ecline” we Americans and Westerners mope about daily; “fall” most of us still hope to postpone. Decadence, it would seem, is the mean between the two.
The much-overused decline and fall trope, fixed permanently into our abstract vocabulary ever since Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire took a then-experimentally post-Christian Western Europe by storm, was meant to demonstrate the mortality of all human constructions. Oddly enough, however, Gibbon did it in spite of the Enlightenment’s discovery of progress by retreating to the oldest trope of all—the cyclical, organic metaphor of birth, growth, decay, death. Much of the 19th century was spent trying to reconcile progress with the cyclical via the uses and abuses of Darwin. In the 20th century, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and Paul Kennedy rejoined that intellectual dispute, traceable to remote antiquity: Either the human condition is cyclical, like the seasons and the life cycle, or it is linear, starting someplace, going someplace, with a positive goal ahead.
German, Briton and American all knew that America was perhaps the key to the answer. The greatest event in history, the discovery of the New World, had apparently put America on the linear track, destined to escape a cyclical fate. The presumption had a religious basis made clear by St. Augustine’s diatribe against cyclical thinking in Book XII of The City of God, and it even waxed imperial in Virgil’s time-transcending Aeneid, a very American epic, as illustrated by those three Virgilian quotations on the dollar bill. Like Gibbon, Spengler and Toynbee ultimately sited their declinism in the cyclical rhythms of life. Kennedy, American and steeped in all things Christian and imperial, instead found the fatal flaw in linearity. It was linearity of the Faustian kind: The rise to wealth and power generates delusions of inevitably more successful adventures ahead until “overstretch”, a form of national self-indulgence, brings down the entire enterprise.
Kennedy’s approach seems to have been inspired more by mechanics or physics than by that most influential, and also ancient, variation on the “rise and fall” theme, that of moral decay, or decadence. Livy’s Roman Republic maintained its manly virtues because “they turned away from a thousand daily temptations”, but, Tacitus said, the Empire was doomed as Romans “indulged every desire as soon as it came to mind.” George Kennan extended the Roman experience with decadence to our own:
Poor old West: succumbing feebly, day by day, to its own decadence, sliding with debility on the slime of its own self-indulgent permissiveness; its drugs, its crime, its pornography, its pampering of the youth, its addiction to its bodily comforts, its rampant materialism and consumerism—and then trembling before the menace of the wicked Russians . . . .1
Far more seriously and exhaustively than the supercilious Kennan, the French-born American historian Jacques Barzun took up the matter in his monumental From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present.
Published in 2000 when Barzun was 94, From Dawn to Decadence covered a half-millennium of “Western Cultural Life”, describing four phases in nearly encyclopedic detail: from Luther’s Reformation—really a revolution that tore the West apart—to the Scientific Revolution, which provided the basics for universal material progress; from the Royal Courts of Europe to “the Tennis Court” of the French Revolution; from Goethe’s Faust as a driver of the modern era to modernism’s fragmentation of arts and letters; and from the mass illusion of a socialist utopia to the horrors of the Great War and finally on to the late 20th-century protest mob’s gleeful chant of “Hey, hey, ho, ho: Western Civ Has Got to Go!” Across the centuries in Barzun’s chronicle history moves in both a linear and cyclical manner. An explosion of dynamic individualism propels civilization forward toward a better future; but that same dynamic proves incapable of virtuous control, causing greed, violence and deepening self-indulgence to spiral society downward toward chaos. Barzun liberates us from the tyranny of either-or, but fails to offer much hope of escaping decadence in the process.
ut pace Barzun, if America is exceptional, might it not be an exception to the inevitability of decadence? It is, at the least, a matter to which Americans have been attentive over much of their history.
