In 1984, Russell Kirk penned an essay of almost prophetic accuracy, which soon thereafter appeared in the pages of Modern Age. This essay, The Age of Sentiments, suggests that the world was in transition between one age, the so-called “Age of Discussion”, and into another, one which Kirk labels “the Age of Sentiments.” As Kirk puts it, “Our civilized world is passing out of one age and into another epoch.” Quite so.
When Kirk references the “Age of Discussion”—a phrase first coined by Walter Bagehot in his book Physics and Politics—he is referring to a longstanding albeit ill-defined period of time of human history in which there was a general relay of ideas throughout a given community or society. In this Age of Discussion, ideas were discussed openly and conclusions arrived at by way of thoughtful consideration. Kirk points out by way of Bagehot that democracy both ancient and modern is itself a product of discussion, having been birthed in small towns of Greece and Italy. Of course, any student of politics, philosophy, or history will know that what we refer to as the classics, and indeed the classical age, also come from predominantly from Greece. From the Greeks we have been given the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—all three of whom were quite fond of discussion. From their love of discussion, the bedrock of all philosophy is built. The ripple effect generated from their discussion defies quantification.
The value of discussion in a community however great or small cannot be overstated even slightly. This is reflected in our own Constitution, in the First Amendment guaranteeing all Americans the right to free speech. Every American has the right to say whatever crosses his mind. It is then up to those around him to determine whether the idea holds any merit. Such is the way of discussion, and such ways are being replaced.
Kirk’s “Age of Sentiments”, in essence, is an age in which man is governed by their sentiments, which is to say a higher, deeper, emotional sort of judgment. Kirk, to sum up his understanding of “sentiments”, quotes Pascal; “The heart has reasons which reason cannot know.” That, says Kirk, is the gist of Sentiment. The Age of Sentiments, then, is one in which man relies less on the absorption of differing points of view or interpretations of the issue-at-play, less on established wisdom regarding the topic or problem being put forth, and more on his own intuition on the matter.
Herein lies the rub—modern forms of entertainment, starting with mediums such as cinema and the radio, to the television, and beyond to technological tyranny of today, have made information—though not always wise, knowledgeable, or even credible—readily available almost instantaneously. Critical thought as a necessity for opinion-making is no longer pursued, precisely because we no longer believe there to be a need to discuss ideas. Discussion is what we did in the dark ages of yesteryear, before the likes of Google and Wikipedia. Kirk minces no words in assigning as the catalyst for this shift the proliferation of the television as a household item because of it homogenizing effect on society.
In “The Age of Sentiments”, Kirk recounts two trips he took in the decades prior to the authoring of this essay to demonstrate his aversion to the degenerating effects of the television—one to Verona and the other to the Orkneys. Both communities, he points out, are long and storied in the practice of discussion. While in Verona, Kirk visited the Piazza delle Erbe, which in time past was the local Roman forum. For twenty-five hundred years, men had discussed the business of the day in this and similar public spaces. On this trip, however, Kirk arrived at the Piazza on a Saturday night only to find it seemingly deserted. Upon closer inspection he discovered that while the cafes were themselves full of patrons, the attention of all were focused on small television sets. As it turns out, televisions had arrived in Verona not too long before his arrival. Men and women sat at small round tables, drinks in hand, in silence as they gazed at the cold glow of the television. No discussion of any sort appeared to take place.
Much the same did Kirk find on a later trip to the Orkneys. After dinner in a local hotel, he and his companion were invited to watch television in the hotel’s writing room. Upon arrival, Kirk made a number of observations. While the room itself was lined with bookshelves and was large and open in a manner suggesting it had once been filled with writing tables and spaces to read (hence the designation of “writing room” one may assume), it had now been cleared out, its tables replaced with folding metal chairs all directed at the television set up at the front of the room. As is to be expected in a story such as this, the room was full of watchers. Television, as it happened, had arrived in the Orkneys that very week.
These two accounts, perhaps, were the genesis of the great aversion towards television felt by Kirk, or perhaps they were but the more anecdotal examples. In “The Age of Sentiments”, Kirk relates to the reader the epic tale of the battle between himself and the family television. I will spare the details, but suffice it to say that Kirk does not concern himself with coming off as being aggressively anti-television. In any case, throughout his essay Kirk paints a picture of a device that turns man away from himself, which is to say that redirects man’s attention from those things requiring critical thought. Certainly this has always been a criticism of the television, and has even been tied to why so many in the present so-called “Millennial” generation suffer, however unknowingly, from a debilitating sense of entitlement and indifference.
