RALEIGH – In an influential recent book, Oxford University’s Bryan Ward-Perkins used such evidence as pottery shards, church floor plans, and the average size of cattle to argue persuasively for the traditional understanding of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire as a catastrophe from which Europe recovered only slowly.
What, pray tell, does my scintillating nighttime reading about the olive-oil markets of Gaul and bathroom graffiti in Pompeii have to do with public policy in North Carolina? No need to pray, I’ll tell.
Revisionism is an inescapable and often valuable feature of most disciplines, including history. Just because a consensus currently exists among scholars in a particular field doesn’t mean that the search for truth should be over. The consensus view – be it about the origins of the Big Bang, the risk factors associated with a serious illness, or the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays – may turn out to be a well-meaning but mistaken reading of an incomplete set of data. Or it may not even be a logical reading of the available data, influenced instead by personality conflicts, bias, politics, or fear (such as the fear of losing a job or being ridiculed for past work). As John Locke himself once wrote, “New ideas are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.”
But revisionism is itself subject to potential biases of various sorts. Young researchers, out to secure sufficient scholarly mention to get a tenured faculty position, can give in to the temptation to exaggerate the novelty of their findings or challenge orthodoxy just for the sake of being distinctive, combative, or in tune with the prevailing campus politics. Furthermore, in recent decades there has been an unmistakable trend in academia in favor of substituting a search for racism, sexism, classism, and other institutionalized oppression for a more traditional study of the arts and sciences. The resulting “scholarship” sometimes looks more like wish-fulfillment, agitprop, or unintentionally hilarious Monty Python material than it does an honest, serious effort to grapple with evidence and form reasonable conclusions.
In the case of Ancient Rome, a movement began in the 1970s to reject the old Edward Gibbon notion of a rise and fall of a great civilization (in the West, anyway) in favor of a new period called Late Antiquity, from about 200 A.D. to 800 A.D., during which there was a transition from an original Roman culture to a German-Roman culture. There was some necessary corrective going on here – Gothic immigrants and conquerors in the Western Roman Empire were Christians, albeit often of the Arian rather than Catholic persuasion, and had lived and traded with Roman communities for a long time before the sack of Rome in 410 or the capture of the last Western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476. But there was also a lot of fuzzy thinking and cultural relativism bundled up in the Late Antiquity movement. Ward-Perkins attributed the impetus for the movement in part to the European politics of the 1950s and 1960s, when politicians and intellectuals began trying to sell the idea of European unity, with its inevitable Franco-Germanic core, to a continent that still remembered recent Nazi barbarism. Emphasizing the continuity of Roman and German culture during the so-called Dark Ages, with a special emphasis on its Roman Catholic character, served the end of “mellowing” and “softening” European attitudes in the 1970s and making continental integration under German economic supremacy easier to accept.
But historical scholarship shouldn’t simply be an extension of politics by other means. It should be a search for truth. And the truth is that the Roman World was invaded by a series of Germanic and Hunnish tribes (and, in the East, by a succession of Persian states that served to prevent military assets from being used for defending the West). These invasions brought devastation and ruin to what had been a large-scale civilization of trade, learning, and relative peace.
I trust that the relevance of this story for those engaged in North Carolina politics and policy debate is becoming clearer. We should never mistake what we hope might be true, or what would be more consistent with our preexisting ideological suppositions or current political needs, for a fair reading of the available evidence. And while we should always be open-minded enough, in the Lockean sense, to consider substantive challenges to prevailing orthodoxy, neither novelty nor political correctness is a sufficient reason to abandon the presumption that the accepted wisdom, based on previous life experience and the prodigious efforts of lots of smart people from the past, might well be true.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.