Early on, Americans sensed that they were somehow exempt from Old World cycles of rise and fall, but that sense was nonetheless powerfully counteracted by a continuing, pervasive fear of decadence. The Puritans were consciousness personified, assiduous diary-keepers who were ever watchful for the slightest signs of grace or degeneracy. Yale was founded because Abraham Pierson and other divines concluded that Harvard was becoming doctrinally depraved. Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” revolved around the biblical warning of the prophet Amos that “thy feet will slide in due time.” Thomas Jefferson sought to refute the theory of the French naturalist Buffon that the plants, animals and even geographical features of the New World were degenerate, declining and weakening as a result of the fetid swamps and clogged forests that bespread the Western Hemisphere. Jefferson, outraged, sent troops to New England to gather evidence on the size and strength of the bull moose, and later instructed Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for mastodons.
The issue troubled George Washington, too. His Farewell Address, commonly interpreted as a warning to avoid foreign entanglements, was more concerned with maintaining the character of the nation amid the temptations of freedom. As the world’s first-ever free people, the individual virtue vital to successful popular government could only be upheld, Washington believed, by respect for religion. But the Enlightenment, by ruling “foundations” like religion out of permissible intellectual bounds, called the matter into question ab initio. Thus the ancient insight, as old as Plato, remained in effect: The soul and the polis reflect each other. Or, to put it in contemporary terms, consciousness creates the self, but that self is then the subject of society and government. If so, then the people must be constantly on guard to prevent government from attempting to remake the self and consciousness to the point of enlisting them in the government’s causes. Liberty requires conscious vigilance.
It is a good thing, then, that consciousness has been an American preoccupation since Tocqueville analyzed the nation’s “point of departure” in early New England, reinforced by Thoreau’s call upon his fellow citizens, in Walden, to become fully “awake.” But the Enlightenment’s assertion of the sovereignty of the individual subject as the center of human knowledge, capable of essentializing thought in itself, was soon challenged by what the intelligentsia made of Marx, Freud and the new social scientists. The challengers insisted that innate biological systems transcend the power of individuals, such that Freud’s “unconscious” or Marx’s “capital” are elemental to the human condition, leaving the individual only a slight possibility of using them along with at least as likely a prospect of being used by them. This was a condition that, as Edward Said put it, “flatly contradicts the core of humanistic thought” by relegating the idea of individualism to the status of illusory autonomy or fiction.2 This dispute goes to the heart of the question that every consequential modern political thinker has felt compelled to take up at the start of his argument: “What is human nature?” The answer, we recently have been instructed, is that human nature is not as “human” as we supposed.
As recently as a quarter century ago, most psychologists believed that human behavior was primarily guided by conscious thoughts and feelings. It was still possible to affirm Herodotus, who in Book Two of his History showed us that the inexplicable absence of such a predetermined nature was why human beings have to hold political meetings, as crocodiles do not. In the early years of this new century, however, consciousness has atrophied at an accelerating pace. Social science is the new scholasticism, an intellectual paradigm in which participants are published, prized, tenured and made prominent for their contribution to one great required idea: to prove “scientifically” that human beings have nothing resembling what formerly was called “free will.” An avalanche of “studies” now unsurprisingly asserts that we hold prejudices seated in a level of our minds so deep as to be inaccessible to our conscious awareness.3
The advent of “screen culture”—cellphones, iPads, as well as old-fashioned TV and film—now ubiquitous among the young in their formative years of education, has shrunk consciousness down in a different way. Students increasingly seem conditioned by the fact that much of their waking life is populated by mechanically mediated images in which they can see other beings on screens but those others cannot see them. As a result the viewer can become oblivious to others, having no need to interact or maintain a minimum of civil conduct with them. To think back on Herodotus again, this is the Gyges question: What do you do when no one is looking? The “screenie” has invisibility even without privacy. As consciousness has atrophied, obliviousness—and no little rudeness—replaces it. This phenomenon adds a new dimension to the age-old definition of decadence.
