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The West has lost its virtue We have abandoned the taboos that held us together

Desperate Afghans cling to a US military plane leaving Kabul


August 30, 2021   7 mins

A century ago, as the Great War raged, Oswald Spengler wrote that “Western mankind, without exception, is under the influence of an immense optical illusion.” The Decline of the West, Spengler’s grand, ambitious, poetic theory of Western downfall — well underway, in his telling, by the time he began writing — has had its followers, detractors and imitators ever since. It has also, in recent years, had something of a renaissance.

Decline is in the air, mingling with the smoke of burning forests in Greece and the shocking footage coming out of Afghanistan. Much of what Spengler wrote about the West’s dissolution — which he predicted would make itself fully known in the 21st century — has proven prescient, and he hadn’t even heard of climate change or the Taliban. You would have to have a strong will — the kind which old Oswald admired — to deny, as nations angrily fragment, the gulf stream stutters, the supply chains choke up, that he might have been onto something.

But what is “the West”? It depends which tribe you ask. For a liberal, the West is the “Enlightenment” and everything that followed — democracy, human rights, individualism, and that dynamic duo, “science and reason”. For a conservative, it might signal a set of cultural values: traditional attitudes to family life and national identity, and probably broad support for free-market capitalism. And for the kind of post-modern leftist who currently dominates the culture, the West — assuming they concede it even exists — is largely a front for colonialism, empire, racism and all the other horrors we hear about daily through the official channels.

All of these things could be true at the same time, but each is also a fairly recent development. The West is a lot older than liberalism, leftism, conservatism or empire. It is at the same time a simpler, more ancient and immensely more complex concoction than any of these could offer. It is the result of the binding together of people and peoples across a continent, over centuries of time, by a particular religious story.

“There has never been any unitary organisation of Western culture apart from that of the Christian Church,” explained the medieval historian Christopher Dawson in Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, written shortly after World War Two. “Behind the ever-changing pattern of Western culture there was a living faith which gave Europe a certain sense of spiritual community, in spite of all the conflicts and divisions and social schisms that marked its history.”

“The West”, in other words, was born from the telling of one sacred story — a garden, an apple, a fall, a redemption — which shaped every aspect of life: the organisation of the working week; the cycle of annual feast and rest days; the payment of taxes; the moral duties of individuals; the attitude to neighbours and strangers; the obligations of charity; the structure of families; and most of all, the wide picture of the universe — its structure and meaning, and our place within it.

The West, in short, was Christendom. But Christendom died. If you live in the West now, you are living among its ruins. Many of them are still beautiful — intact cathedrals, Bach concertos — but they are ruins nonetheless. And when an old culture built around a sacred order dies, there will be lasting upheaval at every level of society, from the level of politics to the level of the soul. The shape of everything — family, work, moral attitudes, the very existence of morals at all, notions of good and evil, sexual mores, perspectives on everything from money to rest to work to nature to the body to kin to duty — all of it will be up for grabs. Welcome to 2021.

Forty years ago this year, the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre argued in his classic work After Virtue that the notion of virtue itself would eventually become inconceivable once the source it sprung from was removed. If human life is regarded as having no higher meaning, he said, it will ultimately be impossible to agree on what “virtue” means, or why it should mean anything.

Macintyre’s favoured teacher at the time was Aristotle, not Jesus, but his critique of the Enlightenment and prediction of its ultimate failure was based on a clearsighted understanding of the mythic vision of medieval Christendom — and of the partial, empty and over-rational humanism with which Enlightenment philosophers attempted to replace it. Macintyre believed that this failure was already clearly evident, but that society did not see it, because the monuments to the old sacred order were still standing, like Roman statues after the legions had departed.

To illustrate his thesis, Macintyre used the example of the taboo. This word was first recorded by Europeans in the journals of Captain Cook, in which he recorded his visits to Polynesia. Macintyre explains:

“The English seamen had been astonished at what they took to be the lax sexual habits of the Polynesians and were even more astonished to discover the sharp contrast with the rigorous prohibition placed on such conduct as men and women eating together. When they enquired why men and women were prohibited from eating together, they were told that the practice was taboo. But when they enquired further what taboo meant, they could get little further information.”

Further research suggested that the Polynesian islanders themselves were not really sure why these prohibitions existed either; indeed, when taboos were abolished entirely in parts of Polynesia a few decades later, there were few immediately obvious consequences. So, were such prohibitions meaningless all along?

Not quite. Macintyre reminds us that, at first, taboos “are embedded in a context which confers intelligibility upon them”. But if they are deprived of that context, “they at once are apt to appear as a set of arbitrary prohibitions,” especially “when those background beliefs in the light of which the taboo rules had originally been understood have not only been abandoned but forgotten”. Once a society reaches the stage where the reason for its taboos has been forgotten, one shove is all it takes to start a domino effect that will knock them all down. Macintyre believed that this stage had already been reached in the West.

When such an order is broken, what replaces it? When the taboos were abolished in Polynesia, reported Macintyre, an unexpected “moral vacuum” was created, which came to be filled by “the banalities of the New England Protestant missionaries”. In this case, a certain colour of Christianity had stepped into the breach created by the death of a previously sacred story. The end of the taboos had not brought about some abstract “freedom”; rather, it had stripped the culture of its heart. That heart had, in reality, stopped beating some time before, but now that the formal architecture was gone too, there was an empty space waiting to be filled — and nature abhors a vacuum.

It seems to me that we are now at this point in much of the West. Since at least the 1960s, our empty taboos have been crumbling away, and in just the last few years many of the remaining monuments have been — often literally — torn down. Christendom expired over centuries for a complex set of reasons, but it was not killed off by an external enemy. No hostile army swept into Europe and forcibly converted us to a rival faith. Instead we dismantled our story from within. What replaced it was not a new sacred order, but a denial that such a thing existed at all.

In After Virtue, Macintyre explains what happened next. The Enlightenment project of the 18th century was an attempt to build a “morality” (a word that had not existed in this sense before that time) loosed from theology. It was the project of constructing a wholly new human being After God, in which a new, personal moral sense — no longer eternal in nature, or accountable to any higher force — would form the basis of the culture and the individual.

Did it work? In a word: no. Post-Enlightenment “morality”, said Macintyre, was no substitute for a higher purpose or meta-human sense of meaning. If the correct path for society or the individual was based on nothing more than an individual’s personal judgement, then who or what was to be the final arbiter?

Ultimately, without that higher purpose to bind it, society would fall — as it has — into “emotivism”, relativism and ultimately disintegration. If every culture is cored around a sacred order — whether Christian, Islamic or Hindu, the veneration of ancestors or the worship of Odin — then the collapse of that order will lead inevitably to the collapse of the culture it supported. There is a throne at the heart of every culture, and whoever sits on it will be the force we take our instruction from. The modern experiment has been the act of dethroning both literal human sovereigns and the representative of the sacred order, and replacing them with purely human, and purely abstract, notions — “the people” or “liberty” or “democracy” or “progress.”

I’m all for democracy (the real thing, please, not the corporate simulacra that currently squats in its place), but the dethroning of the sovereign — Christ — who sat at the heart of the Western sacred order did not lead to universal equality and justice. It led — via a bloody shortcut through Robespierre, Stalin and Hitler — to the complete triumph of the power of money, which has splintered our culture and our souls into a million angry shards.

The vacuum created by the collapse of our old taboos was filled by the poison gas of consumer capitalism. It has now infiltrated every aspect of our lives in the way that the Christian story once did, so much so that we barely even notice as it colonises everything — from the way we eat to the values we teach our children. Cut loose in a post-modern present — with no centre, no truth and no direction — we have not become independent-minded, responsible, democratic citizens in a human republic. We have become slaves to the self and to the power of money; broken worshippers before the monstrous idol of Progress. “In the ethics of the West,” wrote Spengler, “everything is direction, claim to power, will to affect the distant.”

