Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Modern Moral Decay and Early Christianity

I saw an interesting piece by June Carbone (hat tip: Naked Capitalism). She is a law professor who writes extensively on marriage, divorce and family obligations, especially within the context of the recent revolutions in biotechnology (Access to her papers). I don’t think she thinks of herself as a conservative, and I would agree.  But I also find that it is often is often the scholars with “liberal” interests are the only people who look deeply enough at some types of social issues to actually draw any conclusions from their work: in other words there may be some hand-waving but there is some substance to go with their hand-waving.

In her piece she takes exception to a David Brooks New York Times column that has “modernism” being a primary culprit behind the “’relativism and nonjudgmentalism’ of the young”. In her mind it is the poor economic conditions that are creating a decline in values and community, not modernism. In fairness, she brings substance to her views. I think she does show that people within economically depressed communities do suffer from a moral decline.

However, I within her point about economic decline, she actually makes a strong case that modernism does lead to a collapse in societal values toward individual and relativistic-driven moral attitudes. Note that there is something to be said for individual and relativistic-driven: some would call it being open minded.

Thirty Years of Class Warfare Against the Working Class
June Carbone, New Economic Prospective, 19 September 2011 (hat tip: NC) [my emphasis in red]

Brooks writes as though the country has – or should have – a set of shared values. Yet, he ignores class and cultural differences in the way values are formed and expressed. In doing so, he fails to address the most critical question the country faces: how can we maintain a sense of shared values when the institutions that support one part of the country flourish at the expense of those critical to the part of the country in decline. In short, the decline of the middle class and the soaring poverty rates … are far more significant issues than anything in Brooks’ column.

Brooks misses the connection between the two because he conflates a centuries-long phenomenon – the development of modernism -- with more recent changes that are appropriately a source of concern: the decline of community. Studies of the difference in values between modernists and traditionalists emphasize, as does Brooks, the importance of community. These researchers find that traditionalist communities, whether they consist of specific church groups, developing world nations or working class neighborhoods, tend to be characterized by close kin networks, while modernist communities have networks more likely to be defined by something other than blood ties. These differences mean that the source and content of moral transmission varies: modernists tend to rely on individualized internalized values transmitted within private networks while traditionalists depend more on the health of institutions that articulate and reinforce pubic values.

She goes on to give some excellent examples of the distinction in value systems based on her own life experiences. She notes that a system of individual values takes a lot more effort than a system based on “revealed, inherited and shared,” values based on community base institutions.

Her (partial) conclusion:

What Brooks doesn’t tell you is that the real crisis in contemporary American society is the weakening of the institutions that serve those on the losing end of the American economic ladder. One of the startling observations in the Moynihan Report of the mid-sixties was his finding that as jobs disappeared from rustbelt inner cities so, too, did church attendance. A half century later, Brad Wilcox has found the same thing among the working class more generally. With economic decline that has disproportionately affected traditionalist America, the institutions that produced cohesive communities, including churches, schools, families and civic organizations, are in decay. Modernity with all its faults, however, is not the principal source of the problem.

I am not defending Carbone. He is at times a simplistic hand-waver of the worst type.

However, the problem with Ms. Brook’s thesis is that she ignores the mechanics behind the decline.

Your classic traditionalist community will generally be found as a small stable group within a much larger grouping (Chinatown), or as a small isolated group unto itself (small town U.S.A.).  As I highlighted above, they tend to be characterized by close kin networks.

Part of our current version of modernism is increased communications and globalization.  Within the expansive network that makes up our modern economy, the centralized large nodes tending to get larger with time. These trends have led to larger and larger megalopolises with the population coming from the small once active vibrant areas. The function of this network also tends to lead to increased work specialization.  The specialist must follow the work, and that work will typically be at the core. These modernizing trends tend to cause a break up of traditionalist communities. We have discussed this "large driving out the small" a number of different times (here, here 2, and indirectly here3).

Economic, or demographic, decline can also lead to “values” problems in a traditional community that hits economic hard times (Black Inner City circa 1960).  Generally the individuals with best opportunity and the most ambition are the ones to move out. Today for example, rural communities in North Carolina have a continual problem in that they spend money on their children’s education, but that the best educated move on after graduation to somewhere with more opportunity. And since American children do not have a tradition of sending remittances home, as might a migrant worker, there is not a lot of up-side for the community.

