That Western tradition is in a complicated state of decay is, I might guess, an article of religion for a lot of readers of The Imaginative Conservative. However consciousness of this decay goes again additional than many individuals are in all probability conscious. In his 1997 e-book The Concept of Decline in Western Historical past, historian Arthur Herman reveals the many phases of declinism in Western thought courting all the method again to the aftermath of the French Revolution. (Round that point, the German author Friedrich Schlegel went as far as to recommend that the atrocities of the Reign of Terror signaled that the “drama of human history” was drawing to an in depth.) The thrust of Mr. Herman’s e-book is that declinism and decline concept poisoned Western thought, and decline turned a self-fulfilling prophecy. He treats the historical past of cultural pessimism from a spread of angles: industrialization, racial pessimism, and eco-pessimism are amongst them. One motif that struck a chord with me is the concept 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 motion and that also resonates at present.
The Romantics have been, arguably, the first group of individuals to really feel alienated from their very own time and to take refuge in an idealized previous. They reversed the Enlightenment religion in progress and despised the Industrial Revolution, which they felt was denaturing trendy man. We assume of the nineteenth century as the nice “Romantic era,” nevertheless it’s essential to understand that the Romantics outlined themselves in opposition to their century. This is the reason a lot Romantic artwork (the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the operas of Wagner, the artwork of the Pre-Raphaelites) facilities round previous historic eras. These artists believed that Western civilization was in a nasty means, they usually needed to show again the clock. The precise lived nineteenth century was not “Romantic” in any respect, however drab and utilitarian—a world of smoke stacks and prime hats.
One Romantic thinker who felt impelled to withdraw from trendy life and society was the artwork historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897). Burckhardt had been politically concerned in his youth, however after the violent German Revolutions of 1848 he withdrew into seclusion to focus on his two passions: historical past and artwork. “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 disaster as a state of affairs during which the numerous parts in a society are thrown off stability. In such a disaster, “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 center of the nineteenth century, however wanting again from the current day, one is struck by how the social upheavals late 1960s match Burckhardt’s description.
Some prophets of cultural decline had begun to sound a warning about decadence, a sinister by-product of the refinement that got here with civilization. Decadence—the flip from hardness and virility to “effeminacy” and “softness”—is a perennial declinist theme, and it turned a critical preoccupation in the nineteenth century. As Western man turned technologically extra refined it was feared that he would turn into much less human. Over-refinement in way of life would result in effeteness, and ultimately to barbarism.
The theme was given visible expression in Thomas Couture’s 1847 portray The Romans of the Decadence, during which the faces of all the members at an orgy in a Roman palace are jaded and bored, merely going by way of the motions. A whole inventive motion—referred to as the Decadent Motion by its opponents—arose as an anti-Victorian backlash, rejecting typical morality and wallowing in the sensual aspect of inventive enjoyment; Oscar Wilde was one of its main figures.
And so a sick, worn-out temper dominated intellectuals at the flip of the twentieth century, a sense that the Western cultural custom was going to seed. That is in contradiction to our typically rosy view of the nineteenth century as a time of progress, relative peace, and self-confidence.
In response to Mr. Herman, a lot of the twentieth century was an extra try and stave off the imminent demise of Western civilization; this consists of the totalitarian actions of Hiltler, Mussolini and Stalin; and the eugenics motion, which proceeded from the perception that Western populations wanted to turn out to be purified from “degeneracy.” Actions in the arts, too, corresponding to Arnold Schoenberg’s experiments in twelve-tone music, have been aimed toward rescuing the European inventive custom from oblivion.
The idea of “decadence” holds the key to understanding the place the cultural pessimism of the nineteenth century connects with right now. “Decadence” for the nineteenth-century intellectuals had a quantity of connotations, together with effeminacy and loss of energy; however the etymological root of the phrase pertains to decay and “falling away” (from Latin de + cadere). Surveying our present-day surroundings, we will hazard a guess that if Burckhardt, Friedrich Nietzsche and their pessimist friends might glimpse our world, they might consider that their dire predictions had come to move.
The proliferation of digital media—which began out as an adjunct to the mental and sensible life however now has colonized the social life as properly—appears nearly as good a candidate as any for the image of decadence in our day. Individuals as we speak might not frequent orgies and Bacchanalias, however they do gorge themselves on Fb and Twitter, and with the similar jaded outcomes as the individuals in Thomas Couture’s portray. It’s the signal of an engulfing ennui, of the alienation of man from different individuals, from himself, and from any sense of place and time.
