At the beginning of his epic poem, “The Ballad of the White Horse,” one of the two greatest Christian apologists of the previous century speculatively proclaimed:
For the end of the world was long ago
And all we dwell today
As children of some second birth
Like a strange people left on earth
After a Judgement Day.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton understood much about creation and its eventual demise, even before the outbreak of the war to end all wars in 1914.
Without getting into any theology (I really don’t know what my pre- or post-millennial views are, as I don’t quite understand the distinctions, even though countless students have kindly tried to explain the various views on these things to me), I think it’s worth considering where we are in history: in a stagnate period, a period of ascension, or a period of decline. Or, perhaps, a semblance of all three things might be happening, depending on what area of society we’re analyzing.
A few weeks ago, I offered here the possibility that we might be somewhere at the beginning of a massive decline.
In terms of education, I don’t really think there’s much of a debate. Whether society embraces the liberal arts or not has been a standard way of identifying whether we’re in ascension or decline in the western tradition. When society embraces the liberal arts, we tend to be in a rise, or, at the very least, we’re taught to tolerate stagnation with stoic resignation; when society rejects the seven liberal arts, we tend to fall into darkness.
The liberal arts, of course, remain almost completely misunderstood, neglected, and rejected—going on thirteen decades now. They’re not dead, but, frankly, they’re probably close to the grave. Colleges such as St. Johns, the University of St. Thomas, and Thomas Aquinas have sustained much. In every way, though, they fight the most difficult of battles.
The wonderfully perplexing thing for many of us, though, is the incredible advance of technology in the same time period as we have experienced moral, educational, and cultural decline. How can we account for a decline in civilization and morals when we have such a dramatic rise in technology, wealth (by any standard, the last two hundred years have been gloriously healthy in terms of wealth production), and overall western standards of living, health, and longevity? Certainly, such a profound acceleration in material output should give us pause before declaring the modern and post-modern, or post-post-modern era, a dark age.
There might be some alternate explanations, though, for the advance in one area and the decline in another. Eric Voegelin, for example, thought it was quite possible, however, for morals and educational standards to decline while technological prowess advanced significantly. T.S. Eliot, in a similar manner, argued that the greatest successes of a culture might come at the initial stages of a dark age, as the loosening of tradition and of the restraints of morality might very well release artistry and originality for a few generations. Christopher Dawson argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition had so ingrained itself in the western mind that western civilization might linger for generations simply because of the powerful cultural heritage that built it. Eventually, though, the inheritance will fail, as some generation will question the forms that have lost essence, finally recognizing them as hollow and futile gestures, rejecting them whole-cloth.
Weaponization of Politics
One of the greatest problems of the last century and a half, or perhaps, the last two centuries, in the relatively free parts of the world has been the decline of serious and sustained discourse, a result of the tyranny and imperialism of politics.
Just imagine for a moment, the serious kind of dialogue that was seen in the first and second Continental Congresses all the way through the 1850s. Granted, there were horrors, too, such as the caning of Senator Sumner. But, the level of oration and debate proved, on average, extremely high.
Yet, as de Tocqueville noted as early as the 1830s, democracy and the soft despotism likely to arise in a democracy would prove its own undoing. The following passage from the conclusion of de Tocqueville’s volume II of Democracy in America are worth repeating at length:
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
De Tocqueville’s fears have proven true, but even he could not imagine how emergent ideologies would weaponize the destructive tendencies inherent in democracy. For World War I and the loss of traditional Europe introduced propaganda into the world with a vengeance. Throughout the nineteenth century, ideas became simplified in the narrowly complex worlds of Darwin, Marx, Spencer, and Freud.
With these great intellects dismantling the Socratic western project in the intellectual world, many other falls were sure to follow. The most dramatic fall came in politics. By the 1930s, for example, simple colors had come to represent entire visions of the world: pink for socialist; brown for National Socialist; blue for liberal; red for communist, etc.
In a series of letters written in 1946, Christopher Dawson complained:
“One has to face the fact that there has been a kind of slump in ideas during the past 10 years.”
“There is not only a positive lack of new ideas but also a subjective loss of interest in ideas as such.”
“Politics seems to be swamping everything and the non-political writer becomes increasingly uprooted and helpless.”
The world “won’t improve without new blood and new ideas and I don’t see at present where these are to be found.”
By its very nature, the realm of politics is expansive, demeaning, and imperial. Exacerbated by the intolerance and inhumanity of ideologies, politics in the western world replaced the culture and theology as fundamental ways of thinking.
Now, in the second decade of the twentieth-first century, we only have to look at those labeled as “conservative,” for example, to see how far such a noble thing has fallen. Recently, TIME magazine listed the ten most prominent “right-thinking” people in the U.S. I must confess, I’d only heard of half of these persons, and the half I did recognize I would not label as the most prominent conservatives–at least not if conservatism is to mean any thing.
With the exception of Mike Church, we only have to turn on “conservative” talk radio to see how low “conservatism” has fallen. All I hear is anger, bitterness, and brutality toward the human person and lack of even a semblance of respect for those in opposition. Further, I only hear promotion of war and American power. And, of course, all delivered through sound bites. Fox might be even worse. Here, plastic people offer plastic ideas. Commodified conservatism is really no conservatism at all. Indeed, the very act of commodification must, by its very nature, undermine the very principles of conservatism.
Where does this leave us? Not to dismiss the great work being promoted and explored in 2012 by many good minds and souls, things look rather bleak for the future of what TIME called “right thinking.”
And, I’m left with Chesterton’s own vision from a century ago.
I know that weeds shall grow in it
Faster than men can burn;
And though they scatter now and go,
In some far century, sad and slow,
I have a vision, and I know
The heathen shall return.
“They shall not come with warships,
They shall not waste with brands,
But books be all their eating,
And ink be on their hands.
“Not with the humour of hunters
Or savage skill in war,
But ordering all things with dead words,
Strings shall they make of beasts and birds,
And wheels of wind and star.
“They shall come mild as monkish clerks,
With many a scroll and pen;
And backward shall ye turn and gaze,
Desiring one of Alfred’s days,
When pagans still were men.”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.