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April 09, 2008

Theodore Dalrymple and the Last Days of Rome: Theodore Dalrymple regrets paying too little attention to Latin at school - then he would have realised so much earlier the parallels between late Rome and contemporary Britain

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

After reading Daniel T. Reff's Plagues, Priests and Demons,
Theodore Dalrymple succumbs to an uncharacteristic bout of cultural pessimism.

It took me a long time to realise that time's arrow flies in one direction only, and that educational failures in childhood are educational failures for life. Alas, my natural tendency to laziness was not subjected to discipline by adults; and so my disinclination to learn Latin, or about the classical world in general, and to cheek my very kindly Latin master, went almost unopposed. How I regret it: one never catches up.

Even now my knowledge and interest of the classical world is patchy and idiosyncratic, more magpie-like than architectonic. Accordingly, one of the books that has most affected my outlook in life was Alan Cameron's Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium.

This book proved, as far as such things can be proved, that previous interpretations of violence among the factions at the ancient games were false, and that contrary to the then received opinion, such violence had no social or political meaning, apart from man's lust for vandalism and destruction.

From this I did not draw the easy conclusion that man is what he has always been, namely a lout, but only that loutishness is a permanent part of man's repertoire of possible behaviour, and that we therefore need to think seriously about how best to control, or at least minimise, it. I do not believe in the hydraulic theory of bad behaviour, namely that if you do not behave badly in one way, you must behave badly in another.

Recently I have been reading a most interesting book entitled Plagues, Priests and Demons, by Daniel T. Reff (Cambridge University Press, 2004). The author draws parallels between the conversion of Europe and that of post-Columbian America to Christianity, and argues that the decimation of the respective populations by new epidemic diseases was an important and perhaps even determining factor in both conversions.

While reading it, another disturbing parallel occurred to me: that of late Rome with ourselves. I am far from the first to think this, of course (I have never managed much originality), but one passage in the book in particular set me thinking.

… there were obviously large numbers of people during the second and third centuries whose families were taken from them during epidemics… The fragmentation and destruction of families clearly was an issue of concern for the author of The Apostolic Constitutions, which enjoined Christians to adopt and care for orphans.
In other words, as the author later makes clear, Christianity and the Church took advantage of the destruction of the family by epidemic disease to increase their power and hold on the population. Congregations became the new families, and bishops or abbots the new heads of households.

As Marx said, history repeats itself, but not exactly. In the Roman Empire, it was disease that no one had foreseen or wanted that smashed up the family as the principal source of economic, social and emotional support; in the modern world it is ideologists and the politicians who have done so, in the process instituting a new religion, the worship of the state, with themselves as pontiffs. And there is little doubt that the state is now the head if not of every household, then at least of many households.

There are other parallels. Christianity provided an explanation of the epidemics in eschatological terms. (The author points out that in New Spain and elsewhere in America, the Spaniards were immune to the diseases which decimated the Indians, and he also suggests, somewhat less convincingly, that in late Rome the Christians died less frequently of the epidemic diseases than pagans because of their superior morale that increased their immunological resistance.) Christianity was also able to explain why its adoption did not lead at once to an end of epidemics: belief in the pagan gods survived, thus not only causing God’s wrath, but also allowing Satan scope for action.

Why has the welfare state not eliminated poverty, or at least squalor? Because it is not extensive or all-encompassing enough, because people have not entirely given up the old ways or expunged pagan greed from their hearts. Satanic inequality persists, despite great cathedrals erected to the worship of the egalitarian state, such as hospitals and universities, and parish churches such as employment exchanges, housing departments, resource centres for minorities like drug addicts, rehabilitated prisoners and migrants from the third world.

The state, if worshipped sincerely enough, will one day bring about perfect happiness, if by no other means than by putting antidepressants in the water supply. No one will want for anything, no one will cast an envious eye on another. The lion of the workaholic will lie down with the lamb of the slugabed, and all conflict will be resolved.

As with Christianity, there is veneration of the early church fathers. Of course, there is some discussion of the true interpretation of the holy texts. Who can be quite sure at this distance what St William of the Report really meant? But the cult of St Aneurin seems to be stronger than ever, at which millions still worship. If only we lay enough offerings at his tomb, we will have hip replacements without waiting for them, and perhaps even drugs without prescription charges. Of course, St Aneurin had to compromise with hospital consultants, just as the early saints had to do with pagan festivals: Yuletide became Christmas and consultant’s mouths were stuffed with gold.

St Aneurin was nevertheless a man of firm and true belief, impressive in his dedication. There are also latter-day saints, such as St Gordon and St Polly who, in my estimation, are less impressive, though they appear still sincerely to believe that if only the state can become parental enough, children will turn out well. Here I quote Professor Reff again:

The account of Perpetua’s martyrdom in Carthage in circa 202 tells of aristocratic women who defied their patriarchal families for a "new family" centered around Christ. Whereas the rejection of fathers and the procreative family in favor of Christ bespeaks a theological truth, the narratives also hold out the possibility of Christian families and communities where women transcend gender and have expansive leadership roles.
I wish I'd paid more attention to Latin at school. How much clearer everything would be to me now.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy.


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An interesting article. The bit about educational failures in childhood being educational failures for life really strikes a chord. Also the reference to the ‘hydraulic theory of bad behaviour’ is most striking.

But what strikes me most is the reference to Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium. It reminds me of the situation in the Sudan (no, I’m not Lance Corporal Jones and I wasn’t out there with Lord Kitchener). Rather, this is a matter of football. The List of Sudan Premier League Champions is dominated by two teams, Al-Hilal (The BLUE WAVE) and Al-Marikh (The RED DEVILS). If one looks at a section of the list as follows:

•  1974-75: Shabab Mirrikh 
• 1975-76: - (No football competitions were allowed) -
• 1976-77: Shabab Mirrikh
• 1977-78: Shabab Mirrikh
• 1978-79: - (the Shield competition wasn't held) -
• 1979-80: - (the Shield competition wasn't held) -
• 1980-81: Hilal Capitals
one sees that for a period football was suppressed. A Sudanese told me that this had been because of rioting between the supporters of the two main teams (I thought at the time of the Blues and the Greens), and as a result the people turned to political rioting instead.

I’m not sure how factual this is, and if in any way it contributed to the present state of the Sudan. But one does wonder . . .

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 16, 2008 08:46 PM
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