A century ago, as the Great War raged, Oswald Spengler wrote that “Western mankind, without exception, is under the influence of an immense optical illusion.” The Decline of the West, Spengler’s grand, ambitious, poetic theory of Western downfall — well underway, in his telling, by the time he began writing — has had its followers, detractors and imitators ever since. It has also, in recent years, had something of a renaissance.
Decline is in the air, mingling with the smoke of burning forests in Greece and the shocking footage coming out of Afghanistan. Much of what Spengler wrote about the West’s dissolution — which he predicted would make itself fully known in the 21st century — has proven prescient, and he hadn’t even heard of climate change or the Taliban. You would have to have a strong will — the kind which old Oswald admired — to deny, as nations angrily fragment, the gulf stream stutters, the supply chains choke up, that he might have been onto something.
But what is “the West”? It depends which tribe you ask. For a liberal, the West is the “Enlightenment” and everything that followed — democracy, human rights, individualism, and that dynamic duo, “science and reason”. For a conservative, it might signal a set of cultural values: traditional attitudes to family life and national identity, and probably broad support for free-market capitalism. And for the kind of post-modern leftist who currently dominates the culture, the West — assuming they concede it even exists — is largely a front for colonialism, empire, racism and all the other horrors we hear about daily through the official channels.
All of these things could be true at the same time, but each is also a fairly recent development. The West is a lot older than liberalism, leftism, conservatism or empire. It is at the same time a simpler, more ancient and immensely more complex concoction than any of these could offer. It is the result of the binding together of people and peoples across a continent, over centuries of time, by a particular religious story.
“There has never been any unitary organisation of Western culture apart from that of the Christian Church,” explained the medieval historian Christopher Dawson in Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, written shortly after World War Two. “Behind the ever-changing pattern of Western culture there was a living faith which gave Europe a certain sense of spiritual community, in spite of all the conflicts and divisions and social schisms that marked its history.”
“The West”, in other words, was born from the telling of one sacred story — a garden, an apple, a fall, a redemption — which shaped every aspect of life: the organisation of the working week; the cycle of annual feast and rest days; the payment of taxes; the moral duties of individuals; the attitude to neighbours and strangers; the obligations of charity; the structure of families; and most of all, the wide picture of the universe — its structure and meaning, and our place within it.
The West, in short, was Christendom. But Christendom died. If you live in the West now, you are living among its ruins. Many of them are still beautiful — intact cathedrals, Bach concertos — but they are ruins nonetheless. And when an old culture built around a sacred order dies, there will be lasting upheaval at every level of society, from the level of politics to the level of the soul. The shape of everything — family, work, moral attitudes, the very existence of morals at all, notions of good and evil, sexual mores, perspectives on everything from money to rest to work to nature to the body to kin to duty — all of it will be up for grabs. Welcome to 2021.
Forty years ago this year, the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre argued in his classic work After Virtue that the notion of virtue itself would eventually become inconceivable once the source it sprung from was removed. If human life is regarded as having no higher meaning, he said, it will ultimately be impossible to agree on what “virtue” means, or why it should mean anything.
Macintyre’s favoured teacher at the time was Aristotle, not Jesus, but his critique of the Enlightenment and prediction of its ultimate failure was based on a clearsighted understanding of the mythic vision of medieval Christendom — and of the partial, empty and over-rational humanism with which Enlightenment philosophers attempted to replace it. Macintyre believed that this failure was already clearly evident, but that society did not see it, because the monuments to the old sacred order were still standing, like Roman statues after the legions had departed.
To illustrate his thesis, Macintyre used the example of the taboo. This word was first recorded by Europeans in the journals of Captain Cook, in which he recorded his visits to Polynesia. Macintyre explains:
“The English seamen had been astonished at what they took to be the lax sexual habits of the Polynesians and were even more astonished to discover the sharp contrast with the rigorous prohibition placed on such conduct as men and women eating together. When they enquired why men and women were prohibited from eating together, they were told that the practice was taboo. But when they enquired further what taboo meant, they could get little further information.”
Further research suggested that the Polynesian islanders themselves were not really sure why these prohibitions existed either; indeed, when taboos were abolished entirely in parts of Polynesia a few decades later, there were few immediately obvious consequences. So, were such prohibitions meaningless all along?
