TACITUS AND THE RETURN OF TRADITION
Raw Egg Nationalist
If you’ve been in any one of the many Twitter enclaves of the right-wing or trad catholic over the past five years, the ‘return-to-tradition’ meme can hardly have escaped your notice. In its various iterations, the meme enjoins the viewer to reject the decay of the present and embrace the superior past. It usually does this with a single positive image representing tradition – a medieval church, an old master painting, a marble statue, a sepia photograph, and so on – or a comparison of two images, such as a TikTok ‘thot’ and a modest, motherly woman of yore. Perhaps you’ve even made one of these memes yourself. I’m not judging you.
Of course, memes being memes, the original purpose and message have been subverted to varying degrees. Now you’re just as likely to find a return-to-tradition meme decrying the new exterior of Nickelodeon headquarters as the decline of the Catholic Church after Vatican II. And there are more sophisticated attempts at subversion too. Some of the smartest feature vases depicting certain ‘traditional’ Greek sexual practices. If you know, you know…
At the outset, let me say I’m well aware there’s something ridiculous about deconstructing memes. Memes aren’t meant to be essays, but arresting images that grab you first by the guts, as I believe T.S. Eliot said good poetry should. There’s something inescapably pitiful, then, about any ‘deep’ analysis of their content, in the same way there’s something inescapably pitiful about explaining why a knock-knock joke is funny. It’s just painful – a true case of murdering to dissect.
Pathos aside, though, there is still something to be gained from analysing return-to-tradition memes. They really do represent a particular way of thinking about the past, one that encapsulates some of the most fundamental problems not just of the present-day online right, but of conservative thinking in general. The Marxist critic Raymond Williams would have described this shared sensibility as a ‘structure of feeling’, and I think the term is apt, regardless of what I think of the man himself.
Conservatism, as a structure of feeling, is fundamentally backward-looking. When painting with a large brush, some fine detail is of course lost, but as a broad-strokes statement about conservatism, this should be as close as they come to indisputable. Where the leftist, more or less rabidly, believes with Marx that ‘the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’, such a sentiment is – or should be – totally inimical to the conservative. Tradition is our inheritance, a storehouse of wisdom and good sense paid for with blood and sweat and that we tamper with at our peril. (The immediate objection that modern conservatives have done little in the way of conserving what remains of the past in the present, is thoroughly beside the point. If anything, all this reveals is the extent to which political conservatism has become a flayed skin, a hideous disguise worn in an increasingly grim public ritual. Indeed, the failure of political conservatives to conserve is perhaps best illustrated by the following truth: that ‘forward-looking’ and ‘forward-thinking’ are almost universally seen as positive descriptors now.)
Okay. So if all conservatism is in some sense a longing to return to tradition, what would it actually look like to do that? How would it actually happen? Is it even possible?
In reality, these are questions that dog conservatives of every variety, high and low – online and off. Far too little time and thought are given to the conditions that would make it possible to revive and sustain conservative institutions and values. In the political sphere, well-considered concrete measures are the exception, never the norm. Perhaps the best example of this is Victor Orban’s tax policies to encourage young Hungarian couples to marry and have children, which few have taken any notice of, let alone tried to emulate.
Even conservative thinkers who’ve spent a great deal of time thinking subtly about the relationship between past and present seem to have little to say about what we actually need to do to begin, practically, to reverse the failures of modernity. A case in point is Alasdair MacIntyre, one of my favourite moral philosophers when I was a student. Although a notion of ‘tradition’ is absolutely central to his historical account of the failure of Western moral philosophy – in MacIntyre’s reading, a coherent moral tradition is precisely what is lacking today – the sum total of his practical advice on how to return to it is just a deus ex machina. Quite literally, in fact, for only a restored Catholic church, in its rightful medieval place at the centre of all life, will do. Thanks, Alasdair. Very cool!
