A great thinker observed that a curious thing happened shortly before the First World War. The West -- the Continental and Anglo-American heirs to the culture and history of Christian Europe -- was sufficiently powerful, from a purely material perspective, to impose its will on the whole of Mankind almost without firing a shot. For a comparatively minor exertion, these nations might have brought order and peace to the planet on a scale never before seen or even imagined.
And yet, at the very height of the West’s power, something happened, and the promised Augustinian peace dissolved into the rational-technical fury of death and destruction on a continental scale -- World War I -- followed by a repeat on a nearly global scale -- World War II -- a few years later. And the Cold War, notwithstanding its name, was sufficiently hot at certain times and in certain places to arouse genuine concern for the continued survival of Mankind itself.
So puzzling was this phenomenon that some thoughtful men were tempted to consider these wars as part of a much larger war within the West. In examining the beliefs of the combatants, they observed unanimity of ends but diversity of means. The three great wars of the twentieth century, which involved, concerned, or threatened the whole of Mankind, appeared to be little more than violent disputes within the West over how to implement their civilization’s particular vision of humanity’s future. They were, in short, spectacular battles within the context of a civil war.
By no means as terrible as these wars, but troubling nonetheless, was what came to be called the “Crisis of the West,” the evident loss of will and clarity of purpose first diagnosed and discussed shortly after the First World War, but discussed down to the present day. Many suspected, and a few even proclaimed, that our whole civilization was in danger, and this precisely because of certain factors within itself and its history. The West had somehow become a threat to itself.
Which seems odd. The West has grown into the first universal civilization; there is no people, no nation, no corner of the Earth, which we have not touched or affected. Our present civilization, unlike its predecessors, is open to all of Mankind; in principle, there are no strangers, no foreigners. We are, or are well on our way to becoming, the universal and homogenous state, to borrow from Hegel, with universal mutual recognition of the unique dignity and value of all men as moral and political equals. With all of Mankind’s eggs in this one basket, the prospect of the fall of the West threatens to precipitate the decline of all of humanity. The crisis of the West is nothing less than the crisis of Man.
Civilization is, in a sense, the last growth and final fruit of a culture or group of cultures, differing from its constituent cultures in its breadth of perspective and depth of understanding. A culture is constituted by things which “everybody knows”; a civilization is open, at least in principle, to the possibility of questioning these generally-accepted principles and beliefs. To employ a Platonic image, a culture lives entirely within the Cave, while a civilization, or at least some within it, can suspect that there might be things other than, or outside of, the Cave.
But whatever the theoretical value of insights gained from outside the Cave, we do well to remember that Man was born in the Cave, and has spent much of his history there. The cave appears to be our natural habitat, and we are confirmed in suspecting as much by observing that there are no self-sustaining communities of philosophers or contemplatives which are not attached to, and dependent upon, cultures or civilizations of one sort or another.
But to return, for a moment, from these theoretical considerations to more practical ones: Civilizations, whatever their level of power, whatever their level of complexity, are fragile things. One example from Western history will suffice: The Goths, Gauls, and Vandals all outlasted the Romans, who were far and away more civilized than their enemies. This was then, and is now, one of the most shocking events in the history of the West: an urbane, technically proficient, cosmopolitan civilization was over-run and defeated by a collection of fairly primitive tribal cultures.
If we share the fate of Rome, it will not be for want of means -- the West is a colossus, its nations the only real powers in the world -- but rather for want of direction. More and more, one hears thoughtful, educated Westerners welcoming the prospect of the decline of their civilization. Like a seriously ill or depressed patient, they seem to welcome the end, and even appear to contribute to efforts to hasten its arrival.
Notwithstanding that their diagnosis may be correct -- the West does appear to be a terminal case, and in any event, no one can seriously deny that something is very wrong -- their prescriptions are mistaken. Indeed, it might not be much of an exaggeration to say that these suggestions are themselves symptoms of the underlying disorder they seek to address.
