I knew fear upon hearing my name announced in the Colosseum in Rome last month. My wife had become separated from our tour group and resourcefully repaired to the security office to seize the PA system from the staff. Obeying her summons, I imagined what it must have been like to be trumpeted as the next prey for a morning contest against ravenous animals or as a criminal for a lunchtime execution. That really did make me think of the Roman Empire.
But mainly my thoughts during our two weeks in Italy were of another empire, the empire of the West. Make no mistake: Italy is its home. Greek, Roman, Christian, medieval, Renaissance, and modern cultures collide in Italy like nowhere else, the reason for its unrivaled patrimony. And it is because of Italy’s singular importance to the history and values of the West that cracks in the marble there are more unsettling.
A record 68 million tourists this year will enjoy Italy’s pageantry of religion, tradition, and civic life, a trinity that the philosopher Hannah Arendt argued lay at the heart of the West in “What Is Authority?” (1959). Notable infusions of American money are helping to restore and even revive that pageantry wherever you look. And at the Teatro La Fenice we saw the tale of the tragic French diva, La traviata, faithfully performed without a single “diversity” player thrust onto the bill to avoid the scolds. Mirabile dictu.
But even in 1959, Arendt saw that this trinity’s dominion had begun to shrink. Today, one would have to be blind not to notice its absence.
The Church saturates any tour in the Eternal City, even for the modern secularists swarming its naves and galleries. But, like the Roman ruins, it is viewed as a ghoulish reminder of the dark past that has been dispatched by Progress. In Florence, the official line of tour guides and museum placards is that the scientific worldview of Galileo triumphed over the benighted shackles of religion. The details of Galileo’s career—that his work was long supported by priests, cardinals, and even the future Pope Urban VIII, and that his silencers were motivated by internecine spite—are passed over. Funny that he was immediately buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce, and later given a fine altar there. Yet today’s Grand Tour leaves pilgrims with the impression that Arendt’s first pillar, religion, is a deterrent rather than a stimulant to truth seeking.
The second of Arendt’s pillars, tradition, was once “the thread which safely guided us.” Tradition was preserved in memories of founders and heroes, in laws, and in the canon, literary and otherwise. It was passed down to each generation, linking the past and future.
Italy still venerates the son of Genoa who sailed the ocean blue. It still celebrates its unifiers. Fine editions of the classics are on sale in end-of-tour gift shops. But there are few children to accept the inheritance: twelve deaths for every seven births at last count, and no signs of a natal revival. Italy is not unusual in this respect, only more pronounced. It no longer has a future to pass its tradition on to. Everywhere we traveled, we saw a startling new phenomenon: single women of child-bearing age on tour with . . . their dogs—the West’s despair resplendent with its designer carrier bag.
The civic authority of the Italian city-states in particular, Arendt argued, was based on neither totalitarian coercion nor democratic persuasion. Instead, religion and tradition had sanctioned a legitimate hierarchical relationship between rulers and ruled. Each did his duty. But urban chaos has come to Italy as elsewhere, most visible in the ubiquitous graffiti in every medieval townscape and square, especially in Rome. City officials lack the needed force and citizens cannot be persuaded to act. “The city doesn’t work,” a Roman shopkeeper told me. “Sometimes I cannot even get into my car because of all the trash piled around it.”
Rome is also struggling to avoid the instability caused by the ethnic displacement of refugees seen in Brussels or Paris. At night, Bangladeshi gangs hawk ugly trinkets to diners while African illegals pester tourists for donations for their families back home. Italian leaders lack any power to act amid the European Union’s failure to secure its borders. Never mind the woman wading through a sea of trash to climb into her car.
Italians are a delightful people. Their heritage is unmatched. They still make good wine and food. But if the West has a future, it will depend on a renaissance of the faith, tradition, and civic virtues there that sanctioned the effective states in which humans flourished. Without those, we are lost in the Roman ruins, summoned to a grisly end.