Corruption in Ancient Rome And Its Counterpart in Modern History
In the pessimism with which the ancients regarded progress as corruption, 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. This force that pushes the new generations on to the future, at once creates and destroys; its destructive energy is specially felt in ages like Caesar's in ancient Rome and ours in the modern world, in which facility in the accumulation of wealth over-excites desires and ambitions in all classes. They are the times in which personal egoism - what to-day we call individualism - usurps a place above all that represents in society the interest of the species: national duty, the self-abnegation of each for the sake of the common good. Then these vices and defects become always more common: intellectual agitation, the weakening of the spirit of tradition, the general relaxation of discipline, the loss of authority, ethical confusion and disorder. At the same time that certain moral sentiments refine themselves, certain individualisms grow fiercer. The government may no longer represent the ideas, the aspirations, the energetic will of a small oligarchy; it must make itself more yielding and gracious at the same time that it is becoming more contradictory and discordant. Family discipline is relaxed; the new generations shake off early the influence of the past; the sentiment of honour and the rigour of moral, religious, and political principles are weakened by a spirit of utility and expediency by which, more or less openly, confessing it or dissimulating, men always seek to do, not that which is right and decorous, but that which is utilitarian. The civic spirit tends to die out; 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.
This is the state of mind that is now diffusing itself throughout Europe; the same state of mind that, with the documents at hand, I have found in the age of Caesar and Augustus, and seen progressively diffusing itself throughout ancient Italy. The likeness is so great that we re-find in those far-away times, especially in the upper classes, exactly that restless condition that we define by the word "nervousness." Horace speaks of this state of mind, which we consider peculiar to ourselves, and describes it, by felicitous image, as strenua inertia - strenuous inertia, - agitation vain and ineffective, always wanting something new, but not really knowing what, desiring most ardently yet speedily tiring of a desire gratified. Now it is clear that if these vices spread too much, if they are not complemented by an increase of material resources, of knowledge, of sufficient population, they can lead a nation rapidly to ruin. We do not feel very keenly the fear of this danger - the European-American civilisation is so rich, has at its disposal so much knowledge, so many men, so many instrumentalities, has cut off for itself such a measureless part of the globe, that it can afford to look unafraid into the future. The abyss is so far away that only a few philosophers barely descry it in the gray mist of distant years. But the ancient world - so much poorer, smaller, weaker - felt that it could not squander as we do, and saw the abyss near at hand.
To-day men and women waste fabulous wealth in luxury; that is, they spend not to satisfy some reasonable need, but to show to others of their kind how rich they are, or, further, to make others believe them richer than they are. If these resources were everywhere saved as they are in France, the progress of the world would be quicker, and the new countries would more easily find in Europe and in themselves the capital necessary for their development. At all events, our age develops fast, and notwithstanding all this waste, abounds in a plenty that is enough to keep men from fearing the growth of this wanton luxury and from planning to restrain it by laws. In the ancient world, on the other hand, the wealthy classes and the state had only to abandon themselves a little too much to the prodigality that for us has become almost a regular thing, when suddenly means were wanting to meet the most essential needs of social life. Tacitus has summarised an interesting discourse of Tiberius, in which the famous emperor censures the ladies of Rome in terms cold, incisive, and succinct, because they spend too much money on pearls and diamonds. "Our money," said Tiberius, "goes away to India and we are in want of the precious metals to carry on the military administration; we have to give up the defence of the frontiers." According to the opinion of an administrator so sagacious and a general so valiant as Tiberius, in the richest period of the Roman Empire, a lady of Rome could not buy pearls and diamonds without directly weakening the defence of the frontiers. Indulgence in the luxury of jewels looked almost like high treason.