Saturday, December 6, 2014

An Early Definition

I came across an interesting quote about degeneration today from a late nineteenth century book on biology:

Any new set of conditions occurring to an animal which render its food and safety easily attained, seem to lead as a rule to Degeneration; just as an active healthy man sometimes degenerates when he becomes suddenly possessed of a fortune; or as Rome degenerated when possessed of the riches of the ancient world.

Sir E. Ray Lankester, Degeneration: a Chapter in Darwinism (1880), p.33. (link).

This paragraph is often quoted by replacing the words “an animal” by the words “a species” and then stopping at the word “Degeneration.” Thus in the Wikipedia article on Lankester. There the article’s author also adds the following: “Lankester extended the idea of degeneration to human societies, which carries little significance today, but it is a good example of a biological concept invading social science.” One would like to see why the definition does not apply to us. But, in any case, every author may interpret the past as he sees fit…

The general observation from history is that an expanding, energetic civilization tends toward decadence—not because it is fighting for survival but because it has achieved some form of lasting and extraordinary wealth. In our own case that wealth has taken the form of “energy slaves” traceable to fossil fuels. But the Roman case had its own parallel: living human slaves.  What that looked and felt like is rendered by Will Durant in Caesar and Christ, Simon and Schuster, 1944, pp. 111-112. The segment deals with an era known as the Agrarian Revolt in the Roman Republic, extending in time from 145 to 78 BC, thus the period immediately preceding the rise of Julius Caesar, who became the first emperor of Rome and thus closed the republican era of Roman history:

The first cause was the influx of slave-grown corn from Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, and Africa, which ruined many Italian farmers by reducing the price of domestic grains below the cost of production and marketing. Second, was the influx of slaves, displacing peasants in the countryside and free workers in towns. Third, was the growth of large farms. A law of 220 forbade senators to take contracts or invest in commerce; flush with the spoils of war, they bought up extensive tracts of agricultural land. Conquered soil was sometimes sold in small plots to colonists, and eased urban strife; more of it was given to capitalists in part payment of their war loans to the state; most of it was bought or leased by senators or businessmen on terms fixed by the Senate. To compete with the latifundia the little man had to borrow money at rates that insured his inability to pay; slowly he sank into poverty or bankruptcy, tenancy or the slums. Finally, the peasant himself, after he had seen and looted the world as a soldier, had no taste or patience for the lonely labor and unadventurous chores of the farm; he preferred to join the turbulent proletariat of the city, watch without cost the exciting games of the amphitheater, receive cheap corn from  the government, sell his vote to the highest bidder or promise, and lose himself in the impoverished and indiscriminate mass.

Roman society, once a community of free farmers, now rested more and more upon external plunder and internal slavery. In the city all domestic service, many handicrafts, most trade, much banking, nearly all factory labor, and labor on public works, were performed by slaves, reducing the wages of free workers to a point where it was almost as profitable to be idle as to toil. On the latifundia slaves were preferred because they were not subject to military service, and their number could be maintained, generation after generation, as a by-product of their only pleasure or their master’s vice. All the Mediterranean region was raided to produce living machines for these industrialized farms; to the war prisoners led in after every victorious campaign were added the victims of pirates who captured slaves or freemen on or near the coasts of Asia, or of Roman officials whose organized man hunts impressed into bondage any provincial whom the local authorities did not dare to protect. Every week slave dealers brought their human prey from Africa, Spain, Gaul, Germany, the Danube, Russia, Asia, and Greece to ports of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea….

I’ve quoted this passage years ago now in a by-now-vanished version of LaMarotte. It seemed to fit today’s notion that there is a reasonably ordinary (if very huge and collective) explanation for the growing disorder in a society. Thinkers have been calling that “decadence” beginning in the late nineteenth century.

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