The Monastic Option
In Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture, four factors are identified which are contributing to the loss of contemporary American civilization. One can see evidence of these factors; social inequality, loss of entitlements and the social safety net, a trend to deemphasize education and death of organized religion, in the culture and current political climate. These are some of the same factors cited by historians which contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. Historians have noted that due to the rise of monasticism, these ancient texts were copied and preserved and due to this preservation, ancient texts were not lost. Like these medieval historians who copied and preserved ancient texts in monasteries which contributed to the rebirth of the classical learning during the Renaissance, modern historians, can take charge of the repositories of learning so that American civilization can be reborn following this current period of decline.
One of the factors which historians have argued which led to the decline of Rome is economic inequality as evidenced by landholding. In Rome, during the reign of Augustus between 27 B.C. and 14 A.D., land-ownership was concentrated into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Numbers of landless peasants grew and taxes became a heavier burden for those at the bottom of the social ladder. Berman states that, “The taxes levied to maintain the army were massive, and they fell largely on the poor; but the Roman rulers also managed to ruin the middle class, which had been the backbone of the empire” (Berman, 72). In America, a similar trend has been observed. Since the 1970’s the middle class has shrunk as real wages have decreased for these on the lower rungs and income inequality has grown (Reich). This increased social inequality has led to a bifurcation of society as one sector blames the government for their economic woes and the other blames big business and corporations. This phenomenon was evidenced in our current election cycle with Donald Trump siding with the first sector; and Bernie Sanders, the other.
Along with this social inequality, American society has also witnessed an assault on the social safety net which was fought for and achieved during a more progressive period. This, combined with lower wages and income inequality and increased military spending resulting in seemingly endless wars in the Middle East also has parallels in Roman history. “By the third century, nearly every denarius collected in taxes was going into military and administrative maintenance, to the point that the state was drifting toward bankruptcy” (Berman, 73). This was necessary to maintain control over an Empire that had expanded into the European continent, North Africa and Middle East. One could argue, that as America has expanded its hegemony throughout the world, similarities to Rome can be observed.
In this context, intellectual and spiritual pursuits suffered in the demoralization which results from economic depression. In Rome, people turned to “religion, which was hostile to the achievements of higher culture” (Berman, 73). As Christianity spread in the Roman world, many believed that “education was not relevant to salvation, and that ignorance had a positive spiritual value” (Berman, 74). We can see evidence of this today in our post-Christian society whereby people value the advice of self-help gurus more than the tenets of organized religion and a blind faith which leads people to become single-issue voters choosing candidates because of their opposition to say, abortion or same sex marriage instead of their positions on economic issues which results in people voting against their own interests in many cases.
As the Roman Empire fell and western Europe elapsed into the Dark Ages, medieval monks like the Venerable Bede “preserved a knowledge of the classics, carrying the seeds of Western life ‘through the grim winter of the Dark Ages’” (Berman, 77). Despite this preservation of ancient texts, Berman notes that, “from A.D. 600 to 1000, most people forgot how to read or think, and, in fact, forgot that they had forgotten” (Berman, 75). So even though these monasteries became great repositories for learning, the monks who painstakingly copied and illuminated the manuscripts which would influence the Renaissance, were unable to approach the texts critically until much later, in the eleventh century. However, without their careful preservation, this resurgence of learning could never have occurred.
What are the institutions that will serve as the modern repositories, the monasteries, of learning in contemporary society? The internet and digital archives make access to ancient materials easier than ever and serve as modern monasteries, in a sense. However, what value is there to documents without analysis or critical investigation and interpretation? American universities, secondary schools and our public-school system must continue to emphasize critical thinking skills so that these documents continue to serve their purpose. Access to top-notch education must be prioritized in the nation, however, this is something that seems to be under assault in the Trump administration.
Despite factors like social and economic inequality, loss of the social safety net, assault on education and the decline in spiritual awareness, which all point to an unprecedented decline of our American civilization, modern historians, must continue to be trained and formed in their field, so that they, like medieval historians can position themselves as the keepers of the repositories of learning so that American civilization can be reborn following this current period of decline.
Berman, Morris. The Twilight of American Culture. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Reich, Robert. “Robert Reich.” Assessed May 12, 2017. http://robertreich.org/post/8553275126