Anyone old enough to remember Herman Talmadge and Lester Maddox and who attended any college in Georgia probably recollects taking a course called Western Civilization. Most likely a goodly part of the assigned reading had something to do with Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." If you came from a small town, as did I, you may remember being a little intimidated by a textbook that looked as thick and weighed as much as that staple of every college kid's dorm room in those pre-computer dark ages: Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
As a freshman at what was then tiny, backwoods, gnat-infested, bucolic Georgia Southern College, I was introduced to the history of western civilization by my academic advisor, history professor J. Frank Saunders.
What I found amazing back then, and still have trouble reconciling today, is how the utterly powerful Roman Empire could crumble into dust after ruling the bulk of the civilized world for roughly 2,000 years. How could a civilization that built aqueducts still in use today, public baths, a huge sporting arena, paved roads which still today serve as the model for interstate highway construction, simply melt away? How could those who gave the world the architectural arch, indoor plumbing, a distribution and shipping system connecting the far reaches of the empire, and possessing the most formidable of armed forces just slide away into that good night, and in so doing plunge the civilized world into the real Dark Ages?
Further, were there not warning signs portending decline for those with watchful eyes? Surely there were indications that all was not proceeding apace.
Scholarly research enumerates several factors for the demise of the Romans. But this is not a term paper, nor one of Professor Saunders' final exams, thankfully. So, to cut to the chase, Gibbon's opinion is that the Roman Empire declined, and eventually collapsed, due to decay from within.
Other historians, notably Arnold Toynbee, interpreted the exhaustive research from Gibbon a little differently. And as revisionist historians seek to make a name for themselves in contemporary academia, more recently others have offered still more opinions as to why the Roman Empire collapsed.
All agree on several things, though. As the Empire grew, the military needed more and more personnel. Germanic mercenaries were utilized, and their loyalty was to their specific commanders in lieu of the Republic. And as the moral fabric of the society began to decay, as more and more of the citizenry turned to that era's version of instant gratification, in the end the entire embodiment transformed, morphed, or collapsed into something entirely different.
No doubt those who were around at the end wondered what in the world had happened. No doubt they wondered, as they contemplated those incredible buildings, highways, aqueducts and baths, as to who those people were who conceptualized, planned, and brought them into reality. Farmers, formerly the backbone of the Roman economy at home, had been forced from their land from an inability to pay their ever-increasing taxes, and were now on the equivalent of the government dole. Simply put, there was no grass roots way left to sustain, let alone rebuild, anything.
Gibbon, Toynbee and still others point to the rise of Christianity within the Republic as a contributing factor in the decline, but that point of view fails to account for the Eastern Empire continuing as a viable entity for nearly 1,000 years after Rome was sacked. In fact, it was the Romans who introduced Christianity to Russia, giving the world onion-dome churches such as St. Basil's Cathedral near Red Square in Moscow, as well as composers like Chesnokov, whose "Salvation Is Created" speaks to the faith which the people of Russia embraced before the Bolshevik Revolution brought about the rise of Communism.
During the years I spent teaching social studies in the public schools of Georgia, I used to field occasional questions from inquisitive students along the lines of which was greater, the Roman Empire or our United States of America. Generally, I'd tell the kids that America had only been around a couple of hundred years, as compared to the Romans enduring for 2,000. My line was that the jury would be out on the final answer to that question for another 1,800 years or so. Almost every time, at least one kid would ask if I meant that I didn't think our country would last that long. That would open the door for discussions of similarities and differences between the way the Romans and the Americans did things, from building infrastructure to the growth of decadent behavior within the societies, and I'd end up by asking the kids to think about it and write a paper to support their conclusions.
Even back in the 1980s, many middle school students expressed concern about the future and, given the way things were going in society, how long this nation had left to survive.
It seems to me, and if you think about it you may agree, that the very same issue is what's bothering most thoughtful citizens today. Oh, we may mask it by talking about the economy, or arguing about which political party and candidates we support, or by shaking our heads in dismay at what seems to be an ever-increasing crime rate. But truth be told, every one of the significant talking points on the news, as well as in casual conversation, represent individual elements of concern we all share, which, when combined with the others, signals cause for alarm that what we know as the United States is slipping away from us.
Just look at something as ubiquitous as religion. Once upon a time Sunday was a day protected by what were called "blue laws." Most every business establishment was closed on Sunday, for folks went to church and kept the Sabbath day holy. And folks from all walks of life, all religions, all faiths, or no faith, all pretty much honored the custom of not working on Sunday.
But today Sunday is just another business day. One notable exception to that is Christian businessman Truett Cathy, who refuses to allow Chick-Fil-A to operate on Sunday and thus surrenders 14 percent of possible weekly revenue, but he's one of a very few who put their money where their mouth is.
Now, the non-religious or the non-Christian may scoff at this, but I'm here to tell you that the transition of Sunday from a day of rest, from a day which our nation once reserved for the worship of God, into a regular business day represents one chink in the mortar holding together the edifice which is America.
Another chink in that mortar occurred in the early 1970s when the rights of criminals were many times given more importance than the rights of those they had victimized. George Miranda (for whom the rights were named) was himself later murdered, and the irony of it was that his killer was freed on a technicality provided by those same Miranda Rights.
Pornography is visited upon our nation in the name of freedom of speech, whether in print media, on the internet or cable television. So-called "soft porn" is another one of those seemingly inconsequential chinks in the mortar holding our society together.
All you have to do to see how all of this has affected our nation is to visit most any public school. Note how the young ladies dress. Listen to the lyrics of the music the young people in our society think is cool. Read the news of how many teachers - that's right, teachers - have been arrested for illicit sexual activity with their underage students.
Now, these are just a few issues which chink away at the solid mortar holding together the edifice that is America.
And, yes, to answer your question, I do know.
I do know that if you take each one of these issues by themselves and look at them, they don't represent any smoking gun that is the root of all the evils that ail us. But when you add these and other, even bigger issues, it's the sum of all evils which serves to chisel away the mortar.
Georges Santayana once said "those who ignore history are doomed to relive it." And, indeed, history is replete with episode after vignette for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
What we do from this point is up to us, individually and collectively. The genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. Once a kid has been exposed to pornography, or a town gets used to having fast food emporiums and alcohol sales available on Sunday, it's tough to convince anyone to get back to basics.
But methinks the time to think seriously about calling the nation back to a righteous contemplation of religious expression and worship is now. Otherwise, we may all one day be found in lamentation, quoting the famous poem of Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984) a survivor of concentration camps at Sachsenhausen and Dachau in World War II Nazi Germany, who in 1971 stated that this version of his oft-changed text was his favorite:
In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews,
And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew;
And then...they came for me...
And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
In moments of rapt contemplation of such matters, I find myself wondering what Edward Gibbon might write of America a few hundred years from now. And I'm hoping that it wouldn't be titled "Decline and Fall of The United States of America."
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.