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Thursday, December 30, 1999

Decline and fall all over again
Ian Hunter
National Post

With this column I bid adieu to a year, a decade and the century; thinking about this, I have been looking through a one-volume abridgement of Edward Gibbon's magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was originally published in five volumes between 1776 and 1788. Comparisons to the contemporary scene are quite startling.

The most striking parallel, perhaps, is the abandonment of moral law -- not just sexual morality but such elementary precepts as truth-telling, promise-keeping, respect for private property, honouring of elders and any sense of decorum, forbearance and restraint. Gibbon observes that as morals declined, there was a corresponding increase in Roman law -- as though external rules could somehow substitute for internal norms. But the Romans found, as Canadians are finding, that when you get rid of the big laws, you do not become free; rather, you discover the tyranny of the little laws.

Then there is the question of leadership. Is it just me or are our leaders shrinking? From a Churchill (or, for that matter, a Margaret Thatcher) to a Tony Blair; from Eisenhower to Clinton; from Diefenbaker to Joe Clark; from Trudeau to Chretien -- we seem destined to be governed by pygmies. Note that I have chosen only names from my own lifetime; if I ventured further back, the decline would be more pronounced. Our "leaders" carry on, they bluster and strut their little hour upon the stage, but are they not all (in C.S. Lewis' term) "men without chests"? In The Abolition of Man, Lewis wrote: "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."

Fourth-century Rome had its CBC, albeit radio and television were not yet invented, for Gibbon notes that the ruling party was surrounded by "parasites who practise the most useful of all the arts, the art of flattery."

Gibbon also records that Roman taxation became so rapacious that the process of accounting used up all the available papyrus. In a noncompetitive economy, the Roman authorities turned to "gaming" for revenue. What a contemporary touch that our Akwesasne "nation," a creation of Liberal policies and the Almighty Court, should have recently decided to become a gambler's tax haven on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.

In art, literature and music, Gibbon recounts how imagination and creativity yielded first to license, then to depravity: "freakishness pretends to originality," he wrote, "and enthusiasm masquerades as vitality." People "dissipated their fortune in profuse luxury, found themselves poor in the midst of wealth, and idle in a constant round of dissipation."

Man was made for worship (which means, literally, to ascribe worth). If man cannot worship God, then country; if not country, then art; if not art, then himself, and that way lies madness and ruin. As a species we are made to bow down before the infinitely great; deprived of the infinitely great, a man's soul shrivels up and dies of despair.

Another Roman parallel is that the twin pillars of our social stability -- marriage and family -- are under sustained assault. In the Ottawa Citizen, Susan Riley recently wrote that the vision of marriage "reserved for one man and one woman" was to her "a chilling prospect."

One final comparison: Gibbon describes universities as consisting of faculty and students who "abhor the fatigue and disdain the advantage of study."

To write in this vein is to open oneself to a charge of pessimism, even misanthropy. But not so. History is baroque. History smiles on all attempts to force its flow into predetermined channels; it sports with generalizations and disdains our rules. So I retain what William Blake called "a careless trust/In the divine occasion of our dust."

I remember too that in the long sweep of time we are but a firefly. If Earth's history could be compressed into a single year, the first eight months would be without life, the next two months only the most primitive forms. Mammals would not appear until the second week of December; homo sapiens -- at once the splendour of creation and the butt of all jokes -- would prance in just before midnight. Our written history would occupy the final 60 seconds, and the two millennia that close tomorrow, would take up about the last 10 seconds. So -- Happy New Year, one and all!

Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario.

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