decline of western civilizationThere are days and, then, there are days.

In 1948, T.S. Eliot assumed that western civilization moved inexorably toward a new dark age. “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline,” he lamented. “The standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.”

One can only shake his head in wonder and bewilderment at what Eliot might write in 2012.

In the elite world of affairs, the powerful steal more and more through the machinery of politics, depriving us not only of liberty but, of course, of justice. There is, in no real sense, neither liberty nor order, internally or externally.

At home:

We have one of the most arrogant men ever at the head of our executive branch, and our executive branch is at the height of its power. His most likely challenger this fall seems like merely a less interesting version of himself.

Our Congress seemingly gave up the right to declare war or make just laws sometime in the 1940s. Never have they reclaimed what rightfully and constitutionally belongs to it, and there is no sign that the body as a whole will overcome impotence.

We are now strapped with overwhelming debt, and, yet, we have made sure the wealthy stay wealthy or get wealthier through the charade of stimuli packages.

On Saturday, Congress overwhelmingly rejected Representative Justin Amash’s amendment to prevent indefinite detention of terror suspects.  Only the most historically ignorant can fail to realize that the NDAA–which Amash sought to amend–overturns nearly 1,500 years of finely honed common law rights.  Through the NDAA, the government claims the right to own us.

Frankly, the loss of civil liberties during the past two presidential administrations (Obama and Bush) is so overwhelming as to be almost certainly on the permanent road to completion (that is, we will have overturned almost every civil liberty worth anything, never to regain them).  Not only have we, as Americans, lost our rights to possess our own bodies, but the proliferation of spying at home and abroad–what the Washington Post has convincingly called “Secret America”–is out of control.


We feel pity for Greece as that country succumbs to implosion. Do we fidget as we pray that our leaders–the ones who spy on us with drones at home and murder many abroad–might just somehow be smart enough to prevent us from the same fate?

The so-called “Arab Spring” has led to the destruction of Christians, Christian churches, and Arab Christian culture while intolerant Islamic forces gain control.

And, the list of disaster after disaster, murder after murder, goes on and on and on. . . .

As we look back over western history, we know that every government falls. Just imagine what the world looked like in 410, hordes infiltrating the remnants of civilization.

Or, imagine the time of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

Not a single political body of that day has remained. Only two things have in western civilization in the last two thousand years–1) the Jewish people; and 2) the Catholic/Orthodox Church.

Do we imagine the U.S. will last forever? If so, we are fools. It’s quite possible the U.S. has been done since the second administration of Jefferson.  As Gordon Wood effectively argued in his Radicalism of the American Revolution, not a single founder thought the Republic still existed in any real form–or perhaps more accurately, with any real soul–at the time of his respective death.

What if the founding of America was the highpoint of western civilization? What if it served as the end of an era, the culmination of all that came before it, rather than the beginning of a new era? In our understandable American patriotism, we call it a “founding.” What if it’s really an “ending.”

For the sake of argument, let’s take Eliot’s claim seriously. If we are in a period of decline, our role as members of western civilization, as advocates of order, dignity, and liberty, changes dramatically from what it is if if we’re in a time of cultural ascension.

If we are falling, we who reject ideology need to prepare the world for it–to create a foundation not just for the survival of our children but for a revival, a renaissance of some kind, twenty generations hence.

If we believe in western civilization, the contract of eternal society, the communion of saints, we might have a profound duty to preserve, not just a right to exist.

What if Eliot was right?

I see little beyond a bleak twilight. I see no justice in our federal government. I see only poison, corruption, and darkness. I see that our economy is tenuous and shaky at best. I see a national debt that is insoluble. I see an education system that is almost totally utilitarian and without redeeming value, a grand babysitting scheme to keep potential hoodlums off the streets and competition out of the labor pool.

Our position abroad is without direction, and I would guess with only slight trepidation that more people outside of our borders hate us than did on September 10, 2001.

Where is the light? Where do we see hope? There are cracks here and there, but the barriers and obstructions continue to mount, crowding in upon us, forcing us ever closer to the whirligig of the abyss.

Still, as St. Paul reminded us, there is always hope. We have autonomous communities, especially in education, forming–but they are decentralized. We have blistering fast technology and technological improvements. But, where else? Where? I ask with all sincerity. Where else?

