boundaries, discuss and negotiate the rules but then follow through with pre-established consequences. Authoritative parents are both firm and fair. Rarely did we see such parents in the program. Rather, we saw parents who were unable to connect with their children and even when they did, they thought that caring was all that was needed. It isn’t. Rather, adolescents need guidance as well as encouragement and they need to know that their parents, their relatives and the adult network in the neighborhood are all watching them, are all concerned, and see their upbringing as a priority. While the program is entitled “The Lost Children of Rockdale County” the reality is that these are the lost parents of Rockdale County and even after the syphilis epidemic and even after the town hall meeting, it is clear that the adults in the community are as clueless as they ever were.

In community after community across America we look at adolescent problem behaviors and we define them to be the result of problem adolescents. While we are happy and comfortable to scapegoat young people, we often don’t look to the environment that we as adults have created that allow a situation to develop.

72 Comments (Open | Close)

72 Comments To "‘Sexual Careers’ In Late Roman America"

#1 Comment By L. Legault On August 24, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

“Ser Legault: Your excellent post is marred by your point #4. Unless you can read her mind, you have no basis to speculate on something Rosin didn’t actually write about in her article. Your phrasing thinly attacks her for not writing an article about six times as long, densely packed with every angle of every point. That’s a disingenuous thing at best.”

Thinly attacks her? Do you mean a “thinly veiled” attack? Or that the justification for my point was thin? In either case, I think you are mistaken, and even more so when you suggest that taking my points into account would have required an article 6 times as long. Much of what Ms Rosin wrote in this article, drawn from her book, consisted of neither argumentation nor evidence, and could have been cut without hurting her essential point. The point is considerably weakened by NOT at least alluding to these issues. There are issues involving male and female experience which can be addressed without reference to the other sex, but I do not think that sexual behaviour is one of those issues, even if the reference is only in passing. Meanwhile, it is possible that the book from which this chapter comes will make amends for the obtuseness she displays here.

p.s. What does the “Ser” in “Ser Legault” stand for? I’m not American, and this looks Spanish, so I don’t get it.

#2 Comment By Franklin Evans On August 24, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

L. Legault: I use “ser” to show that I do not know your gender. It takes the place of “Mr.” or “Ms.” For me, it also shows respect for anyone, in this case you, who has not volunteered that detail about gender, and is more polite than a bald and possibly prying “So, are you a man or a woman?” You may, as you wish, answer that here or not. I am content to phrase my posts to avoid assuming your gender. I put a high value on privacy, and assume that others do until corrected.

Yes, typing in haste or distracted caused the absence of “veiled”. I regret my sloppy phrasing. As for my critique, I’ll allow it to stand — and remind you that my post was at least intended to be civil, even if you decided not to take it that way — and offer a reiteration: You commented on something that was missing from her article. While I offer a default respect for anyone here, I do not offer respect for constructed comments where the author has not actually given you (or anyone) logical hooks on which to base them. That is my criticism of your point #4 in a nutshell. You may take it or leave as you wish, and I will happily continue the discussion from there.

#3 Comment By Franklin Evans On August 24, 2012 @ 3:35 pm


I gently point out your semantic mistakes.

I wrote: I start with the following core premise

An assertion is a conclusionary statement, not a submission to start discussion. A principle is a settled concept, whereas a premise implies a proposal.

The rest of your post is well taken at face value, even if mistakenly motivated.

I would point out, though, that not all feminists are aggessive and hostile, just as not all “housewives” are submissive and passive. To ascribe such a pejorative extreme sounds a lot like a slamming door — not that it is invalid when someone has started the discussion similarly — and likewise limits if not suppresses further discussion.

It is neither aggressive nor pejorative to point out that women have been de facto second-class denizens of every major culture including, until recently in historical terms, the US. They were arbitrarily put so on the sole basis of gender. We can argue the motivations for that, and perhaps find agreement on aspects that are not arbitrary, but as a general case it is quite accurate.

I find some of the more intense reactions of feminist women understandable, even while stopping short of condoning them. You and I do not need to partake of them here. 🙂

#4 Comment By Franklin Evans On August 24, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

Speaking of sloppy:

L. Legault, I left out a critical monosyllable in my response to you, and I hope you did not take its absence literally and as intentional on my part. “You may take it or leave it as you wish…” It is neither my place to ask nor my wish that you leave.

