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Joe Cannon: Western world has unraveled into an age of decadence

Published: Sunday, June 21 2009 12:15 a.m. MDT

What I have attempted to do in these several columns over the past few weeks is to synthesize and describe the observations and analyses of numerous authors on what happened to Western civilization, how and why. Today, we will look at the rather pessimistic diagnoses of some of these writers.

For some years now, notable historians, philosophers and other scholars such as Jacques Barzun, John Lukacs, Alasdair MacIntyre, Pierre Manent and a host of others have diagnosed and chronicled the rise of the modern West and its gradual descent to the present. Barzun's magnum opus, "From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life" is one such chronicle. Lukacs, in "At the End of an Age," "describes how we in the Western world have now been living through the ending of an entire historical age that began in Western Europe almost 500 years ago."

Barzun (b. 1907), Lukacs (b. 1924) and MacIntyre (b. 1929) were born respectively, in France, Hungary and Scotland. They are scholars who have for decades made their homes in the United States at a number of universities. Important to their observations is the sheer length of time that they have personally witnessed history. Each of their scholarly accounts is deepened by their actual knowledge and experience of the 20th century. Among them, they have authored dozens of books on history and philosophy.

Barzun wrote "From Dawn to Decadence" at the end of the 20th century. He notes that as the century was coming to an end, he thought it timely to review "the great achievements and the sorry failures" of the past 500 years. "A wider and deeper scrutiny is needed to see that in the West, the culture of the last 500 years is ending." To Barzun, this past half millennium has been a unique and glorious experiment. "By tracing in broad outline the evolution of art, science, religion, philosophy and social thought during the last 500 years, I hope to show that during this span, the people of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere."

This great civilization, however, carried within it the seeds of its own decadence. This is primarily a consequence of greater and greater individual autonomy. This "full-blown individual wields a panoply of rights, including the right to do 'his own thing' without hindrance from authority." This intense focus on the emancipation of the individual led to a humanism which "is accordingly charged with inverting the relation between man and God, with atheism and the secularizing of society." The result of this individualism, humanism and emancipation from authority results in a culture that "is old and unraveling."

Lukacs wrote his book, "At the End of an Age," in 2002, though for some decades he "was convinced that the entire modern age was crumbling fast." In his view, an age rooted in materialism cannot satisfy man's inherent spiritual inclination. As a result, his "conviction hardened further, into an unquestioning belief not only that the entire age, and the civilization to which I have belonged, were passing but that we are living through – if not already beyond – its very end."

In "After Virtue" (1981), MacIntyre warns that while it is "dangerous to draw too precise parallels between" historical periods, especially between the North American and European West and the decline of the Roman Empire into the "Dark Ages, nonetheless parallels there are."

The Romans, by abandoning their task of supporting and defending the Roman imperium, precipitated a decline of "civility and moral community." However, during the fragmentation of that imperium, men and women "often not recognizing fully what they were doing, (constructed) new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness."

MacIntyre believes that, we, too, have reached that turning point. What matters now is the need for "the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages, which are already upon us. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament."

These are pessimistic perspectives indeed. Is this pessimism warranted? Next week, we will look at how we can see the hand of God in history and give a reason for the hope that is in us.

Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News.

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