The condition of contemporary civilization appears to be a startling combination of the best and the worst: its unprecedented material prosperity and technological ingenuity coexist with what seems to be an equally unprecedented degree of cultural crudeness and spiritual vacuity. Since this is an uneasy and likely unsustainable coexistence, it is only reasonable to inquire about its origins, nature, and prospects.
Telling the full story of this troubling divergence would require a multi-volume collection of studies, but its essential outline appears as clear as it is familiar: It is, once again, the story of the original sin and the subsequent exile from the good life. Unsurprisingly, this is as much a story of an individual as it is a story of great multitudes, whose glory was as great as their subsequent downfall. However, while the outline is ever familiar, the details are always unique – and we need a detailed understanding of our unique situation if we are to salvage what is best about it while relentlessly confronting its pernicious core. Let us then start where we should – that is, with the analysis of what we lost on account of its abundance.
Up until around two hundred years ago, a unique amalgamation of the Hellenic intellectual heritage, the Roman legal heritage, the Judeo-Christian spiritual heritage, and the medieval heritage of polycentric governance constituted a distinct phenomenon known under the somewhat grandiose, but nonetheless reasonably accurate name of Western civilization. Its spiritual element was the centerpiece of the whole edifice, since it endowed its remaining elements with infinite prospects for qualitative development, thus preventing any of them from degenerating into an ostensibly self-sufficient end in itself. And so, each consecutive epoch of Western civilization constituted a spiritual elevation of a particular area of fundamental human activity – an elevation possible on account of the supremely ennobling ultimate covenant between humanity and divinity. The Middle Ages was the epoch of the supreme spiritual elevation of the speculative intellect, the Renaissance – of representational art, the Enlightenment – of experimental science and social organization grounded in inalienable natural rights. In other words, by drawing on the inexhaustible spiritual energy of the Christian covenant, Western civilization continually impelled its members to pursue intellectual, moral, and aesthetic excellence. And no matter how often their pursuits failed, at least a small fraction of them culminated in spectacular, timeless successes – visible signs of human greatness resulting from devotion to its divine origin.
This felicitous development was brought to a halt sometime in the later part of the Enlightenment. The secular achievements of Western civilization – achievements spurred by a firm commitment to suprasecular goals – grew too vast to be easily sustainable. In the eyes of many, their material and technological splendor eclipsed the spiritual foundations from which it had sprung. The great accomplishments of man began to be seen as the accomplishments of man alone. Subsequently, the philosophical understanding of their preconditions began to erode: Classical virtue ethics gave way to so-called utilitarianism, classical rationalist epistemology gave way to so-called logical positivism, and classical teleological metaphysics gave way to various forms of mechanomorphism and scientism. Human rationalism divorced from divine suprarationalism, while fancying itself as finally liberated from irrationalism, turned into deceptive pseudorationalism. The intellectual original sin, grounded in the belief that a humanistic civilization can dispense with a theocentric core, has been committed.
As a result, the transformative manifestos and emancipatory proclamations of the late Enlightenment started to ring increasingly hollow, and scientistic pseudorationalism, intuitively recognized as a self-undermining doctrine, spurred the emergence of two mutually antagonistic irrationalisms. One of them, known as nationalism, tapped into the primordial instinct of tribal pride, encouraged by its newfound economic empowerment and determined to fight its way to a corresponding political empowerment. The other one, known as Marxism, utilized the new phenomenon of widespread social mobility as a catalyst for the institutionalization of envy, determined to transform society into an arena of endless political conflict. Those two irrationalisms, whose mutual hostility belied their common origin, visited unprecedented havoc on Western civilization, thereby cementing its spiritual degradation. And while, with an almost superhuman, no doubt providentially guided effort, their most virulent forms were eventually beaten back, their pernicious influence has remained with us ever since.
