Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Michael De Sapio as he considers the reasons for the decline of the West. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
That Western culture is in an advanced state of decay is, I would guess, an article of faith for many readers of The Imaginative Conservative. But consciousness of this decay goes back further than many people are probably aware. In his 1997 book The Idea of Decline in Western History, historian Arthur Herman reveals the many phases of declinism in Western thought dating all the way back to the aftermath of the French Revolution. (Around that time, the German writer Friedrich Schlegel went so far as to suggest that the atrocities of the Reign of Terror signaled that the “drama of human history” was drawing to a close.) The thrust of Mr. Herman’s book is that declinism and decline theory poisoned Western thought, and decline became a self-fulfilling prophecy. He treats the history of cultural pessimism from a variety of angles: industrialization, racial pessimism, and eco-pessimism are among them. One motif that struck a chord with me is the idea that “material comfort and opulence have drained away all creativity and life” from the West—a theme that emerged with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic movement and that still resonates today.
The Romantics were, arguably, the first group of people to feel alienated from their own time and to take refuge in an idealized past. They reversed the Enlightenment faith in progress and despised the Industrial Revolution, which they felt was denaturing modern man. We think of the nineteenth century as the great “Romantic era,” but it’s important to realize that the Romantics defined themselves in opposition to their century. This is why so much Romantic art (the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the operas of Wagner, the art of the Pre-Raphaelites) centers around past historical eras. These artists believed that Western civilization was in a bad way, and they wanted to turn back the clock. The actual lived nineteenth century was not “Romantic” at all, but drab and utilitarian—a world of smoke stacks and top hats.
One Romantic thinker who felt impelled to withdraw from modern life and society was the art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897). Burckhardt had been politically involved in his youth, but after the violent German Revolutions of 1848 he withdrew into seclusion to concentrate on his two passions: history and art. “I have no hope at all for the future,” he asserted; “I am tired of the modern world. I want to escape them all, the radicals, the communists, the industrialists, the overeducated, the fastidious…the -ists and -ers of every kind.” Burckhardt described civilizational crisis as a situation in which the various elements in a society are thrown off balance. In such a crisis, “the historical process is suddenly accelerated in a terrifying fashion. Developments which would otherwise take centuries seem to flit by like phantoms in months and weeks, and are fulfilled.” Burckhardt was writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, but looking back from the present day, one is struck by how the social upheavals late 1960s fit Burckhardt’s description.
Some prophets of cultural decline had begun to sound a warning about decadence, a sinister by-product of the refinement that came with civilization. Decadence—the turn from hardness and virility to “effeminacy” and “softness”—is a perennial declinist theme, and it became a serious preoccupation in the nineteenth century. As Western man became technologically more sophisticated it was feared that he would become less human. Over-refinement in lifestyle would lead to effeteness, and eventually to barbarism.
The theme was given visual expression in Thomas Couture’s 1847 painting The Romans of the Decadence, in which the faces of all the participants at an orgy in a Roman palace are jaded and bored, merely going through the motions. An entire artistic movement—called the Decadent Movement by its opponents—arose as an anti-Victorian backlash, rejecting conventional morality and wallowing in the sensual side of artistic enjoyment; Oscar Wilde was one of its leading figures.
And so a sick, worn-out mood dominated intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century, a feeling that the Western cultural tradition was going to seed. This is in contradiction to our often rosy view of the nineteenth century as a time of progress, relative peace, and self-confidence.
According to Mr. Herman, much of the twentieth century was a further attempt to stave off the imminent death of Western civilization; this includes the totalitarian movements of Hiltler, Mussolini and Stalin; and the eugenics movement, which proceeded from the belief that Western populations needed to become purified from “degeneracy.” Movements in the arts, too, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s experiments in twelve-tone music, were aimed at rescuing the European artistic tradition from oblivion.
The concept of “decadence” holds the key to understanding where the cultural pessimism of the nineteenth century connects with today. “Decadence” for the nineteenth-century intellectuals had a number of connotations, including effeminacy and loss of power; but the etymological root of the word relates to decay and “falling away” (from Latin de + cadere). Surveying our present-day environment, we can hazard a guess that if Burckhardt, Friedrich Nietzsche and their pessimist peers could glimpse our world, they would believe that their dire predictions had come to pass.
The proliferation of electronic media—which started out as an adjunct to the intellectual and practical life but now has colonized the social life as well—seems as good a candidate as any for the symbol of decadence in our day. People today may not frequent orgies and Bacchanalias, but they do gorge themselves on Facebook and Twitter, and with the same jaded results as the people in Thomas Couture’s painting. It’s the sign of an engulfing ennui, of the alienation of man from other people, from himself, and from any sense of place and time.
