Western Civilization Is Not the Roman Empire

Statues at the museum of the ancient agora (market) in Athens, Greece. (John Kolesidis/Reuters)
Needed: Less Rome, more Athens, Jerusalem, and London

It wasn’t the first shot fired in the culture wars, but it was a catchy jingle and it caught the essence of things to come. In January of 1987, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and 500 or so students gathered at Stanford University to rally against the school’s humanities program by chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go.”

More than 30 years later, conservatives and libertarians would do well to join the reverend in his chant. The cost of tuition at Stanford and other elite schools has more than quadrupled in real terms. Total student debt in the U.S. has bloated to more than $1.5 trillion. Worse yet, the education has not improved despite costing more. Letting Western Civ go was just the beginning.

I have spent the last eight years railing against the failings of the American higher-education system, first through co-running Peter Thiel’s fellowship and now through a venture-capital fund, which, I believe, is the only firm shorting the bubble in higher education. My subversive activities have included giving students grants not only to dump Western Civ class but to forgo universities entirely. One of these young grantees, Vitalik Buterin, took our gift and launched an (as of today) $25 billion cryptocurrency, Ethereum.

Surveying our system of higher education as an antagonist, I have come to see that even though there are some 5,300 universities and colleges in the U.S., there is only one point of view on every campus. And as this single standard for right and wrong gushes out like an oil spill with every graduating class, the careers of the elite (McKinsey or Goldman Sachs) and their expensive playgrounds (San Francisco or New York) have swelled with risk-loathing conformists. How did this happen? I thought these schools were teaching critical thinking — or did my subscriptions to n+1 and The Baffler (which are magazines) lead me astray? You could switch the faculties of every major college and not notice a difference.

Maybe the answer isn’t too little Western Civ, but too much.

Of the four cities that have come to symbolize our historical understanding of the West and its inheritance — Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London — it is a Roman-style empire that has forced itself onto the world most frequently and intensely, always in the name of ensuring peace and prosperity. In the past, it was thwarted at Waterloo or Berlin. But nowadays it is more insidious, since we don’t recognize the undercurrent as Roman imperialism. Instead, this leveling force hides within terms such as “globalization” and it lurks behind the purposes of unifying political entities such as the European Union. It even emanates from Silicon Valley monopolies such as Facebook and Google, which want to compile data on every living person under the guise of “connecting” the world.

Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean established a vast realm of secure commerce that lasted for centuries. An impartial and universal law kept the peace within; military force pushed the expanding boundaries without. This exercise of Roman power came to imply an attitude toward the world that shaded over into a whole system of philosophy. Cicero, the consul and philosopher, expressed its unrestricted essence in his political masterwork De Re Publica: “There will not be different laws at Rome or Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and for all times.”

It is no surprise, then, that the Roman elite’s favorite philosophy, Stoicism, called for a kind of citizen of the world, a “kosmopolites.” One of the leading Stoic thinkers, Zeno, asserted that all the people of the world “should not live differentiated by their respective rules of justice into separate cities and communities, but that we should consider all men to be of one community and one polity.”

In keeping with the theme, the Financial Times declared Stoicism to be the new Zen of Silicon Valley, but perhaps one of the most Roman of ideas currently in circulation is the dream of inescapable global rule by a single divine artificial intelligence who, we hope, is beneficent enough to provide us all with a guaranteed basic income and circuses on Netflix.

What is political correctness but an imperialism of the mind? Not only must we live under the same laws, but we must think the same, too.

“I think Augustus is one of the most fascinating,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, recently told The New Yorker about his love of ancient Roman leaders. “Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace.”

The upshot of the will to Roman universalism has been an era of stagnation, military misadventures, and global fragility. If the West is to be saved in the next 25 years, the effort will hinge on resisting the Roman push for one world government — whether it is in the name of peace, global financial stability, or the environment, or to save us from runaway technologies.

For conservatives and libertarians to save the West, then, we must return to its roots. There is more to the West than Rome. We must return to London, Athens, and Jerusalem.

This will involve channeling our traditions of exploration, the quick Greek intelligence pushing competition among diverse Greek city-states, the dynamism unlocked by the common law of London paired with the idea of progress, and the heroic revelations and commitments of Jerusalem.

First, Athens. By ancient accounts, Aristotle compiled some 170 constitutions of city-states to write his Politics. Competition was not reserved for the Olympics; it pervaded all activities. It drove advances in drama, philosophy, science, and mathematics. “The West” is too homogeneous a whole. If nations truly differ, their peoples can explore without fear of being outlawed by universal law. If universities truly differ, research programs will chart new courses into the unknown.

London: The rule of law is one of the strongest factors in the origin and causes of the wealth of nations. But it’s not sufficient as an explanation. According to the economist Deirdre McCloskey, the industrial revolution started in England and nowhere else for a reason — its pervasive spirit of tinkering and invention, of improving one’s lot through trade, of prudence matched by risk — all this led to the enrichment of the world.

Lastly, Jerusalem. The Judeo-Christian theory of truth contrasts with the Greek. While scientific theories describe universal truths that hold for all time, the truths of Jerusalem are specific to a people, to a time, to a place. The theme is most powerfully expressed by the story of Abraham, in which God’s command to Abraham defies public reason. If we are to resist the madness of crowds, we need to mark our faith in independent judgment as sacred.

All told, the best political order will not be in the mold of a single empire, but rather of a myriad of independent states — monarchies, republics, democracies, something altogether new — competing to bring out the best in each other and their members. And hey hey, ho ho, the fall of Rome will not be lamented.

Michael GibsonMr. Gibson is a freelance writer and a co-founder of 1517 Fund, an early-stage venture-capital fund.


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