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THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY
BY GUGLIELMO FERRERO
GENERAL surprise was expressed was interested in studying somewhat when, at the close of 1906, on my re- these most modern of people, the last turn from Paris, where I had been to make their appearance in the history giving a course of lectures on Roman of our civilization. Because I happened history at the Collège de France, I to have written a history of Rome, was announced that I had accepted the in- I to undertake never again to cast a vitation tendered me by Emilio Mitre glance at the modern world? to undertake a long journey to South Yet, even while thus explaining the America. What should I, a historian reason for my journey, I was as firmly of the ancient world, be doing in that persuaded as any of the friends who newest of worlds, in that ultra modern raised such objections, that my going continent, in those eminently practical to America would simply be a parenlands, without a past, interested only thesis in my intellectual life; that there in the future, where manufactures and could not be the slightest connection agriculture occupy that place in society between such a journey and my studies which in the ancient world was given to of ancient history; that, in a word, I war? Were there no other countries was going to America to seek diversion which could interest me more? Why, and intellectual relief, to distract my if I were willing to leave my books and mind, which for ten years had been my studies, to travel, did I not go to over-full of things ancient, by turning Egypt or to the East, where so much it into an entirely different channel. of the history which I had narrated That this diversion would be of use to originated; where the Romans had left me I was sure, not because America so many traces of their occupation; was to aid me to a better understanding where so many important excavations of ancient Rome, but because I have were being made; and thus enrich his always thought it most helpful, espetoriography with new documents? cially for a historian, — who has need
Whereupon, I made answer that I of knowing many things, - to change, was no book-worm, interested only in from time to time, the subject-matter books and archæological remains; that of his studies, and to enrich his mind I was interested in life under all its as- with new ideas. After visiting, howpects, and therefore, after having stud- ever, not only the two largest and most ied the peoples of the ancient world, I flourishing countries of South America, VOL. 106 - NO, 1
but the United States as well, - which, we find in it, álthough in a lesser de-
On one of the last days of my stay in East. For centuries the old Roman the United States I said this to a con- aristocracy sought, through legislation genial professor of ancient history at and example and especially through Cornell, with whom I was talking over religion, to impose upon all classes simour common work and discussing the ple and pure customs, to check the most famous schools of the day and increase of luxury, to keep the family the methods used in them.
united and strong, to curb dissolute * Many of you,' I said, 'go to Ger- and perverse instincts, to give a charman universities to study ancient his- acter of decency and propriety to all tory. I think you might better invite forms of amusement, even at the cost some of these German professors to of imposing upon all aspects of Roman take an advanced course in America: life an unadorned simplicity, and of studying, not so much in the libraries rendering difficult the development of as in real life, observing what is going the arts. In ancient Rome the effort on in American society. No one is in a to preserve the morality of the past, better position than you to understand the old simplicity and the religious spirancient society.'
it of former generations, was so great, This statement may at first sight and occupied so important a share in seem paradoxical, but nothing during social activity, that from it resulted my journeys in the two Americas has burning political struggles, law-suits, impressed me, as a historian of ancient and tragedies, laws severe and terrible. Rome, more profoundly than the dis- The family of Augustus, for example, covery in the New World of many of was almost wholly destroyed in the those phenomena of the Old World struggle between old puritanism and which, after the lapse of so many cen- Asiatic civilization. turies of civilization, have disappeared To understand the motives and fury from Europe. What we, at the begin- of this struggle is not impossible in Euning of the twentieth century, call an- rope, but it is difficult. For even in its cient civilization, was in reality a new protestant countries, Europe has been and young civilization, flourishing, but too long and too thoroughly under oriwith few centuries of historical back- ental influence to be able easily to imagground, similar to the American civil- ine a state so strongly dominated by ization of to-day; and for that reason, the force of the puritanical ideal. In