A crucial nuance should be understood here: The softer variants of nationalism, Marxism, and scientism that still plague Western culture are especially harmful not in virtue of what they offer, but in virtue of what they make unofferable. It is not the case that the secular deities of “national interest,” “social justice,” and “scientific progress” still demand the kind of bloody sacrifices that they did demand a hundred years ago, but it is the case that they made the idea of a sacrifice to a non-secular deity not so much repugnant as essentially unintelligible. Having destroyed the spiritual foundations of Western civilization, they assumed the role of their degraded substitutes, and so far it has turned out that a degraded substitute is acceptable enough for so-called modern man. For the time being, his spiritual appetite seems satisfied with what is apparently greater than himself, but also fully reducible to his petty limitations. And perhaps most importantly, it is the kind of spiritual satisfaction that in no way interferes with his pursuit of other, more unreflectively appealing, quintessentially earthly kinds of satisfaction, such as that afforded by sensuous entertainment and technological comfort.
How then shall we characterize the present era? It is most certainly not pagan (let alone, to use a self-contradictory phrase, “neo-pagan”), since ancient paganism, while spiritually immature, was by all means spiritually passionate, and more than willing to venerate earthly self-sacrifice as a method of communing with the cosmic order. It is sufficient to look at modern popular depictions of classical pagan deities to realize that the sleek and superficial inhabitants of comic books and action movies have nothing at all in common with the dreadful and commanding elemental forces of the heathen world. The equally coarse and exuberant numinous imagination of polytheist antiquity is forever gone: A return to paganism is impossible not only in the Christian era, but also in what some are far too quick to label the “post-Christian” era.
However, and perhaps more surprisingly, it would be equally mistaken to characterize the present age as nihilistic. This is not only because, as mentioned earlier, contemporary society retains its allegiance to a number of sufficiently comfortable and undemanding secular deities. Far more importantly, this is because persistent and honest nihilism is an inherently unsustainable outlook. Pretentious artists and academics may be particularly determined to keep up the nihilistic pose, but this is entirely due to the fact that their musings and pronouncements on the matter are particularly inconsequential. There have been very few serious thinkers in history who successfully cornered themselves into a position of consistent metaphysical meaninglessness, and the price they invariably had to pay for it was utter self-destruction. A widespread adoption of authentic nihilism would result in mankind’s immediate suicide, and that is why the common man is solidly immune to its vain attractions: Even when he is nowhere near to becoming a saintly sage, he is thereby none the nearer to becoming a masochistic maniac.
If, then, present-day Western culture is neither robustly Christian, nor pagan, nor nihilistic, what is its primary defining characteristic? My suggestion is that it is infantilism. An infantile culture is one that is capable of subsisting on the civilizational capital accumulated in its preceding mature period while being devoid of the civilizational robustness that allows for replenishing, let alone expanding it. While imaginatively barren, such a culture is capable of amusing itself by endlessly repackaging the cartoon versions of the great artistic and philosophical monuments of its fertile past – that is, it is capable of idling its time away by playing the game known under the pretentious name of “postmodernism.” While intellectually barren, such a culture is capable of comforting itself by the fact of ongoing technological development, which carries on through civilizational inertia, though without any meaningful goals in sight. And while spiritually barren, such a culture is capable of enjoying the presence of great religious symbols, but its comprehension of their meaning is limited to the festive and vaguely therapeutic dimension.
Here lies the answer to the question why present-day Western culture continues to enjoy material plenitude and technological marvels, but seems spectacularly incapable of putting those blessings to any intellectually, morally, aesthetically, and spiritually non-trivial uses. Its maturity is gone with its spiritual foundations, which have been thoroughly ravaged by the devilish ideologies conceived in the 19th century and implemented in the 20th. However, so great have been the social and economic achievements built upon those foundations that the former have proved capable of outliving the latter, though it is a vain hope that this situation can persist indefinitely. In other words, while deprived of its maturity, Western culture is currently under no pressure to regain it, which, due to cultural inertia, makes it sink ever deeper into its shallowness – and this is by no means an oxymoronic statement.
