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Rod Dreher has a post about the The problem of pornography. My question: how is porn fundamentally different from fantasizing? Is it because of the shift toward bizarre fetish porn which rescales your perceptions of normal? I’m generally skeptical of anecdotal arguments about how porn is “changing everything.” Because of my interest in Transhumanism and the Singularity I have run into people whose sexual outlets are skewed toward the virtual as opposed to the physical, and all seem to prefer the latter over the former. I won’t even get into the issues of causality when it comes to all the bizarre things which known serial killers engage in.

Also, Rod makes a reference to “Late-Roman” culture. The allusion is common among many Christian conservatives, and I think I know what he’s suggesting, that our society is becoming decadent, amoral, lacking spiritual values (he’s made the allusion multiple times). Here’s my problem: this doesn’t comport at all with even a cursory reading of Roman history that you could gain from Wikipedia. The Late Roman period was one of the Chrisitanization of the Empire, and a resurgence of moralism among both pagans and Christians. Much of the Western Empire shifted more toward primary production and the modest economies of scale, and the specialization which allowed for the long distance trade of basic consumer and luxury goods diminished. In the East the Empire did not fall, but became progressively more Christian in its identity, as evidenced by the Christian moral ethical influence on the codification of Roman law during the reign of Justinian. The secular intellectual pursuits of the elite gave way to an emphasis on religious piety, study and endowment of monasteries and churches (see the life of Cassiodorus).

In fact the revisionists who followed in the wake of Peter Brown and have reinterpreted the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a Transformation of the Roman World point to the importance of Late Antiquity in setting the groundwork for the Christian civilization of Medieval Europe. “Late-Rome” was the time of the flourishing of Augustine and Ambrose in the West, the Cappadocian Fathers in the East who are so important in the Greek Christian tradition. In general the revisionists might not deny the decline in material standards, in median affluence, but they emphasize the richness of cultural production, particularly religious cultural production.

Were public morals at the peak of the Empire such a high watermark? Augustus’ own family was wracked with debauchery to the point where he banished his own daughter. Though there were rumors about Tiberius, the perversions of Caligula and Nero are famous, and even the relatively innocuous Claudius married his niece. For those of you not up on your emperors, this is within the first century of the Empire. The Antonine Emperors were known to be moderate and virtuous in comparison to the prurience of the Julio-Claudians or the tyranny of Domitian, but Hadrian was certainly a pederast, and there are rumors about Trajan as well. Commodus of course made Andrew Johnson seem a model of sobriety and gravitas (this is the second century of the Empire).

At its peak the the Roman Empire was pagan, pluralist in religion and philosophy, and many of the autocrats flaunted personal morals which were in sharp contradiction to Christian virtue. It was relatively affluent (though we’re talking percentages on the margin of median wealth I suspect, not multiplicative) and militarily robust. In the later phase the Empire imposed religious homogeneity on the elites in the form of Christianity, and the sort of public virtue which Augustus or Marcus Aurelius might have smiled upon became baked-into-the-cake of the ideology of the proto-monarchs which the emperors had become (although women such as Pulcharia and Theodora were generally the enforcers). Bread & circuses might have persisted in Rome up until the Gothic Wars, across much of the Empire there was a shift toward self-suffuciency and primary production. Dare I say, the Empire was becoming more “crunchy”?

As I said, the analogy to the Late Roman Empire has rhetorical force. Everyone knows what the allusion is meant to indicate. The problem emerges when people think that they can then start looking to Late Antiquity as an analogical model to make predictions about the future because of tight correspondences of conditions. Since those correspondences actually don’t exist, rather, if there were material and moral variations across the span of the time of the Roman Empire they go in an inverse direction from the rhetoric, all you do is mess up your model of how the world works. Since Rod Dreher converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church he has no excuse of being ahistorical and fixated on abstract concepts of primitive salvation. The Late Roman Empire was the midwife for the greatest revolution in the history of the world from the perspective of a Catholic or Orthodox Christian,* so perhaps he should reconsider his sloppy use of the analogy. In the short term these rhetorical tactics are useful, but in the long term truth matters and errors which propagate through the chain of reasoning can be hard to filter out.

Note: If you want some evidence of the decline in material affluence as a function of time, see The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization and Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. A narrative of the cultural genius of the Late Roman period can be found in The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000.

* Some Protestant radicals are skeptical of the influence of Late Antiquity because they believe that the Church took a wrong turn in its institutionalization and association with temporal powers.

