On a crisp autumn afternoon two boys are playing near the Central Park reservoir in Manhattan. They are on the lookout for alien zombies, texting reports to one other from their smartphones.
Our boys live in a world of environmental stress, exploding populations, broken borders, and shattered cities. Families, religions, and schools are buckling around them. For many of their elders, patriotism has fallen into disrepute. Although they don’t quite know it, centuries of scripture, law, and literature are fading authorities of worldly wisdom and salvation.
Their textbooks and teachers, fetishizing multiculturalism, tell them to ignore or renounce the inherited past. The Disney corporation defines their idea of virtue, and Howard Zinn writes their nation’s history.
Our boys live in what the great literary figure and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa calls the “civilization of the spectacle.” Once solemn guardians abandon gravity and ceremony. Instead they caper grotesquely — tweeting perhaps — trying to build their platforms. “I just ignore popular culture,” high-minded mandarins intone. “I listen to NPR instead.”
But popular culture wants their children, and it has them in the bag. Gladiatorial athletes and tattooed celebrities — not dads, professors, vicars, or squires — provide the popular beau ideal. “Politics and culture are one big photo shoot,” a Los Angeles friend reminds me.
As established Western culture recedes, curators, librarians, and rectors act as managers of controlled decline. Trying to remain vital, schools and universities, libraries and publishers — compelled to do what they’ve done as long as anyone can remember — face declining control of their institutional destinies. Hollywood and the Internet fill the void.
Unburdened by history, visionaries with messianic ambitions and social media at their disposal are ready if they are allowed — and they apparently are — to tell the multitudes what to think.
In the world to come, will our boys be overlords or serfs? From their state-of-the art Apple hardware, Ralph Lauren clothing, and private-school body language, I would guess the former. They look to me like William Deresiewicz’s excellent sheep — high-performing, young meritocrats — in training. But they are white and male. So they could someday find themselves punished for yet to be codified, ascriptive crimes. Who knows?
The decline and fall of Rome took centuries. So I am not catastrophizing, stocking up on canned goods, or building a fallout shelter. I like to think the modern flight from cultural stewardship, bourgeois order, and providence will one day soon reverse itself.
But if the American Empire is past the time of the Good Emperors, then consider the situation of the fourth-century statesman Ausonius, who faced events as epochal as our own, including relentless alien migrations from the east.
Born about 310 in southern France. Ausonius lived in two worlds, one that today we call classical, and the other, medieval. In his celebrated 1969 Civilisation series, Kenneth Clark said he stood at the end of a 700-year Graeco-Roman tradition. Château Ausone, still a coveted wine label, is by legend the Roman’s old vineyard.
To Ausonius the late Roman Empire was all of one discordant piece, in chaos not decline, and multicultural of a sort. A cosmopolitan Mediterranean, Ausonius was equally comfortable in what is today Bordeaux and Istanbul. When the Western emperor Gratian was assassinated in Lyon in 383, Ausonius retired to his estates at the mouth of the Garonne River to write fine poetry. He was a model of aristocratic optimism as his world fell apart.
A pagan not a Christian, Ausonius was crushed when his star student, Paulinus, who had become his close friend, renounced Roman imperial office.
Like other young bluebloods of the era, including the saint-to-be Augustine of Hippo, Paulinus instead chose a clerical career, becoming a bishop, not a magistrate or legionnaire. He chose to serve a new God, Jesus Christ, not the Emperor. He became a Christian hero known far and wide for his selflessness and charity.
Ausonius mourned the coming of Christianity. What Americans and the West mourn today is belief itself. Islam and China — more confident, with intact belief systems — try to keep the libertine West at bay. Whether they can succeed is an open question.
I am no Ausonius. But I share his dismay when my former students, now senior professors and thought leaders, devote their vocations to vandalizing the canon, rifling through the past to confirm new convictions and prejudices.
“We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St Benedict,” the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously concluded in After Virtue thirty-four years ago at the onset of our contemporary culture wars.
MacIntyre was speaking of Benedict, the sixth-century cleric whose institutional rules to live by — now eclipsed and forgotten — endured a thousand years.
Innocent of tradition or ashamed by it, our zombie chasers play in Central Park. Their older siblings, the excellent sheep, sit in Ivy League classrooms, staring impatiently into backlit electronic tablets. They are looking not for alien zombies but for something to believe in.
What beast is slouching toward Bethlehem with a billion hits on YouTube?
Young Paulinuses await rules from a new St. Benedict. Sooner or later, someone or something will comply. And no doubt, pious acolytes await — perhaps with psychiatric hospitals and autos-da-fe at their disposal — to punish any heretics who resist the revealed dogma.