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The Twilight of the Intelligentsia

The Twilight of the Intelligentsia

I promise, I didn’t time this sequence of posts so that this one would come out the morning after one of the most bitterly fought midterm elections in memory.  Nor, of course, did I have advance notice of the outcome, though it wasn’t a surprise to me that the much-ballyhooed “blue wave” would flop as badly as it did.  In place of the sweeping rejection of Trump’s presidency that the Democratic Party called for, the usual first-term midterm reaction that brings the minority party back into power in Congress gave the Dems only a thin majority in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile they lost badly in the Senate, where an expanded Republican majority can continue to ratify Trump’s judicial nominees and block any attempt to use the constitutional mechanism of impeachment to remove him from office.

In the weeks ahead we’ll doubtless see any number of attempted analyses of what did or didn’t happen in the midterm elections, spinning an equivocal election to support one or the other side of a savagely divided electorate. Popcorn vendors will have plenty of business as those of us not committed to either of these two contending forces watch the posturing from a comfortable distance. Back beyond the momentary passions of politics and personalities move broader forces, and it’s important to try to sense those now, as the smoke of the election clears and it becomes possible, for those who are willing, to look past the present moment and catch some glimpse of the deeper cycles of history in which elections play a transient role.

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America and Russia: Tamanous and Sobornost

America and Russia: Tamanous and Sobornost

In the first two essays in this sequence, I sketched out the framework of Oswald Spengler’s vision of the process by which great cultures rise, work through their possibilities, and fossilize once those possibilities have been pushed as far as they can go. That vision of history pretty reliably generates a profound unease among people raised in Western industrial societies, for those societies—the heirs of what Spengler named Faustian culture, the great culture that emerged in western and central Europe starting around the year 1000, and holds temporary dominion over the globe—prefer to see history in a different and far more simplistic way.

In the Faustian worldview, it’s inconceivable that the world’s cultures each have their own possibilities, their own values and insights and ways of understanding the world, which cannot be reduced to any single trajectory. In the Faustian worldview, there is only one range of possibilities open to human beings, the one set out by Faustian culture; all other cultures can be seen only as inadequate attempts to attain the Faustian model. There can be no different but equally valid sets of values and insights and ways of understanding the world; there is simply the Faustian way, which is self-evidently true, and every other way, which is superstitious, benighted, and obviously wrong. (Watch today’s ideologically correct literary critics denouncing the writers of past generations for not sharing the values of today’s elite Western culture, and you can see this sort of giddily self-centered thinking in full and inglorious flower.)

In exactly the same way, it’s unthinkable to the Faustian mind that history might consist of a sequence of different trajectories of rise and fall.

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America and Russia, Part Two: The Far Side of Progress

America and Russia, Part Two: The Far Side of Progress

Two weeks ago, in the first part of this sequence of posts, we explored the way that Oswald Spengler’s insights into the cycles of history can be used not only to make sense of the past, but also to get some idea of the shape of the future ahead of us. That’s explosive stuff, because the future thus revealed isn’t the one demanded by the cultural obsessions of the present day.

Every great culture, to use Spengler’s phrase, has its own vision of what the future ought to be like. In Apollonian culture—the great culture of the ancient Mediterranean basin, which hit its cultural stride in classical Greece and metastasized beneath the eagles of Rome—the future everyone expected was the present endlessly prolonged. The vision of time and change that guided Apollonian culture in the centuries of its maturity had three phases: first, things were in chaos, then a mighty power arose to set things in order, and that order endured forever.  In religious terms, the mighty power was the god Jupiter taming the Titans with his thunderbolts; in political terms, the mighty power was the Roman Empire bringing the warring kingdoms of the world under its sway; the same logic applied to classical philosophy, which sought to teach the rational mind how to reduce the chaos of the self into an enduring order, and so on.

In Magian culture—the great culture that emerged in the Middle East as Apollonian culture peaked and began to fade, hit its cultural stride during the Abbasid caliphate and metastasized under the Ottoman Empire—this vision found few takers once the Apollonian pseudomorphosis faded out. The Magian vision of time and change, rather, is the one familiar to most of my readers through its reflection in Christian theology.

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The Decline of the West Revisited

The Decline of the West Revisited

LONDON – The terrorist slaughter in Paris has once again brought into sharp relief the storm clouds gathering over the twenty-first century, dimming the bright promise for Europe and the West that the fall of communism opened up. Given dangers that seemingly grow by the day, it is worth pondering what we may be in for.

Though prophecy is delusive, an agreed point of departure should be falling expectations. As Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute reports: “The assumption of an automatically better future for the next generation is gone in much of the West.”

In 1918, Oswald Spengler published The Decline of the West. Today the word “decline” is taboo. Our politicians shun it in favor of “challenges,” while our economists talk of “secular stagnation.” The language changes, but the belief that Western civilization is living on borrowed time (and money) is the same.

Why should this be? Conventional wisdom regards it simply as a reaction to stagnant living standards. But a more compelling reason, which has seeped into the public’s understanding, is the West’s failure, following the fall of the Soviet Union, to establish a secure international environment for the perpetuation of its values and way of life.

The most urgent example of this failure is the eruption of Islamist terrorism. On its own, terrorism is hardly an existential threat. What is catastrophic is the collapse of state structures in many of the countries from which the terrorists come.

The Islamic world contains 1.6 billion people, or 23% of the world’s population. A hundred years ago it was one of the world’s most peaceful regions; today it is the most violent. This is not the “peripheral” trouble that Francis Fukuyama envisioned in his 1989 manifesto “The End of History.” Through the massive influx of refugees, the disorder in the Middle East strikes at the heart of Europe.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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