“The following are questions to which I would have every reader pay close attention: the kind of lives men lived; what their moral principles were; and by what skills, both at home and in the field, our dominion was born and grew. Then let him follow how at first, as discipline gradually collapsed, there was, as it were, a disintegration of morals; then note how more and more they slipped and finally began to fall headlong until we have reached the present times in which we cannot tolerate either our own vices or their remedies.” – Livy, The History of Rome from Its Foundation (trans. by Francese and Smith)
It’s been almost stylish among the armchair historians of the era to either propose or refute the theory that America, like the Roman Republic, its spiritual predecessor, is destined to descend into yet another absolutist empire. I can’t say I necessarily agree with such wide sweeping apocalyptic proclamations. However, that’s not to say that American society is moving in a direction I profoundly disagree with. Livy, despite the morals he stood for, has a valid point: we learn from history by seeing how those who changed it managed to, and find out how to emulate or prevent it from happening again.
One can clearly see this from Livy’s points about the disintegration of morals. Now, I do not mean to sound like some elderly man crying about Americans not being socially coerced into prudishness, but rather are referring to some of our most cherished ideas: inclusion and compromise.
The disintegration of inclusion is more of a backslide in our attempt to bring it to a final sort of fruition. Despite our banter about all men being created equal and life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (both phrases likely penned by a slaveowner), we’ve often only paid lip service to it. And with our president’s executive ban on immigration, to which he implied that a religious test would be a component of, we’ve likely got much further to backslide- soon we’ll be forcing all the Irish who flooded over the (Canadian) border and got birthright citizenship into going back to Europe.
Moreover, Americans seem to have entirely misplaced the art of compromise in the past two decades. Remember when the Republican party wasn’t ran on a platform of completely obstructing anything that didn’t come from their party, and when the world wasn’t divided into two groups of citizens with diametrically opposed views of the most basic facts? When we wouldn’t dare dream of electing a man whose political career started with racist conspiracy theories? When we didn’t have to resign ourselves to a president who was endorsed by neo-Nazis?
What I mean to say in all of this is that Livy’s turn of phrase should not be considered merely within his own work, but in our lives as humans- what can our history tell us about today, and how to shape tomorrow?