Are we living through “another” fall of the Roman Empire?

St. Augustine of Hippo
13 November 354 to 28 August 430

Augustine’s story is fascinating, but this blog is already too long. Suffice it to say that he was an early Christian writer and theologian who’s writings helped shape not just the church you see today, but the world you live in.

Among his greatest works is “The City of God”. He wrote it sometime between the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD and his death in 430 AD. It was intended as an argument against those who blamed the empire’s fall on Christians and the abandonment of Rome’s traditional pagan gods. He also spoke to Christians directly, offering them comfort in persecution and building their faith in God’s Kingdom (The City of God) as the government and society of Rome crumbled around them.

I have read portions of this voluminous work in the past but never all the way through and not in strict detail…because, well… it’s really haaaard!

LaurMG., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Regardless, as I began to dig through it here at the end 2020 (a full 1600 years after it was written) it’s relevance began to settle on me like one of those weighted blankets: “This is happening all over again!” I realized that at least some of what Augustine was saying to the fading Roman culture (both Christian and non-Christian) needs to be heard by our culture. But so few people are going to have the will to slog through it. That’s when it hit me:

“I should re-write the most relevant portions using informal, modern English!” So, I’ve chosen paragraph 20 from “Book the Second” (there are 22 “books” in the whole work!) because to me, this was the most chillingly similar to our current situation. As you read on, there will be two parallel columns of text. On the left and in italics is the 1871 English translation from Latin by Marcus Dods. On the right is the way I would say the same thing if I was talking to my neighbor today. (it may look different on mobile devices) It’s by no means a “scholarly” work and it is hopelessly corrupted by my opinions, leanings and vocabulary.

The headings are mine too.

Modern Version of the ancient gods

But the worshippers and admirers of these gods [Roman pagan deities] delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquility; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependents, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure.

Worshippers of the self, not surprisingly, offer their “god” whatever it asks for no matter how ridiculous or dangerous it might be. Self-worshippers have no problem with the whole society acting this way (do whatever you makes you feel good) as long it keeps serving their purposes too. They say, “Do whatever it takes to keep the self-serving party going! By all means! Expand the empire! Drill, cut, burn, enslave and destroy…just as long as I don’t have to see the results. Here’s what really matters: that each person in the empire can get more stuff, stay distracted and do exactly as he pleases…at the expense of the poor…” But the poor are complicit in their own oppression saying, “I’ll degrade myself in whatever you want, just keep the empty entertainment, cheap food and beer coming. In return, you can pretend to lead us so you feel better about yourselves. We will continue to follow corrupt and cruel leaders and celebrities…as long as they keep us entertained and well fed.

No-account Accountability

Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden. Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects. Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear.

But don’t expect any ownership from us; no personal responsibility. And don’t you dare make any moral judgements! We don’t choose leaders and heroes because their good people, but because they’re successful. Managers, mayors, pastors and officers don’t hold CEO’s, governors, bishops and generals morally accountable. Instead, they nervously tell them what they want to hear so as not to lose their jobs.

Priorities, priorities…

Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let every one with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him.

Laws, lawyers and judges work together to protect profits, property and propaganda, not people. If a man wants to engage in the most soul-crushing, degrading and morally damaging past-times with his neighbor’s daughter (as long as she “consents”)…that’s holy; an untouchable right! But god forbid he should scratch the neighbor’s car.  

Keep. The. Party. Going.

Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate.

We want to have sex with anyone, in any way that feels good to us. Of course, the rich can do it with impunity behind private mansion walls. But we lower classes will be content to withdraw alone into the darkness with free internet porn and degrading burlesque from corporate-sponsored clowns on our tv’s. Build us bigger houses that we can’t really afford with plenty of room for all the cars and junk we want. We’ll throw parties, waste food, degrade ourselves, endanger our neighbors, drink and drug until we puke.

Anything but boredom!

Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it, let him be silenced, banished, put an end to.

We want to dance and sing and turn the music up as loud as we can. When boxing doesn’t keep our attention, give us wrestling. When that grows boring, MMA fights. When suspenseful movies become passé, give us slasher movies. More blood, more explosions more sex…just keep it coming. Anyone who suggests this is a problem will be shut-up, shut-down and labeled a “hater” a “bigot” and a “prude”. “

Worshipping yourself is easy.

Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it when once possessed. Let them be worshipped as they wish; let them demand whatever games they please, from or with their own worshippers; only let them secure that such felicity be not imperiled by foe, plague, or disaster of any kind.

It’s easy to see why the false god of self is so popular. Every desire met, every sacrifice offered to “the god” benefits you. Checks made out to “god” are deposited in your account. You always get exactly what “god” wants when you do what you want. When god is pleased, so are you. The only real hardship in this religion is protecting it from natural disasters and the other 8 billion gods competing for their share of the sacrifices.

Nothing new under the sun.

In the last paragraph of chapter 20, Augustine compares the fallen Roman Empire of his time to the Assyrian empire which had died a similar death… a thousand years before he was born.

It seems that history does repeat itself.

Lord have mercy.

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57 year old husband of 31 years, father of two, drumming Gardner.