Not quite. Macintyre reminds us that, at first, taboos “are embedded in a context which confers intelligibility upon them”. But if they are deprived of that context, “they at once are apt to appear as a set of arbitrary prohibitions,” especially “when those background beliefs in the light of which the taboo rules had originally been understood have not only been abandoned but forgotten”. Once a society reaches the stage where the reason for its taboos has been forgotten, one shove is all it takes to start a domino effect that will knock them all down. Macintyre believed that this stage had already been reached in the West.
When such an order is broken, what replaces it? When the taboos were abolished in Polynesia, reported Macintyre, an unexpected “moral vacuum” was created, which came to be filled by “the banalities of the New England Protestant missionaries”. In this case, a certain colour of Christianity had stepped into the breach created by the death of a previously sacred story. The end of the taboos had not brought about some abstract “freedom”; rather, it had stripped the culture of its heart. That heart had, in reality, stopped beating some time before, but now that the formal architecture was gone too, there was an empty space waiting to be filled — and nature abhors a vacuum.
It seems to me that we are now at this point in much of the West. Since at least the 1960s, our empty taboos have been crumbling away, and in just the last few years many of the remaining monuments have been — often literally — torn down. Christendom expired over centuries for a complex set of reasons, but it was not killed off by an external enemy. No hostile army swept into Europe and forcibly converted us to a rival faith. Instead we dismantled our story from within. What replaced it was not a new sacred order, but a denial that such a thing existed at all.
In After Virtue, Macintyre explains what happened next. The Enlightenment project of the 18th century was an attempt to build a “morality” (a word that had not existed in this sense before that time) loosed from theology. It was the project of constructing a wholly new human being After God, in which a new, personal moral sense — no longer eternal in nature, or accountable to any higher force — would form the basis of the culture and the individual.
Did it work? In a word: no. Post-Enlightenment “morality”, said Macintyre, was no substitute for a higher purpose or meta-human sense of meaning. If the correct path for society or the individual was based on nothing more than an individual’s personal judgement, then who or what was to be the final arbiter?
Ultimately, without that higher purpose to bind it, society would fall — as it has — into “emotivism”, relativism and ultimately disintegration. If every culture is cored around a sacred order — whether Christian, Islamic or Hindu, the veneration of ancestors or the worship of Odin — then the collapse of that order will lead inevitably to the collapse of the culture it supported. There is a throne at the heart of every culture, and whoever sits on it will be the force we take our instruction from. The modern experiment has been the act of dethroning both literal human sovereigns and the representative of the sacred order, and replacing them with purely human, and purely abstract, notions — “the people” or “liberty” or “democracy” or “progress.”
I’m all for democracy (the real thing, please, not the corporate simulacra that currently squats in its place), but the dethroning of the sovereign — Christ — who sat at the heart of the Western sacred order did not lead to universal equality and justice. It led — via a bloody shortcut through Robespierre, Stalin and Hitler — to the complete triumph of the power of money, which has splintered our culture and our souls into a million angry shards.
The vacuum created by the collapse of our old taboos was filled by the poison gas of consumer capitalism. It has now infiltrated every aspect of our lives in the way that the Christian story once did, so much so that we barely even notice as it colonises everything — from the way we eat to the values we teach our children. Cut loose in a post-modern present — with no centre, no truth and no direction — we have not become independent-minded, responsible, democratic citizens in a human republic. We have become slaves to the self and to the power of money; broken worshippers before the monstrous idol of Progress. “In the ethics of the West,” wrote Spengler, “everything is direction, claim to power, will to affect the distant.”
After Virtue ends with its author declaring that the task we face today is similar to that set for those living through the collapse of Rome: not to “shore up the imperium” but to start building anew. Macintyre famously concluded that the West was waiting for “a new — and doubtless very different — St Benedict.” That was forty years ago, and we are still waiting, but it’s not a bad way to see the challenge we face. Despite the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan, the post-Christian West is not at all short on ideas, arguments, insults, ideologies, stratagems, conflicts or world-saving machines. But it is very short on saints; and how we need their love, wisdom, discipline and stillness amidst the chaos of the times. Maybe we had better start looking at how to embody a little of these qualities ourselves.
This piece was originally published in August.