Saturday, December 7, 2013

St. Augustine and today

It seems I'm not the only one comparing this period of history to the decline of Rome and the onset of the Dark Ages (emphasis mine):
The Pax Romana was a period of relative peace and stability throughout the Greater Mediterranean. But history is often a matter of convulsions. In 200 A.D., the Roman Empire still existed in the shadow of the recently deceased emperor and pagan philosopher Marcus Aurelius -- at a time when, according to Princeton University historian Peter Brown, "a charmed circle of unquestioning conservatives" gave order to the world. Over the next 500 years, however, everything changed.

By 700 A.D., the Roman Empire had disappeared from the map of the West, the Sassanid Persian Empire had vanished from the Near East, Europe had become Christian, and the Near East and most of North Africa had become Muslim. During this era, poor, uneducated, and extremist Christian heretics and sectarians -- Donatists, rabble-rousing monks, and so on -- had dispersed around the Mediterranean basin, burning and terrorizing synagogues and pagan temples, before they themselves were overtaken in North Africa by Arab armies proselytizing a new, more austere religion. Meanwhile, Gothic tribes ravaged Europe, and Asia Minor was on the brink of an epic conflict between Christians who venerated icons and other holy images and those who glorified their destruction. Brown, in the course of a lifetime of scholarly work, gave a name to this pungent epoch in which the world gradually turned upside down: Late Antiquity.

Late Antiquity was dominated by vast civilizational changes, though many were not marked at the time. Writing about the Middle Ages that followed, the now-deceased Oxford University historian R.W. Southern noted, "This silence in the great changes of history is something which meets us everywhere." Late Antiquity appears full of drama only because we know its beginning and end. But on any given day during that half-millennium, the Mediterranean world might not have seemed dramatic at all, and few could have said in what direction events were moving.

Of course, the historical clock moves a great deal faster today, and thousands upon thousands of words -- in these pages alone -- have been written on the Arab Spring, the military rise of China, the tumult in the European Union, a nuclear Iran, and the chipping away of America's post-Cold War hegemony. But can we really discern any better than the denizens of Late Antiquity in what direction events are moving? 
 IF THE LIFE OF ANY INDIVIDUAL ENCAPSULATES Late Antiquity, it is that of St. Augustine, a Berber born in 354 in Thagaste, modern-day Souk Ahras, just over the border from Tunisia inside Algeria. In drifting from pagan philosophy to Manichaeism and finally to Christianity, which he subjected to the logic of Plato and Cicero, St. Augustine straddled the worlds of classical Rome and the Middle Ages. His favorite poem was Virgil's Aeneid, which celebrates the founding of Rome's universal civilization. He railed against the radical Donatists (Berber schismatics), whose heresy was undermining the stability of the Maghreb, even as he saw the benefits in traditional bonds like tribalism. And he died at age 76 in 430, in the midst of the assault of Genseric's Vandals on Africa Proconsularis, Rome's first African colony. His great work, The City of God, writes scholar Garry Wills, sought to console Christians who were disoriented by the loss of Rome as the organizing principle of the known world. Rome, St. Augustine wrote, could never satisfy human hearts: Only the City of God could do that. Thus, as Rome weakened, religiosity intensified.

We are at the dawn of a new epoch that may well be as chaotic as that one and that may come upon us more quickly because of the way the electronic and communications revolutions, combined with a population boom, have compressed history.

In St. Augustine's world of imperial collapse, these ancient ties offered some respite from disorder because within the tribe there was hierarchy and organization in abundance. But modernity was supposed to free us from these cloistered shackles of kinship. Indeed, modernity, wrote Ernest Gellner, the late British-Czech social anthropologist, means the rise of centralized authority and the consequent decline of tribalism. But the opposite is presently occurring: The crumbling of central authority throughout much of North Africa and the Near East (as well as the rebirth of lumpen nationalism in parts of Europe) indicates that modernity is but a passing phase. Today, tribes with four-wheel-drive vehicles, satellite phones, plastic explosives, and shoulder-fired missiles help close the distance between Late Antiquity and the early 21st century.

St. Augustine's North Africa, now with its degraded urban conurbations of cracked brick and sheet metal, will see its population increase from 208 million to 316 million by 2050, putting severe pressure on both natural and man-made resources, from water to government. As these millions move to the cities in search of jobs and connections, the political order will assuredly shift. Whatever arises by then may not be the states as they appear on today's map. Indeed, what we consider modernity itself may already be behind us. The headlines between now and then will be loud and hysterical -- as they are today in Syria -- even as the fundamental shifts will at first be obscure. For history is not only about convulsions, but about the ground shifting slowly under our feet.

In The City of God, St. Augustine revealed that it is the devout -- those in search of grace -- who have no reason to fear the future. And as the tribes of old now slowly come undone in the unstoppable meat grinder of developing-world urbanization, religion will be more necessary than ever as a replacement. Alas, extremist Islam (as well as evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Judaism in the West) may make perfect sense for our age, even as its nemesis may not be democracy but new forms of military authority. Late Antiquity is useful to the degree that it makes us humble about what awaits us. But whatever comes next, the charmed circle of Western elites is decidedly not in control.
Augustine's World: What Late Antiquity says about the 21st century and the Syrian crisis. Robert Kaplan, Foreign Policy

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