Historian Arnold J. Toynbee wrote that “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” Toynbee’s reputation is not as high as it was in the 40s and 50s when he was featured on the cover of Time magazine, but there is no doubt that he was right about this: civilizations do die.
Cyclical theories of history like Toynbee’s are taken less seriously than they once were. Nevertheless, there is some truth in them. The phenomenal material and social progress of the past half century has lulled us into faith in the inevitability of progress. But mankind can regress as well as progress.
British public intellectual and novelist Ferdinand Mount wrote a sobering book a few years ago, Full Circle. Its thesis was that our glorious, all-conquering Western civilization, in its flight from its Christian roots, may not be progressing but may be regressing to a pre-Christian state. He does not predict that it is going to end in suicide but he suggests that we are headed for a fall, just as the classical world was 1500 years ago.
Yes, the world is now more peaceful than it has ever been, despite bloody insurgencies and illegal secessions. But the calm is deceptive. The Pax Romana was the calm before the storm in which the Roman Empire crumbled under the weight of its own decadence.
Mount presents us with a catalogue of our decadence, much of which is too lurid to recount here. But it is remarkable how accurately it resembles the dissolute habits of imperial Rome. In our own preoccupations with health, the body beautiful, the culinary arts, nature, fame and celebrity, the revolt against God and more, he sees parallels with the Roman baths, the circus, the Dionysian cults and lip-service to old gods in whom no one believed. Mount puts it like this:
“We are now hard-wired to expect history to deliver progress, jerky, flawed progress marred by horrors usually of our own making, but progress nonetheless. We look back primarily in order to see how far we have moved on. And one central element in that ever-growing sense of self-confidence was the gradual exclusion of religion from the picture. Man has wriggled free of the divine plan.”
Mount concludes his analysis on an ambiguous note. He discusses Cicero’s reflections on the likely fate of Rome and the famous dream of Scipio in De Re Publica. Vision, Cicero held, was central to the preservation of civilization. Mount observes that
“we have adopted some high principles from Athens and Rome: tolerance and civility and equality and democracy. And we have picked up some agreeable habits. But we seem to have mislaid Scipio’s dream. And the search parties are still out there looking for it.”
The fact is that the Romans lost it by abandoning God, religion and the vision of the transcendent. When the worship of man – and all the self-indulgence which follows on its heels – takes centre stage, civilization, as Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn reminded us in his famous Nobel address, is on a short road to ruin by its own collective wilful decision. In a word, by suicide.
But we would be wrong to think that this means the end of civilization. The heart of Western civilization may have been torn from its body but its soul is immortal. That soul is Christianity. Christian civilization is not synonymous with Western civilization. Our culture has been Christian for 1500 years. If it perishes in the West, its values will live on elsewhere. Against the relentless assaults of the civilization-without-God brigades we have to consider that Christianity is flourishing in the global South.
In a 2005 issue of The New Criterion, David Bently Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian teaching at Providence College, in Rhode Island, took issue with the pessimism of English writer A. N. Wilson. Wilson’s view was that we are now living in the twilight of the Christian religion. “Here we are”, writes Hart, “living in an age when Christianity is spreading more rapidly and more widely than at any point in the two millennia of its history – throughout the global South and East – and yet, because the Church languishes in the sterile cultures of a small geological apophysis (with a few appertinent isles) at the western edge of continental Asia, Wilson concludes that the faith is in its death throes.”
Christian civilization is in robust health. Furthermore it has within itself all the resources needed to counter the assault of aggressive atheism. A few centuries ago Christian civilization was much more dependent on its Western base than it is today. As the West shrinks into demographic irrelevance, Christian culture will reassert itself from those territories and those populations which have not lost a vision of the transcendent.
These recent words from Pope Francis speak to all men and women who are prepared to raise their eyes above the merely material. They alert us to danger but they also point to a bright future:
“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”
The early Christians picked up the pieces of the failed pagan civilization of ancient Greece and Rome after it had abandoned “Scipio’s dream”, a dream so spiritually elevated that one thinks Cicero would have become a Christian. For 1500 years, the Christian vision was responsible for the best of the West: democracy, respect for the person, the rule of law, the rationality of the material world and much more. If the West decays, this legacy will be taken up by other cultures, shaping a new civilisation in ways too difficult to predict.
In the recent film Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character desperately complains that “no one taught me how to pray” as she faces certain death. Did she symbolize the present state of helplessness and hopelessness of Western civilization? But she did pray. So there may be hope. When the soul is confronted with the last space station, perhaps it can still be redeemed.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer based in Dublin. He blogs at Garvan Hill.