After Virtue ends with its author declaring that the task we face today is similar to that set for those living through the collapse of Rome: not to “shore up the imperium” but to start building anew. Macintyre famously concluded that the West was waiting for “a new — and doubtless very different — St Benedict.” That was forty years ago, and we are still waiting, but it’s not a bad way to see the challenge we face. Despite the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan, the post-Christian West is not at all short on ideas, arguments, insults, ideologies, stratagems, conflicts or world-saving machines. But it is very short on saints; and how we need their love, wisdom, discipline and stillness amidst the chaos of the times. Maybe we had better start looking at how to embody a little of these qualities ourselves.

 

A longer version of this essay was originally published at The Abbey of Misrule.


Paul Kingsnorth is a novelist and essayist. His latest novel Alexandria is published by Faber. He also has a Substack: The Abbey of Misrule.


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Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

Could there be a better example than Afghanistan today? The devout overrun the Godless in a matter of days. Not because the West (and it’s Afghan allies) are weaker but because they can’t find any reason to fight. Why risk anything for nothing?

Great article but very depressing.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Yup countless examples of the devout overruning the Godless throughout history. Even arch atheist Stalin brought back religion when he was fighting for survival.

William Murphy
William Murphy
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Don’t forget that Stalin spent time in a seminary.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

And now they want to have an explicitly Muslim regiment at the heart of the British army . What could possibly go wrong !

Was not the Indian mutiny started by Muslim Sepoys?

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Osband
Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Everything people are brought up to hate – nationalism, religion and so on – probably have strong evolutionary advantages. The west survives on fumes.

Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
2 years ago

No. Most people are NOT brought up to “hate nationalism, religion and so on”.
They’re left to their own devices!
While GOD is a listening post and His narratives are allowed to exist, be worshipped, and provide a dose of Ancient Wisdom when required.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

I believe you explained it very well. That’s it, on side was fighting with god on their side and the other was fighting for what? For corrupt politicians and short-termists?

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

There was an article on here the other day describing the conflict in the hearts of the Afghan soldiers fighting the Taliban . They too were brought up as Muslims and found themselves fighting devout Muslims . They must have believed the very success of the Taliban indicated they were the arm of Allah’s will . No wonder they gave up
This is why bringing Afghans to the UK is not a wonderful idea . The more people with a strong religious faith (one historically in total opposition to the Christian culture the West is founded on) the worse for our society .
As for today’s wheeze of making an Afghan/ Muslim regiment in the British army! Wrong ,wrong ,wrong for all the reasons suggested by the article above. You can see how tempting it is . It gives these ex-soldiers work . The liberals think they could become poster boys for a ‘patriotic’ Muslim demographic in the UK .
But exactly the opposite could happen . Would the empty materialism of western culture prove stronger than loyalty to their fellow Muslims in any conflict between the UK and militant Islam ? Unlikely

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

Yes and no. For our survival the logic is that we must all become followers of Islam.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Yes but I wonder if the people organising all this understand that .
I fear that still think the Muslim UK demographic will suddenly embrace liberal western values .

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I often wondered if, particularly in the US, those pulling down statues in 2020, as well-dressed and well-fed as they were, smart backpacks on, camera phones at the ready, work with or ever worked with their hands. Were they envious of the sculptors who formed beauty in times before even electricity came along? Did the statues remind them of their own smallness? And were they envious of the legacy bestowed on the sculptors from bygone days?
Young folk need to work with their hands again. There’s too much ‘clean’ engineering about today.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

We don’t want manual labour anymore. I was reminded of this yesterday when I watched the idiot Prince Charles speaking from his luxury Scottish mansion to us plebs. He is concerned about crops not being picked and was encouraging us all to get out and do it. Does he think we all live near crops waiting to be picked and can just drop our jobs to to what he wants? We have used cheap European labour for years, Spain uses cheap African labour and in both cases the workers live in conditions none of us would accept. My thought was more about the farmers. How can they plant crops without having ensured there would be somebody available for picking?

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

If ye sow the grapes of wrath ye shall reap the whirlwind.. ye sowed Brexit and reaped nothing but hot air.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

Charles has a good heart and kind instincts. And an over optimistic view of human kindness perhaps. The way to get the crops picked is to increase wages. Fairly basic economics. Pay enough and the workers will come

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

And how would you enforce that? Abolish electricity and have people pull down the power grid? Hunt down people in glasses and without callouses and force them to work in manual labour camps like Pol Pot?

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I suppose it’s a case of the mentality that everything you need to get done can be done at the touch of a button. It’s not fulfilling.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

And yet here you are, using the gifts that industrial capitalism have provided you to talk to me. Shouldn’t you be doing something more fulfilling like shoving clothes through a mangle or mucking out the pigs? Maybe you would like to die of smallpox as part of the authentic experience?
And I work as a software engineer. I get to use my brains and build complex systems. That stirkes me as far more fulfilling that ploughing a field all day or digging up turnips.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Chelcie Morris
Chelcie Morris
2 years ago

What strikes you as more fulfilling is not what a lot of people find fulfilling. A lot of people are manual workers, they hate academics, or being stuck at a desk, and they would much rather make something physical with their own hands. Most people are working service jobs nowadays because manual jobs have been exported to other countries due to peoples greed of wanting things cheap, and it has left a vacuum within our society of mostly men and boys who live unfulfilled lives where they have to work service jobs or go the academic route in order to find anything that can somewhat fill that void. Not everyone is meant to be an engineer, or a doctor, or a scientist, or a CEO of a business selling consumerist goods, and neither should they; these are specialised professions that only attract a certain type of person. Carpentry attracts a certain type of person too, as well as blacksmithing, tailoring, and weaving but those professions are dying, or already dead, so those jobs that would have attracted these people are no longer available so what do they get to do? Service jobs.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Chelcie Morris

As the famous Pascal (1600’s) quote goes, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man that can only be filled by God.”
Blaise Pascal was a mathematician and physicist, among other things.

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

If a vacuum needs filing, better to fill it with mathematics and physics, rather than management science or human resource management (although the latter are usually more socially acceptable, and have nicer clothes, which I understand, is almost numinous by current standards).

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Chelcie Morris

Must interject – I am in fact a skilled carpenter (and do most other trades to a basic, but just professional, level) I hate doing the trades, but it was how I finally made my living, as I dropped out of school – I always regret I did not end up a professional using brain instead of hands and tools…. (I make a good enough living)

I get no sanctification building stuff – I do not enjoy the building process, and looking back on a year long project (Mostly I build an entire, or re-build completely, a house with one full time helper (mostly a skilled carpenter as well) I get the meagerist glimmer of pride, but not much at all really – it is just the nasty, tedious, hard, uncomfortable, even dangerous, work I do.

But here is the thing, us old timers who can do every aspect of carpentry from fixing any old part of buildings, from structural rot to building entire new – we are disappearing fast. The new carpenters are not doing what we did, put our hand to everything.

Now days most construction is specialized ‘Assembly’ really. Really good tools, the materials in sizes needed mostly, and to make money every second is shaved by every aspect being done by a specialized crew.

The foundation guys do that, the framers frame, the roofers roof, siding guys side, window and door crew, flooring, trim, sheet rock (wall coverings), wiring, plumbing, kitchen and bath guys, insulators, painters – all crews who can do their thing with specialized tools, and FAST, that one thing is all they do. Craftsman days are mostly gone, and the pay has dropped very much but for the few skilled ones to run it. Immigration bought in unskilled single males, and no local can compete with them as the local has a life, not just living in crowded house, sharing a vehicle, eating cheap food they make…

I think construction, the trades, has been wrecked by mass unskilled immigration. Amazing how the parties supposed to be for the workers did this to the workers. Construction could not be ‘Off Shored’ so they just ‘In Shored’ foreign labour….. sad thing…. Same as they did to agricultural. I would much rather pay more for food so native ag workers to make an actual living than migrant crews doing it.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

A man intending to relocate to a new village asked an old guy there: “What are the people here like?”: old guy asks: “What are the people like where you live now?”: “Awful” the man says! “Same here” says the old guy.
A while later another man arrives with the same question and again the old guy asks: “What are the people like where you live now?” “Really nice” the second man says: “Same here” says the old guy!! Of course he was correct both times!
Moral of the story: You get out of life what you perceive to be the case.. many a positive tradesman enjoys his work. Many a negative doctor hates his patients!