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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13 replies to this post
  1. As we are ever-more constrained within the Panopticon, the notion of effective resistance becomes more and more fantastical. There will be no way to hide house church meetings, no way to keep pastors and priests secret, no way to educate children differently than the Caesar commands. There are cameras in more and more places. Data-mining on the internet results in not only Caesar, but also private firms knowing more about us than we ourselves do. In 2015, all vehicles will have to have trackers on them. All of your contacts will be known. All of your driving will be known. Some police departments already have the ability to "see" through walls with technology related to airport scanners, as they drive by your house. There is no hiding, there is no escape. There is only prayer, and the real possibility of the red martyrdom.

  2. Yes, and when the last soul possible has heard the Gospel (and event that is nigh upon us) and has chosen whether or not to accept Christ's sacrifice and His Salvation and be filled with the Holy Spirit … at that moment in the blink of an eye … the Holy Spirit will leave this dark world taking all of the body of the church (every true follower of Christ – there ARE some in every denomination) with it – and those who are left behind will face the true darkness that will only end when Christ returns as the Lion of Heaven.

  3. OK — not sure about the pretribulationist rapture bit up there. No interest in getting into a flame-war; just need to go on record saying that that's not only bad theology (stemming from a novel hermeneutics which only came into vogue in the last one-hundred years), but it's also poor history: the world will always be evil. The Church will always be righteous — that is, with a righteousness which is not Her own, but comes from Her Heavenly Bridegroom. Point is, the world is evil. It is still in thrall to its infernal Prince. It's been bad here, good here, bad there, good there. Sometimes it looks like the City of God and the City of Man are in tandem, but often it has been at those very times when human folly and hubris have been…well, as bad as they've always been and ever will be. But they're separate. They're not the same. The City of God is predestined to salvation; the City of Man, to a baptism by fire, an immolation of all that is corrupt and evil. Even now the commingled creation groans, waiting for the sons of God to be revealed. But there's no such metric of "[accepting] Christ's sacrifice and His Salvation and [being] filled with the Holy Spirit" that's going to galvanize God into ushering in the next stage of history. Ixnay on the aptureray…

    Dr. Birzer, thanks so much for this piece. Reminds me of Buchanan's Suicide of a Superpower. I, too, share your outlook, yet I would never say that I am without hope. We hope in God, and even though we walk through this vale of tears, we know that He is faithful to His Church, though the nation be faithless.

    This poem by Czeslaw MIlosz aptly and movingly sums up what I think the fate of virtuous men will be in the age to come. Let me know what you think.

    How It Was

    Stalking a deer I wandered deep into the mountains and from there I saw.

    Or perhaps it was for some other reason that I rose above the setting sun.

    Above the hills of blackwood and a slab of ocean and the steps of a glacier, carmine-colored in the dusk.

    I saw absence; the mighty power of counter-fulfillment; the penalty of a promise lost forever.

    If, in tepees of plywood, tire shreds, and grimy sheet iron, ancient inhabitants of this land shook their rattles, it was all in vain.

    No eagle-creator circled in the air from which the thunderbolt of its glory had been cast out.

    Protective spirits hid themselves in subterranean beds of bubbling ore, jolting the surface from time to time so that the fabric of freeways was bursting asunder.

    God the Father didn’t walk about any longer tending the new shoots of a cedar, no longer did man hear his rushing spirit.

    His son did not know his sonship and turned his eyes away when passing by a neon cross flat as a movie screen showing a striptease.

    This time it was really the end of the Old and the New Testament.

    No one implored, everyone picked up a nodule of agate or diorite to whisper in loneliness: I cannot live any longer.

    Bearded messengers in bead necklaces founded clandestine communes in imperial cities and in ports overseas.

    But none of them announced the birth of a child-savior.

    Soldiers from expeditions sent to punish nations would go disguised and masked to take part in forbidden rites, not looking for any hope.

    They inhaled smoke soothing all memory and, rocking from side to side, shared with each other a word of nameless union.

    Carved in black wood the Wheel of Eternal Return stood before the tents of wandering monastic orders.

    And those who longed for the Kingdom took refuge like me in the mountains to become the last heirs of a dishonored myth.

