Life at the End of an Empire With St Augustine

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by Matthew Ehret, Strategic Culture:

It isn’t often that a generation lives through a systemic breakdown crisis.

It isn’t often that a generation lives through a systemic breakdown crisis. While many shallower minds are quick to lay blame to the cause of their troubles on a convenient scapegoat (1), the fact is that these sorts of systemic collapses take time and the root causes are to be found in something both more universal and more subjective.

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Many generations of bad ideas must be embraced without self-criticism or correction before a foolish society unwilling to break from popular delusions faces the consequence of their folly. Machiavelli once noted in his Discourses on Livy (investigating the causes of the decay and collapse of Rome published in 1517 AD) that unless a wayward republic returns to its founding principles, it isn’t long for this world.

Such was the world of the late 4th century when a young Manichean teacher of Rhetoric hailing from North Africa had decided to convert to the new religion of Christianity in 386 AD under the influence of a powerful church leader named St Ambrose (340-397 AD).

A World on the Brink of Collapse

Even though Christianity had been adopted as a state-supported religion in 381 AD, old habits die hard, and just as the Roman elite often simply adapted their pagan rites and rituals into new Christian wineskins, the lessons of Christ were not necessarily high priorities even for many of the Roman converts within the general population who valued personal comfort and stability over the higher message of loving God and loving your fellow man as you love yourself outlined by Christ.

What made this more complicated is that Rome had over-extended itself several times over and had little capability to maintain its international concessions with a capital that had long found itself addicted to ever greater spoils of pillage and slave labor from the subdued peoples of the world. The governing class, military leaders and administrative managers had all glutted themselves in a corrupt system of governance which had grown fat with lethargy and arrogance over the centuries.

Amidst this decay, a growing armada of organized Germanic forces among the Goths, Huns and Visigoths were growing in influence pressing ever harder on Rome’s borders. With the death of Theodosius in 395 AD, any remnant of stabilizing influence in the Roman empire had disappeared, and the disorganized, undisciplined forces of Rome became increasingly incapable of organizing any resistance to the growing assaults of Alaric (leader of the Visigoths). After Theodosius died, Rome was divided into Eastern and Western segments with the west the least manageable.

By 410 AD, the walls of the capital were breached for the first time in history and the first sacking of Rome occurred with a ferocity that none had imagined possible.

From the moment of his conversion to his final breath, Augustine’s leadership skills, mastery of the Platonic method and power of rhetoric made him an organic leader within a beleaguered Church. Not only was Rome in an existential crisis on a geopolitical level, but the very church itself had faced an internal rot with splintered heresies breaking away as cults and sub-cults, each declaring themselves the one true heir to Christ’s mission.

After the first sacking of Rome in 410 AD, things were looking rather bleak and the desperate population was looking for a scapegoat to absorb their hate.

Were the gods punishing the people for having abandoned them when Rome stopped trying to wipe Christianity off the map and instead chose to embrace it as the official state religion? Augustine found himself doing battle with this trend and the City of God was his defense of Christianity which he began in 412 AD and finished in 426 AD. Its lessons have as much application in diagnosing today’s systemic crisis as they did 1600 years ago.

Augustine’s Defense of Christianity

In the City of God, Augustine described how the mob of Rome was quickly turning on the Christians in the following remarks: “Rome having been stormed and sacked by the Goths under Alaric their king, the worshipers of false gods, or pagans, as we commonly call them, made an attempt to attribute this calamity to the Christian religion, and began to blaspheme the true God with even more than their wonted bitterness and acerbity. It was this which kindled my zeal for the house of God and prompted me to undertake the defence of the City of God against the charges and misrepresentations of its assailants.”

Within the City of God, Augustine argues that it isn’t Christianity that is to blame for the collapse of Rome, but rather Rome itself which had fallen from obedience to Natural Law upon whose adherence the survival of societies absolutely depends. While God allows for a certain degree of flexibility to his wayward children who fall into corruption- patience is not infinite and the disobedience to Natural law devoid of redemption can only be tolerated for so long.

Citing Cicero (106 – 43 BC), Augustine’s insight into the true causes of Rome’s downfall hinged on the positive conception of a healthy society which is in harmony with the mandate of the ideal City of God. This is a society which has wisely rejected the law of “might makes right” of empire.

In the case of Rome, Augustine makes the point that the seeds of her own destruction were sewn long before the birth of Christ.

Even before the debauched revelries normalized under the oversight of the Roman imperial cults of the Committee of 15 which interpreted the oracular gobbledygook in the Sibylline Books of Apollo, and before the hegemony of the cults of Cybele and Mithras which saw a total collapse of the minds and morals of both Roman plebians and elites alike, and before the age of bloodlust that the coliseum’s gore entailed as “popular entertainment”, Cicero perfectly diagnosed Rome’s spiritual self-destruction in his Commonwealth.

Citing Cicero, Augustine defines a healthy community saying “a community of commonwealth is not an association of units, but an association united by a common sense of right and a community of common interest”. Continuing to cite Cicero’s 64 BC opus, he writes “the morality has passed away and we are bound to be called to account for the disaster… for we retain the name of a commonwealth, but we have lost the reality long ago, and this was not through any misfortune, but our own misdemeanors”.

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