Europe, luxury has been regarded as a developed, her population multiplied, species of solemn, social function proper her wealth heaped swiftly up by ecoto the monarchy, the state, and the nomic progress, and when increase of church, for too many centuries to ad- wealth and more frequent contact with mit of its not being regarded by the the old world, together with greater masses as a pleasing spectacle, a sign European immigration, increased in of greatness, a cause of national pride America the tendency to borrow from and a source of profit, rather than in Europe those aspects of its civilization the light of a moral and social danger. which were the most ancient and most Besides, after centuries of license, liter- artistic, even if less pure morally, — ature and art have assumed the right then, I say, there occurred in America to beautify even vice, and having beau- what occurred in Rome when increased tified it, have cast it loose; and so, how wealth and nearer intimacy with the ever much religious teachers, moral- East caused the civilization of Asia to ists, and even governments may try to
be better known and appreciated: the rouse some power of resistance, the re- old puritan ideal in America came to sisting force is no longer strong enough, a hand-to-hand struggle against coreven in protestant states, to produce ruption, against the breaking-up of the a social struggle against existing condi- family, against those vices which are tions. Every one in Europe has come bred in the slums of great cities. to accept this liberty as an evil inher- This theory explains a curious fact, ent in modern civilization, and though and that is, that there has happened to many try to minimize its effects, no one, North America in relation to Europe, or hardly any one, thinks any longer within the memory of men, exactly what that the evil can be eradicated. has happened in past history to many
In North America, on the other hand, great Roman personages, and especialit is much easier to understand this ly to the emperors of the Julio-Claudaspect of Roman history, because there ian line. To some readers this comthe same fight is again being fought, parison must seem rather strange, but with much greater earnestness than in I hope that with a little explanation Europe.
it will become more intelligible. It is Precisely as in the age of fable, which well known that there is in Roman hiseludes our historical knowledge, Rome tory a period which, from the reputawas founded by a puritanical religion, tion that it bears, may well be called so it was with New England, that vital infamous. This extends from the death nucleus around which the United States of Sulla to the death of Nero, including was formed by a process of aggrega- the end of the Republic and the early tion. This puritanic religion stamped years of the Empire. This period has American society with a seriousness, a very bad reputation: not only was austerity, and simplicity which in Ame- it full of disorder, civil war, scandal
, rica, as in Rome, was preserved with- ous law-suits, but nearly all of its most out effort. It was preserved just so long illustrious personages were notoriously as the times were hard and difficult, vicious, beginning with the most illusjust so long as men were satisfied with trious of them all, Julius Cæsar. All à modest, hard-earned competency. were deep in debt, drunkards, gluttons, But when, thanks to the favorable con- spendthrifts; they were reputed dissoditions in which America, not unlike lute, when not accused outright of givRome, came into her own, her territory ing themselves up to the most degradextended by conquest, her industries ing pollution. There is no infamy that has not been attributed to them. Only full light of day, that first open attempt a very few have escaped this universal at a life more freed from the convencensure; and, with the exception of tions, was nothing short of an awful Pompey and Agrippa, those who did calamity. The puritan conscience reescape were of minor importance. The acted quickly because it still had life. others were either odious in the extreme, It described in terrible and lurid colors or else depraved like Lucullus, Crassus, the corruption of its time, while a later Antony, Augustus, Mæcenas, Tiberius, period, like that of the Antonines, in Nero, - to say nothing of the women which corruption was much deeper and of the Claudian line, who, when they more universal, has passed in history were not poisoners outright, were wo- as relatively moral, simply because at men of evil life, about whom historians that time the puritan conscience was tell every kind of horror.