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History, Science • Tags: History, Porn 
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  1. I think you mean Peter Brown rather than Peter Green.

  2. while I agree with your skepticism about this kind of analogy employed by traditionalist Christians like Drehrer, i’m not sure if the debauched personal morals and conduct of Roman emperors and aristocrats really runs counter to these kinds of analogies and claims. 
     
    it seems that many traditional Christians argue that the elite is generally more “loose” in morals than the public and can tolerate it better due to many reasons (stable wealth & social position, greater intelligence, etc.). 
     
    it’s when loose morals and vulgarity filter down to the masses and become public norms that you have serious problems, as less intelligent/able/stable segments of society fall into dysfunction without strict norms and morals. 
     
    i suppose working class Britons and blacks in the US may be apt examples. their respective elites indulged in sexual license long before the sexual revolution and arguably tolerated it much better, that is without sever social dysfunction. when these two groups were freed from strict norms, they rapidly fell into the dysfunction that we see today.

  3. it’s when loose morals and vulgarity filter down to the masses and become public norms that you have serious problems, as less intelligent/able/stable segments of society fall into dysfunction without strict norms and morals. 
     
    do you have evidence of this filtering down? i think of two examples which go in the other direction: the stamping out of incestuous marriage among egyptians and the banning of the most repulsive bloodsports with the rise of christianity and the general shift toward less violent entertainments (ergo, the popularity of chariot races in constantinople). if the golden ass is representative doesn’t seem like the morality of commoners changed but, just their insecurity. 
     
    i agree that extrapolating from the elites down to the masses is problematic. after all, the difference in “wealth” of the median roman in 50 vs. 450 is not going to be that great, even if the lifestyle of the elites varies quite a bit. in fact, the differences between pre-modern agricultural empires and modern mass affluence societies are so great that i suspect the analogies have minimal utility unless used very judiciously. which no one can really do because most people don’t know shit. 
     
    p.s. using malthusian logic the average health & wealth of an adult in a time of troubles might actually be higher because of the periodic “thinning out” of the population.

  4. and to be clear, i do think that the decline and fall of the roman empire is probably best understood in a material/economic sense, not cultural. since most of the empire consisted of illiterate peasants primarily embedded within their local cultures living on the margins of subsistence it doesn’t seem like there on an individual level there would have been an enormous shift in lifestyle. over time populations might have decreased because of shifts in the malthusian parameters (more disruption due to war means interruption in plantings & harvests, more famine, etc.), but the big changes were in the elites.

  5. Razib, 
     
    Your sketch of the Late Roman period squares with Peter Heather’s “Fall of the Roman Empire” as well the cited “Fall of Rome” by Ward-Perkins. It should, as you earlier reviewed and recommended both.

  6. in this post i rely more on ward-perkins. the cliometric and archaeological data may be spotty, but at least they are concrete and tangible. coin hordes are coin hordes. heather’s argument isn’t as important to the point here since i’m talking social & cultural changes writ large, as opposed to political history. in addition, i have more skepticism of heather’s argument after reading How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by adrian goldsworthy, mostly because goldsworthy fleshed out some major criticisms which i had personally had about some of heather’s more assertive claims (though i did not personally have the knowledge to go further at the time).

  7. he believed that many of the [high school] guys he worked with had no idea how to relate to women in a healthy way 
     
    Goddamnit, teenage boys are not supposed to be able to relate to girls in a healthy way or any other way. We’re programmed to compete against other males, and every once in awhile have a quick shag or accept marriage offers, again mostly ignoring whatever the wife does in the household while we go about our daily guyish business. 
     
    (I say this as one of the 1% of guys who get girls on an intuitive level. But the other 99% aren’t going to get them no matter what.) 
     
    Because this fact of life is as ancient as our bipedal posture, it has nothing to do with porn or modern culture at all. 
     
    No less ancient is the tendency for anyone with some character flaw to blame it on the culture they were reared in. “If only I weren’t raised in a conservative religious culture, I probably wouldn’t be so nervous around girls.” No, you’d be nervous around them no matter what because you’re awkward
     
    “If only I didn’t download so much cartoon squid porn, I’d have won over a trophy wife and garnered the Nobel Prize too.” Oh get a life. 
     
    Those who lack all people skills are forced to live in cyber-porn world — not the other way around.

