Wednesday, March 25, 2020


The Elimination of the Best

Arnaldo Momigliano (1908-1987), "Declines and Falls," The American Scholar 49.1 (Winter, 1980) 37-50 (at 41-42):
"Die Ausrottung der Besten" ("The elimination of the best") by Otto Seeck ... produced a sensation when it appeared in the first volume of his monumental Geschichte des Untergangs der antiken Welt in 1895 — the year, incidentally, in which Brooks Adams published his Law of Civilization and Decay — but the outlines had already been given in the Deutsche Rundschau of 1892. Seeck maintained that an inverted Darwinism could explain the decline of the ancient world in the sense that the political developments of antiquity had implied a continuous elimination of the best elements of society. Social struggles, external wars, and, later, religious persecutions ended regularly in the murder of the most able and morally serious opponents. As the elimination of rivals was in the nature of ancient political struggles, according to Seeck, it was almost a tautology to conclude that only opportunists saved their skins in defeat. Contrary to a widespread legend, there was no vulgar racism in Seeck, who was one of the very few Geman historians to recognize the high level of spiritual creativity of the Jews throughout the centuries.

Julius Beloch, who in 1900 undertook to refute Seeck in the Historische Zeitschrift, was in fact not so distant from him as he thought he was. Beloch too, in his own way, emphasized the elimination of the best, but put the responsibility for the elimination of the best squarely on the shoulders of the Romans. By destroying Greek liberty, the Romans destroyed the roots of ancient civilization. The Roman soldier who murdered Archimedes in Syracuse at the end of the third century B.C. was the symbol of Rome murdering Greece. Not ancient Rome but Renaissance Florence was the heir of Athens in the eyes of this German professor, transplanted to Rome. Both Seeck and Beloch, though purporting to explain the end of ancient civilization — that is, the end of the Roman Empire — discovered the causes in a process which started many centuries before the fall of the Western Empire and had its center in Greece rather than in Rome. By some sort of teleological projection, which Arnold Toynbee was later to share, Rome was made to fall in consequence of the decline of Greece.

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