I don’t suppose it would be axiomatic (self-evidently true) that the loss of the best educated and most motivated would lead to a moral decline, but it shouldn’t be taken as a complete surprise. It is not that the people left behind become worse, it is that a portion of the best are skimmed off the top. If the economic and/or demographic pressure were to continue, it does not take a lot of imagination to see a self reinforcing downward spiral setting in.

So both the thesis that modernism can lead to a collapse in traditionalist moral values, and that declining economics lead to a collapse in traditionalist moral values might very well both be true. It is not even necessary to argue (as some might) that some elements of modernism cause the economic collapse.

What I find interesting is element of modernism changing the behavior of a traditionalist society has occurred before.  And you can even see where stress within the modern setting can lead to rabid breakdown or change. 

A similar set of modernizing circumstances and stresses in the Roman Empire after the death of Jesus, were in part responsible for the rise of a new religion and religious organization in Western Europe: Christianity and the Catholic Church [We are leaving aside the issue of Devine will as it brings up thorny issues of agencies and free-will].

Roman world was an amazingly “global” empire. People could, and did move all over the place. A person could easily move from one end of the empire to another in one summer’s time.

Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, Harper Collins, Princeton NJ, 1996.

Anyone could cross the empire from one end to the other in a summer, and travel was common Meeks (1983:17) reports a merchant's grave inscription fond in Phyrygia that attests to his having traveled to Rome seventy-two times, a distance of well over a thousand miles, and Ronald Hock 919080) estimates that [the Apostle Saint] Paul covered nearly ten-thousand miles on his missions. As Meeks put it, "the people of the Roman Empire traveled more extensively and more easily than anyone before them did or would again until the nineteenth century"(1983:17).

The Romans were also a very commercial economy. As John Dominic Crossan (1998) has noted, contemporary pottery factories were located in (Kefar Hananya) Galilee. Rome also produced industrial pollution.  After its collapse, pollution levels of Rome would not be matched until the 18th century in Europe.   Even by the standards of some very glorious ancient empires, there size and reach was extraordinary.

Now just as modernism today has its good and bad points, so it was with Rome.  In a settled agricultural community, if the population rises beyond a certain carrying capacity, people begin to starve. Even in good times, a family with too many sons either has sons who have to go somewhere else, or sons with very small plots of land. In the Roman Empire, the extra people generated by the rural hinterland had the option of moving to the cities. Cities were unclean places, and until the 20th century advances in bacteriology, cities needed a constant influx of people to keep their enterprises going.

To illustrate the effect on a traditionalist community, the Jewish community, unlike the pagans, had a very pro-life attitude that tended to a very large number of females growing to adulthood, and correspondingly a lot of children.  They also had rules, adopted in a more expansive form by Christianity, about helping those in need.  All of this would tend to lead population pressures, and the need of many of the young families to find employment away from home.

Thus, much as today’s rural communities educate their children so that they can leave for the big cities, the Jews likewise moved into the cities of the Roman Empire. By 1 A.D. there were more Jews living in the Diaspora (outside of the area of the ancient Kingdom of Israel) than within.  As Stark notes, the population of the Diaspora was likely around five to six million, compared to about one million in their traditional homeland.  Thus you can see an ancient example of a modern global economy helping to break up a traditional culture based around the Temple in Jerusalem.  If you want to look for a more modern example, you could note the number of Puerto Ricans in the United States passed the number of Puerto Ricans on their home island in 2003.

The cities that these Jews moved to were a complete chaotic mish-mash. Using Rome's fourth largest city, Antioch, as a model: Stark continues:

Historians have tended to present a portrait of the Greco-Roman city as one in which most people-rich and poor alike- were descended from many generations of residents. But nothing could be further from the truth, especially during the first several centuries of the Christian era. As noted, Greco-Roman cities required a constant and substantial stream of newcomers simply to maintain their populations. As a result, at any given moment a very considerable proportion of the population consisted of recent newcomers-Greco-Roman cities were peopled by strangers...

When founded by Seleucus I, the city [Antioch] was laid out in two primary sections - one for Syrians and one for Greeks [the Macedonian ruling class] - and, taking a realistic view of ethnic relations, the king had the two sections walled off from one another (Stambaugh and Balch 1986). According to Downey (1963), the ethnic origins of the original settlement consisted of retired soldiers from Seleucus's Army [one of the successor armies to Alexander the Great's] Macedonian army, Cretans, Cypriots, Argives, and Harakleidae (who had previously been settled on Mount Silipius), Athenians from Antigonia, Jews from nearby Palestine (some of whom had served as mercenaries in Seleucus's army), native Syrians, and a number of slaves of diverse origins....And of course a substantial number of Romans were added to this mixture when the city was seized by the empire in 64 B.C.E. During the days of Roman rule, the city drew an influx of Gauls, Germans, and other "barbarians," some brought as slaves, others as legionnaires.