  8. Randall Collins’ Macrohistory came out in 1999 and summarized the pretty vast literature on the “geopolitical overstreching” model of state breakdown, and Peter Turchin popularized some of them in his 2005 book War and Peace and War
     
    That should’ve been plenty of time for it to enter academic-ish discourse. I can see how someone would write about the cultural consequences of the downfall are, such as declining solidarity or falling confidence in institutions (like Turchin and asabiya). But how great is the evidence, across empires, of cultural or moral decadence during the twilight period of the empire? 
     
    Certainly Spain was like Rome — when its imperial days were numbered, that’s when the Spanish Mystics and El Greco flourished.

  9. “(I say this as one of the 1% of guys who get girls on an intuitive level. But the other 99% aren’t going to get them no matter what.)” 
     
    Are you sure it’s “intuitive” for you? I thought you spent years collecting empirical data on girls and drawing up graphs before “understanding” girls to any degree. Doesn’t sound too intuitive to me. 
     
    “Those who lack all people skills are forced to live in cyber-porn world — not the other way around.” 
     
    Or they exploit ecological niches with easy prey and little to no competition, i.e. 80s nights at the teen dance “club”.

  10. I’ve heard both sides of the Christian argument, that Christianity weakened the empire and that the moral corruption that went against Christianity ruined it, but neither one really fits. Regardless, you are right that the late Roman Empire was becoming more Christian, not less so.  
     
    Of course one cannot draw exact comparisons between the Western Roman Empire’s fall and the general decline in the United States, but there are some broad patterns that match up. Perhaps there are certain patterns that will create instability in any society, and should a combination of factors reach a critical mass, there will be collapse.  
     
    Rome was definitely running a massive trade deficit in its last century, with coinage regularly being debased. You had emperors that were extremely autocratic (“dominus et deus” versus the traditional “princeps”) and who interfered too greatly day-to-day life in vain attempts to fix the economy. There was an overall decrease in fertility, and a plague hit sometime in the 400s (I don’t have the reference handy). Slavery (which can parallel our reliance on illegal immigrant labor) prevented the development of new technology. The Huns driving the Germans en masse into the Empire, as well as their own swath of destruction, must be taken into account.  
     
    Regarding porn, I think for a lot of guys it has ruined their expectations of what sex should be, and quite honestly, it diminishes healthy sexual appetite. It’s not that it’s morally wrong, just that it distorts perception in a way that is not conducive to healthy relations. It doesn’t necessarily make one awkward around women. Being a social incompetent does that.

  11. Are you sure it’s “intuitive” for you? 
     
    Just ask your kid sister — it seemed pretty easy to me. 
     
    Or they exploit ecological niches with easy prey and little to no competition, i.e. 80s nights at the teen dance “club”. 
     
    Actually 80s night is college kids. If you think teenagers or early 20s girls are easy prey, you’ve proved that you’re an idiot — and one who hasn’t been around girls that age for probably 20 years yourself. (Your name suggests you’re 40 years old.) “No competition” for barely legal beauties — even more moronic! 
     
    Young girls are good for your health — you should get out and socialize with them more… although you sound like a bitter old fart, so they’d likely give you even less attention than they did in college.

  12. Rome was definitely running a massive trade deficit in its last century, with coinage regularly being debased. 
     
    do you have a cite for massive trade deficit? i know about debasement. is that in ward-perkins’ book? i guess i don’t recall. i know there was a flow of gold to the east because of silk early on. 
     
    You had emperors that were extremely autocratic (“dominus et deus” versus the traditional “princeps”) and who interfered too greatly day-to-day life in vain attempts to fix the economy. 
     
    yes. though i would be careful about overemphasizing the totalitarian nature of this regime. pre-modern states were weak. to some extent i think the idea of the principate and dominate are propaganda. augustus wasn’t restoring the republic, and diocletian wasn’t constructing a quasi-absolute monarchy out of whole cloth. 
     
    here was an overall decrease in fertility, and a plague hit sometime in the 400s 
     
    plagues started in the 160s and kept occurring periodically beyond that point. 
     
    Slavery (which can parallel our reliance on illegal immigrant labor) prevented the development of new technology.  
     
    slavery mostly disappeared in the dominate though. if slavery is a primary independent variable shouldn’t there have been a spurt of innovation in the 3rd and 4th centuries? additionally, it seems that in terms of technology it was the hellenistic states who were most innovative, and most of them were slave-states as well. in contrast, han china was not a slave state, but one based on free peasants, and it was not very innovative either. it seems more likely that pre-modern societies simply innovated very slowly. period. 
     
