Civilization is amazingly robust so long as everyone in its ambit agrees in a commitment to its fundamental proposals. When everyone in Rome does as the Romans do, Rome is (within her own precincts at least) invincible. But when the phalanx breaks even a little, it tends to fall apart altogether.
But then the phalanx, and the civilization which it serves and exemplifies, is for that reason terribly vulnerable to the least bit of moral deviation from her ends on the part of any of her members.
High civilization proceeds on the basis of a common agreement among all men that things ought to be done a certain way, and in no other. They may not all do them quite in that way, but they must all at least agree that they ought thus to be done. And this agreement must by its nature cover millions of conventions, that none of us notice, and that we all take for granted.
These thoughts arose in me as my wife and I crept up the ramp toward the San Francisco Bay Bridge the other evening in rush hour traffic. Everyone using the Bridge – more than 250,000 people per day – relies on an expectation that no one would think to blow it up, despite how easy it would be to do so. Even the criminal gangsters of a civilization would not think to blow up its bridges – or its dams, transmission lines, power plants, fuel depots, pipelines, subways, or any other of the thousands upon thousands of publicly accessible facilities which have been all built and maintained on the basis of a presupposition that people can generally be trusted to participate the civilization civilly. Even crime is a procedure of civilization. The hit man may shoot the priest, but it would never occur to him to burn the church.
Even the criminal and the gangster must feel, and enact, a certain loyalty to the civil order, upon which after all their own depredations depend for their profits. And this is a loyalty not merely nominal, but also, and primarily, personal, and indeed moral. Gangsters will go to war for the nation they love. What more is war than this, after all? What is it, more than men of all sorts and conditions burying their familiar and tribal disagreements and banding together in a coordinate connational gang to defeat another gang?
But then as we admit more and more men from alien civilizations that hate ours and would see it annihilated, who see it as their religious duty to destroy us, we should expect that all our public works will come under attack, sooner or later. What no mafioso would contemplate, the interlopers among us will eventually do – because they would, and because we make it so that they can.
Civilization is tremendously robust so long as the culture and cult that subvene it defend themselves consistently and thoroughly against their challengers. Practically speaking, the success of that defense depends upon unanimity – upon a pervasive, general, even pre-conscious loyalty to the basic propositions of society, and to the fellows who embody them. Men commit to each other, as friends and brothers; but friends and brothers are known in the first place by their shared loyalty to the cult that, as expressing the logos of their polis, they all love, and would if put to it die for. Such is morale: confidence that one’s folk is in the right, and that right must in the end prevail, nor death nor harrowing nor heartbreak.
We must give our adversaries this: they are passionately, honestly, totally committed to their harebrained notions, and many are willing to die for them.
But let their phalanx be broken by so much as a single shield, and the whole day is put at risk.
That we of the orthosphere exist at all, then, indicates that our civilization is rotted at its very roots. That we could even think such things as we think means that modernism has begun to devour itself. In a healthy culture, such revolutionaries as we would be unthinkable.
Diversity of opinion in respect to first things then is social suicide. It is the death of any social order that allows it. And people recognize that this is so; that is why today, on college campuses (where first things are traditionally plumbed), no diversity of opinion is brooked. Everyone must signal their agreement to the common cult, or be banished. No deviation may be tolerated.
We fool ourselves to think it is ever otherwise. As there is always an oligarchy, a priesthood, a market, a household, so is there always a Party line.
The weaker a society, the more pusillanimous or epicene, depraved, debauched, or just lazy, the more must it insist on public ritual obeisance to its cult in order to forestall its complete deliquescence. What is in itself wrong, and thus weak, must work hard to perdure; what is naturally well fitted to reality need not struggle at all.
Do our adversaries shriek and shout? They do. Their ritual scapegoating waxes incessant, and ever more desperate. What should that tell us?
It should tell us that their civilization is fragile, and liable to shatter; that they know this, and are afraid. When it does, what quiet, relentless, ancient patient thing will then rise up from the depths to overwhelm and replace it? What will happen when men suddenly come to their senses?
Parlous times, indeed. Yet dire as things now seem, we must remember that our challenge today is not different from those of our forefathers, or of our sons. Civilization is always fragile. Patience, then; and courage. Things are ever all made again new. We have every reason to hope. Lock shields!
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
– WB Yeats, The Second Coming