  4. Since the beginning God has brought judgment to earth (to the land) when two institutions fail: the church and the civil government. In the days of "first century church", it was the failure of the established church, apostate Judaism. It was the established church that crucified their king-high priest. But even the apostate church could not crush God's victorious Son. The civil government could not crush Him either. Rome, an incredibly corrupt institution could not stop the predetermined plan of God Almighty. Christ established His New Covenant with His new people, "first century church" amidst severe persecution, an extremely dark time. His was victorious over all His enemies.
    Today we have the same, a declining established church and a corrupt civil government. The church of today is so filled with corruption, it's established heretical doctrine, just like apostate Judaism, looks for escape from troubles. They looked for a military king who would throw off tyranny. Today we look for escape by hoping for a rapture. Things are ripe for judgment. The established church has thrown off the very word of God by its promotion of sodomy, lack of leadership, rapturism, etc., etc., etc. The church expects Christ to do what He has commanded His church to do! But all we look for is an escape. It is just as much the fault of the established church as it is the civil government that judgment is here. But just like the first century, the true church will be victorious and we will see the reign of Christ expanded. Halelujah!

  5. I'll leave it to others to preach that Christ has overcome the world. Brad's article deals with the temporal political reality that we have a very real responsibility to deal with with very temporal means. Alfred of Wessex could have very well joined a monastery and taken consolation that the Second Coming would right all wrongs. But he did not: he did the work put before him. I appreciate sermons, but I also appreciate that they don't happen in a lecture hall. Thanks, Brad, for sending out very timely addresses like this one to get people doing the work of restoration they need to begin.

    "..Alfred born in Wantage
    Rules England till the doom.

    Because in the forest of all fears
    Like a strange fresh gust from sea,
    Struck him that ancient innocence
    That is more than mastery.

    And as a child whose bricks fall down
    Re-piles them o'er and o'er,
    Came ruin and the rain that burns,
    Returning as a wheel returns,
    And crouching in the furze and ferns
    He began his life once more"

  6. Dr. Birzer, I read this post a couple of days ago, & one phrase in the last paragraph has been eating at me: "but they are decentralized."
    Why the use of "but" here? I see great hope in a decentralized classical education movement.

  7. "The violent take heaven by force…"

    In the end, our future comes out to a matter of will.

    do we have the will to revive true education and promulgate it in our society?

    do we have the will to take over the institutions of media and legal dealings?

    do we have the will to vociferously oppose evil in a public way wherever we find it?

    the answers to these and other questions will determine the real outcome of this admittedly unpleasant scenario.

  8. If only to prevent us from falling into despair, there needs to be some temporal action in the world in addition to prayer and patience. Insofar as Christian civilization has any strength for survival in the future – apart from the miraculous conversion of America – the remnant will need to be concentrated geographically. Or so it seems to me. The decentralization Dr. Birzer laments is indeed lamentable. In short, there needs to be a place, a region, however small, where grown ups are still in charge, where we can preserve and rebuild. The "Free Staters" had the right idea but the wrong ideology.

    Meanwhile, the Church needs to realize that America is now a raw pagan mission field, and to recover the urgency of evangelism. Perhaps God will deign to send us a St. Francis Xavier from Asia or Africa. The time is long past to replace dialogue and ecumenism – which have proven largely unfruitful, though not bad in themselves – with a robust program of re-evangelization.

  9. "In short, there needs to be a place, a region, however small, where grown ups are still in charge, where we can preserve and rebuild."

    And, I should like to add, *defend*.

  10. I was pondering this morning the 50 year old siren call of the 'Age of Aquarius' which was ubiquitous during the late 60's – a point in time that marked the deep decline of western civilization. New religion, bizarre fashion, abortion, deviant sex, anti-traditionalism and socialist politics were all embraced as the world spun away rapidly from its 2,000 year old roots. All civilizations rise and fall but I believe the author is correct is his analogy of the 5th century Roman Empire with our own era. This age is comparable to late antiquity and the dawning of a new civilization. Its outline is becoming more and more defined as decades past and it is totalitarian in nature. Personal freedom, Christianity and Catholicism in particular and objective history will be prohibited more and more as the century progresses and the neo-Vandals and Visigoths imposed a atheistic serfdom upon the herd is culled of undesirables. As Cardinal George has said, "I will die in my bed, my successor in prison and his successor will be martyred."

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