In the movie Ben-Hur, based on the book by Civil War General Lew Wallace, a book rarely if ever read in the schools these days, Balthasar (one of the Three Kings) witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus, and crushed by the madness he has seen in Jerusalem, he turns away and says: “I have lived too long.”
After reading many things at assorted Conservative sites such as RedState, and talking with various Americans and people from Australia, Europe, Asia, and Africa in the past years, I have been aware of a growing unease, a tiredness, a depression even, mixed with at times great righteous anger about the direction of America and The West. A summary of the causes of these emotions runs as follows: the warning signs for the attacks on September 11, 2001 were obvious in the 1990’s, and perhaps even earlier, but the first “Baby-Boomer” president, a selfish, puer aeternus named Clinton ignored the signs, and America blissfully went about its business of hedonistic materialism.
After September 11th of 2001, there was a great moment of national unity, and another, better Baby-Boomer president had a chance to seize the nation, unify it, focus it, and perhaps change the country’s hedonistic materialism into something more substantial, more ascetic, more sacrificing, less selfish, less divided, and less ridiculous. In general, from what I saw, George W. Bush was more interested in preserving the status quo, in not upsetting Americans, and in continuing the “kulcher’s” daily and very pleasurable tread down roads of nowhere. To be sure, he upset the status quo in the Middle East, but so many mistakes were made that his leadership – as we know – even became unwilling to use the truth to defend itself against an onslaught of lies.
And so the stage was set for someone new, and America is always ready for “the new, easy, and improved” version of something, no matter how spurious the claims are. And now, as a result of the strange success of the current resident of the White House, a man elected twice by America and supported by as many as 52% of the people in 2012, America and The West are in worse shape economically, socially, politically, and militarily than ever before.
And we who are constantly opposing him are depressed and angry and tired and shaking our heads at fellow Americans who do not open their eyes at the wreckage around us.
Over 5 decades ago, I came across a supposedly “pessimistic” analysis of world history from the 1920’s by a German philosopher of History named Oswald Spengler. The book was The Decline of the West At that time it was fashionable to compare and contrast the work with an optimistic analysis by Arnold Toynbee called A Study of History. Both are large scale works, the former a reaction by a German nationalist to World War I, the latter a reaction and an answer to Spengler’s book. To summarize – and to do so is a huge injustice to both authors – Spengler saw nations and civilizations as “organic” and therefore as going through the stages of life, from birth and childhood and adolescence to adulthood, senescence, and death. Toynbee did not disagree, but found that civilizations more often commit “suicide” than are victims of “murder,” and can rise again in new forms, IF they respond successfully to challenges threatening their existence. Spengler would not have disagreed either, but saw that an unbridled optimism could lead a culture or a civilization astray, because the people are not open to the idea of their own tragedy, their own mortality, and therefore fail to realize what they are doing to themselves.
In the end, both authors would agree that there is no such thing as a “Force of History,” some inevitable, irresistible thing outside of humanity, a force causing nations or cultures or civilizations to take one path or the other. In truth, the paths to the future are chosen daily by the people inside those societies, and by their leaders.
(See e.g. http://www.vqronline.org/essay/decline-west-spengler-reconsidered )
In the later 1960’s or early 1970’s, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote a column (I cannot find it today, so trust me) which asked the following question: “If you lived in a declining civilization, would you know it?” I am not sure the column answered the question, and note again that he was asking this around 50 years ago or so. We have the historical records of cultures and civilizations that rose and fell, but of course the one that fascinates us the most is the story of the Roman Empire, and this fascination stems in part from one major thing: because when it fell, it was a Christian empire, Christian in the sense that its leaders and major cities were Christian.
“Barbarians” invading the Roman Empire in the later 300’s and 400’s were not stupid: there is evidence that they had in fact some better weaponry than the civilization they were invading, and this weaponry gave them an advantage. They also exploited political and religious divisions inside the Roman Empire to their own advantage. From our standpoint today, we are amazed that the Romans were amazed, when in 410 A.D. Goths invaded Italy and quickly headed for Rome, which they captured and looted and burned for three days, something that had not happened to Rome for 800 years. Not even Hannibal had managed that!
Five years after this calamity, Saint Augustine, Bishop of the city of Hippo (formerly Carthage) began writing a large book to answer certain charges from pagans, who were most probably still a majority of the population and who had suffered mightily under Christian rule for decades. Non-Christians were blaming Christians for both misrule and for abandoning the gods who had protected Rome in the past. Civitas Dei, usually mistranslated as The City of God (“city-state” would be more accurate) attempted to answer those charges. Writing the book was also a way for Augustine to figure out for himself why his God had not protected Rome, now that it was indeed Christian! For Christians also believed in direct divine intervention in human history: one of the results of this is that the book can prove to be a maddening debate about – to us – things that seem obvious, as if we were asked to disprove the existence of garden gnomes and their effects on plants.