Thus, it is, strictly speaking, incorrect to characterize the present age as hostile to Christianity or to any other religiously serious worldview, since genuine hostility implies authentic comprehension of its object. The reason why the ideologies mentioned above were so successful in damaging Christian civilization is precisely that they understood its spiritual complexities and their corresponding fragilities. On the contrary, the pervasive infantilism of our era makes us largely impotent to formulate serious and meaningful judgments on matters of spiritual substance. In fact, even matters of more broadly normative nature seem increasingly beyond the reach of our culture as far as their intelligent analysis is concerned. Perhaps this is why there is no contradiction in viewing contemporary Western society as simultaneously highly moralistic and full of moral nonchalance. Perhaps this is why, for instance, it considers itself unprecedentedly appreciative of individual liberty, understood as commitment to the vacuous slogan of “self-expression”, while simultaneously tolerating, and often encouraging, a continuous slide towards the soft totalitarianism of bureaucratic intrusiveness predicted by Tocqueville. Perhaps this is why its public discourse is saturated with sentimental bromides about “human rights”, “tolerance”, and “inclusiveness”, while its understanding of the moral discipline required to build a genuinely virtuous character appears very limited. And perhaps this is why, instead of deliberating on how to use its unprecedented material and technological resources to achieve classical humanistic goals – that is, the goals of classical liberal arts education – it wallows in the self-indulgent fantasies of “technological singularity” and “posthumanism.”
Be that as it may, an infantile era is by its nature always an ephemeral interlude, a hiatus between two periods of civilization – or between a period of civilization and a period of nothingness. In other words, it is a hiatus culminating either in the restoration of civilizational maturity or in the ultimate and irrevocable depletion of inherited civilizational capital. As suggested earlier, even the economic and technological superstructure of Christendom, though possessed of greater secular resilience than its spiritual base, will eventually wither away in the absence of the latter – as infantilism progresses, the forces of capital accumulation will eventually be overcome by the forces of capital consumption, and the forces of entrepreneurial creativity will eventually be strangled by the forces of technocratic ineptitude. Thus, it is only by restoring its spiritual base that we can restore the maturity of our civilization, and it is only by restoring its maturity that we can save it from ultimate disappearance.
However, here the seriousness of our challenge emerges in full force, since it confronts us with the crucial difference between a childlike culture and a childish culture. A childlike culture – a prime example of which being that of the ancient pagan world – yearns for maturity, and is willing to be baptized into spiritual adulthood. A childish culture, on the other hand, is as oblivious to its immaturity as it is smug in its enjoyment, finding spiritual adulthood an altogether unintelligible notion. Hence, the restoration of cultural maturity may well be a far more elusive goal than its initial achievement.
The difficulty of our task is compounded by the fact that the infantilism of our time does not seem to leave entirely unaffected even those of us who are particularly serious about reinfusing Western culture with the authentic Christian spirit. This manifests itself primarily in the absence of what might be regarded as unambiguously great and remarkable accomplishments of contemporary Christian philosophy, literature, art, and evangelism. Some of the fruits of contemporary Christian culture are no doubt notable, but none of them seems even remotely comparable to the fruits of the philosophical genius of St. Thomas Aquinas, the literary genius of Dante, the artistic genius of Michelangelo, the musical genius of Bach, and the charismatic genius of St. Francis of Assisi, or even of the much more recent mythopoetic genius of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. In other words, it appears that one of the defining features of the infantile era is that it makes greatness impossible even for those who correctly identify its ultimate source and are committed to drawing from it.
