The trouble with most of our attempts to tell the story of Rome—to deploy Rome as a metaphor in current events, for that matter—is that we tend to focus on the end points: the failure of the republic, the last days of the empire. The real puzzle of Rome, for historians and political theorists alike, is not its failure but its survival.
Who could doubt that the best thing America has experienced since the Second World War is the collapse of the Soviet empire? Victory in the Cold War finished off the deep threat of international communism backed by major military power. It freed the United States from entanglement in proxy wars with the Soviet Union, and it released from the national consciousness the high tension of possible global thermonuclear war. “The biggest thing that has happened in the world in my life, in our lives, is this,” George H.W. Bush would later write. “By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.”
Here’s a claim you encounter from time to time: The invention of the horse collar eliminated slavery in medieval and early modern Europe. The continent still had plenty of peonage servitude, of course; the serfs in Tsarist Russia, for example, were hardly a beacon of freedom unto the world. Still, where direct slavery persisted in the Ottoman lands and sub-Saharan Africa, and would roar back in the European possessions of the New World, something in Europe caused slavery to fade. And from the fading, there would build the abolitionist movement that would eventually turn the West against even the idea of slavery.
The best way I’ve found to put the question is this: Are the Gates of Hell broken in, or broken out? Did Christ on Holy Saturday descend to Hell in his glory as the risen king, smashing the gates in as he strode forth to claim the souls of the patriarchs and prophets? Or did he ascend from the depths of Hell in his Resurrection, gathering up the souls around him and breaking open Hell from the inside as he ascended into Heaven?
Scientific progress “can be made only through research that is scrupulously ethical,” Nature magazine declared this spring. And why not? It’s a sweet thought, a pious thought in the church of right feeling: a sentimental dogma that all good things must cohere because, dammit, they’re all good, aren’t they?
From Pierre, South Dakota, to Annapolis, Maryland, state boards of education are all striving—with the best will in the world—to ensure that all children have computers in their little hands. From Juneau, Alaska, to Tallahassee, Florida, state governments are all working—in accord with a great moral certainty—to connect all children to the Internet.
If you believe that the fundamental fact of the world is the mistreatment of women, you usually discover that each new thing you investigate—quelle surprise!—mistreats women. If you begin with an overwhelming presupposition of racism, you often find racism down at the root of everything. And if you start with the long history of oppressing the poor, you almost always find, at the end of the day, that the poor are being oppressed.