#5 Comment By Pimpernel On August 24, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

I know a fair number of ladies and gentlemen. In fact I make a point of it. They don’t behave this way and regard people who do as trash. The trash feel their contempt and don’t much like it.

The analogy with late Rome is apt. To the extent that the trash has become “us”, it fatally subverts the arguments of those braying about the superiority of “the West”, or “Western culture”, and there are substantial areas of life in which the superior Western man has more in common with a lower class Islamist than he has with the corrupt, appetitial mob that increasingly dominates his own society.

#6 Comment By Chris Jones On August 24, 2012 @ 4:36 pm


I am puzzled by your comment to me.

A “premise” does not imply a “proposal”; it is one term of a logical implication. A “core premise” would seem to be the premise at the root of a whole system of logical implications, without which the whole system is logically untenable. As such it seems to me that “core premise” and “principle” are indistinguishable.

Are you really saying that the full personhood of women is only a tentative proposal, and not the logical foundation at the root of your beliefs in this area? If so you are not the sort of feminist that I took you for.

As far as I know the word “premise” always denotes one of the antecedent terms of a syllogism, and never carries the sense of a proposal or a suggestion.

The rest of your post is well taken at face value …

I am not sure what you mean by the qualifier at face value, though it has a hint of ‘damning with faint praise’.

… even if mistakenly motivated.

How do you know what my motivation is, and how can you be sure that it is mistaken?

I am genuinely puzzled by your comment; I don’t know what you are driving at.

#7 Comment By L. Legault On August 24, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

No offense taken, Mr Evans. I happen to be female. I use my initial instead of my full name because I want to be less identifiable, and not because I don’t want to be identified by my sex. Incidentally, I didn’t find your original response to me uncivil, but only mistaken, in the sense that you appeared not to have given enough thought to the issue. I didn’t intend to suggest that Ms Rosin ought to have written an entirely different paper, but rather that she could make references to the matters she feels obliged to leave out, to show that she is at least aware of them. If that was unclear, I apologise for my ambiguity. Anyway, that is how I was taught to write essays/articles.

#8 Comment By Franklin Evans On August 24, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

Chris and L.: I am about to leave for a long commute home, so can only offer a brief reassurance: I accept at least half the credit/blame for mishaps in text-only exchanges.

Chris, I’ll try to do a better job of expressing myself to you later, and I regret your confusion. I meant no aspersions on your points, faint or direct. Please forgive an old man’s pomposity. 🙂

L., I’m glad I didn’t cause offense, and I personally expect no apology for ambiguity. I practice it myself often enough — see what I did with Chris — and all we need is time to make amends.

What I really want is a nice pub, i.e. [4], for people like us to come and go as we please, have beverages we enjoy, and have truly meaningful exchanges complete with immediate give-and-take, with the clarity only possible face-to-face. Text-only is woefully inadequate.

#9 Comment By Helen On August 24, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

Rod — I love this blog and think you are a great writer. At the same time, some posts recently have not had a lot of evidence to back them up. How many people are participating in the “hook-up culture”? You are convinced it’s a large number, but I’d like to see some proof. The update you post is an argument about how to protect kids from hook-up culture. it does not present evidence that hook-up culture cannot be escaped.

Rosin’s article is largely anecdotal, but this is the meat of the numbers from the article:

“This confirms what other surveys have found: people at either end of the scale are skewing the numbers. Researchers guess that about a quarter of college kids skip out on the hookup culture altogether, while a similar number participate with gusto—about 10 hookups or more (the lax­titutes?). For the majority in the middle, the hookup culture is a place to visit freshman year, or whenever you feel like it, or after you’ve been through a breakup, says England. Most important, hookups haven’t wrecked the capacity for intimacy. In England’s survey, 74 percent of women and about an equal number of men say they’ve had a relationship in college that lasted at least six months.”

That tells me hook-up culture is something to be concerned about, but not the be-all end-all, and not something to panic about.

Here’s my anecdotal evidence: my husband has six nieces and nephews, all late teens to mid twenties. The girls, in particular, claim to be totally not involved in this crazy sexual behavior, and more importantly, they claim they don’t know very many people who are. All of them have Plans, and are Going Places, and promiscuity seems to them (at least, so they say) a distraction from more important things. I have no way of knowing if this is all talk, but it does not seem like it is.

