I bet it never crossed the minds of many living during the Dark Ages that they were particularly dark, or of those living during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire that it was speedily declining, let alone falling. Since the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk, and hindsight is 20/20, it appears to be an inexorable law of both history and human nature that men recognize the "signs of the times" only after those times have passed.
One of the most astute "sign readers" of today is the reigning Pope. Here is one of Benedict XVI’s most startling yet accurate readings: "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goals one’s own ego and one’s own desires." If I might put it into less philosophical terms, what the Holy Father is telling us is that Western culture is descending into barbarism.
We tend to associate barbarism with images of primitive savages looting and pillaging villages, razing the walls of cities, and enslaving women and children. However, the Holy Father is suggesting here an entirely new kind of barbarism, one with a distinctly spiritual character. Civility is the quality of soul and society by which we recognize not only that other people exist, but also that they have the right to our courtesy, dignity, and respect. Civilization, then, as the opposite of barbarism, is founded upon the recognition of the dignity and rights of the other. Thus, a culture in which "the highest goals [are] one’s ego and one’s own desires" is the very definition of barbaric.
G.K. Chesterton notes, "The simple sense of wonder at the shapes of things, and at their exuberant independence of our intellectual standards and our trivial definitions, is the basis of spirituality." Today’s barbarism is of a distinctly spiritual nature. It is not so much a physical as a philosophical barbarism that has overtaken Western culture, a barbarism of the soul that is camouflaged by a quite "civilized" bodily façade. Fr John Courtney Murray observed:
The barbarian need not appear in bearskins with a club in hand. He may wear a Brooks Brothers suit and carry a ball-point pen with which to write his advertising copy. In fact, even beneath the academic gown there may lurk a child of the wilderness, untutored in the high tradition of civility, who goes busily and happily about his work, a domesticated and law-abiding man, engaged in the construction of a philosophy to put an end to all philosophy, and thus put an end to the possibility of a vital consensus and to civility itself.
The most dangerous philosophical barbarians today are not the relatively few fanatical atheists and dogmatic relativists in academe, the courts, the government, and the media, but the much more prevalent "practically minded" sort. These do not deny the existence of other people, but live as if they didn’t exist or had no worth compared to their own; they are not certain that God does not exist, or that the true, the good and the beautiful are illusions; yet if He did happen to exist, and if transcendentals were real, it wouldn’t really matter much to their lives.
Feeding the hungry; instructing the ignorant
The philosophical barbarian does not wish to have any external demands imposed upon him, for he desires all of reality to conform to his presuppositions, prejudices, and plans. He is unwilling to open his soul fully to the objects and entities around him, for he does not trust that any good will come to himself from such vulnerability. Instead of accepting the imposition of an objectively real world with infinite plenitude and profundity, he imposes upon it his paltry perspective, thereby rejecting a rich, resplendent reality for a scanty and superficial one. He reduces reality to the size of his shrunken soul. Since the less there is to know, the less there is to love, the end result of this barbaric state of soul, tantamount to staring at one’s spiritual navel, is perpetual, relentless boredom. Michael Hanby writes:
A world that is "beyond good and evil," in which nothing is either genuinely good or genuinely bad, and no truth, goodness, or beauty are revealed, is a world in which nothing is either intrinsically desirable or detestable. Such a world affords no possibility of seeing and using things as holy, which means to some degree letting them be, because in such a world there can be no holy things. Boredom is therefore the defining condition of a people uniquely in danger of losing their capacity to love, that is, a people uniquely in danger of failing to grasp "the mystery of [its] own being" and losing its very humanity.
Boredom is the telltale sign of the starving soul, and today’s barbarians are starving for the two staple soul-foods: knowledge and community. Modern secular culture feeds its denizens plenty of "knowledge" in the form of technological know-how, scientific facts, ephemeral trivia, and politically correct aphorisms, but this is paltry fare with little nutritional value compared to the sumptuous banquet of truth they could have if they only recognized their hunger for it: they desire "know-how" regarding their souls; they pine for the meaning of things, not just for facts; they yearn to partake in the complex and elegant conversation with "the best that has been thought and said" that we call the Great Books, not politicized and pre-digested cant.