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago
Reply to  Chelcie Morris

And that is so true. The last place I worked was very physical-labor oriented. But there were various degrees of it. There were the ones who used primarily forklifts for most of the work, and only had to life and shove for a bit of it. Then there were those who were lifting, shoving, and tossing freight manually the whole time. The last group was sub-contracted out to a company that paid less and had far lower standards for hiring (lots of ex-cons who couldn’t get other jobs). But you know what, we actually had a lot of people hired on the official company side that wanted to do the more manual labor. I had several quit on me because they said they only wanted to toss freight, and they just couldn’t understand why only the contractors were allowed in those jobs. These were not only uneducated people, either. Some even had prior work experience in much more mentally demanding jobs than anything our facility offered. But simple physical labor was just what they wanted to do to earn a living. Not really the life for me, but the fact is there are people out there like that, and conveniently our countries need people like that. Seems like the problem would solve itself if we would let it rather than politicians developing brilliant plans for failure.

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Chelcie Morris

Yep, and it’s a tragedy that people convince themselves that they are ‘fulfilled’. I did all that, in misery, then I retired and started making things myself (woodwork – they are not always pretty, but they serve the purpose I made them for) and gained far more satisfaction than anything I did before (engineering and law), I also enjoy cleaning my home (I paid someone else to do it when I ‘worked’). ‘Manual work’ feels far more fulfilling than ‘work’ ever did, but I always liked the idea of anathema anyway


Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
2 years ago

If you did a little gardening as well you might be less angry perhaps? Software engineering is a fine pursuit but it is not a complete existence. I’m suggesting (very respectfully btw) you try TM (Transcendental Meditation). Apart from anything else it will significantly improve you software skills!

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago

That’s only because you have outsourced slave labour to the third world, somewhere you don’t have to look at every day, and feel shame. Brains are like that


Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago

What did you eat that gives you the strength to type bullshit? And how fulfilled are you really? Was your brain so exhausted after a day on the keyboard that you forgot to think about what you were saying.

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago

Let’s not give people such ideas, people no longer read history, the idea will no doubt thrill them (having not read what happened next)


Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
2 years ago

The West sold the chance for our youth to use their hands. Economic rationalism didn’t care.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

” Satan is the great deceiver because he is the greatest concealer, the mightiest perverter of truth, the ultimate misleader, and the most convincing fraud and liar. Satan’s goal is two pronged. He wishes to convince us that God is neither all-powerful nor all loving, and that he, Satan, seems to be something he really is not.”

“A corollary to the pernicious falsehood that God is dead is the equally pernicious doctrine that there is no devil. Satan himself is the father of both of these lies. To believe them is to surrender to him. Such surrender has always led, is leading now, and will continue to lead men to destruction.”

Naturally most here think this all silly – it is because the main effort of evil is to show you it does not exist, so to snare all as your guard is dropped, and it is winning this fight. This is Secular Humanism – Post Modernism is purely the philosophy of Evil – and it has taken the MSM, Education Industry, Entertainment, Tech Social Media, and Liberal Government, and now is almost taken Western Society.

Really, CS Lewis is the best easy writing on this topic. His amazingly effective Science Fiction book ‘That Hideous Strength’ shows the secular dystopia the Tech 4 horsemen – Bezos, Gates, Dorsey, and Zukerberg are creating on earth.

Yeats

“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;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Spot on with your CS Lewis reference – the Babel scene at the end of THS is very prophetic of our current gabble gabble honk CRT-speak.

Sue Whorton
Sue Whorton
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

And his description of in groups and out groups which still has resonances. Voldemort: there is no such thing as good and evil but only power and those that choose to use it. The stories still crop up.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Thank God, as the old Testament books reveals time and again that there is always a faithful remnant who pick up the pieces and usher in the revival. What’s happening is not new at all.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

This dismisses the enlightenment and capital too easily. And to all Conservatives out there I say, be careful; communists and socialists will come over all Spengler to entrap you. To pick up one loose thread from the article – is there enlightenment morality? He says no. I say yes. Why don’t we enforce taboos in the way that pre-enlightenment Christendom did? Because, thanks to that enlightenment, it is now seen as evil: burning protestants, eviscerating Catholics, expelling Jewish communities – remember that? And slavery – which we’re getting so het up about now? Yes, a certain brand of Christian was heavily involved in its abolition – certainly no Moslems, whose slave trade cheerfully continued long after ours was stopped; but their very Christianity was influenced by enlightened morality. And if you thumb your copies of the Bible – no doubt in pristine condition, thanks to a reverent lack of use – you’ll find many passages which take slavery as the natural condition. Why did the institution survive the Christian take over of Rome? Why did serfdom exist in oh-so-Christian Russia? And so on. It may be, as some argue, that enlightenment is a product of Christianity itself – a big assertion but quite recent, since until recently we all recognised Athens, not Jerusalem, as the origin of western reasoning; but until the humanitarian revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, helped by the abundance generated by industry, life was nasty, brutish and short. One of the chief symptoms of decline is the miserable retreat in superstitious resurrections of a sentimentalised past. Yes, we must row back from the poisonous unreason of the modern left; but not into the toxic unreason of the pre-enlightenment. Like a starship, we need to aim for the right moment in our planet’s history – and that, I put it to you, is a blend of Edwardian and Modern – not the smelly middle ages.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

You know your stuff Sir. Yes we socialists certainly could quote Spengler in ways that are rather uncomfortable to conservatives, especially given how certain predictions have been justified by events this last ten years. Out of politeness I won’t specify. I’d agree a blend of Edwardian ethics and the best fruits of modern capitalism would be a desireable future, and perhaps not impossible it will come about.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

“life was nasty, brutish and short”, that’s not the impression I get from Chaucer or Spenser or Shakespeare. From a 21st century perspective perhaps, but if you were there and in it and knew no better probably not so bad.
+ Christianity did’nt burn, eviscerate or expel, people/elites did. And so did people and governments post enlightenment in WWI and II, and still are in every war since, on an industrial scale, far worse.
Sorry to point this out because I know you wo’nt like it or agree and I often admire your comments but I think the message of love of Christ is the only way forward.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

First, please don’t be sorry; disagreement is meat and drink to me if expressed – as in this case – with clarity and generosity. Second, the impressions we may derive from poetry are surely not reliable as surveys of social conditions? Third, it is true that the “secular arm” did the burning, etc – but at the Churches’ behest. Indeed, in Geneva, Calvin himself ordered the incineration of Servetus for denying the Trinity. Finally, I have tried to be scrupulous in my remarks, by not setting Christianity in ultimate opposition to enlightenment. Indeed, I allow that that the one may have arisen from the other; or that they are at least sufficiently compatible to collaborate – as in the abolition of slavery. And this implies – as you point out – that the doctrine of love is indeed the central Christian message. But are we not obliged to accept, in all honesty – a virtue as indispensable to the Church as it is to reason – that those cruel elites alluded to earlier were themselves sincerely Christian and believed they were acting in a Christian way? Whether from purely human revision, as hard enlighteners would say; or under the inspiration of God, as believers would urge, the Church has come a long way in the past five hundred years.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Thanks Simon. I chose the poets simply because they are more accessible to most people and I do think they are relevant. There are many history books based on original sources which present a more nuanced picture of life in the middle ages, The Stripping of the Altars and The Voices of Morbath by Eamon Duffy immediately spring to mind.
It is always human behaviour that is at fault (“the cruel elites”), just because an individual is a Christian does not make them any less likely to sin, if only it were that easy !