As my children grow older my husband and I intend to teach them that sex is for monogamous relationships. But I’m not going to suggest that there are dire consequences for promiscuity because, in my experience, there aren’t. When I was in law school I was astounded by the sexual pasts and presents of my friends. I was young, and while I had had boyfriends I was pretty inexperienced. Having grown up Catholic, I thought for sure there would be serious negative repurcussions to my friends’ promiscuity. But you know what? They all got married before I did, and all are still married to the same first spouse, and raising wonderful kids. There were no negative consequences that I can tell. Realizing that made a lot of what I was taught seem like a lie. (And for what it’s worth, the only couple of my husband’s and my friends who are divorced are the ones who married right out of college, many years before anyone else.)

#10 Comment By Carlo On August 24, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

“I thought for sure there would be serious negative repurcussions to my friends’ promiscuity.”

Forgive me, but your imagination about repercussions sounds awfully limited. There is more to life that staying married to the same man ad having wonderful children.

#11 Comment By Church Lady On August 24, 2012 @ 10:39 pm

You ought to see the “House of Lies” show on cable about these types of high-powered financial/consultant world types. It’s funny and exagerated, but probably not by much.

One has to recognize that the higher echelons of society have always been corrupt and hedonistic, and yet also disciplined. A strange mixture of qualities is required by the ruling classes. What’s strange is that Rod would focus so much on their sexual mores, as if that were the real problem here. It’s way down the list of these people’s crimes against nature.

But as I said in an earlier thread, the real key here is that the financial laissez faire attitude of free markets run amuck is what produces this kind of liberal, or libertine, culture. If you want to tame this culture, don’t focus on the sexual stuff. Focus on the money, and how that is being used and abused. And if you want to impose values on these people, start by imposing values on their financial business and all its various iterations. If you actually do that, and force these people to toe the line with their financial ethics, the sexual stuff will fall back in line as well. But if you don’t, all is for naught.

This of course means making a break with free-market “conservatism”. Which virtually no cultural conservatives seem in the least bit willing to do. So realize you are doomed, and this kind of sexual licentiousness will continue to spread from the upper class to the rest of the culture, through the free market.

#12 Comment By Church Lady On August 24, 2012 @ 10:59 pm

As to this:

“It is a culture of spiritual death. I see one of my primary jobs as a father as raising my sons and my daughter to hate this culture, and to resist it, mostly by learning to love what is good, true, and beautiful. Nothing — nothing — about the hook-up culture is good, true, or beautiful.”

I think we have to realize how essential it is for Rod and other traditionalists to believe this, in order to preserve the benefits of their own beliefs about sex and morality. It’s akin to what he wrote in an earlier post about religious beliefs – that to get the full benefits of believiing, you actually have to believe that these religious ideas are literally true.

In this case, he and others literally have to believe that this kind of promiscuity is not just wrong or harmful, but a “culture of spiritual death”. It doesn’t have to actually be true, but he has to believe it is, or he won’t get the benefits of his particular religious beliefs about the optimal sexual practices. So there’s not much sense in trying to get him to see things differently. It would actually be harmful to him.

And the same could be said for those in this kind of promiscuous hook-up culture. Those who really do believe that it’s good for them and enjoyable, really do need to believe that, and affirm that, or they will suffer. As long as they keep believing it, they will likely benefit and not suffer the vengeance of God for their sins, because they don’t see their behavior as sinful.

There are of course bad things that actually could happen as a result of this kind of life, regardless of their beliefs about it, but that’s also the case with religious traditionalists. The key to understanding these things is that the placebo affect of moral beliefs is very, very powerful for everyone. What’s harmful to both is serious doubts about one’s choices. Which means that either one must push such doubts aside, or not engage in the things that one has serious doubts about.

#13 Comment By Sean Scallo-n On August 24, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

“Rather, we need to have adults continuously, visibly and actively present in the lives of young people.

Well that’s nice but since both parents have to work in order to live in Rockdale County, I doubt that’s going to happen.

#14 Comment By AnotherBeliever On August 25, 2012 @ 12:37 am

There are a thousand roads to spiritual death. Sex is a blinding obvious enough one. And has enough spiritually redeeming features that it can play a role in your salvation (read some C.S. Lewis for more on this.) It’s some of the other paths to spiritual death you need to really worry about. The ones you can barely see or feel. Culture won’t save you from yourself, regardless of which culture you find yourself in. Much as you posted a week or so back, that a location can’t save you. Where ever you go, there you are.