The new barbarians, however, are "people of the screen," who have all but lost the art of reading, thinking, and conversation due to an overexposure to flashing images, meandering chatrooms, and Facebook friendships. They have become, to use T.S. Eliot’s stark phrase, "hollow men":
Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Immersed in the digitized echoes of iPods but not the music of birds, in the virtual vertigoes of the video game but not the cloud-tipped/dizzying mountain top, they are starving for intimacy with the living, breathing Creation; the abstract, vicarious, two-dimensional dose of documentary, regardless of its cinematic quality, is like touching a ghost compared to the visceral, toes-in-the-dirt, exhilarating experience of immersing one’s five senses in the splendor of reality.
Most of all, these barbarians are starving for friendship, for intimacy, for communion. Growing up in dysfunctional families as orphans in their own homes, in neighborhoods where no one knows each other, in rootless communities in perpetual emigration, and in cities and suburbs where the empty blandishments of consumerism and mall shopping are what passes for festival; their desire for authentic friendship—to know and be known—has become rapacious.
Nevertheless, the intellectual junk-food that pop-culture and mainstream education has been feeding them since their youth has become satisfying, for their souls have shrunk in adjustment, and they have never tasted rich spiritual food by contrast with which they could detect the other as counterfeit. Because of this, as German philosopher Josef Pieper suggests, they have made their peace with illusions:
For the general public is being reduced to a state where people not only are unable to find out about the truth but also become unable to search for the truth because they are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with a fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language.
Today’s barbarians, with all their myriad choices, are in truth choiceless, for they do not themselves feel chosen in their heart of hearts, as the great conservative Jewish sociologist Philip Rieff has written:
There is no more feeling more desperate than that of being free to choose, and yet without the specific compulsion of being chosen. After all, one does not really choose; one is chosen. This is one way of stating the difference between gods and men. Gods choose; men are chosen. What men lose when they become as free as gods is precisely that sense of being chosen, which encourages them, in their gratitude, to take their subsequent choices seriously.
We have all, barbarian or not, been chosen to become something beautiful, unique, and irreplaceable—the image of God on earth and an instrument of His love. It is the ignorance of this truth, perhaps caused by lack of acquaintance with its living embodiments, that is the worst barbarism of all.
A new St Benedict for the new Dark Ages
If our reading of the signs of the times is correct, then what we are moving towards—and perhaps have already arrived at—is the fall of Western classical and Christian civilization, the emergence of a sophisticated spiritual barbarism that makes the barbarism of the past look like high-culture, and a new Dark Ages. Is it too late to save it? It is certainly far past preventive measures, for our culture is already in the late stages of its terminal illness. But with the grace of God, it is not too late for a miraculous healing and full recovery—even a resurrection—if only we could find the right cultural medicine and plenty of trained doctors to administer it. Time is running out, for the darkness is fast approaching, nay, is already here. Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the preeminent philosophical doctors of our time, offers his diagnosis and prescription:
What they set themselves to achieve instead was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness… What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.
The "they" MacIntyre refers to here are St Benedict and his followers, men who had read carefully the signs of their 6th Century times, the first Dark Ages, and acted accordingly. As the darkness of barbarism approached, they fled to the desert, carrying with them as much of the precious Christian and classical civilization as they could hold in their souls. These were the seeds that, due to the pure water of their prayers, the luminous light of their labors, and the rich soil of their studies, would flower six centuries later as the civilization we call Christendom. Alasdair MacIntyre ends his stupendous analysis of modern culture, After Virtue, by calling for a new St Benedict to lead the barbarians out of the spiritual desert that is our godless, technocratic, secular culture to plant the seeds for a new Christendom.
In truth, we do have a new Benedict in our midst, and his name is Joseph Ratzinger: Pope Benedict XVI. An expert reader of the "signs of the times," it is no wonder that the world, in spite of its protestations of disbelief, still looks to the Pope for spiritual guidance.
Caritas in Veritate, "Charity in Truth." Our new Benedict’s encyclical is out, and its essential message, the power of love in truth and truth in love, when practiced, is precisely what could convert us love-sick and truth-starved barbarians. President Obama would do well to heed this encyclical’s wisdom: "Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality." "Truth, in fact, is lógos which creates diá-logos, and hence communication and communion." "Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development." "Only in charity, illumined by the light of reason and faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value."
Let us answer our new Benedict’s clarion-call to topple the dictatorship of relativism and help usher in a new civilization of love under the reign of God in these new—and perhaps last!—dark ages. Perhaps you have been chosen to become one of the philosophical doctors and spiritual healers our diseased and emaciated culture desperately needs. The starving barbarians need you!
Dr Thaddeus J. Kozinski is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Wyoming Catholic College, in Lander, Wyoming