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    Book Club: The Roots of American OrderChapter 4

    March 13, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    I am falling deeper in love with this book by the day. Because there is so much to the chapters, I’m making myself read a section a day {or so}, and I really think I’m getting more out of it this way than when I do what I usually do, which is to say, read the whole chapter in one sitting, and blog about it the next day. I am a big fan of the Romans {is that a really dumb thing to say?}, so this chapter struck my fancy.

    What was interesting is that some of what I learned I didn’t expect to learn. I expected, for instance, to learn that the early Americans were fairly well steeped in their Roman history, and that they saw parallels between themselves and the rise of the Roman republic {and Kirk does mention this}. I suppose I didn’t expect to read about the fall of Rome much at all, only because I assumed the parallels were elsewhere.

    A good argument could be made that the parallels are now, but I’m sure someone, somewhere has already written a book about that.


    What Was Lost
    Kirk tells us that T.S. Eliot pointed out three key words in regard to Rome {as presented in Virgil’s poetry}: labor, pietas, and fatum. Quickly, I’ll share Kirk’s definitions:

    • Labor: the dignity of labor

      He knew that we must find our happiness in work, or not at all.

    • Pietas: not mere churchgoing or correctness toward parents

      He meant a humility before the gods, a love of one’s country, and a sense of duties that are not adequately expressed by any English word.

    • Fatum: Roman imperial destiny

      Rome’s duty, imposed by unknowable powers, to bring peace to the world, to maintain the cause of order and justice and freedom, to withstand barbarism. 

    The interesting thing to me was that Kirk was able to trace Rome’s decline in all three areas.

    I think that the decline in fatum makes the most sense in light of the other two ideas he gives us. If there is a decline in the first two, if the populace has become lazy {or is unable to work for other reasons, such as sickness or lack of jobs}, and if there is no real piety {meaning every man for himself, essentially}, how could Rome possibly maintain some sort of goal for worldwide peacemaking, or even simple self-defense against the barbarians? Big visions are hard to maintain when there is chaos on the lower levels of life.

    Which, I might add, is why we tend to lose steam when, for instance, the laundry has piled up, we’re under with a cold, and we just ran out of food. How can we possibly maintain a vision of cultivating or enculturating souls when it is all we can do to run around frantically putting out fires.

    The answer is: we can’t.

    That right there is my best argument for some basic organization in the home, something my home has lacked this past week while I have been sick.

    On Bread and Circuses
    The decline of labor {and the general economy} really stuck out to me. By the time Diocletian came around, Kirk tells us, Rome had

    a degraded population which was kept alive by doles and kept quiet by shows in the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus and the other circuses and theaters.

    Later, he explains:

    Most of the free urban population of Rome itself became an unemployed and turbulent proletariat.

    I found this an interesting parallel to our time, where small family farms have generally been replaced by large corporations farming thousands and thousands of acres {and even many of the remaining family farms often feel “owned” by larger corporations or the government}:

    [T]he disappearance of a free agricultural population…and the growth of tremendous estates tilled by slaves or serfs both transformed the social basis of Roman institutions and resulted in a decline of productivity.

    Early America, likewise, was very much a “free agricultural population.” I remember reading that for every one family in the city, there were 20 in the country, working their farms and selling their surplus. The more I read, the more I think that this is the superior alternative to cities full of aimless unemployed. As we push family farms out of existence, we actually push out a means of reasonable subsistence for modest families.

    The decline of agriculture, and of the citizen-farmer’s affection for the land, had commenced early, but had been accelerated by the violence and oppression of the third and fourth centuries. Commerce and crafts decayed, too, and shortly after the death of Diocletian, artistic and engineering talents dwindled swiftly. A servile people labor only under hard necessity or compulsion. Labor, once deconsecrated, became a tedium.

    The decline of labor was signified by a decline in agriculture and affection for the land {and I might add that “affection for the land” is not the same thing as modern environmentalism–affection for the land is embodied in a family’s affection for their own land–affection is personal, not general, and it is based upon real knowledge, not emotional idealism}, commerce, crafts, artistry, and engineering.