Acknowledging that the West is ill, and admitting that it might well be a terminal case, let us
Solzhenitsyn places the origin of the crisis in the middle ages (Harvard 1978); the spiritual flourished at the expense of the physical and material sides of Man. The demands of the contemplative life were too great for the mass of men -- always had been - but the ideal had never before (or since) come to dominate a whole civilization, as was case in middle ages. Goal of universal contemplative society unattainable, too expensive; the ideal ends up impoverishing all.
“The Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, becoming an intolerable despotic repression of man's physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. Then, however, we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense.” (Harvard, 1978)
Crisis rooted in the triumph of the practical and productive sciences over the theoretical; identification of the highest science with that which has as its object nature viewed as material subject to manipulation (Heidegger The Question Concerning Technology), as opposed to the disinterested contemplation of Nature (Aristotle).
The moderns assume that the greatest good is the life of abundance, of ease of procurement of the necessities of life, and, where possible, a smattering of the luxuries as well. (Plato’s Republic, “city of pigs” )That is, there are no problems which are not ultimately reducible to problems of production and distribution of material goods. There are no non-material goods, even as there are no non-material arts or sciences.
To the extent that the lesser arts and sciences can provide us with true creature comforts, comforts enjoyable by, and with modern production, accessible to, all, they are more popular, more useful, than theoria, which must necessarily be the preserve and the pleasure of a few, a few whose existence is not manifestly beneficial or even necessary to the many, who must labor to maintain these few. Modern science is, in a way, subject to the rule of the many.
But, as Aristotle points out, rule of the many is rule of the ignorant (Pol.); they cannot be sufficiently educated, cannot be wise men; their sole claim to rule is their numerical supremacy. Rule of the many can be ameliorated by either educating the many, or else by so constituting the state as to not require education and virtue from the many.
And rule of the many need not be direct or even indirect rule of some democratic assembly. One may rule without lifting a finger, so long as such ruling and deciding as does occur occurs for his benefit. In point of fact, the many might very well be incapable even of recognizing their own interests -- hence the modern multiplication of specialists for every field of human life and endeavor.
Clearly, rule of the many has taken on a rather attenuated form in modernity; rule in the name of, and for the benefit of, the many. Even in the modern democratic -- because utilitarian -- sciences, the fruits and flowers are the preserve of a few. That is, modern technological society increasingly becomes technocracy; there is always a ruling elite.
The question is therefore what is to be the character of this ruling class? What are its ends, what its means?
(The imitation of nature ceases to be the summum bonum of human activity, contemplation as the supreme form of this imitation, if nature is understood to be somehow defective or deficient. (the idea of this might come from Biblical notion of the curse.) To the extent that nature is understood to be not only the highest, but also the best, of the normative standards, the classical paradigm can hold, theoria is still choice worthy and self-sufficient. Human limitation is understood to be natural, hence normative, hence both necessary and good.
But modern technical science -- the union of mathematical physics and experimental science -- shows man’s potential power to be far greater; economy of scarcity merely the result of a lack of intelligent, directed action, a weakness of will; false humility. Liberation of human productivity, the emancipation from what Marx called the “realm of necessity” is viewed as a self-evident goal. Man is to be progressively liberated from his environment, until such time as Man is understood in contradistinction to nature, which is seen to be defective, disorganized, and chaotic. The natural order, far from being the model, is viewed as that which is to be overcome, that which necessarily impedes human thriving, but which contains the raw material from which man can forge the instruments of his dominating liberation.
And yet, Aristotle teaches that we are busy - -that is, we have and practice the practical and productive sciences -- in order to have leisure - -that is, for the sake of the imitative and creative arts, and in the highest cases, to engage in theoria. (Nich. Eth., Meta.) The city comes into being first for the sake of living, and ultimately for living well. (Pol.) Yet another difference is here: the elevation of theoria versus the denial of its desirability, possibility, or necessity.
Fundamentally, modernity the attempt to overcome natural limitations to human action and freedom, the expansion of Man’s power and dominion, the liberation of desire; attempt to overcome the economy of scarcity (and the cyclical nature of history) taken for granted (and, if not normative, at least insuperable) by the ancients.