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Love those Atheist societies – Stalin H* tl er, Ma o Po lP ot, such enlightened reason without the superstitions of religion clouding their heads.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

But they did have religions: communism, national socialism – these are all absolutist systems which explicitly disable scepticism and standards of proof by questioning the motives of the sceptic: for the communist, scepticism is “bourgeois”; for the national socialist, it is “Jewish”; and for certain strands of religious thinking, “heretical”, “atheistical” or “diabolical”. Far from manifesting enlightened moderation or tolerance, they revived pre-enlightenment religious practices of persecution: for Torquemada read Lavrenty Beria; for Zhdanov read the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. They even cultivated rituals and worship – what are the Nuremberg rallies but perversions of the religious spirit? What are the frenzied ovations of communist conferences but travesties of praise? Note, I say “pre-enlightenment religion”, for in my opinion religious claims survive sceptical questioning by reference to human experience. Indeed, by burning away the forced conversions, the imposed observances and all the panoply of oppression, the enlightenment liberates the true religious spirit of natural piety and charity. But there is no escaping this central fact: that whilst the metaphysical imagination certainly reaches for the authentically divine, it is also the site of the most profound wickedness. Better no religion at all than a false religion such as communism.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I would submit Christian churches have ‘come’ about 50 years in the last 500: so no, they have not ‘come a long way’.
As Kirkagaard said: 2000 years ago Jesus turned water into wine: for the last 2000 years the Church has been trying to turn that wine back into water!
So called Christians use mainly Old Testament (Judaism) which of course is pre-Christ to justify their evil ways. True Christians use only Christ’s teachings as their ‘Bible’.. the clue is in the name!
Jesus rejected much of OT (Mosaic) law and substituted Love to cover the whole gamut! If Christians we really Christian there would be no need for bankers or policemen! And certainly no wars, no slavery, no burnings, no torture, no fraud, no lies (political or otherwise) and we might stand a good chance of surviving as a species. As it is we are shortly to become extinct!

Michael K
Michael K
2 years ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Not sure why this has two downvotes. Absolutely correct.

John McKee
John McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael K

True. His point is well worth pondering.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Perhaps because said sources didn’t focus on the drudgery of daily life for most people? I mean, it’s hardly as if there are many modern TV programmes dedicated to 8 hours of showing working in an office or vacuuming the house. Except maybe in Norway.
And put it this way… people weren’t forced to industralise or make their lives easier. There was no centralised mandate for that to happen, it largely sprung from human ingenuity. Many nomadic and pastoral people in the world are desperate to push their children into cities and give them a better life. It strikes me as extremely easy for cosseted modern people to romanticise both ancient societies and modern pre-industral peoples without ever having to experience it except in tightly controlled ways. It is a standard trope of romanticism since at least Rousseau that seems in part a reflection of the people expressing such feelings rather than the society as such.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

I’ll have no truck with Rousseau and his ilk, I prefer facts and evidence to ideas. Consequently I do not romanticise the Medieval period, I know enough of the brutal law enforcement, battles and disease etc to understand well how hard life was back then. Nevertheless I think dismissing life in the middle ages as nasty, brutish and short is also too easy, and a mistake.
Life was still nasty, brutish and short up until the 20th century, in fact the awfulness seemed to reach a peak around 1916 on the Somme.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Well, for the bourgeois the 19th century was not such a bad time. They were the first significantly large non-aristocratic section of the population to enjoy a decent standard of living supported by what capitalism had brought.
What I would also add is that this article seems to only look at one side of the picture. Technology also gave Europeans the capacity to dominate other parts of the world. If we had not developed such technology and modern capitalism undoubtedly by random chance some other part of the world would have done so with time and Europe would be nothing more than some kind of extended Asian satrapy. Japan only avoided being exploited by conscious modernisation. The future is just as likely to be determined by those countries who can best manage the crises of the future and come out of whatever collapse emerges with the best technology.
As say, the Peasant’s crusade, or the desperate fight of the Mahdi in 19th century Sudan shows, religious fervour and whatever sense of meaning that generates can only take one so far against hard steel, especially where essential interests are involved. Indeed, the real lesson of Afghanistan (and Vietnam before) is that civilisations that expend precious cultural capital on non-essential and non-critical wars not directly related to national interest drain their capacity for the kind of nation-level meaning that is important for decisive action against a unified enemy. China is one of the least religious places on earth, and yet that doesn’t seem to preclude an almost religious fervour and sense of national unity that its citizens show when it comes to the effort to retake Taiwan or protest against (imagined) Japanese chicanery.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

I agree with you to quite an extent, but I like Paul Kingsnorth, he writes well and has an interesting point of view which I am in sympathy with.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

I like arguments and ideas, clearly stated and based on reality. Whether or not I like the person stating it is entirely irrelevant.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Speeking of nasty, brutish and short: I understand 20 years old was the average age of the tens of millions killed (and maimed for life) in WW1 and WW2:
In Vietnam it was 19 among the US troops (nobody seems to care much what is was for the 3 million Vietnamese killed!).. we also have Iraq, Afghanistan and numerous other conflicts. All 20th century! How nasty, brutish and short is that then?

Chelcie Morris
Chelcie Morris
2 years ago

“people weren’t forced to industralise or make their lives easier.” I would beg to differ, actually. People most certainly were forced to industralise because jobs like weaving were industralised, forcing many weavers around the country to pack up shop due being priced out of the market and then made their way to the cities to take up jobs in the mills. People were also encouraged to leave the countryside to work in the factories under the guise that it would make their lives easier and would better support their families only for it to be a lie. Industrial Revolution Britain had the worst quality of life for your average Briton than it did pre-Revolution; at least before they could raise animals and plant crops while that was impossible from their city dwellings and if crops failed that year they had less of a chance of surviving than they did before since they were now reliant on others for food production.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Chelcie Morris

Important points.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Natasha Felicia
Natasha Felicia
2 years ago
Reply to  Chelcie Morris

Wasn’t it the beginning of us destroying the environment that sustains us? And cutting ourselves off from the realities of survival such as basic food production? Such a short time ago historically too.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Nasty brutish and short I believe was Hobbes?

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

I thought it was Bercow!

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

I agree with most of what you say: however to assume that divine and human love are solely the result of the Christian faith is not true. There are no major faiths, east or west that do not extol Love as preeminent. The (genuine):Christian faith is merely one path to God. Is is my path but I am influenced too by other faiths. They have much to offer.
(Btw the ‘ goes between the n and t, not before the n: just a tiny glitch but worth correcting I think: ..just tryin to be helpful)

Bob Bobbington
Bob Bobbington
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I’m surprised that this is the only response to the article that seems to realise there is a far bigger picture than is presented in the piece. Western culture is certainly rooted in Greek philosophy, and indeed Christianity owes much to Platonism, whose dualism does not feature in the older Jewish scriptures.

As Simon points out here, things were worse both morally and in terms of the average standard of living when religion held sway, as they always are (Afghanistan is a good case in point).

Nietzsche had pointed out a century before MacIntyre, as Kant had admitted a century before him, that morality as usually conceived cannot exist without a belief in God, free-will and the afterlife. Nietzsche pointed out that, far from being a benign influence, Christianity morality and it’s secular liberal counterpart both attempt to enforce a morality that is largely in opposition to nature. Talk of purpose, religious or otherwise, falls into the same trap.

As attractive as Western liberalism and moral relativism are as a basis for acting toward the common good, they are logically incoherent, naive concerning human nature, and are ultimately unsustainable.

The unscrupulous, selfish and violent individuals and civilisations always win in the end (again, see Afghanistan). Every successful civilisation has prospered when it’s core values included strength and robustness and declined when those values were diminished. As Hobbes pointed out, the state of nature is that of war of all against all and unless there is a robust enforcement of a social contract that sufficiently enables us to live in peace with a modicum of fairness in the system, the free-riders and criminals win. The fact that the social contract is increasingly being undermined in the name of virtue, charity and equity is a major cause of the decline of the West.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

Very interesting. On morality as usually conceived, it is true that free will and after-lives are implied – which might, of course, suggest – given the strangely independent force of the conscience – Smith’s “impartial observer” – that they exist! But neither morality, nor free will, nor the after-life seem to necessitate God, do they? After all, by the standards of an absolute morality any action we attribute to God can be judged, making God Himself accountable – a potential clash with omniscience. Free will, by suggesting a fully independent source of initiative in the universe – human intention – clashes with omnipotence. And the after-life only really makes sense if we believe in our own eternity – as Holmes might say, an eternal life with a material beginning is too inconceivable a thing. So, the ultimate metaphysical approach to life might by-pass religion into something completely individualistic – an eternal, accountable, moral soul granted an infinite existence in which to balance its ethical books. But this sounds horribly like Hell. Of course, the clashes with omniscience and omnipotence are only potential; and it might be said that God, in setting the terms of morality and the limits of will, can co-exist with both. But He is still not necessitated by either. In my humble submission, notions of God arise independently of these considerations – from the wonder inherent in the strange experience of consciousness. God knows us before He judges us – and judgement remains distinctly secondary; hence, perhaps, the ancient insight that – in the end – God is merciful.

