Boethius and/or Cassiodorus

American conservatives used to be fond of saying that the United States have entered a decadent period something like that of the Roman Empire.  Since American conservatives do not read history, they were never very clear on the period they had in mind, but let us assume they mean the third century, when the empire was up for sale to the highest bidder, when gangster armies fought over the spoils of the empire, when Oriental emperors such as Elagabalus stained the city’s ancient streets with vice unknown in the more wholesome days of Nero and Caligula.

Apart from the disorders, however, the empire was not a lost cause in the third and fourth centuries, largely because of the solid virtues of the class that produced the officers and bureaucrats who organized the defenses, kept the roads and aqueducts in repair, and maintained some semblance of public order.  We who live in the age of The Osbournes can hardly afford to sneer at an age that produced St. Augustine and St. Ambrose or Julian and Ammianus Marcellinus.

Alas, we are not living in the age of Caligula or Commodus or even in the age of Honorius and Arcadius, Theodosius’ two incompetent sons.  This is not the period before the collapse of civilization: In a moral and cultural sense, at least, the collapse has already taken place.  Like the collapse of the Roman West, the modern West’s failure has been a gradual process,...

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