We know that consciousness changes across time, expanding or contracting when affected by major events in culture or technology. Hegel declared that any study of consciousness must be a history in which the expanding consciousness of the individual recapitulates the historical development of “the world spirit”, which is that of an expanding realm of freedom.4 Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame described the cathedral as a university, a universe of knowledge in stone, with its sculpted scenes understandable even to an illiterate people. Then came the printed book, which created a new culture and consciousness of learning that brought an end to the era of the cathedral as university. T.S. Eliot, too, claimed that a shift of similar consequence occurred in the early 1600s, which he termed the “dissociation of sensibility.” Whereas thought and feeling formerly had been experienced together, the cultural transformation of the time separated them into unconnected “rational” and “emotional” states, a dichotomy of consciousness that has continued ever since. Flaubert depicted this shift in Madame Bovary by revealing Emma’s consciousness as severely one-dimensional as a result of her infatuation with the genre of popular romance novels.5
So in the early 21st century it is the electronic domination of society by screen culture, as well as the orthodoxies of social science, that is shriveling consciousness. As Sven Birkerts prophesied at the fading cusp of the century past, this new millennium shift may spell the end of the centuries-long book culture heralded in Hugo’s Notre Dame.6 The advent of “modernism” in the arts of the early 20th century depicted an age of fragments—to be “shored against” our ruin, Eliot wrote—that has been carried to greater fissuring by hand-held “remote” devices. These devices produce an ever shorter “attention span” that tolerates only fragments of information. As Stanley Cavell of the Harvard philosophy department has noted, “chronic interruption means the perpetual incompleteness of human expression.”7
The habits of the incomplete have adversely affected the book as a unit of knowledge, for the book’s unique characteristic is to present an “extended argument.” By now, several generations of students have been conditioned to read books by way of fragmentation, which subverts any real book’s purpose. The consequences include the demise of bookstores, a form of textocide brought about not only by online price-cutting but also by the denigration of extended argument itself. This does grave damage to intellectual serendipity, for the richest value of a bookstore—as well as a large, open-shelf library—is to reveal via softly structured browsing what you were not looking for, or had no idea even existed. Now we are corralled by Google’s “big-data” efficiency into finding only that which we already know is there to be found. To Edmund Burke’s disgust at a time of “sophisters, economists, and calculators” we might now add “researchers.”
n one of John Updike’s last novels, one of the witches of Eastwick listens to a lady minister preach about “selves”:
We live in a very self-conscious age. There is a magazine called Self. There is a book called Our Bodies, Our Selves. We want to find our selves, and to be true to our selves. My Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary holds two full columns of compound words beginning with ‘self-abandonment’ and ‘self-abuse’ through ‘self-interest’ and ‘self-reliance’ and ‘self-satisfaction’ down to ‘self-willed’ and ‘self-winding.’ So—what is this self, this precious entity each individual uniquely possesses?
It is a good enough question to sire an update of another. Here is a 21st-century recasting of the 18th-century question posed by Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in his 1782 Letter from an American Farmer: “What, then, is this new man, the American?” What scope is there for the self when consciousness has shriveled and free will dwindled?
The answer is “not much”, and this means the loss of a core dimension of human purpose. This, from Emerson to Nietzsche to David Foster Wallace, is the imperative to harness the power of one’s own attention so that we can “construct ourselves by assembling our experiences, desires and actions in the way a novelist gives coherence to the incidental plot points of a novel.”8 But a diminished self, with its loss of interiority, is disinclined toward or simply unable to undertake such a task of self-fashioning. As a population, such diminished selves increasingly become passive, receptive, pleasure-seeking, self-indulgent and, yes, decadent.
With this observation we enter the Age of Entertainment, Plato’s nightmare, made worse by a ubiquitous screen culture that makes entertainment always available and that turns everything—news, sports, health, war—into one or another form of entertainment. Here is how the late Michael Crichton put it, linking entertainment with accelerating fragmentation, in his 1999 novel Timeline:
Today, everybody expects to be entertained, and they expect to be entertained all the time. . . . [E]veryone must be amused, or they will switch: switch brands, switch channels, switch parties, switch loyalties. This is the intellectual reality of Western society at the end of the century. In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time is on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused.
