Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things – bread and circuses!
– Juvenal, Satire X, “Wrong Desire is the Source of Suffering”
The “Fall of Rome” trope has always been an easy one to dismiss. After all, we’re stronger and more connected than they ever were, yes? The public is more literate, our history is stronger, and times are simply different than they were back so very long ago.
When the famous phrase “bread and circuses” was coined by Juvenal about 100AD, Rome was in an interesting spot. It would be several centuries more before the empire actually fell, but it had been no more than 50 years since it reasonably should have fallen. Decadence and corruption was actually behind them more than it was ahead of them at that point. They managed to survive Caligula and Nero and had dramatically stabilized under the Flavian dynasty, founded by the great hero Vespasian.
The vantage point was not one of absolute destruction, therefore, but more of unnecessary suffering. And Juvenal, great poet of a great age, summarized the political problem outside of politics itself. The root, he saw, was an inappropriate desire generally gripping the population.
Political and civic turmoil was only a symptom.
With this framework, we can contemplate the potential death or near-death of our Republic, which depending on who you ask may have already occurred. Unlike Rome, we are a Democratic-Republic, which is a fancy way of saying that we get the kind of government which we deserve. Every accusation leveled at the government – it is corrupt, it is lazy, it is ineffective, it is incapable of evolving – is really a confession of sorts.
The great beauty of Democracy is that the political process includes a very large mirror.
While we consider the state of unreality which is gripping America today, we have to see it as much more endemic than Trump, Congress, or anyone shilling on CNN. There is little doubt that “truth” is an entire negotiable commodity in the minds of most people involved. But the roots of this are considerably deeper.
Culturally, we are about as void of reality as any reality teevee show. Electing the star of such a production is actually the most reasonable thing we’ve done in a while.
The more I think about it, the more I have to conclude that this is nothing more than a symptom of Affluenza. It’s all ennui, that wonderful word for the boredom that comes from having it all. It’s stunning to think that in the richest nation in the world, the richest nation of all time, we find so many ways to turn our treasure into unhappiness. None of this is political issue as much as a mass psychological problem, a retreat into various fantasies ranging from the lives of celebrities to Hollywood eye candy to dystopian inventions which justify general bad feelings about the state of our lives.
That’s not to say that everyone is rich – far from it. Many people have a lot more than others, and we certainly have a nearly infinite capacity to walk past those who are homeless or otherwise in pain without thinking twice.
Culturally, however, we have absorbed the great luxury of living our entire lives in a fantasy. Our great treasure goes not to actually fixing important problems, such as increasing automation or a rapidly aging population. It goes instead to finding an appropriate scapegoat for our problems.
Of course, many people are left behind. Rural areas are suffering from the pull of better opportunity in cities as the nation continues to urbanize. Those left behind are often sucked into a wave of drugs, meth and opiods, which may be finishing off the next generation of rural life completely. The future has to be absolutely terrifying – meaning a retreat to a mythical past is actually a reasonable option.
It doesn’t solve a thing, of course. But it’s reasonable.
So back to Juvenal’s observation after a terrifyingly unreal period of history had passed. What went wrong? Nearly everything, it seems. But at the root of it all was a lack of proper understanding of what actually makes people happy. A world without hope or respect or empathy is a world of suffering.
What we have in front of us, screamed and shouted, twisted and convoluted, is nothing more than a constant cry of pain. That pain comes from a great deal of wealth and a great deal of want colliding in ways that make no sense whatsoever.
The fall of the Republic? All a matter of what we, the people, desire.