Among the massively online right of today, by contrast, the besetting tendency would be LARPing. That’s ‘live-action roleplaying’, if you didn’t know – basically, playing dress-up. Nowhere is this more manifest than in the tradwife meme, which has even been the subject of coverage – scornful, of course – from the London Guardian. For too many, the choice to throw off third-wave feminism and throw on the garb of a 1950s housewife appears to be nothing more than a mere fetish, just like BDSM or any other kind of sexual power-play. It remains an act of liberal choice, a new flavour of kink. The mind that animates it is pornographic through and through.
It’s not a wonder, then, with these failures of political conservatism and of conservative thinking, that some almost inevitably look to catastrophe as the solution, especially online. Perhaps all we can really do is wait for the ice caps to melt and wash the whole stinking mess away? Apart from the deeply unattractive fatalism, such an attitude displays a totally unrealistic vision of what a post-apocalyptic world would really be like, despite the great profusion of television shows, films, games and novels on the subject. If you want a taste of what things might be like in such an event, I’d recommend putting down whatever bucolic novel or history book it is you’re reading and looking instead at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or Bosnia during the ‘90s war. It’s not pretty and it’s definitely not what you want. Or I.
What I think we need, really, is a dose of hard-headed pragmatism; and who better to supply it than that most hard-headed of Roman historians, Cornelius Tacitus? His famous ethnographic text, the Germania, provides a window into the soul of a man, and a civilisation, grappling with the enormity of the changes brought by success, dominance and the inevitable complacency and decline that follow (sound familiar?). As he sought to confront an uncertain future, Tacitus, like all conservative thinkers, looked to the past for renewal, but his attitude, and the solution he provided, could not be further from the wishful thinking so in evidence today.
Most if not all recent coverage of the Germania, a short ethnographic description of Rome’s mostly unconquered neighbours across the Rhine, has focused on its uses and abuses in the twentieth century, especially by the Nazis. The great historian Arnaldo Momigliano (1908-1987), notably, placed the Germania towards the very top of the ‘one hundred most dangerous books ever written.’ He wasn’t joking, either. Since the events of 1933-45, the Germania has been ascribed a sort of ex opere operato ability to make people, especially Germans, do very bad things, and this of course has overshadowed other potential uses of the text.
This is a shame, because in no way was it Tacitus’s aim to write a founding statement for German nationalism. No: his interest in the Germans was solely as a mirror for his own people, an aim which he pursues, in characteristic fashion, as much through silence and implicit comparison as outright statements. (In a very real sense, Tacitus is the most aptly named of all the Roman historians, ‘tacitus’ in Latin meaning ‘unspoken’).
While we might expect an anthropologist today to provide us with a ‘neutral’ description of an exotic people and their strange customs, the Roman practice of ethnography, like the practice of history of which it was a part, was an inherently moral one. The notion of a detached ‘scientific’ ethnography or history would, quite simply, have been meaningless to the Romans. What Romans wanted from the past especially were stories to emulate in the present, heroes of shining example. This is what early Roman historians, say Livy, gave the people in his From the Founding of the City: stories like that of Horatius Cocles, whose single-handed defence of the Pons Sublicius allowed his comrades enough time to destroy the bridge and eventually repulse the Etruscan assault on Rome.
Although things had become rather more complicated by the time Tacitus came to write his histories, not least of all because Rome had become an empire with its own king in all but name, that moral understanding of the historian’s craft remained. But instead of presenting an uncomplicated tale of heroism against the odds, now the historian had to provide an accounting of the follies of greatness too, of the moral decline that seemed inexorably to follow on the heels of success. What could be done to reverse it?
And so it was that in the German peoples, Tacitus presciently saw both the gravest existential threat to the Empire and the possibility of its renewal. In many ways, the Germans were what the Roman ancestors had once been, in the early centuries of Rome’s history. Through a series of pithy statements (sententiae), often placed at the end of a chapter, Tacitus draws the reader’s attention to where the Romans had gone wrong in the intervening centuries.