Entertainment’s contribution to decadence was exhibited in the mid-1990s through the medium of advertising, which has now become commercial, political, a product of the cultural elite and designed to entertain all at the same time. We thus now have perhaps the most sanctimonious form of advertising in human history. To take just one example, in 1995 designer Calvin Klein was forced to withdraw a sexually charged ad campaign for children’s jeans that critics had called pornographic. In its defense, the company released the following statement:
The message of the Calvin Klein jeans current advertising campaign is that young people today, the most media savvy generation yet, have a real strength of character and independence. They have very strongly defined likes of what they will and will not do—and have a great ability to know who they are and who they want to be. . . . We continue to believe in the positive message of these ads.
If Alfred North Whitehead was correct to say that the world’s intellectual history “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”, then the philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch was justified in saying, “What Plato feared should now be clear.”
Indeed, there is a logical chain across intellectual history that links Plato’s dismissal of the “poets”, by which he meant all the major art forms, and today’s Age of Entertainment, which aims to turn all that is not entertainment into entertainment. For Plato, the arts were mimetic; they merely represented reality and therefore distorted it, keeping one from confronting reality directly. When the Enlightenment ruled out metaphysical foundations, “art” and the “sublime” became a substitute for religion. With modernism and its invited return of the mythic, the arts became a demonic force, as in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. And in postmodernism the classic arts, such as the symphony orchestra, painting, poetry and the novel, the “legitimate” theater and architecture, all become merely the hobbies of elevated cultural elites.
In this way entertainment displaces all the major arts and humanities, blocking substantive communication and democratic discourse and replacing them with dictated, corrosively sardonic, simulated moments. Art is interactive, emotionally direct and dialectical; entertainment is hierarchical, satirically gamed, dictatorial. When entertainment was a lower-case word, it was a commonplace that, as the critic Lester Bangs put it, “the ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience.” Now sinning of that sort is pervasive, for the power of entertainment corrupts entertainers, and the perquisites of celebrity are too tempting to resist and too delightful not to exploit. This accounts for many an audience’s vaguely uneasy sense that while being “entertained” they actually are being insulted.
his helps to explain Toynbee’s striking observation about virtue shifting—that the creative minority behind great civilizations will, as the civilization begins to decline, transform itself into a dominant minority that takes on the vulgar and promiscuous behaviors of society’s low-life. So in the post-Cold War period America’s “cultural elite”, a label made prominent by Vice President Dan Quayle in the early 1990s, adopted distinctly coarse attitudes and practices. A Vice Presidential case in point: When the wife of Senator and later Vice President Gore attacked the violence and misogyny of some rock and most rap lyrics, she was scolded by most of her social and political peers. Why were four-letter words, formerly seen by the upper-middle class as déclassé, now appearing in glossy upscale magazines? How had “the hooker look” become a fashion trend among nice girls from the American suburbs? How had multiple body piercings and tattoos, which a few decades ago marked only sailors and motorcycle gang thugs, become trendy?
Toynbee would have shrugged and said simply that we are witnessing the self-proletarianization of the American dominant minority.9 Happens all the time. Yet there is reason to suspect that the primary cause of this vulgarization may rather be the adoption of a broad cultural style that enhances the elite’s power. In a polity that has been shedding its Founding Fathers-designed barriers against Athenian-style direct democracy, the power elite ever more requires the protective camouflage of proletarian class superiority. Flaunting coarse conduct and a combat boots dress code adds heft to the elite’s domination. So in place of the classically tripartite elements of the soul—reason, desire and spirit, according to the parable of Leontias in Plato’s Republic, or in earlier America, self-reliance, Christian-Roman virtues and patriotism—a new triad emerges: claims on government, vulgar behavior and a yearning for relief from world leadership.
This vast societal transformation might be called “The Great Virtue Shift.” Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue. As gambling, obscenity, pornography, drugs, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and sneering disaffection became The New Virtue, government at all levels began to move in on the action, starting with casinos and currently involving, in several states and the District of Columbia, an officially approved and bureaucratically managed narcotics trade.