However, Augustine shows us some interesting scenes: one of them is his criticism of the Romans themselves, who are back at the shows and games and expecting their government hand-outs as if nothing much had happened 5 years earlier! More important than that, he develops the idea that human history must be focused on something greater than itself, namely the “city-state of God.” In this sense, the book is not something parallel with Toynbee or Spengler, but is a (very long) pastoral discussion of why humanity cannot be focused on this world.
From President to Prison is a book by Ferdinand Ossendowski, a diplomat who worked for the Russian Czarist government in the early 1900’s. Under attack by Chinese bandits, Russian revolutionaries, and his own government (!) during the chaos of the Russo-Japanese War, he wrote the following comment after another incident of murder:
…the tears of despair of a single individual or of many do not make a continuing discord or a lasting disturbance in the social life, which after a moment moves on…indifferent…to the sufferings or emotions of the few.*
Please compare it to the following by Stefan Zweig, whose book Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday) was written during the first years of World War II, and compare it to your own feelings after nearly 8 years of the current resident of the White House and his constant attacks on our basic freedoms:
The Russians, the Germans, the Spanish, none of them know how much freedom and joy that heartless ogre The State has sucked from the marrow of their souls. The people of all nations feel only that an alien shadow, broad and heavy, looms over their lives. But we who knew the world of individual liberties in our time can bear witness that a carefree Europe once rejoiced in a kaleidoscopic play of variegated colours. We tremble to see how clouded, darkened, enslaved, and imprisoned the world has now become in its suicidal rage.
Pessimistic indeed! And to return to my opening on Spengler, allow me to mention that the composer Arnold Schoenberg disliked any mention of Spengler and the idea of a “decline of the West.” His music was proof enough, he believed, that Western Civilization was still thriving! Keep that in mind, as I jump to America and a philosopher named Albert Jay Nock: he was born in 1870 and in 1936 wrote an essay called Isaiah’s Job. In it he called on certain people to become new Isaiah’s, whose job was to address the problems around them, a job thankless and even dangerous. Paraphrasing the Old Testament’s Isaiah and his discussion with God about warning people of the coming wrath, Nock writes:
Why, if all that were so — if the enterprise were to be a failure from the start — was there any sense in starting it? “Ah,” the Lord said, “you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.”
The Remnant are those people whose lives will form the foundation for the future society, a better society, which still may be far off, a society that the Remnant themselves will never live to see, much as the medieval alchemists never knew of Renaissance and Enlightenment scientists, or Machaut never imagined Monteverdi or Beethoven, or Giotto could never have dreamed of Duerer or DaVinci. Yet the later people all depended upon the earlier ones for their advances and their fame.
Nock also writes:
For these reasons it appears to me that Isaiah’s job is not only good but also extremely interesting; and especially so at the present time when nobody is doing it. …. Even admitting that in the teeth of history that hope of the human race may not be quite exclusively centred in the Remnant, one must perceive that they have social value enough to entitle them to some measure of prophetic encouragement and consolation, and that our civilization allows them none whatever. Every prophetic voice is addressed to the masses, and to them alone; the voice of the pulpit, the voice of education, the voice of politics, of literature, drama, journalism — all these are directed towards the masses exclusively, and they marshal the masses in the way that they are going… So long as the masses are taking up the tabernacle of Moloch and Chiun, their images, and following the star of their god Buncombe, they will have no lack of prophets to point the way that leadeth to the More Abundant Life; and hence a few of those who feel the prophetic afflatus might do better to apply themselves to serving the Remnant. It is a good job, an interesting job, much more interesting than serving the masses; and moreover it is the only job in our whole civilization, as far as I know, that offers a virgin field.
And so I offer you the challenge of becoming new Isaiah’s: turn your despair, anger, depression, and frustration about our current era into energy for laying the foundation for a Conservative Future, a Renaissance Republic of America. Like Arnold Schoenberg, we cannot believe in decline, because our lives, our talents, our beliefs refuse to admit decline. And if we fail in the short term, we have the joy of hoping that our efforts may lead to a better future at some point, and that our ultimate “city” is not of this world.
And do not ever forget: Balthasar had not lived too long! He only needed to wait three more days.
* From p. 166 of From President to Prison by Ferdiand Ossendowski, 1925 E.P. Dutton
** From p. 150 of The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, translated by Althea Bell, 2009 University of Nebraska Press