In the following sententiae, he notes the austerity of the German religion, in comparison to the ever-swelling number of Roman cults, which had been especially enriched by imports from the east; the failure of Roman legislation to reverse the harmful social effects of celibacy; and the fact that among the Germans at least, seeking inheritances from the childless was not a viable career option.
‘They [the Germans] hallow groves and woods, giving the sacred names of the gods only to things they truly reverence.’
‘Good customs there [in Germania] are stronger than good laws elsewhere.’
‘The more kin, the more family, the more blessed a man’s old age. Childlessness is without reward.’
The Germans are not ostentatious, caring little for gold. They are chaste – ‘no-one [in Germania] laughs at immorality’ – and youth’s energy is not wasted in endless rounds of seduction. War is the principal means of securing honour and distinction, cowardice the ultimate form of disgrace. Their leaders are selected by ability and the power of their kings is far from absolute. Tacitus believed the contrasts with his Rome were so clear, and would be so obvious to his readers, that he didn’t even need to state them.
One thing Tacitus wasn’t implying, though, was that the Romans should somehow become Germans. Despite his approval for many of their customs, his disapproval of others – their general drunkenness, their lack of stamina for labour despite their fierceness, their filthy living conditions – not to mention his disgust at their homeland itself – ‘bristling with forests and sodden with marshes’ – could not be clearer. Rome was now the most sophisticated society in the known world; there was no way back to a simpler, tribal life – whether that of the Germans, or that of the Roman ancestors – nor was it even desirable. The benefits of the present were as clear as the drawbacks.
Instead, what Tacitus wanted was a renewal of virtue, beginning with a recognition that the virtues that had impelled the Roman ancestors and now made the Germans such a formidable enemy could still reside within the Roman breast, however different present circumstances might be. This meant a reaffirmation of the link between the present and the past, and in particular of a direct lineage back to those illustrious ancestors.
The notion that virtue has a stable historical nature would of course have seemed far more obvious to a Roman than to us, given what I’ve said about the differences between their understanding of the past and ours. Even so, we can still feel the truth of this notion intuitively when we read or watch retellings of heroic or shameful deeds. Just read Bernal Diaz or watch Gladiatora nd ask yourself: how does it make you feel? The cultural relativists have never proven that morality is relative, simply by pointing to the rich variety of customs and ways of life. Rather, they have only begged the question: just how much of a shared foundation lies beneath this apparent diversity? A substantial one, I’d say.
This is one reason why, if conservatives really do want to create a future for the past, they must put forward, urgently, an alternative history to the travesty presented in the public schooling system and the universities. To be encouraged to feel only shame at the deeds of our ancestors is to be cut off from them in the most radical of ways. But this is precisely what our opponents want. Most of all they want to believe that they are so different from the men and women of the past that they can stand in judgment upon them and it, and rule them and it – and us.
My contention, then, is that an emphasis on individual virtue is as good a start as any for a genuine return to tradition, especially under unfavourable political conditions such as clearly obtain now and are likely to obtain for the foreseeable future. I’m not arguing against politics, but arguing that politics isn’t enough. No single approach will suffice.
I see some encouraging signs. The Twitter self-improvement sphere, for all that some may mock it, offers plenty of reasons to be hopeful, not least the active enthusiasm with which like-minded people are encouraging and supporting one another to reject the status quo and be better. I see flashes of a much fuller conception of and role for friendship even, something like the friendship that made ancient Greece great. Really. Whether this will take on a broader cultural importance, or whether it will shrink and die as tech censorship continues, remains to be seen. But at the very least, the spirit and the enthusiasm giving it life are far more authentic and vital than the forces behind any ‘Turning Point’ or similarly astroturfed ‘young conservative’ movement.
So let us begin by acknowledging that we really are our ancestors’ descendants. And then, perhaps, we can take the first step towards continuing their legacy, by holding ourselves and our friends to their fine example, in word and in deed.
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