    This is decline in culture, for culture is expressed in the artifacts it produces. Here we have it beginning with lack of production of food and meat and drink and ending with lack of production of…well, of much of anything of value.

    Repeatedly Kirk references this seeming mob of unemployed. They seem to be uneducated and constantly bored. In order to pacify them, the government officials pass out free bread and offer free entertainment. They are unproductive in the sense that they produce nothing of value–they only take. They can be forced to work, of course, but only by force.

    The truth is that they were lacking something inside of themselves, and Kirk basically says this about the entire populace when it comes to the decline in pietas. They were empty. No one really believed in anything anymore.

    It would be really easy to use all of this to attack the Occupy folks, or welfare recipients, or what have you. But I’d rather focus on thinking about my own children. How do I give them the gift of meaning? How do they not become this kind of person who, with nothing of value on the inside, lives solely for the distraction of entertainment? If we see these things in our children, or in our communities, {or in ourselves!} what shall we do? How do we inspire? How do we cultivate?

    These are the questions interesting me, and I’ll be thinking about them throughout this week, I think.

    Read More:
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    More book club posts linked at Cindy’s blog

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  • Reply Mystie March 19, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    I have always been intrigued by the Roman concept of their fate or destiny, particularly in light of the fact that God clearly did use them to create “the fullness of time”: Roman roads, Roman laws, Roman/Greek philosophical categories, Roman conquering & civilizing of the West. Of course Rome had to decline to make way for the rise of Christianity & Europe. It was the next stage. It does remind me to be hopeful that our current decline is likely preparing the way for yet another, probably unexpected, rising.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 19, 2012 at 11:04 pm

      You sound post-millenial!

      Oh wait… 😉

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 19, 2012 at 11:05 pm

      And again:

      I try and comfort myself with what I see as a decline, or at least a probable one, with a similar sentiment. But I can’t get over fretting or being sad about it. I think that even if I had known all the wonderful, glorious things God was going to do, I still would have cried when Rome fell.

  • Reply Cindy Rollins March 17, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Kelly, “…a grammarian who taught him not to fuss about other people’s grammar….” I am intrigued!

    Brandy, I also concentrated on the agrarian ideal along with the moral imagination as keys to understanding the American founders understanding of Rome.

  • Reply Kelly March 14, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    I’ve read some of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, but like every other difficult non-fiction book, I set it down once and never came back to it. Still, it was very good, and so interesting. That sounds like a contradiction, but really, there’s no plot, so I just got interested in other things!

    He starts off recounting what he’s learned from various important people in his life — his father, mother, and brother, his great-grandfather (who, I think, was the one who taught him not to waste his time at the public schools, but to have good teachers at home!), a grammarian who taught him not to fuss about other people’s grammar, and several more. Then he gets into his own personal habits. It’s sort of like reading The Imitation of Christ, only from a person who lived in the world rather than in a monastery.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 14, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      Interesting. Your description makes me wonder if it would work well as a Circle Time selection. Are the entries fairly short? Books with no plot, but good ideas, work better for me in daily bites during CT {if possible; I know my children are probably too young for the most part}, rather than as part of my regular reading.

    • Reply Kelly March 14, 2012 at 5:29 pm

      Some of them are just one sentence, but some are quite lengthy. Those could probably be edited, or broken up in to smaller readings. Here’s the translation I have. I like it better than Gutenberg’s.

  • Reply Go quickly and tell March 14, 2012 at 12:16 am

    I highlighted several of the very quotes that you did, especially from the final section about the *Inhabited Ruins*. The comment about boredom really stuck with me.

    I got bogged down in Cicero’s natural law, but am amazed at his integrity – incorruptible during a corrupt time. I know other writers have titled books *An American Cicero*

    Definitely lots to ponder!

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 14, 2012 at 1:12 am

      Yes, lots to ponder…and as usual I am aware of being under-read. So much catching up to do, so little time! Have you read Cicero? Or Marcus Aurelius?

    • Reply Go quickly and tell March 14, 2012 at 2:13 am

      no, i have read neither…..

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