From April 6 until May 29, 1453, the Ottomans, under the command of Sultan Mehmed II, laid siege to Constantinople. The city fell. The great Byzantine Empire collapsed. So ended the last vestige of the Roman Empire.
That great empire had risen over the ashes of another people. Every student who has ever delved in the classics remembers Cato the Elder's insistent demand Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed). Carthage was the eternal rival of Rome. In 146 B.C., in one of the most defining moments of ancient history, Rome defeated Carthage. Almost 1,500 years later, the lingering glory of Rome herself was extinguished.
History repeats this lesson again and again. Empires rise and fall. Nations come and go. The destruction of Carthage and the Fall of Rome are memorable events, but easily left in history books. Even more recent events, such as the slow decline of the British Empire and the collapse of the Soviet Union, quickly become faded memories.
War, drought, economic instability, disease, overpopulation and political corruption: any of these or a combination of these may be the immediate cause for a nations demise. But, ultimately, there is a more profound reason for the death of a people.
In his book When Nations Die, Jim Nelson Black unearths a telling fact from history. In ancient Carthage, rich young men would routinely employ hired mercenaries to take their place in the military. They did not want to inconvenience themselves or give up their comfort to fight for their country. They preferred to pursue their own goals. They were interested in the gratification of their own pleasures. The result for the nation was disastrous.
When the fighting with Rome became fierce and the conflict became a life and death struggle with the enemy, the hired mercenaries abandoned their posts and the nation fell to Rome. Wise strategists that they were, the Romans, as their first act, restored discipline to Carthage. They knew the fundamental importance of discipline. With it, a nation can rise. Without it, any nation crumbles.
As a nation, we value our freedom. We prize tolerance. We accept diversity. These are some of the reasons why people come to our country and make every effort to do so, sometimes even illegally. But tolerance can be a two-edged sword.
As we become more and more tolerant of race and gender, we are also becoming more and more accepting of choices that just a few years ago were understood to be immoral. Beneath this tolerance of the immoral choices of others is the muted desire that we be left free to make whatever choices we want.
The 1960s ushered in an unprecedented emphasis on individualism. Since then, there has been less attention given to sacrifice for the common good. Sacrifice is still seen as a value, but most often only when it brings personal benefits. When the majority of citizens become unwilling to sacrifice their own pleasures and, at times, their own goals for the good of others, the moral fabric that holds a society together unravels.
Essential to the stability of a nation is the self-discipline of its people. Self-discipline is the ability to regulate ones actions on the basis of principle and not on the basis of desire, instinct, social custom or pressure. In ancient times, the walls of a city were its main defense. Without walls, the people became an easy prey for the enemy. Without self-discipline, an individual becomes the easy target for passion and desires. Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls (Prov 25:28).
When there is a lessening of self-discipline in matters of pleasure and sexuality, the social consequences are dire. Statistics prove this. Since the 1960s, as individuals put greater and greater emphasis on their own fulfillment, there has been a quadrupling in divorce rates and a fivefold increase of government social spending.
It is in our capacity to recover the needed virtue of self-discipline that America can become stronger. In family and work, in relationships with one another and with God, there will always be the need for sacrificing ones desires to a higher good. We can conquer our economic and social problems with greater ease when there is restored to our culture a greater emphasis on self-discipline. For, as the Greek philosopher Plato said, The first and best victory is to conquer self.
* Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.