Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Reading Adam Smith: Pondering the Slow Descent Into Ignorance and Fear
I'm finally getting around to reading the unabridged Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. It's understandable why P.J. O'Rourke felt it necessary to write a Cliff's Notes version of the book, since the first 200 pages or so read like a dated economics textbook. (Still, it's hardly as dry as so many complain. You want dry, I'll give you Sartre or Kant or Bertrand Russell. Smith is moist by comparison.)
Once Smith gets into discussing a history of feudalism following the collapse of the Roman Empire, however, the writing becomes very engaging, giving the reader a good insight into the historical elements that led to the slow formation of Italian city-states and the Hanseatic League. I was really interested to see what Smith thought of the immediate post-empire period in Western Europe, since a couple critical books have been published lately, updating and revising what Edward Gibbon had to say about the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The common message of Guy de la Bedoyare's Roman Britain and Peter Heather's Fall of the Roman Empire is that there was much more of a concerted effort by Goths, Alans, Franks, and Saxons to eliminate remnants of Roman culture, particularly in Britain and Gaul. Cities were depopulated by design, and the literate society leaders were rounded up and eliminated in 439-440 in Britain, and in an undetermined pre-Clovis era in Gaul.
It led me to fantasize on what it must have been like to live as a literate Roman citizen in Western Europe during the end of empire, hiding from barbarian death squads and watching the slow descent of the population into ignorance and fear. Were the de-urbanization drives as sudden as a Khmer Rouge purge, or was it a much slower process? What kind of legends did families develop about the emptied Roman cities? Did the spread of Christianity and the rise of free cities work in tandem to diminish the power of feudalism, or was it much more random than that? These questions aren't merely an effort to fill historical blanks in the Dark Ages. I have this funny feeling that literacy and organized culture will experience a new "slow descent" in the 21st century, maybe within my lifetime. Hope I'm wrong.