Browse through any bookstore fifteen years or so ago and chances are good that the most interesting non-fiction book you’d spot on the counters also had the most intriguing title: How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Historic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (1995), by Thomas Cahill.
Maybe you’ve read it. If not, here’s a Cliffs Notes version.
Cahill recounts the weakening of the Roman Empire, brought about in part by excessive taxation (lots of fodder for current-day political rhetoric here), triggering a decline of the middle class (fodder for those of a different political persuasion), and a replacement of culture and noble values by a cynical lip service to the same. He points out that the real pillar of civilization is confidence, and that it was the loss of this confidence in the Empire and its leaders and workings that proved especially problematic in the events of the time. He observes that Ireland was poor, small, isolated and out of the way, and was therefore spared by the Huns and Germanic tribes who plundered and vandalized the major portion of the Roman empire, destroying libraries and with them many of the trappings and corporate memory of (their) civilization. He retells the story of St. Patrick and St. Columba (Colum Cille). He zooms in on the latter’s role in training and equipping Irish monk-scribes who copied thousands of manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, secular as well as sacred. He tells how the monks then carried these texts with them as they Christianized Europe. He argues that this infusion of literature and ideas and, more importantly, a process of thought, was vital to the preservation and development of today’s western cultures.
Does this history contain lessons for today? Let’s do an environmental scan. We find armed conflict here and there worldwide. It doesn’t seem as if anything is underway of the scale and transcendent import of the barbarian sack of Rome. Nevertheless, that Roman collapse itself didn’t seem so obvious at its beginnings – just as that tornadic storm starts out as a puffy little cumulus cloud. Instead, what the folks in the late fourth century saw looked to them like no more than some fraying at the edges.
And probably many people today see a fraying of values in our culture and times…cynicism is waxing.
Much as the barbarians pushed toward Rome seeking the resources there, today’s seven billion people are raiding the world’s natural resources – especially its supplies of food, water, and energy. And this is prompting conflicts of a sort – not armed conflict so much, but a definite forceful taking of those resources, and degradation if not vandalism of the environment, accompanied by a vigorous war of words. Think of the arguments over the world’s fish stocks, the price of oil, the Keystone pipeline, fracking, the rising cost of food, water scarcity, the meteoric rise in poaching of elephants for their ivory, the BP oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and much, much more. Everybody has an conviction, and no two convictions are the same. On these topics, the disputants speak of uncertainty, but what they really provide the rest of us are contradictory certitudes.
In this war of words, what we see in many instances is just what we see in military conflict… “In War, the first casualty is the truth.” [Who coined these words? Most attribute it to U.S. Senator Hiram Warren Johnson, in 1918…but others ascribe the authorship to others, even going back as far as Aeschylus.]
So today – St. Patrick’s Day of all days, when people of every nation and origin raise a glass and say “today we’re all a bit Irish” – today might be a good day when you and I could (re)connect with our Irish roots, especially the mindset of those Irish monks. Let’s search out material worth reading on the science and policy of resource-, environmental-, and hazards issues. Maybe we don’t need to copy what we read by hand like those monks of long ago. But let’s emulate them in a different respect. For Cahill tells us that, being Irish, the scribes didn’t copy the manuscripts slavishly; they really made the effort to take to heart the material they copied, and they’d occasionally embellish with a side comment or observation. Let’s aim for similar ownership.
And when we find truth, like those monks, let’s share it – maybe even with apostolic zeal, but with love and affection for those of all views.
And as the Irish know how to do so well, while we’re helping to rescue the planet and save civilization, let’s enjoy the day.