The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Advancement or Decline?

Eight years ago, historian and historical philosopher Dr. John Lukacs, in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “It’s The End of the Modern Age” wrote:

For a long time, I have been convinced that we in the West are living near the end of an entire age, the age that began about 500 years ago.

After a brief synopsis of the history of his thought on this matter he says that during the ten years prior to his writing:

my conviction hardened further, into an unquestioning belief not only that the entire age, and the civilization to which I have belonged, are passing but that we are living through — if not already beyond — its very end. I am writing about the so-called Modern Age.

This is a recurring theme in Dr. Lukacs’ writings and one which he has devoted entire books to. A Catholic and self-described reactionary who fled to the United States from his native Hungary shortly after the Communists took it over at the end of World War II, he has little sympathy for the ideas of progress, technology, and growth that many would see as the moving spirit of the Modern Age, but rather eulogizes the bourgeois values and civilization that were also associated with that Age.

Others, looking at the same phenomenon through very different lenses than those of Dr. Lukacs, have described it differently.

Neoconservative Francis Fukuyama, in the late 1980’s wrote an essay entitled “The End of History” which was later expanded into a book. The thesis of this arrogant piece of liberal triumphalism was that it was not just an age that was ending, but all of history, because when liberal democracy becomes universal, mankind would have achieved the end which human development was advancing towards.

The grandfather of postmodernism, French socialist and literary theorist, Jean-François Lyotard saw the passing of modernity (not quite identical to what historian Lukacs calls “the Modern Age” but there is much overlap) as something to celebrate. To Lyotard, the end of modernity meant the end of the meta-narrative, his term for theories which purport to completely explain the world, which he argued post-modern man had grown to be skeptical of.

While each of these views is quite different from the others they have in common the idea that the last century has been one of major societal transformation. Change has taken place and is taking place at an accelerated and perhaps accelerating rate. The question is: is this change good or bad?

As one who is naturally and proudly conservative by disposition, who rejects the Whig theory of history and favours Lord Falkland’s maxim “When it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change” I am inclined to look at these revolutionary changes as being negative. Thus I find myself sympathizing with Dr. Lukacs’ perspective more than that of the other two. My temperament, however, is hardly evidence of the correctness of my judgment. Let us take a look then, at the question at hand..

Is civilization in decline? The answer depends on how what we understand “civilization” to mean. Many understand “civilization” to refer to modern developments in technology and science and the accompanying changes in the political, economic, and moral arrangements of the societies in which these developments have taken place, viewed in opposition to earlier “primitive” versions of the same. This understanding of “civilization” virtually demands that contemporary society be always viewed as more advanced than past society. It is inseparable from the progressive viewpoint.

This is not the only way of understanding “civilization” however. Another way, and one which I would argue is superior, is to understand “civilization” to refer to the quality of a society marked by civility and civic virtue. Civility and civic virtue are related concepts which largely overlap. While some would reduce “civility” to “politeness” and “civic virtue” to “obedience to the state” this is a very misleading oversimplification. Civility and civic virtue are both aspects of an understanding of self as part of a greater whole, i.e., society. The good of the whole is greater than the good of the self and therefore the self has an obligation or duty to society as a whole. The cultivation of that duty is civic virtue. Civility is the aspect of civil virtue in which we behave properly towards other members of our society. This includes, but is hardly limited to, politeness.

The idea that society forms a whole which has as its end the highest good, to which all other goods are subordinate, is fundamental to the ethics and politics of both Plato and Aristotle. George P. Grant said that “Western society at its height has been” the uniting of Christianity and Plato. In the Christian West, especially the English-speaking part of it, the idea that the good of the whole is greater than the good of the self was balanced by the concept of the rights and freedoms of the individual. It was a delicate balance. Society requires that its individual members put the good of the society ahead of their own to the point of being willing to die for their society in war. Society’s survival depends upon this sense of duty and obligation. If, however, society does not recognize rights and freedoms on the part of the individual which it cannot take away at whim, government can use the concept of the greater good to justify abuses.

The collapse of civilization at the end of the Modern Age can be regarded as the ultimate fulfillment of the goals of the liberalism which was the spirit of the Modern Age. Liberalism was a form of individualism which upset the balance between the whole and the self, by defining society as a contractual construction existing to serve the sovereign individual. Throughout the Modern Age which saw the ascendancy of liberalism, Western societies continued to regard themselves as societies with a Christian core identity.

Since World War II however, that has changed. Whereas non-Western societies have no problem continuing to identify themselves with their traditional faiths, Western societies now prefer to see themselves as having a secular identity, a post-Christian identity. Church attendance is in decline. Orthodoxy, which we will define as Scriptural doctrine as expressed in the early ecumenical creeds of the Christian Church – Apostolic, Nicene, Athanasian – is waning in the pulpit, as respect for Scriptural and ecclesiastical authority is waning in the pew.

The Christian Church will survive, of course. Jesus Christ promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. The question is will the societies whose civilization was once shaped by Christianity survive now that liberalism has triumphed and they have rejected their Christian identity?

The sweeping changes we see all around us in the post-modern, post-Christian era, mark the triumph of the self over the whole. The rights which protected the individual from the abuse of power in traditional society have been transformed into selfish demands that power cater to every whim of the self. Culturally, we have seen the media of art advance technologically. To give one example, the technology of recorded music has advanced from phonographic record, to audio cassette, to CD, to electronic music files, each step being marked by better quality in terms of clarity and definition of the sound. Yet as the media has advanced, the message has declined. Which is more important, the medium or the message? Sensible people would say the latter, and the same period that saw these incredible technological advances saw the new technology being used to convey music which is increasingly vulgar, profane, pornographic, anti-social and violent in its character. Those who vocalize objections to these trends are told in response that these judgments are all subjective, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and “who are you to judge”? What that really translates to is the assertion on the part of the self of its right and ability to define reality, including morality and aesthetics for itself.

This is also what we see in the post-WWII revolution in morality. The self has declared its own pleasure to be the highest good and declared entire categories of behavior that pertain to material pleasures to be off-limits to society and societal standards of what is right and what is wrong. The self will decide for itself what is right and what is wrong and society’s only role will be to affirm it in its decision. If the decisions of a couple of young selves (for we cannot call them a young man and a young woman – the self has reserved for itself the right to define what a “man” or a “woman” is for itself) results in a pregnancy, and the couple lacks either the ability or the desire to take upon themselves the duty of raising their child, society’s interest in preserving the sanctity of human life must take backseat to the interest of the self.

The advocates of this new empowerment of the self identify it with “freedom” but it is not freedom in any but the most superficial sense. The collapse of the cultural, moral, religious, and social core of a society creates a vacuum, and nature, as the old saw says, abhors a vacuum. The hole will be filled by political and economical control. The same decades that have seen the moral and cultural collapse described above, have also seen people’s ordinary, everyday lives become more and more subjected to bureaucratic administration and regulation, as well as the emergence of a new political and economical order carried out on an international rather than a national scale. The new “freedom” of the empowered self from cultural, moral, and religious restraint is only the opiate that blinds it to political and economic domination. Aldous Huxley saw it coming.

Political and economic total control, the collapse of national identity into a new international order, and the collapse of society as a cultural, religious, and moral whole. A “brave new world” it may very well be. A civilization, it is not. This is definitely a period of decline.

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