O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Whenever reactionary pundits see action in the streets, they dust off their abridged copies of Gibbon or Spengler and cue up the collapse of civilization narrative. To the privileged mind which can fight all of its battles in ink, the notion that anyone might, in defense of their rights, have to do anything not already currently being discussed by the commentariat is entirely perplexing. From bland neoliberals to Rand conservatives, consensus politics is the only politics, and despite their apparent ideological differences, their worldview is predicated upon the idea that the system always works in the end. But to everyone who doesn’t have their hands on the levers of power, or at least an entry permit to the control room, the political system (whatever system it happens to be) represents little more than the promise of failed promises.
From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, any organized action to demand fundamental political change strikes fear into the heart of the reactionary, who is never in short supply of golden ages to hearken back to or of collapsed civilizations to warn of. The creation of street art is vandalism, and its erasure a triumph of law and order; the erection of a hateful statue is history, and its removal a testament to ignorance and decadence. Apparently it was only equestrian statues cast in bronze that held barbarism at bay; once they come down, you can assume that Odoacer has breached the walls. So, at least, goes the story.
This story takes for granted the idea that periods of violent political upheaval are inimical to true civilization, and ignores that great art and great literature, much of which has helped edge civilization down the promenade of progress, were not always created in times of bland and peaceful civic passivity. Of all the Italian cities which shone as beacons for ‘civilization’ in the Renaissance, none shone more brightly than Florence.
In the 15th century, that charming little town on the Arno possessed an importance to the history of European civilization well out of proportion to the scale of the city itself. But despite its cultural and intellectual dominance in the that century, Florence was riven with violent political factionalism and perpetually menaced by the threat of war with other Italian cities and, near the end of that century, by invasion from France. When politicians and pundits talk about how nasty politics is today, they pretend to have forgotten (or perhaps never knew) that even ostensibly republican politics of the past was a potentially deadly business.
For much of the 15th century, Florence was run by the Medici. Just as in any other free and fair political system, one man could not amass for himself the power to tyrannize over his fellow citizens, unless of course he first amassed a fortune with which to do it. Cosimo de’ Medici understood the golden rule – that he who has the gold makes the rules. And so, he used his wealth as Florence’s chief banker and financier for those who did hold political office, and contented himself to possess real power instead of its illusory trappings. Following Cosimo’s death, this state of affairs was largely upheld by his son Piero, but by the time the Medici bank was bequeathed to Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo de’ Medici, it was a little less amply stocked than it had been in Cosimo’s day, so Lorenzo thought it time for the Medici family to break into the business of openly running the state by holding political office.
Though Lorenzo was often spoken of in glowing terms by many of the Renaissance humanists to whom he sent a florin now and then, it seems that his compatriots entertained a less cheerful view of his heavy-handed tactics. In particular, the Pazzi family (the chief rivals to the Medici) resented the Medici supremacy as only someone in second place can. In 1478, the Pazzi attempted to kill Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano, but only Giuliano died. As invariably happens in such cases when a powerful man survives an assassination attempt, the conspiracy convinced him to consolidate his power. Enlisting the help of Naples, Lorenzo returned to the city and permanently banished all the members of the Pazzi family, who stayed banished until Lorenzo’s son, Piero, was himself banished from the city in 1494.
In the interest of brevity and tidiness, I have minimized the appearance of knives driven into bodies and bodies thrown into the Arno in the above narrative, but you can be sure that there was plenty of all of that. Florence in the 15th century was a violent place, where violent men did violent things to get hold of more power with which to do violence. People witnessed public executions in the streets; people witnessed extrajudicial murder in the alleys; people rioted, tore down monuments, stormed palaces, supported factions, opposed other factions, and made their feelings known in forceful ways as the mood struck them. But for all of this apparent chaos, there was in that very town, at that very time, an intellectual ferment which produced scholarship to strain the mind, political theory to chill the spine, and art so beautiful that only a heart of flint could maintain its pace when seeing it up close. Angelo Poliziano, one of the foremost Latinists of his day, is the man who wrote the primary contemporary account of the Pazzi conspiracy; he called Florence home. Marsilio Ficino was there. So was Leonardo da Vinci. Botticelli completed his Birth of Venus in 1480. Unrest may have prevailed in the streets, but the life of the mind was still pretty active inside.
The Florentine situation is not unparalleled. The height of Athenian cultural achievement occurred during the period largely marked out by the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War, which also saw a not insubstantial amount of internal factionalism. The Persians may have wrecked the city, but the Athenians just built it better the second time around. Perhaps if they had not spent so much time watching all those wonderful tragedies, they may have been more keen on preventing their own.
Similarly, Rome’s cultural zenith juts out from the 1st century BCE, at a time when the Romans had done such a thorough job spilling their neighbors’ blood that they had to take a turn spilling their own for a while. A few military and imperialist ventures punctuated the apparently endless series of civil wars, but for a better part of the century, it was Roman vs. Roman. It seems that the flow of blood materially improved the flow of ink, because no century contributed more to Latin literature than the one which began with the birth of Caesar and ended with the birth of Christ.
The literary machine was allowed to coast, and great stuff continued to be written until the reign of Nero, who thought that the best way to ensure his own literary reputation was to kill all the writers who might be worthy of one on their own. He killed a lot of writers, but as Seneca observed, no matter how many people the tyrant kills, his successor will always be one of the ones he didn’t kill. So there were plenty of later emperors, but great authors were in short supply. This time, the bloodshed made the inkwell run dry, and though some good writers now and then show up on the scene, Latin literature just wasn’t what it used to be. Roman civilization didn’t collapse when people rioted in the streets. In truth, it also didn’t collapse when Odoacer took the city in 476. It was, by then, just an old city with yet another new government, but all of the old civilization had fled when an endless succession of tyrants and military rulers made it clear that it was no longer safe to canvas for change when the inexorable logic of a broken system promised nothing more than to crush you under the newest set of purple shoes.
These are lessons to bear in mind when conservative commentators begin to decry the barbarians at the gates and ring the death knell for civilization simply because they see monuments to barbarism being taken down and people demanding the justice supposedly characteristic of that civilization. That stodgy old commentariat will try to scare people with dates like 476 and 1789, but will never ask themselves whose stubborn refusal to correct a broken system led to the events conjured up by those dates. Put simply, the equation of protest in the street and statues on their sides with the collapse of civilization is one developed by blockheads for dupes. They are wrong, and fail to consider that the agitation which they witness among their fellow citizens may not be the signs of incipient collapse or decadence, but may represent instead the first rumblings of a cultural ferment which will set us on the path to that ‘civilized’ society we so often hear of.