**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 

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, " 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

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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