President Obama likes to refer to himself as a "student of history." As he prepares his State of the Union Address, he might bear in mind the history of another great republic: Rome. Its decline was anticipated by Marcus Tillius Cicero, one of Rome's greatest statesmen. Cicero delivered a speech on Nov. 6, 63 B.C. that surveyed the political and moral landscape of his country -- and found it wanting.
Cicero saw a corrupt political establishment, where would-be dictators colluded with ambitious senators to consolidate their power. He saw massive government spending on public works with little regard for how to pay for it. He saw an oppressive tax system crippling private initiative. He saw a military over-extended and straining to maintain discipline.
But that is not all Cicero saw. There was a breakdown in the integrity of the family. There was a culture of sexual license and predatory sexual behavior, targeting not only vulnerable women, but young boys. Rome was becoming an increasingly selfish, debased and dysfunctional society.
Near the heart of the problem, as Cicero wrote in "On the Republic," was a deepening agnosticism about the existence of "natural law": the idea that there are eternal truths -- moral and religious truths -- that govern the human condition. As a result, Rome's leaders had come to believe that their "private lives" had nothing to do with the public good. "For it is not by some accident -- no, it is because of our own moral failings -- that we are left with the name of the Republic, having long since lost its substance."
Does any of this sound familiar?
Cicero was writing on the eve of the civil wars that would help to transform Rome from a republic to an empire, with all the injustices and cruelties that would attend it. Yet even in Cicero's day the decay of republican principles -- what he called "the enemy within" -- was manifest.
The crisis was twofold, implicit in a Roman maxim: "On ancient customs and old-fashioned men the state of Rome stands firm." First, there was a rejection of the "ancient customs" that formed the civic and political bedrock of Roman society. Second, there was a woeful lack of "old-fashioned men," meaning leaders of integrity who upheld the nation's founding ideals.
Rome's republic, of course, was always tainted by slavery, corruption, and social and political violence. Yet Roman virtues had helped to restrain some of their worst manifestations -- at least for a time. As Cicero described it:
Long before living memory our ancestral way of life produced outstanding men, and those excellent men preserved the old way of life and the institutions of their forefathers. Our generation, however, after inheriting our political organization like a magnificent picture now fading with age, not only neglected to restore its original colors but did not even bother to ensure that it retained its basic form and, as it were, its faintest outlines.
A massive cultural shift was taking place, Cicero believed, and it was laying waste to the foundations of the republic. "What remains of those ancient customs on which he said the state of Rome stood firm? We see them so ruined by neglect that not only do they go unobserved, they are no longer known."
Through greed, ambition and malice, Rome's leaders had squandered their inheritance. Nothing was more conspicuous to Cicero than the desperate deficit of enlightened and principled leadership. An entire generation of men had abandoned any commitment to the common good.
"And what shall I say of the men?" Cicero asked. "It is the lack of such men that has led to the disappearance of those customs. Of this great tragedy we are not only bound to give a description; we must somehow defend ourselves as if we were arraigned on a capital charge."
Rome was in the dock: What Cicero witnessed was a political community with a degraded conscience, a republic in a state of decay. The age of the Caesars was upon him.
No wonder Cicero was such a popular author among the American Founders, who searched his writings for clues about how democracies and republics perish. "The Founders sought to use the lessons of history to defy history," writes social critic Os Guinness in "A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future." "If the ancients and the Founders were correct, the only alternative to their approach is decline."
The lessons of Rome are widely ignored today, and history is catching up with us.
Neither political party, of course, has a monopoly on vice or virtue. Yet, President Obama and his party seem the least interested in preserving "ancient customs" that ennoble our politics and help to hold civilizations together. Modern liberalism, in fact, explicitly rejects natural law as medieval, outdated, oppressive and irrelevant. "There is no building on the past to construct the future," writes Guinness. "There is no building at all."
But if Cicero was right -- and the American Founders believed he was -- the abandonment of transcendent truths can never lead to a more just and humane society. The zeal to dismiss the ideals and insights of the past cannot secure the future. Rather, this ethos of "progressivism" is eviscerating America's civic and political life. Regardless of President Obama's bromides and happy assurances to the contrary, the State of the Union is not strong. The steady decline of this great republic is a real possibility.
"Of this great tragedy we are not only bound to give a description," warned Cicero. "We must somehow defend ourselves, as if we were arraigned on a capital charge."
Now that would be a State of the Union Address worth delivering.
Joseph Loconte, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at the King's College in New York City and the author of 'The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt.'