Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Whitterings, September 2009

Der Untergang des Abendlandes

In 1776 Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) published the first volume of his six part Magnus Opus The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In this seminal work Gibbon emphasises the loss of Civic Virtue as one of the main causes of the collapse of Rome. The concept of Civic Virtue occupies a central place in the foundation of Western Civilisation. Plato and Aristotle considered it essential for any form of republic and a difference in civic vision led to the trial and death of Socrates. Basic Civil Virtues include: Civic Conversation - which entails listening to others, trying to reach an agreement, and keeping yourself informed so that one can make a relevant contribution; Civic Behaviour - which entails the control of feelings and needs in balance with the feelings and needs of others; and Civic Work - which entails the necessity of work which makes a useful contribution to society as a whole. The Civic Virtues are a secular parallel to St Paul’s description of the duties we have to one another because we are all part of the same body.

Constant vigilance is necessary to keep a civilised society from falling into decay. An anecdote has a woman asking Benjamin Franklin “Well, Doctor what have we got a Republic, a Democracy or a Monarchy?”He famously responded “A Republic, if you can keep it.” According to Gibbon once a society loses the love of the society over the love of the individual it begins to decay. Cicero spent his later years lamenting that this had happened to Rome.

In 1918 Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) published another seminal work on the causes of the collapse of a civilisation specifically focusing on our current historical period. He called it Der Untergang des Abendlandes which roughly translates as the ‘the going under of the evening land’ and known in English as The Decline of the West. Spengler classes modern Western Civilisation as being Faustian in that it has a proud but tragic character. This is because although it strives for the unattainable it secretly knows that it will never reach its goal. He breaks the rise and fall of a civilisation into four periods corresponding to the seasons. Winter, the last phase of a civilisation, is marked by an exhaustion of creative mental strength and organisation. In Winter: religion will be marked by Materialism and the Cult of Science, the dominance of Ethical-Social ideals over Mystical-Soteriological ideals, Scepticism, the decline of Abstract Thought, and the rise of Specialised Academic Philosophies that look inward to their own systems. Politics will be marked by Democracy, the Rule of the Rich and an advanced Bureaucracy. Art will be marked by the end of Symbolism and the deterioration of Aesthetics into Fashion. He saw the emergence of pure Democracy, the rule of the majority, over Republicanism, Rule by Law, as a sign of decay because without law to hold the majority vote in check mediocrity and short term vision will prevail. He believed that an economically driven media and the rise of consumer capitalism to be another sign of the advanced decay of civilisation.

Spengler emphasises the importance of cultures that imbue the widest sense of historical knowledge and involvement. People in these cultures see themselves as part of a greater design and not in an inward looking self contained manner. He believed that only these people are capable of ‘building’ the future of a culture. He contrasted Culture, as the process of creativity in ‘becoming’ (which corresponds to the theological term teleology), and Civilisation, as the process of rigidity that sets in after the idealism of the culture is lost – the ‘being’ (which corresponds to the theological term ontology). He summed up his world view like this:

“Plato and Goethe stand for the philosophy of Becoming, Aristotle and Kant the philosophy of Being. The following saying of Goethe must be regarded as the expression of a perfect definite metaphysical doctrine. I would not have a single word of it changed: ‘The Godhead is effective in the living and not the dead, in the becoming and the changing, not in the ‘become’ and set-fast; and therefore, similarly, the reason is concerned only to strive towards the divine through the becoming and the living, and the understanding only to make use of the ‘become’ and the set-fast.’ This sentence comprises my entire philosophy.”

In 1961 Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) finished the publication of his twelve volume work on civilisation entitled A Study of History. He theorised that the breakdown of civilisations occurs when the ‘Creative Minority’ grows tired and degenerates into a ‘Dominant Minority’. This occurs when they cease to be forward looking and proactive in seeking solutions to the problems that lie ahead but instead ‘rest on their laurels’ and idealise their past achievements and become prideful. This trend reaches its zenith in the Universal State. Within such a state abandonment of self control and discipline replace creativity and Civic Virtue. Such a state will be characterised by archaism (the idealisation of the past), futurism (idealisation of the future), and most of all detachment (the removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world by the use of escapism via entertainment, sports, acquisition of goods, and the reckless pursuit of the sexual and bodily appetites). On the positive side he believed that the advanced state of decay brings about new vision of transcendence that will emerge from the old church that will become the kernel from which a new culture can emerge.

The last thinker I will reference is Harold Adams Innis (1894-1952), a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, who many believe to be one of Canada’s most significant and original thinkers. He warned us that Western Civilisation is deeply imperilled by a powerful advertising-driven media obsessed by ‘present-mindedness’ and the ‘continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of elements of permanence essential to cultural activity’.

If you have made it thus far in this month’s column, you will be wondering why I have spent so much time summarising these theories about the fall of empires and especially the fall of our own. I do so to add some very basic background to my continual claim that we are living in a Dark Age – an age filled with ever increasing signs of the collapse of the ‘Western Empire’. The technological and telecommunication revolution, the existence of a global capitalistic economic system, and mass migration mean that it is hard to know how long it will take us to decay or even if this is an irreversible process. Regardless, the decay is only too real, even if it is only a long downtrend before renewal. I am not necessarily being apocalyptic.