Many social observers have alerted us to the negative effects of the new technology on social behavior and skills, attention span, and moral character insofar as our lives are keyed to instant gratification. The excessive use of electronic devices produces a distinctive state of mind: a self-satisfied smugness, a possessive hubris. It’s as if I have the entire universe in the palm of my hand and need only push the right buttons and get the result I want. The nineteenth-century pessimists would probably have seen this as the consummation of one of their greatest fears—the triumph of the rationalistic, calculating tendencies of modern Western civilization. Life is a constant news feed, and human beings are being reduced to walking receptacles for information.
During the Industrial Revolution, a number of commentators drew attention to the possible health risks to which urbanization could give rise. They would no doubt have a field day observing the doughy, glassy-eyed appearance of countless people on the street today; as well as the androgynous middle ground into which many men and women seem to be merging in their appearance, speech and behavior. We are starting to look like extensions of our electronic gizmos. The conservative pundit Mark Steyn has commented that a time-traveler from 1950 who visited our era would first notice, not the sophisticated digital gadgetry, but how unhealthy and childish the people look.
The deluge of digital media today also connects with another of the Romantic pessimists’ intuitions: the decay of Western culture, particularly artistic culture. In 1890, the American historian and critic Brooks Adams remarked that “no poetry can bloom in the modern soil, the drama has died.” Even then, many felt that modern life had become banal and devoid of romance and that the Western artistic tradition was coming to an end. The profusion of media today is often touted as a good thing insofar as an enormous range of culture is now available for instant access. But at the same time, it serves to accentuate that our civilization has by and large ceased to produce anything original. We no longer write great symphonies or poems, we merely develop more sophisticated ways of storing and disseminating information. The French art critic Théophile Gautier commented in the mid-nineteenth century that “a while ago we had Michelangelo, now we have Paul Delaroche [a painter in the academic style], and all because we are progressing.” We would be lucky now even to have Paul Delaroche.
There are a number of ways to explain Western culture’s atrophy. One is that it has lost its former spiritual core—based first on Christian and then upon Enlightenment ideals. (By contrast, how can you build an artistic movement on “celebrate diversity” or other postmodern platitudes?) Another explanation is that Western culture has simply exhausted itself. Such writers as Kurt Anderson and Ross Douthat have argued that we have reached the end of cultural history; they cite the fact that styles of dress and design have not changed significantly in thirty years, and that Hollywood movies are caught in a rut of remakes and reboots. Upon this view, one might suggest that atrophy is a natural and inevitable consequence of Western culture’s striving after progress and change; eventually, all the possibilities are exhausted, all the phases run through. One arrives at what one author in the late 1960s was already calling the “dead end of all thought and expression.”
A third explanation is summed up by the quotation from Mr. Herman’s book cited at the beginning of this essay: “Material comfort and opulence have drained away all creativity and life.” As our civilization has devoted itself more and more to making life easier, there is a commensurate spiritual loss, resulting in the death of true culture. “Social media,” it would seem, fills the void produced by the lack of a living culture—a way to keep busy when less than nothing is going on.
The greatest value of Arthur Herman’s The Idea of Decline is to show that the West has been living in the shadow of its own demise for two centuries or more—and not merely since, say, the late 1960s. Mr. Herman’s stance is essentially optimistic; he is attempting to quell the doom-mongers among us and introduce a sense of perspective. But Mr. Herman does not prove that our civilization is not declining, only that the decline has been gradual and we have now reached an even more advanced stage of decay than the nineteenth century—indeed, a more advanced stage of decay than 1997, when Mr. Herman wrote his book.
With hindsight we can see that each successive generation of declinists was right about the direction society was heading, just premature in its predictions. The conservative Romantics thought that their era represented the dying embers of Western civilization; yet their century produced the music of Brahms, the literature of Dostoyevsky, and the art of the Impressionists. Brooks Adams felt in 1890 that all drama and romance had died; yet dramatic entertainment flourished in the following century with the Golden Age of Hollywood. Since the late nineteenth century, each generation has managed to put enough gas in the vehicle of Western culture to keep it going.
But in any decline, one eventually reaches rock bottom. The question facing us is, have we now reached it? The jadedness, ennui, and mind-numbed distraction of many modern people—a tableau of decadence mimicking The Romans of the Decadence—seems to suggest that we have. The only response to such a situation is what Jacob Burckhardt did: rediscover, hoard, and cherish the cultural treasures of our past.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in October 2016.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Romans of the Decadence” by Thomas Couture.