One Thing Worse Than Living in Fear
Diocletian was the only Roman emperor to have abdicated voluntarily. Having established stability in the empire, he retired peaceably in 305 to his coastal palace in his native Dalmatia. At which point things fell apart, driving Diocletian into such despair that some historians suspect his death in 311 was a suicide.
How did the emperor fail to anticipate this disaster? Why did he not grasp the fragility of the situation? The English writer Rebecca West, pondering this mystery after a 1930s visit to the remains of Diocletian's domain, observed, "Robes stiff with embroidery help the encased body to ignore its flimsiness; a diadem makes the head forget that it has not yet evolved the needed plan of action."
In other words, Diocletian was so rich and powerful for so long that he suffered from the illusion of permanence. What he had built, his hubris and complacency destroyed.
Some things never change. We are living through an extraordinary time, one in which we are desperate to believe that things for our civilization aren't as precarious as they are, but in which reality advances without pity on the stronghold of our self-delusion.
The world has just witnessed the appalling spectacle of the American government risk the full faith and credit of the United States in a high-stakes game of chicken over the debt ceiling. Though we appear to have swerved at the last second to avoid a cliff-plunge, everybody knows that the country's fiscal policy continues to be driven by bipartisan recklessness.
Given the staggering level of debt -- which must include massive entitlements obligations yet to be paid -- there appears to be no politically realistic way the American economy can do what it must to avoid a catastrophic smash-up right down the road.
This is not just an economic crisis. At bottom, it is a moral and spiritual crisis. We Americans have been living as if the historically extraordinary bounty of material wealth and personal freedom are the natural state of mankind.
We -- and in a democracy, the government is "we" -- have been living far beyond our fiscal means for far too long, and punishing any politician who failed to lie to us about the free lunch. But our disastrous failure of prudence is not only financial.
Take the indulgent stewardship of our natural resources. While we are (rightly) consumed by the perils of climate change, for example, few people are paying attention to the growing topsoil crisis. The world is losing vast amounts of precious, hard-to-replace topsoil each year, much of it disappearing because of wasteful agricultural techniques.
Have we become so accustomed to full supermarket shelves that we think they will continue to replenish themselves infinitely, no matter what we do, or fail to do? As Jared Diamond has written, the history books are filled with stories of civilizations that collapsed because they mismanaged their natural resources.
It's not just the material world that we have taken for granted. In my final year of college, I ran across a 1989 essay in The Atlantic that haunted me. In it, political scientist Glenn Tinder wrote of the spiritual roots of liberal democracy, and wondered if the "political decency" that we in the post-Christian West take for granted can survive, given that we have consumed the moral and spiritual capital from which it derives.
Tinder's essay poleaxed me because it made me realize that the world of abundance and liberty I took to be my birthright as a young American was an illusion. That is to say, its reality was contingent on maintaining and renewing convictions, practices, and disciplines that increasing wealth and personal autonomy make harder to observe. It's a story as old as Rome, as old as the human race.
What ties our converging crises together is, above all, pride. To use Tinder's terminology, having forgotten the God-man, we have come to believe in the man-god -- that is, in the natural ability and right of ourselves to shape our own destiny, heedless of the limits imposed by nature and nature's God.
Both the Bible and the mythology of many world religions tell us what happens to a people that would defy heaven. These stories -- the myth of Icarus, the Tower of Babel, and so forth -- exist to teach us that we do not have to share the fate of the prideful. We have the liberty to change course, to reform our collective lives, to avert disaster.
But the chance for change will not last forever. Spiritual renewal cannot happen without true repentance. Optimism uninformed by realism will do us no good.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said during the depths of the Great Depression. Given where the country was at that moment in its history, that confident pronouncement might have been the right thing to say. We aren't there yet, and God willing, we will do what we must to avoid calamity.
For now, it seems to me that the wiser course was suggested by the gloomy British financial consultant, who, reflecting last week on the extremely dire prospects facing his heavily indebted nation, warned BBC listeners, "One thing worse than fear is living in fantasy."