(Rome) If one would conjure in imagination what Gibbon called the “Glory that was Greece and the Grandeur that was Rome” a worthwhile approach is to set sail upon Homer’s “wine dark sea” and in select ports of call contemplate with awe the visible Ruins of those mighty civilizations that are the foundation of our own. On a recent cruise, my wife and I did just that.
In the many centuries since Greece and Rome held sway over the known world visitors like Gibbon have come to view marble remains while parsing ancient texts and searching for clues to the fate of their own world.
In ironic fashion Athens and Rome are once again centers of intense worldwide interest, though not as progenitors of Western Civilization but rather possible contributors to its financial collapse.
Indeed, how times have changed. Places that produced leaders like Pericles, and Marcus Aurelius, now offer only Papandreous and Berlusconis. Peoples who once sent Captains like Alexander and Caesar to bestride the far corners of the earth now reach exhaustion mastering a sand pile called Libya.
At mid-point in our journey my ruminations on all this were enriched by the insights of an old English friend who I first met at Oxford in 1970. Paul, “a former naval person” retired from MI-5 (I think) and his ever elegant French wife Nicole now grow prize-winning roses at their lovely seaside cottage in Cornwall. We became close when our respective governments sent us to a summer “cultural exchange” in Communist Romania, then under the heel of the beastly tyrant Nicolae Ceasusescu. With wonderful English understatement Paul suggested that his only instruction from his sponsor was “Just be alert, old boy”.
The itinerary of this cultural exchange- wandering across Transylvanian countryside, Black Sea coast, Bucharest etc.- allowed ample time for idle conversation between like-minded individuals willing to civilly but enthusiastically criticize each other’s countries and leaders (e.g. Nixon & Heath) and generally pontificate upon all the great political questions of the day.
To be sure, Paul and I had our biases. He believed that his country would always be a major force in world affairs. I believed that my country would never be afflicted by that strange “civilizational fatigue” that seemed to be leaking into the bloodstream of much of Western Europe. During our recent struggling ascent up the slopes of Europe’s last active volcano-Mt. Etna in Sicily- we reached the rueful conclusion that we both had been wrong.
For those who love History roaming through Greece and Italy is a delight since they have so much of it crowded in very compact spaces. The entire flowering of Greek civilization took place in an area just a third the size of Colorado. In a single city- Florence- is the greatest concentration of Western Art in the world, and the finest museum-The Uffizi. Three giants of Western Art, Science, and Philosophy-Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli-are at rest in the same darkened Church. Nearby one can gaze upon Michelangelo’s David, arguably the most nearly perfect expression of Western Art anywhere in the world.
What Gibbon did for the Ancient World in his Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire (5 vols. 1776-1788) the German philosopher Oswald Spengler sought to do for the Modern World in his darkly prophetic Decline of the West ( 2 vols. 1918-1922) which argued that all cultures are subject to the same historically predetermined cycle of growth and decay.
Spengler wrote in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophically self-destructive First World War, the initial act of a European Civil War (1914-1945) which prematurely ended that continent’s global ascendance and inflicted a devastating spiritual wound upon the Western psyche that is unhealed to this day.
What one sees in Florence particularly and the Renaissance generally is an extraordinary amalgam of Greek, Roman, and Christian civilization the salient characteristics of which are the boundless dynamism, energy, and self-confidence that simultaneously produced the world’s greatest art, the birth of modern science, and unleashed the Age of Discovery.
The present generation must answer whether those characteristics remain in sufficient abundance to meet the stern challenges of this time of Doubt and Divisiveness. To find that answer, however, they will need the guidance of History, and the resource of Faith to first fully understand the question.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Washington Times, Human Events and Denver Post. He is a Fellow of the Centennial Institute in Colorado.