The Old Republic

Decline and Fall

I am very far from original in noticing similarities in the histories of Rome and America—republics that became empires.  The decline and fall of the former has often been thought to foretell the fate of the latter.  A Frenchman some years ago wrote a fairly convincing book called The Coming Caesars.  Such analogies are interesting and suggestive but should not be put forward too dogmatically.  History does repeat itself because human nature remains the same and because civilized people build institutions that then perpetuate themselves for their own sake rather than for the purpose for which they were established.  Power-seeking, luxury, debauchery, irresponsibility, and sloth are ever present and are held in check only for brief and extraordinary periods by Christianity or patriotism.  Still, the recurrences of past patterns are never exactly the same.  The more intimately one knows a past time, the more cautious one becomes in sweeping generalizations.  All large events, like the fall of Rome or the American war of 1861-65, have multiple “causes”—some deep, and some circumstantial.  Indeed, sweeping generalizations about history by people who don’t know what they are talking about are a major blight on American discourse.

The decline and fall of Rome has been blamed on enervating luxury, moral debauchery, imperial overreach, dilution of the founding...

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