Guglielmo Ferrero made his mark by writing The Greatness and Decline of Rome more than 100 years ago. In a later book titled Characters and Events of Roman History, he wrote of finding a "key that opens at the same time many mysteries in Roman history and in contemporary life." Ferrero explained that ancient historians and philosophers were obsessed with the subject of "Roman corruption, because ... they understood that wars, revolutions, the great spectacular events that are accomplished in sight of the world ... are but the ... final explosion of an internal force that is acting constantly in the family, in private habit, in the moral and intellectual disposition of the individual." The great changes that overtake nations and empires may be traced to the progressive advance of what we today would call narcissism, consumerism and individualism. Ferrero referred to these same phenomena in terms of "the increase of wants" and "the shifting of habits, the advance of luxury, the increase of expense that is caused by every generation."
As a society grows more prosperous, the desire to have more and more outpaces the ready supply. A man raised on a farm during the Great Depression may be careful with his money. His children or grandchildren, however, were brought up differently. They know nothing of poverty and deprivation. Their lust for enjoyment and consumption may be greater, and their need for money may outstrip their income. "The increase of wants and of luxury," wrote Ferrero, "continues ... in the new generation, in the children, who began to live in the ease which their fathers won after long effort and fatigue...." The tendency of the rising generation to demand more and more for itself means that the economy must continue to grow, and greater and greater wealth must be created. As Ferrero explains, "no generation can live quietly on the wealth gathered ... by antecedent generations, but is constrained to ... make new and greater wealth by all the means at its disposal - by war and conquest, by agriculture and industry, by religion and science."
The cult of economic optimism arises when the necessity for ever-accelerating economic growth becomes the unwritten law of the land. Everyone must believe in continued economic progress in order to keep the great wheel of Investment and Return in motion. Any notion that the machine must one day fail, or slow down, is revolutionary if not heretical. Investment must occur, for without investment the creation of wealth cannot continue. But here is the problem: the lust to consume and enjoy overtakes the necessity of saving and investing. Eventually, people begin consuming on credit. When domestic credit is exhausted they rely on foreign credit. In three generations America has gone from being a creditor nation to a debtor nation. In this great change the ancient writers and moralists would see the approach of destructive war, civil disturbances, political revolutions and upheavals. The poet Horace explained the process in three verses regarding four successive generations of his own countrymen: "Our fathers were worse than our grandfathers; we have deteriorated from our fathers; our sons will cause us to be lamented." The Roman historian, Titus Livy, wrote: "Rome was originally, when it was poor and small, a unique example of austere virtue; then it corrupted, it spoiled, it rotted itself by all the vices; so, little by little, we have been brought into the present condition, in which we are able neither to tolerate the evils from which we suffer, nor the remedies we need to cure them."
People are often spoiled by success. They are not merely spoiled in economic terms, but in political terms as well. It is not only credit that expands, but false ideas and democratic corruption as well. Politicians make ever-more extravagant promises with ever-more destructive implications. Fundamental family relations are overturned. Relations between the sexes are transformed as the individual's desires become the main focus of existence. Men and women think mainly of themselves. What has feminism become, in the end, if not a selfishness movement for a particular gender? One should also view the class warfare talk of certain politicians in the same light.
In ancient Rome the process of degeneration was linked to class warfare. According to Ferrero, "To satisfy their wants, to pay their debts, the classes [of Rome] now set upon each other, in the cruelest civil war that history records; now, tired of doing themselves evil, they unite and precipitate themselves on the world outside of Italy, to sack the wealth that its owners do not know how to defend. In the great revolutions of Marius and Sulla, the democratic party is the instrument with which a part of the debt-burdened middle classes seek to rehabilitate themselves by robbing the plutocracy and the aristocracy...."
Ferrero warned of a "universal law of history" that determines the onset of wars and revolutions. "The United States is subject to that law today," he explained. But the modern Americans did not see the danger 100 years ago, and they barely glimpse it today. For the ancients, progress was something sinister. It signified the advance of incurable decay and the corruption of customs. Today, wrote Ferrero, "on the contrary, [progress] appears to us a universal beneficent process of transformation." It may shock our libertarian sensibilities, but the ancient Romans believed the state "should survey private habits, should spy out what a citizen, particularly a citizen belonging to the ruling classes, did within domestic walls - should see whether he became intoxicated, whether he were a gourmand, whether he contracted debts, spending much or little, whether he betrayed his wife."
Time and again in Roman history, corruption was beaten back by harsh laws. And so the Roman Empire endured for hundreds of years. But modern culture has predicated itself on exploiting the multiplication of wants and desires. According to Ferrero, "it is certain that in the modern world every increase of consumption, every waste, every vice, seems permissible, indeed almost meritorious, because men of industry and trade, the employees in industries ... have acquired, thanks above all to democratic institutions ... an immense political power that in times past they lacked." Incredibly, ancient philosophers had more influence in their day than beer-makers and distillers have today. It is an extraordinary situation, is it not, when narcotics traffickers outpace booksellers by hundreds of billions in sales each year. The lurch into hedonism brings the victory of crystal meth - not only in the street, but in the schoolroom as well (i.e., in the treatment of so-called "attention-deficit" hyperactivity disorder).
"In the pessimism with which the ancients regarded progress as corruption," wrote Ferrero, "there was a basis of truth, just as there is a principle of error in the too serene optimism with which we consider corruption as progress." For many decades personal egotism has advanced under the cover of "progress." Our worst vices flow from this situation. Ferrero listed these vices as follows: "intellectual agitation, the weakening of the spirit of tradition, the general relaxation of discipline, the loss of authority, ethical confusion and disorder." The government ceases to represent the wishes of a narrow oligarchy. Instead, it yields to popular demands, thereby becoming "more contradictory and discordant." Ferrero further noted, "Family discipline is relaxed; the new generations shake off early the influence of the past; the sentiment of honor and the rigor of moral, religious, and political principles are weakened by a spirit of utility and expediency...."
Most dangerous of all, from the standpoint of national survival, is the decline in civic spirit. According to Ferrero, "the number of persons capable of suffering, or even of working, disinterestedly for the common good, for the future, diminishes; children are not wanted; men prefer to live in accord with those in power, ignoring their vices, rather than openly opposing them. Public events do not interest unless they include a personal advantage."
The true cause of wars and revolutions may be found in private habits of spending and borrowing. The ultimate consequences of private behavior may be observed in political upheavals and military disasters. In the wake of 9/11 and the failures in Iraq, people want to know what is wrong with the FBI and the CIA. The problem, however, stems from the fact that the FBI and CIA partake of the same vices that society as a whole embraces. It is a situation in which vices are not embraced as vices. They are seen as "progressive" and "enlightened." According to Ferrero, "Modern civilization has made it a duty for each one to spend, to enjoy, to waste as much as he can, without any disturbing thought as to the ultimate consequences of what he does. The world is so rich, population grows so rapidly, civilization is armed with so much knowledge ... that today we are able to laugh at the timid prudence of our forefathers...."
But how much longer will we laugh?