Time does not stand still, nor does society. We are always in a period of change, and, as with all change, its merit cannot be properly assessed until long after the fact. Just as Kirk saw his generation in a period of transition, so, too, does our present generation find itself shifting from one age to the next, to what I call the “Age of Indifference.” Things have grown worse since the time of Kirk. To describe our present age as one of sentiment no longer applies, for man is decreasingly attached to his sentimental side. As Kirk points out, “Most people are aware of this change only vaguely, if at all;” yet, one must wonder whether the great majority of men ever came to realize that any sort of shift ever occurred then as it does now.
Kirk wrote “The Age of Sentiments” to suggest that the old had gone and the new had arrived. He wrote, what’s more, not only about what had arrived but in so doing and however unwittingly also about that which was to come in this age of sentiment. He writes:
“The immense majority of human beings will feel with the projected images they behold on the television screen; and in those viewers that screen will rouse sentiments rather than reflections. Waves of emotion will sweep back and forth, so long as the Age of Sentiments endures. And whether those emotions are low or high must depend upon the folk who determine the tone and temper of television programming.”
This certainly seems to have come to pass. Cable news, the so-called “blogosphere”, and the litany of other such outlets the purpose of which being the conveyance of information—though, again, not necessarily knowledge—have replaced the old mediums for rational discussion. Some may call this the natural progression of things, ignoring the irony that there is nothing natural about television or the Internet. The truth is that while such mediums are used for the deliverance of ideas and opinions, there is no possibility for an exchange of ideas. Ideas are fed, rather than proposed, by “experts” on this matter or that, giving the opinion authority. Discussion may thereafter ensue. This format was popularized by a certain on-air personality who rose to prominence due to his tendency to yell at and berate his guests. By so doing he gained viewers who were looking to be entertained more than to be enlightened, and from there the format was expanded upon until it became the industry standard.
It is unlikely that anyone might argue that in our day we are not suffering from extreme polarization. I write not only about political polarization, but also, truly, in every meaningful manner. Civility in discourse has passed away, and has been replaced by an absolutism mentality. We see this most prominently in our politics. Politicians of one party or the other who look for ways to compromise with their political opponents are castigated and very often run out of office. Conversely, those who hold the most rigidly to their positions, an act which usually requires a certain level of hostility and sensationalized rhetoric, are quickly made to be the heroes of the day. The merit of compromise is, of course, determined on a case-by-case basis. Certainly there are some instances in which a principled stand is right and defensible not just politically but morally as well, but more often than not compromise hurts only the compromising man or woman.
When and how did this absolutism of opinion, this all-or-nothing, take no prisoners mentality set in? At what point did every man become morally, politically, and intellectually infallible? Part of that is no doubt in part due to the present ethos of forced tolerance, that no man can be wrong because his opinions are just as valid as the next mans. Bruce Frohen refers to this as “The Cult of Niceness”, citing the observation of Allan Bloom in his The Closing of the American Mind that college students had become exceedingly “nice” in an effort to avoid the offense of others. This mentality, more commonly known as the “Everyone gets a trophy” mentality, dictates that no one is wrong because being wrong degrades the soul, somehow. Much thought has already been dedicated to this idea, but suffice it to say here that only those most blindly swept up in the world subscribe to this, and yet it remains very popular as an ethos.
The answer to “when” is regrettably impossible to pinpoint. The “how”, on the other hand, is determinable with a certain assurance. We in the West suffer from a great illness, the cure of which is growing ever more obscure. The Blessed Mother Teresa famously remarked:
“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
The problem facing the West in particular, and the world as the greater whole, is a callous disregard for the Holy and Eternal, which is replaced with the temporal. David Aikman, former bureau chief of Time in China, spoke of conversations he held with leading Chinese scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2010. When discussing their research into how the West rose so quickly and powerfully, these scholars pronounced, “It was not in your guns, your wealth, even your natural resources. We find the secret in your religion: We believe that Christianity is central to the rise of the West.” How is it that we have forgotten so integral a part of our cultural being?