    The Huns driving the Germans en masse into the Empire, as well as their own swath of destruction, must be taken into account.  
     
    i’m pretty sure that the historians who are skeptical of mass population movements are right. the genetic data don’t support it *except* for in britain and the balkans, which makes sense in light of the fact those were the regions were the roman language was replaced. 
     
    i suspect the key is to look at institutional decline which *inevitably* occurs in these sorts of societies dominated by elites. plagues and attempted invasions they can tolerate and move beyond when robust, but knock them down when they aren’t robust.

  13. No one has mentioned the dysgenic theme, which is that the Roman patriciate tended to avoid marriage and children. They were concerned enough to pass laws encouraging marriage, including a tax on bachelors. Too bad we can’t document the effect on SAT scores.  
     
    Another factor is military involvement. I have the impression that in England, families with distinguished military figures tended to burn out, while the sedentary landed gentry had staying power. This is probably testable against records and possibly DNA data. There were only a few thousand Norman invaders, and they probably had distinguishing genetic markers.  
     
    It has little to do with porn. Pagan art showed nudity and was more sensuous than early Christian art, but that’s a long way from high-speed downloads of extreme fetish action.

  14. “No one has mentioned the dysgenic theme, which is that the Roman patriciate tended to avoid marriage and children. They were concerned enough to pass laws encouraging marriage, including a tax on bachelors.” 
     
    Related to this is the “miscegenation” theme, the idea that the Roman stock was gradually mixed with various strains from around the empire. Proponents of this seem very ideologically motivated, so credibility is an issue among these kinds of arguments one finds online. 
     
    Is there any substance to this theme?

  15. Related to this is the “miscegenation” theme, the idea that the Roman stock was gradually mixed with various strains from around the empire. 
     
    for britain and slavic areas of the balkans, yes. the greek component in southern italy predates the empire. but in general, no. there are particular distortions that you should see in genetic variation which isn’t too discernible outside of the case of greek colonial areas that aren’t evident. greg cochran’s idea is that cosmpolitanism meant that all the people who moved around settled in cities, which are demographic sinks. the same might be true of aristocrats.

  16. agnostic, 
     
    Oh you go to non-underage clubs as well? That’s cool. I just hope that I never bump into you in one, then. You might end up kneeing me in the gut 10 times in under 5 seconds, or signaling this by showing off your dancing skills. And it would be especially intimidating if you had energized on pastrami slices and heavy whipping cream beforehand. 
     
    You’re right. Girls in their early 20s aren’t as easy, compared to their younger sisters in their earlier teens that is. After they’ve had some college they tend to become somewhat less insecure, more “empowered” and full of themselves, and they’re constantly surrounded by horny college males. This all translates into them overvaluing themselves and playing harder to get. Their younger sisters are more insecure and naive, and they’re surrounded by relatively unsophisticated males (weaker competition) in their peer groups, making them all the more easier. You know this, and that’s why you’re always lurking around underage hangouts. 
     
    That being said, young girls these days are pretty damn easy, but it’s not surprising that you’re finding it a little tough and competitive out there. No worries though, as even a modicum of social skills these days will get you far, and it can even be learned and studied a la “Game”, so keep on collecting that data on girls or girls in pop culture or whatever and drawing up those cool graphs. You’ve already got the coordinated designer outfits down pat, so I think with some work in this area you might start seeing some action. 
     
    Keep dancing.

  17. ok guys, can we *not* turn this into a roissy/1/2sig thread?

  18. razib, 
     
    I fear you dismiss Tenney Frank’s “waters of the Orontes” argument a little too easily. He had evidence – do you? (The reference is to Juvenal, who said that “the waters of the Orontes had muddied the Tiber.”)

  19. mencius, full of old shit as usual. what the fuck have you ever cared about evidence? you read something written in 1910 which agrees with your presuppositions, and Q.E.D. you have an argument. i stopped paying attention a long time ago.

  20. making them all the more easier 
     
    You claim that this is true based on assumptions you have about the world — which are wrong — rather than real experience in trying to pick them up. Were they so easy, guys would be picking them up left right and center, given how good they look. 
     
    If they couldn’t smell that you’re an awkward loser from a mile away, young girls might actually let you in close. I’m sorry that your bitterness forces you to associate only with harpies — or to download squid porn all day — but don’t let that resentment enter the discussion here. Further envy will be deleted.

  21. ok guys. since assman is a poster i’m going to close the thread with him getting the last shot in jeremy. sorry 🙂 just not too interested in that line of conversation, though i guess i opened the door with the the topic.

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