Although the various peoples did tend to segregate themselves into ethnic quarters, the turnover in these cities did not lead to the type of stable kin groups needed for a traditional society founded on institutions. 

We also have an example of stress causing an increase in the breakdown in values.  In this case we will change from looking at the Jewish community, and look at the broader pagan community that made up the majority of the population.

As we don’t have detailed GNP reports on the various portions of the Roman Empire, we will look at another type of stress:  epidemics.

In 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire.  Some medical historians suspect that it was the first appearance of smallpox in the West [Zinsser[1934] 1960). But whatever the actual disease, it was lethal. During the fifteen-year duration of the epidemic, from a quarter to a third of the empire's population died from it, including Marcus Aurelius himself, in 180 in Vienna (Boak 1947, [et al]). Then in 251 a new and equally devastating epidemic again swept the empire, hitting the rural areas as hard as the cities (Boak 1947; [et al]). This time it may have been measles. Both smallpox and measles can produce massive mortality rates when they strike a previously unexposed population (Neel et al. 1970).

Although, as we shall see, these demographic disasters were reported by contemporary writers, the role they likely played in the decline of Rome was ignored by historians until modern times [Zinsser et al]. Now however, historians recognize that acute depopulation was responsible for policies once attribute to moral degeneration...

The pagans within the cities, with the very loose social structure of immigrants, and had a religion that (usually) did not subscribe to the possibility of a better afterlife.  Not too surprisingly they tended to panic.  And much as today, people who are able to leave economically depressed areas to look for a better place, pagans with the means left the cities- just a whole lot faster.  Those who could, would flee. Stark quoting the Bishop Dionysus at the time of the second epidemic (circa 260 A.D.):

At the first onset of the disease, [the heathen] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.

When these plagues occurred, the pagan society within these cities did not react very well. Presumably the pagans that lived in the countryside had the usual community and cultural ties that would allow them to help each other, and assure that people who were recovering from their illness would not starve. But the cities had no social services, and very little community.
Although the causality is different, you have the same breakdown in leadership which you do in a modern setting when the local economy collapses.

The Christianity of that day was the perfect fit for this situation. Because the Christians of that time were occasionally persecuted, it was not a religion of slackers.  A group that is self selecting toward the possibility of facing death-by-torture, or death-in-the-arena, is not going to have a problem staying with those invalided by illness and nursing them back to health. Christians would also, to the extent of their resources, do their best to help their pagan neighbors. Thus, even discounting for increased death rates among the caretakers, the estimated 30% increase in survival rates of the invalids will go a long way toward increasing both the relative number of Christians and grateful pagans within the city.

Christianity thrived within the urbanized industrialized global economy of the Roman Empire. Beyond its care-taker advantages derived from its views of the hereafter, its pan-ethnic nature, and singular philosophy brought stability to an unstable situation.

Today, we use government to bring that stability. But Government tends to have a free loader problem.  As modern governments have extended their reach and power, the desire to co-opt the government to the purposes of powerful special interest groups is very strong.  Many of the complaints about our current situation center on issues of who is free loading, and who are the deserving parties.  The Romans “helped” the early Christians by making it just dangerous enough to keep the non-serious away, but not so dangerous that it actually forced Christian activities underground.

Ms. Carbone and I would likely disagree on who is deserving.   I doubt my list is a long as hers.  However, one point I will concede to her (though I am not thrilled about it) is that our government does act to prop up many small traditional value communities.  It also acts in such ways as to promote large business interests (the corporate persons) at the expense of the individual: crony capitalism if you will.  So while I am not exactly thrilled with the form of our current government, it can act as a break on further erosion of traditional values by taking away the government incentives that drive much of today’s corporate policies.
When the Romans found that their old ideals of civic virtue were not working, and began looking for social norms and community to fit their changing circumstances, they turned to Christianity.  It took about 300 years.  Although Christians have not always lived up to their own ideals (to put it mildly) they did shift the bar toward a much more benign helpful way of viewing society.
When the Germans began looking for new social norms after their World War 1 defeat, and the economic collapse of the early 1930s, they moved very quickly, and found an entirely different type of solution.
If we move quickly to collapse our current society, whether by accident or design, which type of solution do you think modern Americans are most likely to find.

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