In Revenge of the Nerds, Poindexter wonders aloud to his near-sighted paramour: “wait – would you rather live in the ascendancy of a civilization or during its decline?” As women are sometimes wont to do when faced with difficult questions, she disregards the metaphysical implications, and proceeds to devour him instead.
There’s a certain validity in that question. The climb and ultimate ascendancy of a civilization is hard work for its citizenry. Imagine the toiling peasants of Medieval times and the armies of slaves conscripted by the Romans. Think back to the pioneers of America, clearing the land with hand tools and a few animals if they were fortunate enough to have them. Forging a nation is no small thing, especially for those doing the building.
Saturnalia is the paradigm of the decline. Like Balshazzar and his ilk, partying in the streets of Babylon moments before her conquest by the Medes, living in the decline of a civilization is living in luxury. Often times art, science, technology and architecture keep improving right up until the day the collapse becomes undeniable. Roman architecture’s greatest triumph wasn’t the Colosseum or the Pantheon, it was the Hagia Sophia, built by Justinian after the reputed Fall of Rome.
Nothing comparable would be seen in the West for another 500 years.
Most of all, however, the decline is accompanied by a loss of martial spirit. The Greeks and Romans were, at many points in their respective histories, some of the most carnal, degenerate people imaginable. Yet they maintained the presence of mind to watch the gates, man the guard towers and keep the armies intact. And when they finally failed at this task (or outsourced it to unreliable mercenaries), the fall followed swiftly.
Martial spirit was missing on three out of four airplanes hijacked on 9/11. Martial spirit was definitely lacking when fearful Londoners allowed one of their own to be beheaded in broad daylight. If you believe that Westerners would have allowed this sort of thing a century ago, I have some oceanfront property in Arizona available at a great price.
Still, living in the decline isn’t as bad as it seems. In many ways, it’s better than the hard work and sacrifice necessary to build an entire way of life. Nations on the rise today are not nice places to live, but they might be someday.
What will those nations remember of the West today? Will they spin tales of our own Balshazzar, feasting on wine and women as the conquering Medes approached?