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?
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 gyreThe 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 everywhereThe 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.