The "failure of nerve" and "sense of collective impotence" that contributed to Rome's downfall may now be afflicting American society, a Yale classical historian said yesterday.
Jaroslav I. Pelikan said he thinks the American people, like the Romans, have come to doubt whether or not the "future holds anything worth striving for," adding that when "ennui sets in, society atrophies."
Pelikan presented similar views and made comparisons between declining Rome and modern American at a conference in Washington Wednesday commemorating the upcoming bicentennial of historian Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
America is more handicapped than Rome, Pelikan said yesterday, because of "privatism" or putting private fulfilment above the public good.
"One of the characteristics of Rome, even in decline, was the public spirit of her citizens. The lack of this spirit in America has become shockingly apparent," he said.
Pelikan cited the professionalism of the army, changing attitudes towards the family, and the growth of moral relativism as further parallels between Rome and the United States.
Harvard professors contacted by The Crimson yesterday disagreed with Pelikan's analysis. Oscar Handlin, University Professor, said he does not believe American suffers from a failure of nerve. "We show all the signs and problems of a society still on the ascent," Handlin said.
John L. Clive, professor of History and Literature, said yesterday that America's tremendous technological capability makes any comparisons between the United States and Rome meaningless. John Womack Jr. '59 professor of History, agreed with Clive and called Pelikan's speculations "idle and frivolous."
"One sure indication that America is not declining is that more and more people are reading Gibbon," Clive said.
Clive said yesterday that he and G. W. Bowersock '57, chairman of the Classics Department, will attend another Gibbon bicentennial conference in Rome this January, The conference, which Bower-sock called "Clive's brainchild," will be sponsored by the magazine "Daedalus," and will include 20 scholars from the United States and Europe.