Last edited 2 years ago by Simon Denis
Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

..of course it is possible that apparent incompatibility (within human reasoning) might nevertheless be possible within divine omniscience: just as apparent incompatibilities seem to be possible within subatomic physics? What I’m saying really is that we should not attribute omniscience to us mere mortals no matter how clever we think we are!

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

Although Nietzsche was a relativist too. Albeit one of the very few with the cojones to take that argument to its logical conclusion.

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

“Every successful civilisation has prospered when it’s core values included strength and robustness and declined when those values were diminished.” As you so truthfully say, the social contract is now regularly undermined in the name of virtue and ‘equity’. So our own veterans sleep in the streets and refugees are given priority over natives with legitimate claims to housing. There is no central universal ethic guiding both the governed and the governing. I have never seen more obvious breakdown of the social contract, both here and throughout the ‘West’. It is time for us to recognise and acknowledge where we are – on the downturn, spectators to the rise of new things. Let us not fight too hard against that trend.

John Wilkes
John Wilkes
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

It is because life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’ that, according to Hobbes, people needed a Leviathan of a Monarch (ordained by God) to give sense and meaning to life. The full title of the poem includes the phrase “Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil” referring to the union of state and church, personified by the Monarch.
The separation of church and state was the main outcome of the Enlightenment, a process which has not happened in the Muslim world and which is ultimately the difference between the two.
The line from Yeats Second Coming most often quoted is the one about things falling apart, but I think that
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
sums up the current struggle between Western values and Islam, particularly in Afghanistan over the last few days.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Wilkes
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  John Wilkes

“The separation of church and state was the main outcome of the Enlightenment, a process which has not happened in the Muslim world”

Actually the Koran and Hadith are law. That is a huge part of Islam, it does not recognize secular law. Everything from banking law to brushing your teeth and how/what to eat and drink is set out. Sharia Law has always been The Law to Islam till lately.

Christ said ‘Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s. Christianity always recognized Secular, or Civil law.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

The phrase was always Athens and Jerusalem.

Enlightenment morality was in fact driven by Christian morality on slavery. Anti slavery ideologies existed long before the 18th C. The Normans abolished slavery (not serfdom which isn’t the same thing) in Britain. Which is a funny thing to forget if you are British, but then it doesn’t look like Hitchens knew it either. Or knew it and lied about it.

(The only Anglo Saxon bishop kept on by the Normans, St Wulfstan, was kept in part because of his opposition to slavery. Which he eliminated in Bristol. )

Slavery did in fact come back, particularly in Bristol, with Protestantism and the enlightenment. Not in Britain per say, but in the colonies. And elements of the enlightenment were fine with that, in fact justified it.

In any case the idea that the enlightenment came and everybody was suddenly enlightened and non superstitious is just not true. It was a religious age, like most. The Victorians – centuries later – were extremely religious, and contrary to Dawkins – quite scientific. We’ve only entered a real secular age recently. How’s that working out?

The Anglo Whig version of history, is in fact more similar to woke philosophy than you might imagine, given it was extremely iconoclastic and is still derisive of its past.

If someone in the 21st C despises the Middle Ages because of a lie about slavery you can imagine what somebody in 22nd C Britain is going to believe about the enlightenment. Well, we probably don’t have to go that far ahead.

Which is why we should try teach a history that is pro western, not pro western since 1517, 1533, 1776, 1789, or 2014 (when gay marriage was introduced). You just keep cutting your leg off. Then your arm. Eventually you are a strand of hair.

A good example of how to do this is the 70s version of Civilisation.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Excellent post – remember Mendel? Christian scientific Priests invented the ‘Scientific Method’, established all the universities, spread literacy by tens of thousands of Monks hand copying classic books, and University trained, multilingual Priests spreading literacy and classics to the Barbarian rulers.

The Church kept the roads and lines of communication open, and the exchange of trade, treaties, communication in the days when a traveler was mostly killed and all were separate lands, and so the spread of ideas and wealth.

The astounding intellectualism of the Church is Absolutely unrivaled in all history – 100 of the world’s top 120 philosophers were Christians!

The Enlightenment people are like Trump – began as a billionaire from their parents, and think they created their own wealth when they merely increased their inheritance. (from Christianity Intellectualism and wealth creation)

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Not at all sure that things are so cosy as this. To start with, whilst some monks copied some texts, plenty of classical learning was actively destroyed by those who called themselves Christian. Whether their vandalism was in a Christian spirit is another matter, but this must be taken into account when evaluating the Church’s contribution to learning. The destruction of the great library at Alexandria is the classic instance of ecclesiastical bigotry and fanaticism. Another is the mistreatment of Galileo. I cannot think of any religionist of my acquaintance who would gainsay these points. As to Mendel – well, OK – so he was a priest. But typical? One swallow does not a summer make.
Surely it is safer to keep religious commitment and history quite distinct. Theodicy, the supposed art of discerning the ways of God in the world, is a notoriously questionable line of thought – perfectly sincere Christians, certainly those in the Protestant line, have counselled against it – Sam Johnson, John Donne, Pierre Bayle. Therefore, any attempt to uncover the workings of providence in history is vain and it should always be recalled, first that the Church is human and therefore fallible; second, that its message does not depend, ultimately, on arguments or on any kind of human wisdom, but on revelation through faith – often found through personal reflection upon particular experience. It doesn’t matter, then, whether worldly progress arises from enlightenment or Athens or Jerusalem; worldly progress is a worldly concern – leaving history open to purely rational, disinterested study.

G N
G N
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Was Galileo mistreated? He wasn’t tortured, he wasn’t killed, he was asked prior to his trial to stop teaching his ideas as if they were factual until he could present evidence for them—and he not only broke his vow, but he called everyone who challenged him a fool, including the papacy that had funded his studies. From a Catholic perspective, Rome was justified.

As for vandalism, this did happen, just like in other non Christian societies. But the library of Alexandria isn’t the best example. It was destroyed during the Palmyrene invasion after years of decline and was ultimately demolished under a Coptic patriarch after it stopped housing books. That still doesn’t negate the fact that much of the information and technology we have today is a fruit of Christian effort.

And this is less of an issue of God revealing things to people. Catholicism encouraged scientific discovery and philosophical thought both indirectly, such as through funding causes, and directly such as through establishing universities.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  G N

Universities, as demonstrated today, can easily become mere centres of indoctrination. Your take on the library at Palmyra is questionable and your view of Galileo sinister. So calling the Pope a fool means a life of house arrest? And didn’t his opponents turn out fools, in any case? “He wasn’t tortured, he wasn’t killed”, you bleat. If that’s the extent of Papal benevolence it seems to fall rather short. And Giordano Bruno? And the massacres of “heretics” or “Papists” in France, Germany, England, Spain? All to be smeared away with ifs and buts? The long, shameful history of anti-Semitism? The fact is that until it was restored to its central business of preaching mercy, the Church – like so many religious institutions – was an expression of complete, totalitarian control, monopolising information, regulating personal life and oppressing dissent. It started in the fourth century and was stopped – by opponents – from the eighteenth. The sheer intellectual dishonesty of too many religious is horribly reminiscent of the “woke” themselves, for like our indoctrinated young they value stories over facts and purity over enquiry.