Moderns, then understand nature as fundamentally defective (denial of Providence, or of ancients’ goodness and sufficiency of nature) with regard to its provision for man. Rather than attempting to synchronize man to nature, there is the attempt to synchronize nature to Man. Moderns also believe that necessity’s power over Man is more limited than many believe (Machiavelli’s Fortuna and chance can both be overcome), and that even this power over us can, to some extent, be reduced through our own intelligent action.
Modernity regards Man as little more than a clever, calculating animal; denial of spiritual or divine component to even the lowest human nature. And the conditions of modernity merely exacerbate these problems, for human wants and needs are, in principle, without end. The many become progressively empowered, impoverished.
Modernity denies the very possibility of contemplative sciences.
Enlightenment merely the political expression of this inversion of the western mind, this “contraction of the horizon” (Strauss), the triumph of the project of rationalizing, first nature, then Man’s place within nature; ultimately culminating in the effort to rationalize Man himself. But is this project itself rational? (Dialectic of Enlightenment)
And the other side of it: is man so constituted (assuming, as the moderns deny, that man has an immutable core nature) as to thrive under such conditions? Is a perfectly rational, technical society a just one, or even a possibility? And, what if the conquest of nature results, not in universal human freedom, but rather in the conditions for universal human enslavement, an enslavement made all the more vile in that it would appear to be universal and perpetual (Thoughts on Machiavelli, On Tyranny)?
Also, see “The City and Man”, esp. first chapter.
Man is in a permanent state of crisis:
“In the long run, we’re all dead” -- John Maynard Keyes??
Political orders are mortal:
Polybius, Histories, 6.6 - 6.9
The conditions of civilization and of human life are not assured:
Plato, Timaeus 22a- 23d, Statesman ??, Critias ??
Aristotle, 1269 a5-a8 (Politics)
Machiavelli, Discourses, II, 5
Conservatives are notorious for their tendency to praise the past, to damn the present, and to regard the future with concern. According to a commonplace, and hence, nearly universal, opinion, this habit of the right is little more than a conscious or unconscious exercise in intellectualized nostalgia. And yet, might this instinct not be correct? Was the past not, measure for measure, superior to the present? And is not our modern triumphalism and easy dismissal of the past little more than vulgar worship of success, i.e. the most craven sycophancy? ==========================================================================
Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bacon.
See- Leviathan, ch. 13
“20. To conclude, the light of human minds is perspicuous words, but by exact definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity; reason is the pace; increase of science, the way; and the benefit of mankind, the end.” Leviathan, 5; 20
“The nutrition of a commonwealth consisteth, in plenty, and distribution of materials conducing to life: in concoction, or preparation; and (when concocted) in the conveyance of it, by convenient conduits, to the public use.
2. As for the plenty of matter, it is a thing limited by nature, to those commodities, which (from the two breasts of our common mother), land, and sea, God usually either freely giveth, or for labour selleth to mankind.
3. For the matter of this nutriment, consisting in animals, vegetals, and minerals, God hath freely laid them before us, in or near to the face of the earth; so as there needeth no more but the labour, and industry of receiving them. Insomuch as plenty dependeth (next to God’s favour) merely on the labour and industry of men.“ Leviathan, 24, 1-3
“ The right of nature, whereby God reigneth over men, and punisheth those that break his laws, is to be derived, not from his creating them, as if he required obedience as of gratitude for his benefits; but from his irresistible power.” Leviathan, 31, 5
Discourses III, 31
Prince, chs. 15, 17, & 18; Discourses I, 3, 9, 26-27, 29, 35, 37, 40, 42, 47-48, 57, 58; II, pr., III, 12 & 29
Discourses II, 5/
(Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a 26-b 7; Politics 1268b 22ff; Politics 1331a 1-18)
Nicomachean Ethics: 1095 b14 - b22: “Let us, however, resume our discussion from the point at which we digressed. To judge from the lives that men lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem (not without some reason) to identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure; which is the reason why they love the life of enjoyment. For there are, we may say, three prominent types of life -- that just mentioned, the political, and thirdly the contemplative life. Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts….”