Monday, December 19, 2011

Maybe I Should Not Have Read That Book ...

Part of the apricot orchard the covers the ground between our City Hall and our Police Station. You and I see this and say, wow that's pretty. Someone else sees it and exclaims (as they do in a recent city brochure) "Eighteen Acres of Opportunity!"

It is curious how one book can resonate so differently with the same reader at different times in her life. I first read How the Irish Saved Civilization on a long business trip across the Atlantic, and I found it so witty and diverting I didn't even scowl back at the surly flight attendants.

Cahill's premise, that Irish monks laboring away in scriptoria saved the Great Books of the Greco-Roman world while Europe was awash in manuscript-burning barbarians, may be debatable. But he makes such a delightful case for it, it sounds like it ought to be true.

When I read it again, before heading to Ireland this winter, it struck me in a completely new way.

In order to fulfill the premise of his title, Cahill needs must present several chapters on how and why the Roman Empire collapsed in the first place. And since it took Gibbon six volumes, written over the course of thirteen years, to do the same thing, Cahill has to get into and out of that part of the book with alacrity.

Cahill's premise is that Rome's spending became so grandiose, as it spread its armies further out from its core, that it had to look for more and more ways to impose taxes on more and more of its citizens. The wealthy moved into villas as far away from the tax collector as they could, or, if that didn't work, bribed the tax collector, or, if that didn't work, kidnapped the guy.

It left the little people, whacking away at the wheat fields with their scythes, to support what had become an upside down pyramid.

Is any of this beginning to sound familiar? Well, that's how it struck me too.

His second premise is similar to Gibbon's in that both believe the society had begun to rot from within and that "the gradual loss of civic virtue" caused Romans to outsource the hard work of their empire to non-citizens from across the border(s) who eventually rose up and helped their fellow "barbarians" put a torch to the whole thing.

That also rang a couple of warning bells. A "loss of civic virtue." What a sad phrase that is.

Thus, the second time I read Thomas Cahill, his erudition and wit and love of the Irish went right past me as my mind dwelled on the similarities between the decline of the Great Roman Empire and our own.

I came home from Ireland with this on my mind. Asked a neighbor to get out of her Lexus for one night to go sit through a city council meeting where several of us were convinced hijinks were abroad in the land. She was just too busy. And in defense of the Lexus, I asked another friend, who drives a Volvo and she was too busy too.

It has finally dawned on me why the city council in this tiny town was so rude to the four of us who did show up. Because they can. They knew the lady with the Lexus and the other lady with the Volvo wouldn't join us. They know everyone's "too busy" to attend. This Orwellian council and its sisters and brothers across the USA have oozed into the vacuum created when civic virtue oozed out.

Winston Churchill read Gibbon when he was stationed in India with the 4th Queen's Own Hussars, and I think we can say that he bucked up and recovered from this cautionary tale and found his optimism in time to save the universe.

Maybe if I read all six volume of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I'll find some little piece of history in there that will buck me up too.

A math teacher told me once that every problem contains the key to its own solution. And, he said, if you look at the problem from every side, you will eventually find the key.

I'm looking teacher. I'm looking.

Our library is in the distance. Each of our civic buildings is linked by our apricot orchard, a living reminder of this valley's agricultural past. (You can Google that. Google now lives just down the road in Mountain View.)
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