Alan B
Alan B
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

With due respect, this is an incantation. You know the catechism impressively well but it’s just that. It is clear you have not read a page of MacIntyre.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan B

Easily said. But perhaps you might engage with the points rather than simply labelling their utterance? And does one have to read an entire single philosopher to refute the gist of his message from premises of one’s own? Isn’t your point a mere attempt to pull rank by means of a narrow definition of learning?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Terrifically clear piece of thinking and writing.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

Great and relevant essay thanks Paul. it appears that mammon and spirituality cannot co-exist in the human psyche(no surprises there) – and humans make that choice whether aware of it or not. If one chooses spirituality it is like struggling against a very strong river-next to impossible unless one is strong and committed. Good luck to you in that struggle and keep reminding us that the wages of greed are grim – but that there is another choice-if only enough of us would make it to overturn the golden calf worshippers (and if I remember correctly that scene did not end well). Must dig out my old Bible and check…

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

Exodus 32.7 ‘the people have corrupted themselves ” (!!) – and yes it did end badly…

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

32:14. “So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.”
In the end, God is merciful, as Simon has pointed out. And thanks be to Him for that; otherwise, we would all be toast.

Mark Griffin
Mark Griffin
2 years ago

Very thoughtful though depressing article (when is the news cheerful though:)). I’ve heard it said said that happy people do not read (probably explains the bliss of ignorance). That said I do, and as a lapsed Catholic, admit that culturally we are vulnerable without our, Leviathan and true social contract. The problem to me and as written by Douglas Murray, you cannot replace a myth with another lie, when you are trying to be authentic. (I’m paraphrasing his Death of Europe book). The withdrawal of Afghanistan is depressing, in that our collective Western notion of permanence, adherence and promise is not long term. I worry for my children’s future.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

Zeus said ” Humans will need gods as long as they are venal, lazy and cowardly”.
From the 1960s the left wing middle class and the Nouveau Riche have removed the Spartan condition from Public and Grammar Schools which were based upon Classics,Maths, Christianity and Competitive Sports: for boys Boxing, Rugby , Cricket and Rowing : girls Hockey, Lacrosse and Tennis.
The Enlightenment did not remove Muscular Christianity from the Public and Grammar Schools. In the boys schools, many Headmasters were Priests. The Roman Catholic Public Schools were particularly tough. Pre 1960s , middle and upper class parents appreciated that though their children had been born into material comfort they needed Spartan conditions in order that they were tempered by adversity. Now affluent effete parents consider their money entitles their children to live free from adversity and harship. On basic level we have the children of the ruling class who are largely incapable of defending themselves in a street fight. Compare that to a public school boy of the 1930s who by the age of 18 years had over a decade of Boxing and Rugby under their belt.
One cannot have faith in oneself, nor demonstrate sagacity unless one has been tempered by adversity. Confidence without experience is arrogance.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

A spot-on analysis, but it misses the central point, unfortunately — Christianity’s core is about one thing: Resurrection. If Christ be not risen, our faith is in vain, and I don’t think Paul was just talking about the Resurrection of the physical body. Faith can move mountains and it can resurrect a civilization. If you let it.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

It may surprise you to hear this — in fact, I’m sure it will surprise you to hear this — but Christians have heard all these arguments before. I hate to burst your bubble, but you weren’t the first one to think of them. I could point out that the moving mountains thing was a metaphor, or that Christ did not promise a second coming in the lifetime of his followers, but that’s not really what this is about, is it? Basically, you’re afraid. I get it, we all are, but something is needed to get us past our fear or otherwise we’ll all rot in the pit of narcissistic self-regard that the west has become, populated by people, each of whom have convinced themselves that they and they alone have the supreme intelligence needed to see reality and lacking the humility to admit they may be wrong, that their ancestors may have been right all along, and without the courage to try another way which they are not sure of. That something is faith, and without it you’re never going to roll the dice and take your chances in THIS world, never mind the next. How do I know all this? By supernatural revelation? No, it’s because I’m describing myself, and I hate to burst your bubble on this one too, but neither of us are particularly special. We’re pretty much the same.

Last edited 2 years ago by Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

No sermon. I’ll simply say, read again those words of Christ you have CHOSEN to quote, above, then read the chapter of Matthew which follows them, number 17.

G N
G N
2 years ago

Matthew 16:28 was fulfilled at Christ’s resurrection though.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Resurrection is also the most persuasive article of faith when approaching unbelievers, because, presumably everyone wants to live forever, n’est-que pas? Furthermore, is there any other man/Messiah in history who has claimed such a thing? . . . and then gone on to become the very pivot of all human history!
You only have to believe it, and you’re included. What a great deal!

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Christ is alive in His Holy Spirit.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
2 years ago

Too narrow an interpretation on your part I fear. A more nuanced view would produce a more balanced result I believe: and yes, I am a believer: there’s more to life than meets the eye (or the brain): give the heart some space.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
2 years ago

Thanks for this. Arnold Toynbee wrote similarly to Spengler, with a usefully empirical base. The British historian spotted that technology-brings-salvation, coupled to growth-equals-purpose, are attempts to conceal the loss of the wellspring of a civilisation, which is at heart “ethereal”, inward, arising from the “fabric of being”, to use Iris Murdoch’s phrase, another figure who saw the problem.

The recent emergence of morality is similarly empty, because the point about virtues is not behaviour but awareness. Virtues reveal the fabric of being, in its beauty and goodness, as the individual, or on occasion group, resonates with it.

Kim Hume
Kim Hume
2 years ago

As a student of the Bible, I would say, ‘it was ever thus.’ God is sovereign, yet he gives his human creations the will to choose him or not. It is restated myriad times that he will act so ‘then they shall know that I am God.’ He does assert himself. He does give us many chances to get our act together, but we won’t. Biblical people failed time and again. Western Civilization tried and failed. Turning back to God, being redeemed by him is the only answer. In the meantime, as ever: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
1 Peter 5:8 – https://www.biblegateway.com/passage?search=1%20Peter%205:8&version=ESV

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“For a liberal, the West is the “Enlightenment” and everything that followed — democracy, human rights, individualism, and that dynamic duo, “science and reason”. For a conservative, it might signal a set of cultural values: traditional attitudes to family life and national identity, and probably broad support for free-market capitalism.”

I am not sure if the author intended to illustrate a dichotomy here, but there isn’t one. All those things are mutually compatible and in fact essential to one another’s continued existence. It is surely wrong to imagine that conservatives do not uphold and value democracy, human rights, individualism etc, and almost equally absurd to imagine that liberals dispute the essentiality of family life, nationhood and free markets (their occasional lapses into fashionable political views generally do not stop them putting their own families first, making money, owning property and calling the British Consulate when they do something stupid abroad).

But anyway, that’s tangential to the point of this very interesting essay, my response to which is to remark that it’s a bit early to conclude that the Enlightenment attempt to create a new secular morality has failed. It has not yet succeeded, true, but that is not the same thing. I must also take issue with the categorisations applied to modern life, which is not perfect and nobody claims it is, but still compares extremely well with the horrors of existence that applied to the billions of people who lived in times past under the coherent moral laws of Christianity: it might have been “the West” back then, but it certainly had no right to consider itself the torchbearer for human progress.

It ought not to be possible to list the manifest failings of modern advanced society and culture without admitting that its successes include the longevity, dignity, safety, freedom, wealth undreamed-of by prior generations, and a cornucopia of novelty and invention that would appear to be magic to anyone that lived in ages past.

It is true of course that these things also apply to an increasingly large section of humanity outside the West, and that is a good thing. But it started here, and we should be proud of it.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

…Christianity: it might have been “the West” back then, but it certainly had no right to consider itself the torchbearer for human progress.
In my view ‘human progress’ is a teleological chimera for it presupposes an end point or goal or destination of purpose. The so-called ‘enlightenment’ would, IMO, be part of an age-long set of local events to deal with the local contingent catastrophes of life that, upon hindsight, appear to have been a chain of increasing improvement over time.
But as Violet Moller’s The Map of Knowledge indicates, the evolution of knowledge production, as shown through the preservation of classical texts of Euclid, Galen and Ptolemy by their rescue from Greece and Rome to Alexandria to Islamic Baghdad to Catholic Cordoba and Toledo to Palermo to Venice and then to Christian Renaissance Europe, indicates the contingent nature of this process.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“In my view ‘human progress’ is a teleological chimera for it presupposes an end point or goal or destination of purpose.”