no longer living. These later periods Therefore this period of history has considered as natural and inevitable furnished much material for novelists vices and disorders much more seriand dramatists who needed picturesque ous than those which, in Cæsar's time, and striking plots. But a philosopher when the moral conscience was still with a little knowledge of human na- keen, seemed to be abominable deture asks himself at once why, in the pravity. Men no longer protested as course of that century and a half, men in former times, and posterity, finding should be born with such propensi- that no contemporary spoke of the vice ties. The critic who examines these tales of his time, imagined that those periods with a little care soon perceives im- were models of virtue. Thus it is that possibilities, contradictions, and details in those periods of the world's history which are palpable inventions. Many in which corruption is most talked of these romances would have had less about, it is a sign that there is still a popularity if historians had all asked moral consciousness strong enough to themselves on reading Suetonius: How protest against evil. came Suetonius to know all these facts? Something similar to this chapter in Who could have told them? Thus, fol- the history of Rome has happened and lowing the course of events, it is quite is happening in North America. Among possible to gain a more precise and a the many extravagant opinions which simpler idea of these personages, put- are being formed in Europe about ting them back into their place among America there is one which looks upon common humanity with the usual vices the United States much as certain puriand the usual virtues, and then reduce tans in Cæsar's time looked upon Rome: to the absurd those stories which are as the most colossal sink of every vice quite impossible of verification. which wealth can produce; as the coun
How then are we to explain that ter- try where luxury has taken on the wildrible reputation for vice, debt, prodigal- est and most extravagant forms; cority, and extravagance? In that period ruption, the most incredible audacity; the struggle between the old Roman pleasure, unbridled license. The newspuritanism and corrupt Asiatic civiliz- papers, especially the yellow journals, ation raged fiercest, and in the course are the organs which are creating this of the struggle, exaggerated as all moral opinion. They describe from time to struggles are, a legend developed which time the Neronian feasts of some multiis simply the exaggeration of a reality. millionaire, the sultana-like caprices of To the old Roman conscience that first someover-rich American lady, and pubbold appearance of alien ways in the lish, with careless comments, statistics of divorce or of the consumption of aged by the traditions of ages, to one alcohol. Again they detail, as if it were where, on the contrary, it is limited and a Roman orgy, the wild excesses of held in check by a thousand moral obsome popular celebration: for example, stacles, puritan traditions, democratic the suppers with which the New Year principles, the reluctance of society at is ushered in. They scatter broadcast large to admire the rich who spend selfthe most scandalous details of trials ishly, — a conspiracy, as it were, of sufficiently scandalous to aspire to the social forces which obliges the rich to honor of being cabled across the ocean. spend for others.
In all sincerity I must confess that It is much the same, I should say, when I started for New York I had with the vices common nowadays to many of these ideas and prejudices my city life. All that I have seen and heard self, and I expected to set foot in a mod- concerning the vice of great American ern Babylon. If we read newspapers cities, alcoholism, gambling, immoralcarelessly, without submitting their ity, seems to me to be neither more nor statements to a careful investigation, less than I have seen in all the great we end by warping our opinions, even if cities of Europe. I have noticed these we are reasonable and educated per- sad features of modern civilization, but sons. Once landed in America, it was they are no more hideous in America easy for me to see that in the legend than elsewhere. I shall never forget the there was great exaggeration. For ex- evening which I spent with an agreeample, there is such a thing as American able and clever journalist who took me luxury, but it is very different from to see the horrors of New York. For what the European imagines it to be. several hours we went about to restauIt is the extravagance of the middle rants, bars, and places of amusement. rather than the upper classes. I have I saw and noted with great attention often had occasion to note, while in what was pointed out to me, but I the company of men who live on a sal- could not help, at last, coming to the ary, professional men, business men, conclusion that some day, if I were to and manufacturers of moderate means, take my guide on a similar tour around that persons of the same status in Eu- one of the great capitals of Europe, I rope would live much more simply, or could show him much more! Taking at least would spend less freely than in the Catholic countries of Europe as the America. But as for the extravagance basis of comparison, the only differof the rich, or very rich, it is indisput- ence that I could perceive was that in ably greater in Europe. The legend of America the family tie is weaker. Dithe wild, unheard-of extravagance of vorce is too easy by far; the women are the rich in America could only have too emancipated; the children too inbeen created and circulated throughout dependent of parental control. In this Europe by persons, whether American respect it has seemed to me that Ameror European, who had no idea of the ica has reached a limit beyond which extravagance of the rich classes in Eu- really dangerous social disorder lies. rope, especially in those two great cen- What then is the explanation of the tres of European wealth, London and fact that in the European world every Paris. The European acquainted with one is talking of
American extravagance, the extravagance of Europe receives American vice, American corruption, the impression on arriving in America and of disorders of every kind which that he is passing from a world in which afflict the American family, city, state, extravagance is fostered and encour- and affairs? Why are noisy New Year's