But perhaps here lies both our present curse and our present blessing. Perhaps the kind of greatness that we are presently called to consists not in adding another floor to the cultural edifice of Christendom, but in reinforcing its foundations – that is, in making sure that we fully understand the supremely ennobling character and the infinite cultural vitality of the covenant of Christ with his Church. Perhaps what we need to do, instead of reaching out to the world on its own terms in an act of misconceived charity, is to focus primarily on reaching out to ourselves and to our endlessly rich spiritual inheritance, thereby reaching out to the world in the only serious and meaningful way available. Perhaps it is only if we are particularly adamant about turning inward to rediscover what is timeless that we can be particularly effective in turning outward to shake what is fleeting out of its complacency.
In sum: Let us hold the light of cultural maturity high, so that all those afflicted by cultural infantilism may see how much of their human potential they have willingly forsaken.
On the intellectual front, let us, for instance, not only preserve the mighty philosophical edifice of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, but also consistently and proudly apply it to the issues of the day – and let us see in such consistent application not a display of philosophical grandstanding, but a comprehensive call for intellectual sanity. Thus, for example, an elementary reflection on human nature informed by this tradition goes a long way in exposing the puerility of the presuppositions that motivate the rowdy phenomenon of “identity politics”, with its incongruous combination of descriptive anti-essentialism and normative essentialism. Similarly, scholastic reflection on the nature of the intellect immediately calls into question the coherence of the ubiquitous notion of “artificial intelligence”, together with all of its triumphalist and apocalyptic connotations. Such observations are, of course, by no means original, but the crucial point is to normalize (or perhaps renormalize) the language and the mindset necessary to articulate them and make them easily comprehensible. It is, after all, the mindset and the language not of arcane philosophical abstraction, but of fundamental philosophical common sense, uniquely capable of preserving the spiritual and cultural lucidity of those who have once achieved it.
On the ethical front, let us be uncompromising in emphasizing the fact that the establishment of a good society has nothing to do with the multiplication of rights or with the satisfaction of arbitrary desires, but has everything to do with the development of virtues – both natural and theological – which can proceed exclusively through acts of self-discipline and self-restraint. Thus, let us be single-minded in underscoring the essential differences between robust moral values and their childish caricatures that dominate today’s public discourse. Let us, for instance, keep pointing out that the consummation of individual liberty consists not in pandering to an endless variety of one’s spontaneous whims, but in permanently orienting one’s will towards the promise of divine grace, which opens the way to the moral perfection of holiness. And, perhaps even more importantly, let us keep pointing out that love, the summum bonnum of virtuous living, is not a mawkish endorsement of “everyone’s being who they want to be”, but an intellectually serious and emotionally disciplined concern for everyone’s becoming who they should be. In other words, let us consistently drive home the point that the role of ethics is not to remove stumbling blocks on the road to “self-expression”, but to help in overcoming stumbling blocks on the road to self-fulfilment achieved through self-denial.
On the aesthetic front, let us work tirelessly towards reviving the awareness that beauty is not a tool of sensuous gratification, but the crucial bridge between truth and goodness. Let us be clear in explaining that genuine art is not an expression of one’s subjective whimsicality, but a technically meticulous and imaginatively mature exploration of the metaphysical harmony of being. And let us be intransigent in proclaiming the truth that authentic culture is not a matter of flaunting one’s contrived eccentricities, but an essential vehicle for preserving communal virtues across generations. In sum, let us keep reminding the world that the aesthetic measure of civilizational maturity is a sincere commitment to the objectivity of taste.
Finally, on the political front – and here I am making a strictly this-worldly personal suggestion – let us fully utilize the opportunities opened up by the original ideas and ideals of classical liberalism. Contrary to common misconceptions, classical liberalism is ultimately an outgrowth not of late Enlightenment utilitarianism, let alone of Hobbesian “contractarianism” (with its implication of monarchical absolutism), but of Scholastic natural law theory. Its central tenets can be reasonably described as nothing more and nothing less than the social and organizational implications of the Ten Commandments and the Christian Golden Rule, according to which any community worth its salt has to be established on the basis of voluntary cooperation and unanimous acceptance of its foundational principles. Thus, its emphasis on “negative liberty” should be seen not as a sign of hostility towards positive moral obligations, but as a necessary precondition of their sincere, thoughtful, uncoerced acceptance.