While I admit that it is unhealthy, I don’t think the hook up culture is quite as pervasive as you do. Nor, for most women who do participate in it for a time, is it permanent. I do sympathize with the women who work in an environment with a 50 to 1 ratio of men to women. Yes, there can be a lot of crass talk in that kind of environment, and some harassment. It’s like that in the military as well. A tough environment for women. But women are capable of being tough right back at such an environment. If you keep a sense of humor, but still stand your ground when the guys cross the line – they’ll back down and respect you for it.

#15 Comment By Roger McCarthy On August 25, 2012 @ 8:43 am

But Rod, the later Roman Empire that fell to the barbarians was ruled by puritanical Orthodox Christians while the Republic and early Empire which conquered half the world was the one where Nero screwed and then murdered his mother and Tiberius’s shrivelled privates were nibbled at by prepubescent nymphettes in his Hefnerian i grotto on Capri.

I’ve pointed this out (OK without the repulsive Suetonian details) on several occasions to my elderly Scottish mother whose entire knowledge of ancient history is based on vague recollections of Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, I Claudius and The Robe – I shouldn’t really have to point this out to you.

I also still haven’t got round to reading the MacIntyre book you quote but I doubt he simplistically associated the fall of the empire with its moral decay as conservatives like you and my mother are so keen to do – rather it was something that happened because of much more deep-seated demographic, economic, climactic and military changes that shifted the balance of power between Rome and the barbarians.

But he is wrong in that Benedict did not actually make his choice before the fall but after it – when he was born Rome had already been sacked twice and the western empire was divided between barbarian warlords and over the course of his life it was to be sacked again and Italy utterly devastated – so for him the Imperium was already gone beyond practical hope of shoring up and Monte Cassino was probably as much a refugee camp for the dispossessed gentry as a religious community.

#16 Comment By John T On August 25, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

“the later Roman Empire that fell to the barbarians was ruled by puritanical Orthodox Christians”

Rome was sacked in 410 by Alaric King of the Visigoths. This was considered the start of the decline of the Roman empire.

For the record the term Barbarian is a broad term, it originally meant anyone who wasn’t Greek. Alaric was a Christian although not one who believed in the Trinity. He was what is referred to as an Arian Christian…..I’m just sayin…

#17 Comment By Rod Dreher On August 25, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

I also still haven’t got round to reading the MacIntyre book you quote but I doubt he simplistically associated the fall of the empire with its moral decay as conservatives like you and my mother are so keen to do – rather it was something that happened because of much more deep-seated demographic, economic, climactic and military changes that shifted the balance of power between Rome and the barbarians.

No, he doesn’t, and neither do I. MacIntyre says Benedict of Nursia made his decision “without fully realizing what he was doing,” and that his decision consisted of ceasing to put his hope and his faith in shoring up a civilization that had become hopelessly (in his view) decadent and dissolute. Roman morals did have something to do with Rome’s collapse, though no one could plausibly blame the Western empire’s fall entirely on morals. Zimmerman is quite clear and detailed on this, with reference to the falling birth rate and breaking apart, over time, of social cohesion.

#18 Comment By Roger McCarthy On August 25, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

But the point remains that the Roman empire fell not at its high point of decadence but after it underwent a radical moral regeneration.

Look at the dates:

312 Constantine converts
325 Council of Nicaea
378 Danube frontier collapses
381 Theodosius I bans public pagan worship
406 Rhine frontier collapses
410 Rome is sacked by the Goths
455 Rome is sacked by the Vandals
476 Last emperor of West deposed
529 St Benedict composes his rule.

Indeed St Augustine’s City of God was composed precisely to answer the pagan accusation that it was Christianity that was destroying the empire.

And the falling birth rates (which are historically very dubious given that there is not a single document giving any sort of population figure) were at the time blamed by pagans – the real conservatives at this time – precisely on the Christians with their insane and anti-natalist cult of chastity.

As for the breaking apart over time of social cohesion this again was blamed by conservative pagans (and by Gibbon 1300 years later) on Christianity and its dissolution of traditional moral and religious bonds and in any case without detailed social data it is extraordinarily hard to separate cause and effect (did the empire collapse politically and militarily because the society it ruled over lost cohesion or was the cohesion lost because the political and military collapse removed the superstructure without which ancient cities could not extract an agricultural surplus from the countryside and withered and died?).