It took Rome almost 250 years to fall. Of the men who could see the writing on the wall (Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin) there were two types. The first stayed in the centre to fight against the inevitable decay so that civilisation could remain intact as long as possible. These men’s lives were often cut brutally short as they were caught in the crosshairs of rapidly changing, and increasingly unsophisticated, short sighted, incompetent, and violent Emperors. The second type also tried to save civilisation. They did this by fleeing Rome to the Provinces and living simple agrarian lives with their families. They used the peacefulness of their lives to read and write and think. They used their lives to be examples of civilisation simply by living civilised lives. This happened again during the dark ages when some men tried to blow flames on the dying embers of civilisation in the beginnings of feudal Europe and others retreated to the monasteries to keep civilisation alive by imitating Noah and the Ark. I understand the motivation of both sorts of men and I admire them both.

I have already gone on at length in other columns about the decline of our own civilisation and the effect this has on the Church. Thus, the overlap with this column is so significant that I feel the need only to point out again that the church is showing parallel signs of decay as those found in society at large. We are not immune.

I am getting to the age when I need to discern and make some significant decisions about what path my ministry should take. I have always ministered in rural or semi-rural areas away from the city and the central administrative offices of the Diocese. I have done my duty to the centre by travelling in on a regular basis but I relish the fact that I can always return to the countryside where I can see the stars at night. I often think that I can best preserve the faith by living a quiet life in which I have ample time for prayer, meditation and study. I can best ‘save’ the essence of Christianity in this generation simply by trying to be Christian away from the collapse. The fact that I am a Religious only adds to the appeal of this path. In previous columns I have explored the concern of the Archbishop of Canterbury about the decline in vocations to the religious life. He believes that the monasteries provide the ‘heartbeat’ of the faith. He considers their weakening as a sign of disease – the proverbial canary in the mine.

Yet I find I am not able to really settle. I feel guilty, as if I am letting the side down. I am continually thwarted from any kind of deep peace by my anxiety about the future of the church. It is not the ‘C’hurch about which I worry as I am convinced that we will survive the fall of this Empire just as we have survived the fall of all of the others. Rather it is the ‘c’hurch about which I worry. The day to day existence of this branch of Catholicism we lovingly call ‘our church’. When I read the biographies and autobiographies of Anglican clerics I am amazed at the passion and anxiety over the ecclesiastical issues of their day which we have all but forgotten. I suspect the zeal of our wrestles today will also pale into insignificant when looked at in hindsight. However, although I do not want to be drawn into the drama and the conflict, I feel the duty to participate.

The Kingdom of God lies within us and the pursuit of holiness of life makes real in time the eternal existence of the Kingdom. In this then is our peace. There is a well known story in which Neil Swanson records:

“A Russian youth who had become a conscientious objector to war through the reading of Tolstoy and the New Testament was brought before a magistrate. With the strength of conviction he told the judge of the life which loves its enemies, which does good to those who despitefully use it, which overcomes evil with good, and which refuses war. ‘Yes,’ said the judge, ‘I understand. But you must be realistic. These laws you are talking about are the laws of the kingdom of God; and it has not come yet.’ The young man straightened, and said, ‘Sir, I recognise that it has not come for you, nor yet for Russia or the world. But the kingdom of God has come for me! I cannot go on hating and killing as though it had not come.’”

I wish I were like that youth and had already come home in the midst of this darkening world. However I often feel more like Dylan Thomas and want to “Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light!” I believe this makes me spiritually immature. I do not yet have the balance right. I almost wish I could feel the freedom and detachment that comes from knowing that it is all coming down no matter what I do. Noel Coward captures the irony of this in his description of a party on the French Rivera. He knows the decadence is part of the great decay but he enjoys the decadence anyway.

You know, if you have any mind at all,
Gibbon's divine "Decline and Fall”
Well, it sounds pretty flimsy
No more than a whimsy...
By way of contrast,
On Wednesday last
I went to a marvellous party
We didn't sit down 'til ten
You know, young Bobby Carr
Did a stunt at the bar
With a lot of extraordinary men!
And then Freda arrived with a turtle,
(Which shattered us all to the core)
And then the duchess passed out at a quarter to three
And suddenly Cyril cried "Fiddle-de-dee!",
Then he ripped off his trousers
And jumped in the sea!
And I couldn't have liked it more!

I Went to a Marvellous Party, 1938, Noel Coward

However I am unable to pretend that it does not matter when I know it does. As a Christian I also do not have the luxury of pessimism and must work perpetually with hope. So here I sit firmly on the fence. Do I stay in the ‘provinces’ patiently keeping the flame alive for the reminder of my days and hope that the anxiety will fade with the passing years? Do I turn my face back towards Rome and abandon a life of peace so I can ‘fight’ in the ‘city’? I wish I knew. When He is ready I am sure He will let me know.

“Should I stay or should I go? Bum, bum, bum, bum bum, bum ba.”

The Clash