I am in a state of general decay. It’s OK. Father Time is undefeated, all good things …, over the hill, et cetera and so on. It’s showing up in the little things — the way my shoulder hurts when I extend my arm to read normal-sized print, the steady upward trend in the percentage of my friends routinely expressing strong opinions about doctors, the swiftness with which I adjusted to glasses. It is a gentle, gradual downslope from here.
It’s cool. I’m aware of the passage of time. All part of the experience. I’ve even looked forward to this part. This is supposed to be the restful part, the autopilot at cruise altitude. Birth, climb, peak, chill, death. I am aware I’m in decline, and I’ve known this since it became clear that I was headed for baldness when I was about 16.
When a civilization knows when it’s in decline is a much harder question, I think. What year d’you think was the last time a Roman citizen picked up a news scroll, sighed to once again see BARBARIANS ADVANCE or SENATOR CONVICTED, and thought “I wonder when things will go back to normal?”
Me, I’m gonna guess Rome coasted on reputation with normal Romans of average temperament for maybe 500 years past where they were when you stopped learning about them and Mrs. Krabapple moved on to the Magna Carta.
Lemme be clear: I’m not here to clutch my pearls. I don’t care if American civilization is declining or not. I don’t really have a rooting interest, no matter how I mix and match all the different things routinely cited as signs American civilization is in decline. Some things that happen add hope and some things that happen subtract hope. I understand there’s a balance and a rhythm to all this that works on timescales beyond one lifespan and that the narrative of life is woven by the brain from mostly random events. We’re all just along for the ride, which is how I have come to assume you, too, have been thinking about the decline of civilization lately.
Here’s what I’ve been idly thinking about: At what point in the decline of a civilization, any civilization, does the general populace understand that they are part of a civilization in decline? What has to happen? Mixed results from Western Europe. Brexit would seem to indicate the English have not yet generally grasped that the sun set long ago. France and Italy seem to have mostly settled calmly into comfy irrelevance, though, and I don’t get the sense there’s a lot of Make Spain Great Again sentiment hoping to reclaim South America or anything.
When d’you think it was that the average English person was taught … no, not “was taught.” What I wonder is when it was that the average English person simply understood that England was a country whose time on top had come and gone, forever. When did the Mongol Horde recruitment office start having a tough time meeting application quotas? At what point did roads start leading places other than Rome?
I guess what I wonder is, if one were part of a civilization genuinely in decline, would one know?
Alan Brouilette writes a monthly column for the Forest Park Review, a Growing Community Media publication.