And this was not mere propaganda – modern studies have added greatly to the depth of our understanding of classical civilisation and the way in which pagan cults and ritual were interweaved through every aspect of society.

I presume by ‘Zimmerman’ you mean Odo John the translator of St Gregory’s Dialogues – if so whatever commentary he supplies is no substitute for the modern scholarship of Robin Lane Fox, Peter Brown, Keith Hopkins and numerous others who have revolutionised our understanding of late antiquity over the last three or four decades.

Fox’s Pagans and Christians or the collection Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World by Bowersock, Brown and Grabar would be good general introductions if you are really interested in the social and intellectual forces which produced St Benedict.

#19 Comment By JonF On August 26, 2012 @ 9:12 am

Re: Roman morals did have something to do with Rome’s collapse

How, when Rome had been Christian for generations? One might make a case that the immorality of life in the late Republic was both a symptom and a cause of the coming despotism, but even before Christianity became a major movement, Roman public morality moved away from libertinism and toward prudishness– albeit with the usual sorts of decadence among the elite that you can find in the upper classes in any age. Yet when Tacitus and Suetonius wrote of orgies in the palace they did so knowing their readers would be shocked and disapproving (if a little titillated), not on board with the goings-on.
And was there ever true social cohesion in the Roman Empire? It was grandiosely multi-cultural, a kludge of diverse peoples thrown together by conquest, who eventually and grudgingly came to accept it as long as the grain wagons kept rolling, the aqueducts gushed clean water, and something like justice was done in the courts while the barbarians across the border were kept at bay. As time went by a sort of common Romanness did come into existence (which the Church eventually tapped into to forge Christendom), though the deep split between the Greek East and Roman West was always a glaring chasm.

#20 Comment By mlindroos On August 26, 2012 @ 9:23 am

Once again, it needs to be pointed out that the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire was a far more complicated phenomenon than Rod thinks. There is still no real consensus today although most modern historians REJECT the simplistic “moral/spiritual decay” theories of Edward Gibbon. If anything, the Romans of late antiquity were probably more “morally uptight” compared to their pagan ancestors! E.g. gladiatorial combat, crucifixion were outlawed and slaves were treated better (in part because the supply of cheap slave labor dried up once the Empire stopped expanding in the 2nd century AD).


#21 Comment By Chris S. On September 6, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

It’s bad. It’s bad because it’s immoral. It’s immoral because it’s spiritual death. I guess that settles it….

#22 Comment By Paul On September 6, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

[This] is a culture of spiritual death. I see one of my primary jobs as a father as raising my sons and my daughter to hate this culture, and to resist it, mostly by learning to love what is good, true, and beautiful. Nothing — nothing — about the hook-up culture is good, true, or beautiful.

There is, of course, no such thing as a “hookup culture” in the real world. Young people do not choose between an endless parade of dehumanizing, purely carnal transactions and dedicated, life-affirming monogamy. Not in the least. Today’s hook up is tomorrow’s fuck buddy, next week’s boyfriend and, just maybe, next year’s husband or partner. These categories are fluid and regularly, easily navigated by people who are emotionally mature, sexually healthy, and casually kind.

Are some “promiscuous” lifestyles unsatisfying and spiritually damaging? Of course. So are a lot of marriages. I’m not sure I see the difference between a mother with two baby-daddies and a mother who’s a two-time divorcee — yet I suspect that one viscerally upsets you more than the other.

The starkly Manichean terms in which you imagine our culture are the product of your own fundamentalist imagination, and bear little no relationship to life as most young people live it. Do you picture undergrad birthday parties as Boschian hellscapes of moral depravity? The idea goes beyond reactionary and straight into the absurd.

“Nothing — nothing — about the hook-up culture is good, true, or beautiful.” That sentence betrays such a profound lack of not only life experience but any sort of lived connection to a very large swatch of our culture. It’s not only a failure of imagination. It’s a failure of empathy.

Marriage is marriage. Hookups are hookups. Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps. One no more cheapen than the other than masturbation cheapens sex or dirty thoughts cheapen marital vows.

Teaching your children about the incomparable, overwhelming joy of life-long commitment and authentic dedication is a beautiful, necessary thing. Teaching them to pathologize blowjobs and spiritually disengage from the world around them is not. Maybe you have as much to learn from your children as they do from you.