The Conservative Julian

From 361 to 363 AD, Rome was ruled by emperor Julian. If you know your Roman history, at the time, Rome had already converted to Christianity with the Emperor Constantine, who had accepted Christianity on his deathbed. When Julian came to power, he brought with him an agenda of reforms that would restore the greatness of the Roman empire. In his mind, it only made sense to start with political and religious reforms. He blamed Christianity for the state of the Roman empire and he also blamed Constantine for the state of the administration and for having abandoned the traditions of the past.

"He restored pagan temples which had been confiscated since Constantine’s time, or simply appropriated by wealthy citizens; he repealed the stipends that Constantine had awarded to Christian bishops, and removed their other privileges, including a right to be consulted on appointments and to act as private courts... On 4 February 362, Julian promulgated an edict to guarantee freedom of religion. This edict proclaimed that all the religions were equal before the law, and that the Roman Empire had to return to its original religious eclecticism, according to which the Roman state did not impose any religion on its provinces. Practically however, it had as its purpose the restoration of paganism at the expense of Christianity."

To his surprise however, he failed spectacularly in his efforts, all the more so considering that Christianity was not yet the predominant religion of the empire, rather still another sect among many. The pagan temples were simply already empty, abandoned or under new ownership by Christians who had simply moved in. To paraphrase the great authority on Rome, Edward Gibbon:

“Julian’s attempt to bring about a new form of paganism fostered a central pagan religion with the very virtues that he opposed in Christianity. For example, Julian attempted to introduce a tighter organization for the priesthood, with greater qualifications of character and service. Likewise, Julian’s persecution of Christians, who by pagan standards were simply part of a different cult, was quite an un-pagan attitude that transformed paganism into a religion that accepted only one form of religious experience while excluding all others–such as Christianity. In trying to compete with Christianity, Julian fundamentally changed the nature of pagan worship. That is, paganism became a religion, whereas it once had been only a system of tradition.”

This is a startling story because it raises many parallels with the situation that we find in America. The old religion is dying; the idea of a liberal, democratic, and prosperous society built upon the premise of the American Dream has disappeared. Americans more and more, wistfully look at the past with its assurances of a stable job with benefits, a loyal and feminine wife, and an assurance that future generations will have it better than you. Unfortunately, things are deteriorating, and have been for a while. Occasionally we get a pep talk from the Emperor-in-Chief about how we will revive the middle-class and restore American values back to their proper place on the bow of the HMS Progress. Jobs will come back and with them, the white picket fences will pop back up. Illegal immigration will be resolved, Ebola contained, race issues in America cordially concluded once and for all. We may as well be promised that women will no longer be taught to be empowered sluts, and frustrated beta males will be able to find wives again.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the genie is out of the box, pandora’s box opened and the toxic sludge of equalism with all its attendant derivatives (feminism, historical revisionism, racial self-abasement) continues to ooze out. It wont stop, and the old traditions won’t come back, even if a sympathetic emperor were to try and stem the tide. The nostalgia is not strong enough, the churches are empty, and the new visionaries continue to chant “progress” over a cacophony of equalist cant that drowns out the old truisms and traditions and labels them heretical.

Feebly clinging to the moderate ideologies of the last several decades is a sure way of ending up like Julian’s pagans. Turning the clock back 10, 20, maybe 50 years is a sure-fire way to get right back to where you started, as Julian found out. Reaction is not about trying to stave off “progress,” consigning oneself to fighting a rear-guard action against the forces of “reform” as they nip at the heels of a disorderly and retreating army. Conservatism in this sense is just a reaction to whatever current trend of progressivism happens to be most prevalent in a given society at the time. What good is it then to constantly dig one’s heels in, knowing that eventually and assuredly, the enemy will continue to press the advance and retreat will be inevitable? Conservatism is little more than a knee-jerk reaction and hardly an alternative at all. Don’t believe me? Trace the development of modern day conservatism and you’ll see a clear trajectory leftward and downward.