In other words, classical liberalism allows for saving substantive moral and cultural values from being destroyed by hostile politics by expunging the influence of the latter from the level of local self-governance. It seems to me that such a solution should be particularly welcome to all those who believe that the restoration of cultural maturity in the spirit of Christian virtues requires the emergence of favorable institutional frameworks within which it is possible to proclaim, pursue, and hone such virtues unimpeded. Thus, perhaps the most worthwhile – or even the only really worthwhile – political battle that we should fight in today’s world is not the battle for global political influence, but the battle for genuine communal autonomy and local self-determination. By following this route, we might be able to build places that might serve both as strongholds of sanity immune to the encroaching infantilization and as beacons of hope for those eager to follow in our footsteps and challenge the insanity of their own surroundings. In sum, by building such places, committed both to the classical liberal principles of self-determination and to the Christian principles of self-denial, we might be able to combine seclusion and outreach in the most fulfilling manner – that is, we might be able to utilize to the fullest the natural, self-reinforcing complementarity of the “Benedict Option” and the “Francis Option.”
This much we can do. However, even having done all this, we must be prepared for the possibility that the infantilization of the world around us will proceed apace, since the abandonment of one’s cultural maturity is a self-reinforcing process – as one generation sinks into material complacency and spiritual stupor, the cultural resources passed on to the succeeding generations become ever shoddier, which makes gaining the awareness of one’s dire situation ever more difficult. In other words, we must be prepared for the possibility that, despite our best efforts to the contrary, in the near future everyday language will become increasingly inarticulate and confused, moral discourse will become increasingly shrill and saccharine, mass entertainment will become increasingly vapid and clownish, naïve techno-utopianism will become increasingly pronounced, reverence for tradition will become increasingly rare, and serious pursuit of spiritual goods will become increasingly incomprehensible. Furthermore, we must reckon with the eventuality that this process will continue until it becomes clear that not only the spiritual foundations of our civilization, but also their economic and technological fruits have been utterly consumed, while the knowledge and skills necessary to restore them have been utterly forgotten.
Of course, the above speculation is by no means a deterministic prognosis, and it may well turn out to be something of an exaggeration. There may exist powerful but latent factors capable of reversing our present situation without an intervening crisis of ultimate proportions. And yet, it is best to prepare for the worst, since such preparation can imbue the quest for rediscovery of our spiritual heritage with particular urgency. As I mentioned earlier, restoring cultural maturity and spiritual depth to a civilization thoroughly infantilized by a combination of material abundance, technological luxury, moral triviality, rowdy politicization, scientistic naivete, and cultural amnesia is a challenge of unprecedented character. Thus, it would be immodest to speculate on the exact and detailed shape that our efforts will have to assume to make our spiritual inheritance a form of individual and communal life that is lived as fully as it was in the erstwhile heyday of Christendom. The general guidelines sketched above – and I offer these with no pretensions of expertise – will have to be implemented on the ground on the basis of considered experience and prudent observation. Beyond that, we can only seek and trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
And finally, we need to remember that the normative and qualitative thinness of what we are up against makes it not so much an anti-civilization as a non-civilization – not so much a self-consciously determined foe as a deeply confused prodigal son. Hence, if the worst comes to pass and the confusion of contemporary Western culture persists until it totally depletes its remaining civilizational reserves, its members will have no choice but to abandon their childishness in favor of childlikeness – that is, they will have to admit their spiritual malaise and turn for help to the guardians of spiritual health. If that happens, we will have to be there to answer their plight, strong in our families, our communities, our institutions, and our devotion to the Redeemer. And if we do answer their plight, we might be able not only to rebuild the glory of Christendom, but also to make it brighter than ever.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Sick Child” (1903) by Ricard Canals, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.