PARIS AND THE FALL OF ROME

Boston Globe on November 16, 2015, published an article by Professor Niall Ferguson that compares todays Paris with the fall of the West Roman Empire. Excerpts below:

I am not going to say that the world stands with France, for it is a hollow phrase. Nor am I going to applaud President Hollande’s pledge of “pitiless” vengeance, for I do not believe it. I am, instead, going to tell you that this is exactly how civilizations fall.

Here is how Edward Gibbon described the Goths’ sack of Rome in August 410 AD:

“In the hour of savage license, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed . . . a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and . . . the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies . . . Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless . . .”

Now, does that not describe the scenes we witnessed in Paris on Friday night?

True, Gibbon’s “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’’ represented Rome’s demise as a slow burn over a millennium. But a new generation of historians, such as Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather, has raised the possibility that the process of Roman decline was in fact sudden — and bloody —rather than smooth: a “violent seizure . . . by barbarian invaders” that destroyed a complex civilization within the span of a single generation.

Uncannily similar processes are destroying the European Union today, though few of us want to recognize them for what they are.

The distant shock…has been the Syrian civil war, though it has been a catalyst as much as a direct cause for the great migration of 2015. As before, they have come from all over the imperial periphery — from North Africa, from the Levant, from South Asia — but this time they have come in their millions.

It is conventional to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent, and that is doubtless true. But it is also true that the majority of Muslims in Europe hold views that are not easily reconciled with the principles of our modern liberal democracies, including those… notions we have about equality between the sexes and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities. And it is thus remarkably easy for a violent minority to acquire their weapons and prepare their assaults on civilization within these avowedly peace-loving communities.

I do know that 21st-century Europe has only itself to blame for the mess it is now in. For surely nowhere in the world has devoted more resources to the study of history than modern Europe. When I went up to Oxford more than 30 years ago, it was taken for granted that in the first term of my first year I would study Gibbon. It did no good. We learned nothing that mattered. Indeed, we learned a lot of nonsense to the effect that nationalism was a bad thing, nation-states worse, and empires the worst things of all.

“Romans before the fall,” wrote Ward-Perkins in his “Fall of Rome,” “were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.”
Poor, poor Paris. Killed by complacency.

Niall Ferguson is professor of history at Harvard University, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution and author of “Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist.’’

Comment: The problem of Europe described by Professor Ferguson is also that of the rest of the West, maybe to a lesser degree. The decline of the West may not be as drawn out as that of the West Roman Empire and later Byzantium. It might even be so that our complex societies could collapse in a much short time, perhaps before the year of 2100.

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