Many social observers have alerted us to the unfavorable results of the new know-how on social conduct and expertise, consideration span, and ethical character insofar as our lives are keyed to prompt gratification. The extreme use of digital units produces a particular state of thoughts: a self-satisfied smugness, a possessive hubris. It’s as if I’ve the complete universe in the palm of my hand and wish solely push the proper buttons and get the outcome I would like. The nineteenth-century pessimists would in all probability have seen this as the consummation of one of their biggest fears—the triumph of the rationalistic, calculating tendencies of trendy Western civilization. Life is a continuing information feed, and human beings are being lowered to strolling receptacles for info.
Throughout the Industrial Revolution, a quantity of commentators drew consideration to the attainable well being dangers to which urbanization might give rise. They might little question have a subject day observing the doughy, glassy-eyed look of numerous individuals on the road at the moment; in addition to the androgynous center floor into which many women and men appear to be merging of their look, speech and conduct. We are beginning to look like extensions of our digital gizmos. The conservative pundit Mark Steyn has commented that a time-traveler from 1950 who visited our period would first discover, not the refined digital gadgetry, however how unhealthy and infantile the individuals look.
The deluge of digital media at present additionally connects with one other of the Romantic pessimists’ intuitions: the decay of Western tradition, notably inventive tradition. 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 trendy life had grow to be banal and devoid of romance and that the Western inventive custom was coming to an finish. The profusion of media at this time is usually touted as an excellent factor insofar as an unlimited vary of tradition is now out there for fast entry. However at the similar time, it serves to intensify that our civilization has by and enormous ceased to supply something unique. We not write nice symphonies or poems, we merely develop extra refined methods of storing and disseminating info. The French artwork 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 can be fortunate now even to have Paul Delaroche.
There are a selection of methods to elucidate Western tradition’s atrophy. One is that it has misplaced its former religious core—based mostly first on Christian after which upon Enlightenment beliefs. (Against this, how are you going to construct an inventive motion on “celebrate diversity” or different postmodern platitudes?) One other rationalization is that Western tradition has merely exhausted itself. Such writers as Kurt Anderson and Ross Douthat have argued that we now have reached the finish of cultural historical past; they cite the proven fact that types of gown and design haven’t modified considerably in thirty years, and that Hollywood films are caught in a rut of remakes and reboots. Upon this view, one may recommend that atrophy is a pure and inevitable consequence of Western tradition’s striving after progress and alter; ultimately, all the prospects are exhausted, all the phases run by way of. One arrives at what one writer in the late 1960s was already calling the “dead end of all thought and expression.”
A 3rd rationalization is summed up by the citation from Mr. Herman’s guide cited at the starting of this essay: “Material comfort and opulence have drained away all creativity and life.” As our civilization has devoted itself increasingly more to creating life simpler, there’s a commensurate religious loss, leading to the dying of true tradition. “Social media,” it might appear, fills the void produced by the lack of a dwelling tradition—a method to hold busy when lower than nothing is occurring.
The best worth of Arthur Herman’s The Concept of Decline is to point out that the West has been dwelling in the shadow of its personal demise for 2 centuries or extra—and never merely since, say, the late 1960s. Mr. Herman’s stance is actually optimistic; he’s trying to quell the doom-mongers amongst us and introduce a way of perspective. However Mr. Herman doesn’t show that our civilization is just not declining, solely that the decline has been gradual and we’ve got now reached an much more superior stage of decay than the nineteenth century—certainly, a extra superior stage of decay than 1997, when Mr. Herman wrote his ebook.
With hindsight we will see that every successive era of declinists was proper about the path society was heading, simply untimely in its predictions. The conservative Romantics thought that their period represented the dying embers of Western civilization; but their century produced the music of Brahms, the literature of Dostoyevsky, and the artwork of the Impressionists. Brooks Adams felt in 1890 that each one drama and romance had died; but dramatic leisure flourished in the following century with the Golden Age of Hollywood. Since the late nineteenth century, every era has managed to place sufficient fuel in the car of Western tradition to maintain it going.
However in any decline, one ultimately reaches all-time low. The query dealing with us is, have we now reached it? The jadedness, ennui, and mind-numbed distraction of many trendy individuals—a tableau of decadence mimicking The Romans of the Decadence—appears to recommend that we have now. The one response to such a state of affairs is what Jacob Burckhardt did: rediscover, hoard, and cherish the cultural treasures of our previous.
This essay in our collection of “Timeless Essays” was first revealed right here in Oct 2016.
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Editor’s observe: The featured picture is “Romans of the Decadence” by Thomas Couture.