Catching up on unread bookmarks from this year. This observation on Tacitus’ Germania reminds me that I’d like to read something on the origination of the decadence of civilisation trope – here ‘the corrupting influences of modern urban existence.’ – and its mutation and persistence through history:

In perhaps one of the more detailed early instantiations of the myth of the noble savage, the historian tacitly opposes his decadent fellow Romans to the rural, chaste, and freedom-loving Germanians, who — sheltered within their deep, primeval forests — have yet to succumb to the corrupting influences of modern urban existence.

Thrones Wreathed in Shadow: Tacitus and the Psychology of Authoritarianism – Iskander Rehman, War on the Rocks

In his book on historiography, History of Histories, Colin Burrow identifies a version of this nexus in Herodotus:

Another aspect of the East–West contrast, with a long future as a historiographical cliché, is attributed to Cyrus the Great, and quoted by Herodotus as almost the last words of the whole work: ‘Soft countries breed soft men,’ and have to suffer the rule of aliens. Warned by Cyrus, the Persians choose for preference to live in a rugged land, but the association in European thought and historiography conveyed by the phrase ‘Asiatic softness’ was to endure down to the nineteenth century. The East-West antithesis was to be highly significant for the Greeks and Romans. Through them it reached a particular pitch of intensity in the European Enlightenment, and it still echoes resonantly in nineteenth-century historiography and the literature of imperialism, and in this long tradition Herodotus is by no means the most biased and unqualified manipulator of it.

Burrow, John. A History of Histories (pp. 19-20). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

To emphasise the point:

Athens became for Herodotus the great protagonist of Greek freedom in opposition to eastern despotism. This contrast – which Herodotus increasingly makes apparent, and in which the other Greek states, and particularly Sparta of course, participate in varying degrees – was to be an immensely enduring one in Western historiography and political thought, setting liberty against servitude, law against the tyrants’ will, frugality, hardihood and valour against luxury and timidity.

Burrow, John. A History of Histories (p. 19). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

To be absolutely clear, this is three different but I think related concepts:

  • The corrupting influence of the city (something to which it’s hard to imagine the early Greeks with their concept of the polis subscribing, but was surely a live argument in Athenian democracy?) and the converse virtue of the country and hard labour
  • The corrupting influence of decadence and luxury (being found in the city)
  • The source of that decadence in the East, specifically the Levant and beyond, being imported to the ‘West’.

As I say, I think this mutatis mutandis persists. To what extent is it deeply psychological and if so why? Most of us live in cities and comparatively speaking in the highest level of historical luxury. To what extent is it determined by a very persistent set of constructs? Pastoral innocence, moral value of hard work and physical labour? What is its persistent environment niche as a framework? Who typically perpetuates and expresses it? And who has no truck with it? It was of course deeply embedded in Romanticism, but after all corrupt city and virtuous country parallels played a significant part in aesthetics, plots and morals well before Romanticism in its full flowering.

It’s probably fair to say that the ‘Eastern’ or ‘Oriental’ element has decreased with globalisation. Who are seen as the sources of that ‘corruption’ now?

Author: diasyrmus

A melancholy emblem of parish cruelty.

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