Men and women of the West, in their quest for the manufactured fulfillment they seek, have been become spiritually bereft. Prosperity used irresponsibly begat a culture of consumers and left in its wake cold and empty shadow. For all the charity attributable to the West—and the West is responsible for great charity to be sure—so, too, have anti-virtues such as wastefulness, materialism, and selfishness taken hold of the culture. Prosperity became the highest end rather than a means to a higher end, and this to the detriment of the wellbeing of our individual, and thereby our collective, soul. The West grew ever more detached from the permanent things—what is good, what is beautiful, and what is true—in which it was once so deeply rooted and were soon wholly consumed by the quest for material satisfaction. The search for the permanent was gradually but decidedly usurped by the search for the temporal.
In so doing, the culture has become one that is focused wholly inward, for our pursuits are now individualized. No longer are we a culture interested in understanding the world around us; nor, even, are we a culture so much interested in experiencing the world through our feelings and emotions. We are now a culture whose sole purpose and chief good is pleasure, material fulfillment, and ultimately the individual. We have been led to believe that through material fulfillment we will find that for which we search in this life. Build wealth, we are told, and we will build a life of meaning, purpose, and satisfaction. Yet, as we always see demonstrated and seem never to learn from, the joys and pleasures of this world are fleeting. They will pass away because they are not made to last. Any feeling we find from the things of this world that may resemble however loosely a sense of fulfillment is short lived. It cannot. It is the nature of man to want, and then to want more. We live in a world in which the thief will steal, in which moth and rust will ruin.
Suffering repeatedly in this cycle of gain and loss, we have grown to be callous. We have tasted that which we believe to be good, and it was a taste sweet enough to drive us to find it once more. In this pursuit, we have grown indifferent to the world around us. If we were not so indifferent, our hearts would break daily upon hearing the news. The ongoing human tragedy that is the majority of the African continent, the domestic culture of death we have allowed to spring up in which the unborn are discarded like a rock in our shoe, or the record number of our neighbors who rely on food stamps and the Leviathan for their daily needs to be minimally met—these are the symptoms of a world in desperate need of love, compassion, and forgiveness, or at the very least for a culture that does not so quickly and pitilessly shrug off such catastrophe.
The selfishness brought on by our consumerism has only been made worse by the expansive range of personal technology—television, smart phones, tablets—that are now so commonplace in today’s culture. With these devices, we now have all manner of information available in an instant. These products have become readily available at dizzying speeds, making information available in overabundance. Many call this modern convenience, but I call this nothing but the planting of the seeds of indifference. How can an overabundance of information be in any way a detriment to society? I see two explanations for this submission, the pair being innately connected one with the other. First, modern society is increasingly incapable of interpreting the world around it in due to a lack of philosophical and spiritual context, i.e. its lack of honest discussion amongst itself. As has already been discussed, man has lost his natural curiosity to understand the world around him. His only context to speak of is that of the world around him, but when that world is the subject to be understood, a greater knowledge beyond the subject itself is required. Never has the collection of human knowledge and wisdom been so readily accessible to man, and yet it seems through a day in the life that curiosity of the knowledge and wisdom of our intellectual and spiritual forefathers is waning.
The second reason I see to suggest that our overabundance of information has become a detriment to our lives and our souls is that, simply put, we have grown desensitized. We are everyday bombarded with advertisements, news, gossip, and opinions. Herein are contained sex, slander, and death. After a recent major flood, the news aired a short story about a rescue worker who pulled a dog from a flooded river. This was spliced in, of course, with stories of people swept away by the rising waters, losing their homes, and the ever present political that always seems to find its way into the narrative. They said for more information on the tragedy, viewers could visit the news station’s website.
When a national tragedy such as a school shooting transpires, one popular explanation is that through the violence in movies, television, and video games our youth have become desensitized to the depravity of such senseless acts. It is doubtless true that our mediums of entertainment are saturated with sex and death, and, lacking a proper philosophical, psychological, historical, or spiritual context, it is not difficult to believe this to be the case. Why, then, must this sort of desensitization only apply to the youth, and only so far as violence is concerned? It is clear that those events that once shocked and appalled us are now accepted as commonplace. Why? Because we are so besieged with information about this crisis or that scandal, we grow over time to simply stop caring. There is only so much about which a man can be concerned. So severed are we from our collective, and often from our individual soul, that we are not affected by anything other than that which directly touches us.