But this is not actually correct, surely? There need be no end goal in sight before being able to observe that the material condition of each successive generation is objectively better ever since the Renaissance? We don’t have to know imn advance when/if this process stops or whether there’s any point at all to it beyond merely living better existences, do we?

I certainly don’t need a belief in humanity’s purpose to uphold this belief. I’m not saying there isn’t such a purpose, just that I don’t know what it is. And even if there is no purpose at all beyond humans spreading out into the universe on a tide of ever-advancing hedonistic consumerism, that alone constitutes a form of human progress (even if it’s the kind that a certain kind of political snob abhors).

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

Interesting piece, reminding me of things that I half know and things that I have forgotten. I read Spengler in my youth but dismissed him. Perhaps I will try again. I guess we are indeed living in the afterglow of that which formed us. Perhaps a new Benedict will arise, but in the meantime comes the dissolution of meaning.

Hugh Oxford
Hugh Oxford
2 years ago

TS Eliot saw all this. “Mankind cannot bear too much reality”.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago

An interesting and well written piece. Several observations:-
1) It is true that once a culture starts to despise the traditions it has evolved around it is set for decline. I actually think that our civilisation is based around a compound of Classical Antiquity, Judeo-Christian values and Enlightenment values. It has the capacity to further evolve and still maintain its essence but it is under threat form fundamentalist zealots who wish to overthrow everything.
2) I would be wary of the argument that removing religion almost inevitably leads to the likes of Hitler, Stalin et al. Christianity itself, like all religions, has been responsible for many atrocities: the Crusades (although it seems the scale of the massacres during the Third Crusade have been overstated), the excesses of the Sixteenth Century and the purging of various heresies. The distinguishing factor in religiously founded atrocities is the ever present element of an afterlife which diminishes this one.
3) The author (unless I have misread) seems to assume that there was almost a conscious project during the Enlightenment to replace orthodox religion. In fact the only Enlightenment philosopher who seems to have clearly been atheist was Hume

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

Correction – meant First Crusade.

Luisa Consolini
Luisa Consolini
2 years ago

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, had pinned it down exactly, from the standpoint of a deeply faithful mind, of course.
I am not clear about what the West would have done differently in Afghanistan were the Christiandom, so to speak, still intact. What I remark is that the Talibans proclaim to act in the name of God.
The analysis in the article seems convincing up to the point when I start to ask: what was the alternative?

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

This is insightful and quite beautiful, but not sure you’re seeing the whole picture.
As you say, Spengler was prescient, and as such he didn’t need to hear about climate change to know about it. If you read a translation of his ‘Man and Technics’ (freely available on the web), he writes:

climatic changes have been thereby set afoot which imperil the land-economy of whole populations”

Another thing Spengler predicted, echoing joachim of fiore, was a third great issue of Christianity. Comming out of Russia, centered on the Gospel of St. John, it would be characterised by universal Love. Admitedly, Spengler wasn’t clear on when it would arise. But you yourself might be an early portent – have you not just converted to the Orthodox faith? It’s in Gods hands if/when this 3rd great issue actualises, but it’s far from a forgone conclusion that it won’t happen until after a full civilisational collapse.
Have faith brother! Then the Spirit might uncloak some of the mysteries you seek, like how Christians on the British Isles sing to trees.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Sancti Benedicti ora pro nobis

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Your sentiment is admirable, and I agree, but your Latin is imperfect. You’re using the vocative, so the sentence should read ‘Sancte Benedicte, ora pro nobis’.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Sue Sims

Mea culpa!

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

We need EnChristenment.

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
2 years ago

What tragedy in Afghanistan? Ending a 42 year war is a tragedy?
David beat a Goliath whowasted 2,000 billion on cronyism. With an age median of 18 year all those men you see in the news are war children. If they believe Allah blessed them because the war is over, even as an atheist I can see they have a point. You can always raise another rainbow flag above your public buildings as an act of defiance and wallow in your moral superiority. Grow a pair!

Last edited 2 years ago by Francisco Menezes
John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

Oh dear. The Taliban did not “beat” America in Afghanistan. The Taliban were run out of Kabul within weeks of the initial 2001 invasion and had no choice but to hide in caves for 20 years until enough American politics changed. America left because America wanted to leave. If America had wanted to stay in Afghanistan, the Taliban would still be in their caves, unable to do a single damn thing about it.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
2 years ago

The real problem is that government is no longer by the consent of the governed.
In Western Democracies, unelected regulators, judges and bureaucrats make almost all of the most important decisions. This causes unrest because elections appear not to have the consequences voters expect.
The prevailing governing philosophy is that government knows better than the people themselves what’s best for them. Vox populi, vox dei, (the voice of the people is the voice of G_d) is a totally obsolete concept for modern bureaucrats. However, the people still think they should be able to choose for themselves. This conflict will only be resolved by a return to less intrusive government, or an advance to a more openly oppressive state. So far, the state is getting more repressive, but at the same time allowing mob violence to intimidate political enemies into submission.

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
2 years ago

Thank you Paul. I am trying to do as your last sentence asked, be it of insufficient quality.

Jim Cox
Jim Cox
2 years ago

Great essay. My thesis is that God’s love still converts people, still sustains, and still guides among the ruins. Christianity is hard to explain, but it must be experienced to be fully understood. One simply cannot stand on the outside and understand God’s great journey to Earth
in order to reconcile us to Himself by taking our sin upon himself and dying in our place. One must ask Him in to one’s own heart and place Him on his throne of that heart and ask him to take charge of one’s horribly muddled life before His Holy Spirit can enter and change one from the inside out.

Lionel Woodcock
Lionel Woodcock
2 years ago

The flaw in this tortuous piece is that we start with being asked to accept Macintyre’s assumption that the source of virtue is Christianity, and thus its decline is a related and causal process.
Society and its virtues develop as a natural evolutionary process in which some are beneficial and persist, and others fade. They have little to do with the myths and magic of the many religions.
Mutuality and spirituality are necessary components of a civil society. They should not be hijacked by apologists for medieval belief systems.

Peter Easton
Peter Easton
2 years ago

Where’s the starting point then?

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Easton

I have only begun to delve into this question. I find the work of Frans de Waal et al pertinent to your question in his examinations of morality in social primates that exhibit a set of behaviours that produce mutual bonding and stable hierarchies in genetically linked groups.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago

Society and its virtues develop as a natural evolutionary process in which some are beneficial and persist, and others fade.
I would look to the works of Frans de Waal and Jean Piaget for the development of a morality that stabilised inter group interactions and hierarchies rudimentarily expressed in social primates. Children exhibit the development of morality beginning with social interaction of reciprocity for example.

Jake Prior
Jake Prior
2 years ago

Really excellent article, convinced me to sign up. I’ve been going down a Bitcoin rabbit hole recently, and as much as it sounds like an extension of money worship, the ramifications could be so revolutionary it might fill that void. The monetary system we’ve been living in has been based on a myth as fabulous as the bible. This is the myth that filled the void you were discussing. A reversion to a monetary system with a more positive structure, and based on true value could impact every aspect of physical and spiritual life. But then again, I’m a bit stoned!

Last edited 2 years ago by Jake Prior
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Jake Prior

Bitcoin is Ponzie – that millions may go along with it for years more, till it does get to that $200,000 a coin, does not mean it has actual worth, it will most likely revert to its actual value of zero.

I do understand its appeal as CBDCs are coming online en-mass within a few years, so it could be the anonymous one…but that instead ensures its demise.

In moments of irrational exuberance I think Peter Shiff’s belief in the return of the Gold Standard sounds reasonable… then I snap out of it.

