Archive for March, 2001

Every era has its defining metaphors — phrases, images, or concepts that begin as references to something limited and well-defined, but that steadily expand and take on broader meaning until they come to express a culture‚Äôs entire view of its nature, its values, and its ultimate purposes.

Some of these metaphors start as the names of particular social institutions but gradually come to be perceived as the essence of society itself. For example, the Roman Empire began as a mere improvisation to cope with the failings of the Roman Republic — but over the course of several centuries, it was transformed into an ideal image of stability and accomplishment so powerful that the idea of the Empire survived the fall of Rome itself and haunts us even to this day.

In a very real sense, for example, the Cold War was a result of the United States and Russia both laying claim to being the ultimate heir of Rome. On the negative side of the same archetype, both countries have been accused at times of being evil empires. Once established, universal metaphors retain their power for a long, long while.

Similarly, “the Church” for medieval Europeans or “democracy” for mid-twentieth century Americans were not merely one institution among many. They were the context within which all of society existed and which provided the values by which all of society was to be judged.

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