PROBING OUR CULTURAL DECLINE **A Book Review **By Fr. James Thornton _The Sensate Culture: Western Civilization Between Chaos and Transformation_, By Harold O.J. Brown, Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1996. 257 pp., Hardback. $21.99. This is an extremely important book, one of the more significant to appear of late. _The Sensate Culture_ comes from the pen of a true conservative scholar of our time, theologian Harold O.J. Brown. Dr. Brown holds the Franklin Forman Chair of Ethics in Theology at Trinity Evangelical School in Deerfield, Illinois, is director of the Center on Religion and Society at the Rockford Institute, and is a contributing editor for the Rockford Institute's _Chronicles_ magazine. Before we examine this work, let us review some foundational information that will help us to understand the author's motives for writing this work. In October 1941, Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968) published a book entitled _The Crisis of Our Age_, which was based on a series of lectures he presented at the Lowell Institute in February of that same year. The book proved a phenomenal success, passing through numerous printings, and continues in print today, more than a half century after it first appeared. Sorokin's _The Crisis of Our Age_ is an abridged presentation of that author's _magnum opus_, the one-million-word, four-volume _Social and Cultural Dynamics_. Readers who recall my essay on Sorokin published some years ago (_The New American_, October 18, 1993) will remember that Sorokin's research led him to conclude that the historical record exhibits evidence of a certain order, and that history is not simply a random, accidental, and aimless series of events. Human behavior, like human nature itself, tends to conform to certain patterns. What is true of individual human beings is likely true also of people living and working together in societies. A meticulous examination of history in all of its facets will, therefore, disclose evidence of an overall pattern - a loose pattern, to be sure, but one that has potential for granting us certain insights about ourselves, our society, and possibly our future. This was recognized as long ago as the fifth century before Christ when the Greek historian, Thucydides, wrote that, "the accurate knowledge of what has happened will be useful because according to human probability similar things will happen again." Sorokin rejected the idea that civilizations are organisms that pass through the stages of a life cycle; childhood, youth, middle age, old age, death. He insisted that civilizations, like our own Christian civilization, do not grow old and die (though they can be destroyed by outside forces), but rather will tend to fluctuate between distinct cultural phases. The first of these the author calls the _Ideational_ phase, which is characterized by a view of reality that places emphasis primarily on spiritual truths, that makes spiritual reality the overriding concern of individuals and of society. The second is the _Sensate _phase, which is typified by a materialistic, money-oriented, wholly earthbound worldview. The third phase, a balanced mixture of the first two, Sorokin labels the _Idealistic_. These phases last hundreds of years, during which time a fully harmonized cultural outlook comes to dominate various aspects of life, including art, literature, music, philosophy, religion, the sciences, economics, government, and so forth. In terms of actual examples, one would see the Western European Middle Ages as our civilization's last Ideational phase, while the twentieth century would represent truly the zenith in limitless Sensate influences. Obviously, Sorokin's theory of history is ultimately an optimistic one and has strongly Christian colorations. Consequently, it bears no real affinity with the gloomy prophecies of non-Christian thinkers like Oswald Spengler. If Sorokin is correct, our grandchildren, and possibly our children, may experience "the dawn of a new great Ideational or Idealistic culture," as Sorokin himself suggests. But, though at bottom optimistic, the theory nonetheless contains some particulars that are intensely sobering. Most sobering, perhaps, is that periods of transition between major cultural phases are usually times of enormous upheaval, stress, and chaos. Western civilization entered that period of transition early in this century, and so our grandparents, parents, and we have witnessed an epoch that has been soaked in rivers of human blood and oceans of human tears, an epoch that has been marked by terrible tragedies of world-shaking proportions. It is probably prudent to attach one more comment to the foregoing. Sorokin was not a determinist, which is to say that he did not believe that the cultural phases which he delineated come about automatically. We are not helpless cogs in some giant machine, nor are we tied ineluctably to our doom by some blind, quasi-biological destiny, as Spengler thought; rather we possess free will and can make decisions about ourselves, our families, and our communities that affect the future. Sorokin does not subscribe to the notion of historical inevitability, but merely describes typical human reactions to certain events, trends, and forces within societies. _The Sensate Culture_ is an attempt by Dr. Brown to examine closely the last fifty-five years, since _The Crisis of Our Age _first appeared, and to consider subsequent events in light of Sorokin's predictions. The author wishes to see if, in fact, all that has happened in the last five decades is consistent with Sorokin's historionomical analysis. The author thus reviews Sorokin's observations, analyses, and conclusions from the 1930s and '40s and then scrutinizes crucial facets of the society in which we now live to determine if Sorokin's general diagnosis is correct. Has the course of human events proceeded as Sorokin forecast? Brown's first chapter is called "The Agony of Western Culture." The author explains that he uses the word "agony" in the sense of a life-and-death struggle since it is clear that the unique civilization created by Christianity, that today is usually called "Western Culture," is at a crossroads. In this discussion, Brown correctly regards Eastern Europe and Russia as the Eastern half of the West, and he believes, with Sorokin, that it is entirely possible for the people of the West to save themselves and to choose the renewal and revival of their culture. On the other hand, they may opt to do nothing and to allow their way of life to continue to crumble, until all that they identify uniquely with themselves becomes so effete that the West is overrun by barbarian hordes, and is destroyed. At the moment, the author observes, the prognosis does not look good. In fact, he comments that, "Western culture seems on the verge of destroying itself in a self-inflicted delirium." Throughout the heart of this book, in consecutive chapters, Dr. Brown examines the evidence of crises in our culture: crises in the arts, in systems of truth, in religion, in ethics and law, in governmental theory, in education, and in medicine. In all of these fields, one may easily detect deterioration, often of alarming dimensions. If we consider each of these facets of our culture as they existed forty or fifty years ago, and compare that previous condition to the situation now, we cannot help but to discern dramatic decline. Let us reflect on the state of education, for example. The author comments that the crisis in education "can be expressed with three words: equality, authority, and excellence. The quest for _equality_ has produced the collapse of a fundamental pillar on which education rested, namely _authority_, and the virtual disappearance of one of the primary goals that education was intended to achieve, _excellence_." With authority comes such ideas as voluntary respect and a willingness to obey, both prerequisites to sound education. Additionally, with a wholesome view of education comes a recognition of the essential distinction between those who possess knowledge about certain things, and those who do not possess that knowledge but who wish to acquire it. However, as Brown points out, the concept of authority has been supplanted to a large degree by a radical form of egalitarianism: "A concept of equality that denies all real differences between people is totally hostile to education," since, "if all persons are equal in all significant respects, it becomes logically impossible to suppose that one person can teach another." This, in turn, has undermined the vital commitment to academic excellence, without which the whole idea of higher education rapidly unravels. Here again, radical egalitarianism is the culprit. An obsession with racial and gender quotas, and with favoritism towards certain groups in admissions policies and even in testing and grading, has brought escalating disrepute to renowned American educational institutions that once were the envy of the world. Medicine is another key area where a process of degeneration is powerfully manifest. Whereas medicine was looked upon, only a few decades ago, as among the most respected and morally attuned professions in the world, today countless doctors are involved in the wholesale murder of the unborn for no other reason than love of money, and increasing numbers view with equanimity the idea of physician-administered "euthanasia." In the author's words, "...as the sensate mentality has increasingly taken hold in medicine, there is no longer a general conviction of life after death nor of divine judgement where one must give an account for the deeds done in earthly life." Thus, "Medicine ... having shucked off its earlier Christian convictions, is becoming increasingly manipulative in dealing with human lives, from the facile abortion of unwanted babies to the increasingly accepted termination of elderly or chronically ill patients, the material value of whose lives seems to have become inadequate." All of this, Dr. Brown points out, is natural in a society where medicine ceases, "to be a healing art" and instead becomes "a utilitarian technique for limiting social costs and improving social utility." What is true in education and medicine is equally the case in virtually any other area of public life one cares to name. The Sensate Culture should serve as a tocsin for Americans, helping them to realize that the current plunge into moral squalor and social decay is not merely some passing condition, but is without parallel in American history and possesses definitely fatal potentialities. However, they must realize at the same time that there is hope for the future, and that we are not locked irredeemably on the present course. History abounds in sudden turns and dramatic changes in fortune. Sorokin believed that the West's present materialistic orientation would eventually be exchanged for a worldview firmly rooted in Christianity and this would come about, he stated, when the debasement fostered by materialism reached an advanced stage, causing people to turn away in disgust. In other words, the turnabout will come to pass from acts of courage and will by people who love their country, remain loyal to their heritage, stand uncorrupted by acquisitiveness, possess a strong sense of the spiritual, and desire to live in accordance with the ideals of their ancestors. It is from such elements as these that a rebirth of America and Western Civilization, rooted in a traditional religious outlook, will spring forth. As the author writes, "There is a way that leads to destruction, as Jesus said, but there is also a way that leads to life. The dies irae [day of wrath] is a real possibility but not the only one; indeed, not even the most probable one, if indeed there is a God and He has a purpose for His human creatures."
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