Satire is a matter of period. It flourishes in a stable society and presupposes homogeneous moral standards — the early Roman Empire and eighteenth-century Europe. It is aimed at inconsistency and hypocrisy. It exposes polite cruelty and folly by exaggerating them. It seeks to produce shame. All this has no place in the Century of the Common Man where vice no longer pays lip service to virtue. The artist’s only service to the disintegrated society of today is to create independent little systems of order of his own. I foresee in the dark age to come that the scribes may play the part of monks after the first barbarian victories. They were not satirists.
(Evelyn Waugh; quoted in Paul V. Mankowski, “Waugh on the Merits,” First Things, October 2017).
In modern history, as we have seen, personality has played, on the whole, a rôle of minor importance as compared with the times of classical antiquity. In fact, there is practically only one personality in modern history who, in many respects, is a true rival of the great personalities of antiquity, and in whom character of the mightiest force has had ample play. We mean Napoleon. He has, more especially by H. Taine, been likened to the men of the Renaissance. It is more correct to place him beside the men of classical antiquity. His intellect was indeed a most finely and evenly balanced instrument of thought, memory, and imagination. Yet his intellect alone could not have raised him to the height of his unparalleled position. It was the indomitable power of his character that turned circumstances, chances, and ideas into a mighty army of conquest and organisation. We are still too near to this colossal figure to be able to judge of him adequately. It is, however, certain that there was in Napoleon, in addition to the genius of the intellect, a genius of character, if one may use this expression. His very faults, nay, blunders, are manifestly the faults and blunders of character. He, together with the other character-Titans of history, help us to see more clearly how character, when given sufficient elbow-room by the impersonal causes of history, may influence the trend of events to an incredible extent. The very progressiveness innate in human intellect is hostile to the individual intelligence; whereas character, less elastic, less progressive, ranges itself with all the conservative and staying forces of history. The error, then, of the casual student of history consists either in a total neglect of the influence of character on human events, or in an exaggerated estimation of the effect of character on all the periods of history. Character, too, has its history; and it is part of the most important tasks of the historian to allot to character its due place in the array of the causes that have produced the great drama of man.
(Emil Reich, “History and Character,” The Nineteenth Century and After, Vol. LXIII, 1908, p. 271).
The concepts of Liberalism and Socialism are set in effective motion only by money. It was the Equites, the big-money party, which made Tiberius Gracchus’s popular movement possible at all; and as soon as that part of the reforms that was advantageous to themselves had been successfully legalized, they withdrew and the movement collapsed. Cæsar and Crassus financed the Catilinarian movement, and so directed it against the Senatorial party instead of against property. In England politicians of eminence laid it down as early as 1700 that “on ‘Change one deals in votes as well as in stocks, and the price of a vote is as well known as the price of an acre of land.” When the news of Waterloo reached Paris, the price of French government stock rose — the Jacobins had destroyed the old obligations of the blood and so had emancipated money; now it stepped forward as lord of the land. There is no proletarian, not even a Communist, movement that has not operated in the interest of money, in the directions indicated by money, and for the time permitted by money — and that, without the idealist amongst its leaders having the slightest suspicion of the fact. Intellect rejects, money directs.
(Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. II. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1918, p. 402).
It would be wrong to suppose that the man of any particular period always looks upon past times as below the level of his own, simply because they are past. It is enough to recall that to the seeming of Jorge Manrique, “Any time gone by was better.” But this is not the truth either. Not every age has left itself inferior to any past age, nor have all believed themselves superior to every preceding age. Every historical period displays a different feeling in respect of this strange phenomenon of the vital altitude, and I am surprised that thinkers and historians have never taken note of such an evident and important fact. Taken very roughly, the impression described by Jorge Manrique has certainly been the most general one. The majority of historical periods did not look upon their own time as superior to preceding ages. On the contrary, the most usual thing has been for men to dream of better times in a vague past, of a fuller existence; of a “golden age,” as those taught by Greece and Rome have it; the Alcheringa of the Australian bushmen. This indicates that such men feel the pulse of their own lives lacking in full vigour, incapable of completely flooding their blood channels. For this reason they looked with respect on the past, on “classic” epochs, when existence seemed to them fuller, richer, more perfect and strenuous than the life of their own time. As they looked back and visualized those epochs of greater worth, they had the feeling, not of dominating them, but, on the contrary, of falling below them, just as a degree of temperature, if it possessed consciousness, might feel that it does not contain within itself the higher degree, that there are more calories in this than in itself. From A.D. 150 on, this impression of a shrinking of vitality, of a falling from position, of decay and loss of pulse shows itself increasingly in the Roman Empire. Had not Horace already sung: “Our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begot us who are even viler, and we shall bring forth a progeny more degenerate still”?
(José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W.W. Norton, 1957, pp. 29–30).
The whole modern period from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century was a long period of revolt in which the traditional order of life and its religious foundations were being undermined by criticism and doubt. It was an age of spiritual disintegration in which Christendom was divided into a mass of warring sects and the Churches that resisted this tendency did so only by a rigid discipline which led to religious persecution and the denial of individual freedom. And this again brought religion into conflict with the spirit of the age; for it was an age of individualism, dominated by the Renaissance ideal of liberty of thought, the Reformation ideal of liberty of conscience, the individualist ideal of economic liberty, and the romantic ideal of liberty of feeling and conduct. It was an age of secularism in which the state substituted itself for the Church as the ultimate authority in men’s lives and the supreme end of social activity. And finally it was an age which witnessed the triumphant development of scientific materialism, based on a mechanistic theory of the world that seemed to leave no room for human freedom or spiritual reality. Today this process of revolution has worked itself out, so that there is hardly anything left to revolt against. After destroying the old order, we are beginning to turn round and look for some firm foundation on which we can build anew.
(Christopher Dawson, The Modern Dilemma. London: Sheed & Ward, 1932, pp. 102–103).
At the end of the fourth century, Claudian, last of the great Roman poets, wrote triumphantly of Rome’s eternity and omnipotence. But within a few years the compages of the Roman Empire began to crack, and within a century Romanized Europe from Sicily to Britain, and from the Danube to the Straits of Gibraltar, had dissolved —
Art after art went out and all was night.
Who knows what is written in the Book of Doom for the Europe of to-day? Who can spell the drift of its hollow states, or say how many will sink under the load of militarism into hopeless bankruptcy and helpless disorder?
(Francis W. Hirst, “The Eclipse of Europe,” The Yale Review, Vol. XI, 1922, p. 687).
Thucydides, one of the wisest of the old Greeks, who has left so much of his wisdom for our use and benefit, says: “History is philosophy teaching by examples.” If this be so, and we have no reason to doubt it, we need a full knowledge of history to enable us to judge the future by the past. If we would understand the condition of our own days we must go back and diligently study the olden times, with the causes and effects they produced — on the same great principle indicated by Oliver Wendell Holmes, when he says: “If you wish to know about a boy, turn back to his great grandfather.”
(George N. Black, “Historical Materials in the State Historical Library at Springfield,” Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, No. 4, 1900, p. 52).