Wednesday, 8 April 2015


A lust for adventure.

by Ave Maria

Most Audrey Hepburn fans today are blissfully ignorant of the hidden edge in the title of Roman Holiday. When the ancient Romans wanted to take a holiday, it usually involved snacking on some peanuts at the Colosseum while watching slaves fight each other to the death or being eaten by lions. The phrase “Roman holiday,” current in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, referred to unusually cruel or scandalous entertainment; in the film, it refers to the scandal of Hepburn eloping with Gregory Peck.

We moderns have very little appreciation for the Roman sense of fun. Protestants and Marxists have preferred to take the side of the slaves. But at least on the abstract level, there is something to be gained from walking a mile in Roman sandals.

When a barbarian fails to gather enough food and starves to death, his death matters to no one but himself; he put himself into an economic equation, and failed. But when he is captured as a slave and dies as a gladiator, suddenly there are interested observers in the equation.

The Romans felt a thrill in removing a man from economic circumstance and making him face his death. A Roman soldier went happily to his death, because he died for the sake of another; his death had a purpose. As Oswald Spengler put it, “there is no contrast as profound as that between hunger death and hero death.”

Economics, whether it is found in a household, a village, or in the Global Economy, is never about anything more than ensuring one's own survival and success. True, economics can be used to promote the survival of others—but the ability to spread one's success around can never manage to become a guarantee that one is concerned with anything more than oneself.

This is the narcissistic trap that the West has fallen into. It’s Freud’s prison. We’re just living in it. But there is one way to prove for certain that there are things you care about more than your life: that is by losing your life trying to accomplish something.

In early modernity, many Westerners risked their lives, and often died, for a cause. In today's late West, we prefer martyrs who just go about their lives normally before being killed by some ideological enemy; we despise those “psychopathic” warriors who continue to purposefully risk everything for a “hero death.” But we will never be able to stamp out that instinct from humanity.

We laugh at the Russian claim that their soldiers are taking their vacation in Donbass—as if anyone would want to holiday in a war zone! But perhaps there is a reality we do not want to admit. After all, the Romans had a different idea of a good time than we did—maybe the Russians do, too.

Maybe it really is the desire of the Russian Army to risk their lives on their days off, out of the sort of lust for adventure and glory that even Western Europeans used to have way back in the day. Maybe this is just the form that a Russian holiday takes. Can we cope with that possibility?

War is not hell, apparently.

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