Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | The Widening Gyre

The following is the first in a series of reflections on modern society's rejection of absolute truth.

We denizens of the 20th century live at a peculiar time in history. In one sense, there truly is “nothing new under the sun.” Human nature is human nature, and it is only the healing function of time that causes us to look with excessive fondness at the “good old days,” which were just as full of sinful depravity as today. But in another sense, our enemy is cunning, and his attacks are calculated to strike in new and fresh ways, using the ever-shifting “spirit of the age” to accomplish his will. It seems, as we stand on the edge of a precipitous future, looking out into the possibilities that lie before us, the forces of relativism and amoral scientific “progress” threaten to leave us either “straying as through an infinite nothing” or, perhaps worse, finally catapulted into an abyss. Do we forget, after all, that multiple countries possess the nuclear capacity to destroy the world several times over?

The Decline

Many conservative attempts to trace the story of American decline begin with the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the decadence of the roaring twenties, or, for the more adventurous, the heyday of Jacksonian democracy. Few tend to question the general notion that America's inception was at a time when all was right in the world (or at least America), and that our collapsed culture has been the result of failing to steward what our founding fathers gave us.

But the problem goes back much further. For millenia, western society has held very strongly to a concept of the center, a core of moral truths by which all reality is governed. These moral truths cannot be perceived by sense perceptions, but are understood by the imagination, which awakens the moral precepts that have been deeply imprinted into the soul of man. For Plato, this was because man was a participant in the form of the Good. For Aristotle, it was because there was a common nature that all mankind shared. For the Apostle Paul, it was because there is an eternal law of God written on the hearts of man.

But in 16th and 17th centuries, a new school of thought known as empiricism began to creep in through the works of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes, the first of the great state of nature thinkers, argued that man comes to known solely by means of sense perception. Man looks out to a world of images, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings, and then begins making sense of his world by putting those perceptions into his own categories. The imagination, the faculty by which man conceives of abstract objects, is nothing more than “decaying sense,” a byproduct of things that man has already experienced tangibly. Reality is nothing more than matter in motion, and knowledge is simply an understanding of how matter moves.

The effect of Hobbes was two-fold. First, it helped inspire and fuel the scientific revolution and the age of enlightenment, when all of western civilization became obsessed with studying this matter and figuring out what it could do. Second, however, was the destruction of the concept of the imagination as the entity by which objective moral truths are perceived. The ramifications are drastic. Without a faculty that is capable of perceiving moral truth directly, we've been given the daunting task of deriving “thou shalt not” from mere sights and sounds. A gulf, a “widening gyre,” begins to emerge between sense and imagination.

Fast forward several hundred years. The year is 1919, the world is shell-shocked by the horrors of a war propagated by the systematic, empirical, pragmatic political philosophies of Realpolitik. An Irishman named William Butler Yeats pens the following portrait of life in the modern world:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
(Next Week: Things Fall Apart).

Posted by Nick Barden
Image: Harry Clarke- Illustration for Edgar Allen Poe's story "Descent into the Maelstrom," 1919.


  1. Thank you. Very interesting post.

    Your summary of the two results of Hobbes's materialism is helpful. Even though modern science has brought plenty of blessings (for instance, the computer I am typing on right now), it was indeed often driven by a desire to become gods by manipulating what was mistook for ultimate reality...which made the last century the bloodiest ever. The verses you quoted portray this very memorably (so does the picture). I have heard it pointed out that the medieval model of the universe was actually "centered" on the empyrean/heaven, rather than on earth. Even if modern science disproved geocentric astronomy, it seems to have promoted geocentric philosophy (which eventually became black-hole-centric philosophy).

    I agree with your point on how we can often be nostalgic about early America. It was a mixed lot from the first. But I still think that America had a "golden age" and believe it is worthwhile to ask how we left it. As you said, many people attribute its loss to the Roaring Twenties or the sexual revolution...I would add liberalization of the Church, materialistic ideas of history and life, and maybe even the destruction of the farm economy and the independent lifestyle that went with it when farmers became factory workers.

    I have a question: I have never heard anyone connect America's decline to the "heyday of Jacksonian democracy." It would seem the last thing to harm the country (though I don't really know what is meant by the phrase). Even if you aren't defending the idea, could you give some sketch of what its advocates say?

  2. Sure. Generally, critics of Jacksonian democracy argue that it was a radically egalitarian movement that leveled class distinctions. Some have attempted to connect it to the democratization of the American church and the rise of congregational church government. The argument is that it abolished the social (or religious) hierarchy necessary for cohesion.

    I think its fair to say that American founding was mostly good (though, of course, there was some of the spirit of enlightenment mixed in there). But I think it's more accurate to view the American founding in the context of overall Western decline. I think a lot of people view the American founding as a paradise that we've corrupted since the 1780s instead of taking into account the problems that existed before.

    1. Thank you--you have answered my question.