Man has grown desensitized not only to sin and evil, but to custom, tradition, beauty, and common decency as well. Here, of course, I am referencing the idea that “chivalry is dead.” Despite popular understanding, this does not apply only to the behavior between men and women. It applies, rather, to all conduct of the individual in the public life. Holding doors for strangers, picking up items dropped by others, firm handshakes, and maintaining eye contact—all of these are elemental to chivalry. Reports of chivalry’s death are, however, greatly exaggerated. To claim its death is merely an attempt to somehow exclude oneself from simple decency. There is as well the matter of technological etiquette. What is it about our smart phones that are so much more compelling than participating in the drama of human existence? Indeed, it is nary possible to sit down to a conversation with even a loved one of the closest manner without someone pulling out a cell phone for whatever myriad reason they may have to do so. Many of my own family gatherings of late have seen more than half of the room occupied by whatever is before them, rather than being occupied by the company they are in.
One early autumn morning not long ago, as I prepared for the day I glanced out the window and noticed on the rooftop across from my apartment that the first rays of the morning light were just coming over the horizon. The colors even on this gray rooftop were vivid enough to draw me out in the sub-freezing November air to see what our Creator had in store this morning. This would be but one morning in a string of several in which the sky was simply on fire. Colors I can only approximate stretched across the eastern sky from north to south. Blues, pinks, purples, reds, yellows, oranges, and divine mixtures of each were all proudly on display upon a glorious canvas. I stood in a terrified and comforted awe.
I heard a noise in the parking lot below. It was a dog barking. I looked down to see a young woman taking her dog on an early morning walk. Almost as captivating as the sunrise before me was what this young woman was doing—staring intently at whatever was on the display of her smart phone. Before us both was a scene never again to be witnessed, and yet she was missing it in order that she might read an email and browse her social media. Just as the ability to destroy a planet is meaningless next to the power of the Force, so too are the things of this world meaningless next to the beauty of nature and the actions of the Divine. This young woman was positively indifferent to all around her except that tiny three inch screen directly before her. As the ancient Chinese proverb states: “Don’t think, feel! It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”
In our desensitization, we have grown indifferent. The evils of times gone by are now a part of our everyday existence. We are called by God, and if you are not a believer in the Almighty, than by common decency and respect for inherent human dignity, to care for the poor, the sick, the orphaned and widowed, to seek peace and pursue it, to keep our minds from thinking evil, our tongues from speaking evil, and our hands from doing evil, but in our indifference we care only for ourselves. Of this indifference, all stand accused. All have driven by a stranger stranded on the side of the road. All have walked past the homeless person while en route to lunch. All have shunned the Salvation Army Santa at Christmas time on their way to spend hundreds of dollars on new this-or-that. The indifference of our culture is both institutionalized and inexcusable.
The greatest tragedy of this indifference, perhaps, is that if we aim to find the responsible parties we need only to look into a mirror. This indifference is the result of our own choices to pursue the ways and riches, joys, and pleasures of the world rather than those eternal things that can be neither stolen by thief, nor destroyed by moth or rust. As the Apostle Paul tells the Church at Philippi:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things… Practice these things, and the peace of God will be with you.”
How peaceful are we as a society—local, national, or global? Who among us has the audacity to suggest that the world in which we live exists in a state of objective and wonderful peace? Individually, how much of what each of us pursues can be described using the criteria given above? Yes, there have been a fair number of truly great and good things done by society in the past few centuries. Man, while fallen, is not incapable of doing that which is good. However, as we move farther away from the nourishment of our souls, and as we become more and more detached from our Creator and his Creation, we will as well understand with ever-greater difficulty what is good.
It need not end on such a dour note. We need only to find a solution to the problem. The trouble is, the problem is an expansive, perpetually changing nebula. Problems, however overwhelming they may be, are not solved through indifference, but thought confrontation. Man must confront this societal indifference and root it out, rather than allow it to fester or resign to impotence. We who know the value and, what’s more, the sheer joy to be found in a life of deeper substance and meaning than simply looking forward to what will be on TV tonight have an unspoken obligation to proselytize that which we hold dear. No one values an afternoon spent with Lewis, Tolkien, Aquinas, or Aristotle until they experience one. No one spends hours walking through a museum and discussing the works on display until they have an interest. A tree will not grow with a seed first being planted.
Visiting for one final time the words of St. Paul, we see him ask his brothers and sisters in Rome:
“How are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never hear? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?”
Paul is writing about the missional call all Christians receive, but so too must we who are so inclined toward this deeper, more meaningful life in pursuit of the permanent things.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.