Currently all the world’s Central Banks are out to harvest all the worker’s savings in the world. The Zero interest (1.3% ten year treasury) coupled with 5% inflation means all our savings and pension will be harvested in a decade….And Bit Coin will NOT be allowed to save you from that harvest – it will not be allowed to be a store of value!

Jake Prior
Jake Prior
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

If people understand it well enough there’s nothing the central banks can do to ban it. It’s just information. You could reasonably memorise your private key and that would be that. Certainly harder than taking your gold. Perhaps they will find a way to regulate it, I’m not an expert, but it’s really not just a Ponzi. There will come a time of reckoning for inflationary central banking policies, as there has for every fiat currency, and the technical advantages of bitcoin over gold will be too obvious to ignore. They already are. It could re-align money with value, and that would be a very good thing. The more I learn about it the more impressed I am, and in contrast to almost everything else, it leaves me more optimistic about the future. It’s such a positive story, I have increasing confidence it will be appealing to more and more people, particularly as it becomes clear it’s not just another Ponzi scheme. It’s already getting a pretty hackneyed accusation.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jake Prior

In a Ponzi scheme there is no fund of money to repay your capital because the money put in has been paid out to give an inflated return to attract new investors. With Bitcoin there is no fund of money at all because all the money paid for purchases goes out to the person who sold to you. The best comparison is Tulip Mania 1637.

G N
G N
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I’ve never heard of Bitcoin being described as a Ponzi scheme. Interesting. I’ve never bothered with it because I can’t see how something supposedly anti establishment would then be thriving as much. I’m content to remain traditional as I await the economic collapse.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago

Hmm, Christian Europe gave us the Albigensian crusade, the Thirty Years War, and all sorts of similar pre-Enlightenment japes, so not convinced it was really the axis around which European morality *actually* revolved even if that’s the accepted wisdom.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

Christianity saved civilisation in the West. The most powerful force after the fall of Rome was The Huns, a race who drank wine out of the skulls of their enemies.
I suppose the Vikings were slightly less savage.
We will never know how many were slaughtered by the barbarian invasion of Europe after the Fall of Rome but luckily Christianity triumphed. The alternative would have been warrior religions where a man was judged by how many of the enemy he had killed and the weak were worthless.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Yes. According to the ‘sage’ Conan
To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!

James Paul Lusk
James Paul Lusk
2 years ago

‘For a liberal, the West is the “Enlightenment” and everything that followed — democracy, human rights, individualism, and that dynamic duo, “science and reason” ‘ A common misapprehension that overlooks the role in the development of liberal democracy of the radical Puritan Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island (recognised by Parliament in 1644), the first explicitly democratic modern state, as a refuge from Massachusetts’ Puritan persecution of dissident Christians. Enlightenment liberalism sprang from the Christian quest for purity, not the other way round. Williams’ basic finding was that virtue cannot be approached through the state; rather the role of the state is to protect the free search for virtue. The West’s recent foray into Afghanistan started with Carter in 1979, continued through Charlie Wilson’s war (do see that movie) and into the Christian post-2001 drift into nation-building overseen by the Christian leaders Bush-Blair. The delusion that the West=virtue=’Progress’ has blinded Western states to a clear-sighted analysis of the political realities both of their own interests and of the cultures that nurture political legitimacy. We need to rediscover liberalism, not forget it.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Well said and interesting post, thank you.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

A quibble, but I don’t understand ¶ 3 at all. What is a “liberal?” Absolutely no commonly accepted view. In the USA, for example, liberals used to be in favour of free speech, now it’s the opposite. “Conservatives” favour free speech, and liberals want to and do shut it down.
Perhaps it would be helpful to discuss “woke” and “Antifa,” a fascist movement with an Orwellian name. It must be a thing because perhaps out of respect, the computer auto-corrects to a capital letter, reminiscent of “Black” being capitalised in virtually all publications while “white” remains lower case.
The author is particularly wrong on “liberalism” embracing the individual, and again it is the opposite. The “liberal” or “woke” among us now see absolutely everything, including maths, through a racial lens. “Liberals” hate individualism and in many cases individuals of a particularly dis-favoured group, i.e. straight white men, in favour of group identity in all things.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Charming but meaningless.

Marcas Lancaster
Marcas Lancaster
2 years ago

A problem with this account is the absence of an explanation as to Christianity’s inability to ‘hold the line’ which is what got us Liberalism in the first place. The apocalyptic 30 years war resulted in 30 million European dead by 1648 etc etc. I suppose it could be argued that in terms of the historical perspective now available to us, Liberalism as a cure is proving infinitely worse than the disease.

Aidan Barrett
Aidan Barrett
2 years ago

Do you think we might see Oswald Spengler’s “Second Religiousness” this century?
https://people.duke.edu/~aparks/SPENGQ.html

Peter Easton
Peter Easton
2 years ago

Interesting.

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter Easton
Peter Easton
Peter Easton
2 years ago

Lets remember it was the hunt for one man that led to all this.

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter Easton
Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
2 years ago

Some food for thought indeed: well constructed piece. However, the scant mention of the “leftist” (?) view and failure to expand on the wickedness of the West was a serious omission surely?
The many atrocities committed throughout the centuries cannot be glossed over in this fashion especially when other cultures had their own gods and lived a far less belligerent existence?
Nevertheless, I do agree that throughout, amid all the wickedness, a divine ember glowed which perhaps prevented even worse mayhem; but it was a minority sideshow that the powerful used as a figleaf to hide their wrongdoing.
The examples are myriad. We are all aware of them. It is not so much that the West has lost its culture and religious practices etc. as that the figleaf has dropped and our nakedness (like the Emperor’s) is exposed at last. Figleafs don’t last forever!
A genuinely soulful existence as practiced for centuries by Western monks, nuns and the odd layman was the real glue that kept Western culture in check (as indeed it sustainef Eastern culture for millennia): the power of prayer even? But now that is is dead the West is truly in chaos. Now it’s post-truth gender pronouns and cancelling.

David Tomlinson
David Tomlinson
2 years ago

Historically saints were difficult people, not the ones walking around with an aura of peace amongst the violent norm. Saints stepped outside their allotted cultural space. They challenged what they saw and so drew the ire of the mainstream, of those with ‘commen sense’ and those driven by their own woundedness to hack at others. Their lifestyles were inconsistent, their flaws all too loud, yet their lived out yearning for something better was so attractive. Maybe Greta Thunberg is a contemporary example

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
2 years ago

Yes there’s a long history of child Saints and most of them didn’t end up happily ever after.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago

Well, well. So Macintyre got there before Jordan Peterson. Reading the above from Macintyre’s After Virtue was like reading from Maps of Meaning, Peterson’s grand synthesis.
However, Peterson I think diverges when he regards virtue and morality, for Peterson is an Evolutionary Psychologist who has his feet firmly planted in the biological and behavioural sciences. From these he has discussed the issue of the origins of morality. Far from being an arbitrary construct he is of the view that morality is a latent social phenomenon stretching into primate evolution, as discussed and researched by primatologist Frans de Waal for example, and expressed through behaviour in developmental play in children as noted by Psychologist Jean Piaget.

Last edited 2 years ago by michael stanwick
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

I broadly agree with the thesis, despite being an atheist – I can’t actually believe. However ‘Christendom’ isn’t quite right. It is the particular branch of Christianity which first allied itself to Roman Imperial power, and then became an independent powerful political and spiritual actor under the imperial papacy, you could say. This was often in opposition to the secular authorities and even the Holy Roman Empire, a revolutionary development where generally state and religion were almost indistinguishable, this applied very much to pagan Rome.

Other Christian traditions diverged and became very distinct, in particular Orthodox and Eastern Christianity.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

Realistic, but in a sense, very depressing. Which of us will survive to a new dawn?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

What a really first class and brilliantly argued article. And alas for our civilisation, because the end is now clearly in sight, and perhaps not long acoming.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

What a really first class and brilliantly argued article. And alas for our civilisation, because the end is now clearly in sight, and perhaps not long acoming.