The Great Virtue Shift has produced among its practitioners the appearance of profound moral concern, caring and legislated activism on behalf of the neediest cases and most immiserated populations at home and around the world. To this may be added the panoply of social agenda issues designed to ignite resentment and righteous indignation among the new “proletarian” elite. All this works to satisfy the cultural elite’s desire to feel morally superior about itself regarding collective moral issues of large magnitude even as they, as individuals, engage in outsized self-indulgent personal behavior. This is Reinhold Niebuhr’s “moral man and immoral society” turned on its head, where hedonism takes cover beneath a superficial global moralism.
The virtue shift has been paralleled by a governmental shift. As gifted politicians have sensed the changing psychology and national character of the country, they have learned to constantly scan the political horizon to identify each special interest group, make the necessary promises and then move to satisfy each group’s claim on government largesse, or its demand for deeper government intervention to enforce adherence to each group’s behavioral choices. Throughout most of American history people were preoccupied with how to prevent government from becoming corrupt. In our time, governments have discovered how to corrupt the people. It then follows that the more corrupted the people become, the more numerous the laws must be, thus further aggrandizing government’s indispensability.
Social science plays a role here, too. Science provides a basis for philosophical, cultural and political ideas and institutions in any era, as when Newton’s new physics ratified the idea of a clockwork universe and later derived into the concept of an international balance of power as somehow “natural.” In our time, as noted, ideas extrapolated from science, and its camp follower social science, are leading to a constriction of consciousness and, consequently, of the idea of the self. Quite beyond the sirens of entertainment and self-proletarianization, this constriction will inevitably affect national character and especially the psychology of leadership.
The social science studies endorsing such constriction tend to render leaders less comprehending of or inclined to take on international matters of large magnitude. Reinhold Niebuhr recognized the problem in the mid-20th century. As he wrote in The Irony of American History:
The realm of freedom which allows the individual to make his decisions within, above and beyond the pressure of causal sequences, is beyond the realm of scientific analysis. Furthermore, the acknowledgement of its reality introduces an unpredictable and incalculable element in the causal sequence. It is therefore embarrassing to any scientific scheme. Hence scientific cultures are bound to incline to determinism. The various sociological determinations are reinforced by the general report which the psychologists make of the human psyche. For they bear witness to the fact that their scientific instruments are unable to discover that integral, self-transcendent center of personality, which is in and yet above the stream of nature and time and which religion and poetry take for granted.
A belief in determinism conduces to passivity in leadership. In social science, it conduces to an oscillation between passivity and unbridled hubris. On one hand, social science is often disinclined to go near, or even to recognize, the most difficult challenges of statecraft. This is because it cannot address them by confining thought to narrow, manageable and countable pieces where “variables” can be eliminated and outcomes can appear to be replicable. Yet at the same time, proponents of science—or, more accurately, “scientism”—eagerly advance large and highly speculative hypotheses to explain matters that are too complex and contingent to be successfully addressed by social scientific methods. As John Gray put it, “Fact and value are systematically confused; and the attractively simple theories that result are invested with the power of overcoming moral and political difficulties that have so far proved intractable.”10 Social authoritarianism cloaked in the guise of science, and its accompanying determinism, has all but abolished what we used to understand as the human condition.
o from consciousness to self to society to state to statecraft, “decadence”, though defined as a downward spiraling process, actually appears as a rising phenomenon. As far as Western Civ goes, it looks like a bottom-up surge so powerful that it may wash over the modern age itself—defined and commonly understood from its conveniently accepted inauguration around 1500 to the present. Four major revolutions in ideas and institutions have made the era we call “modern”—Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and, for want of a better term, Westphalianism—and each is now in a declining or deteriorated condition.
The Renaissance recovered and advanced liberal learning, the study of classic texts and arts that are “possessions for all time”, as Thucydides put it. These are the works that speak to the highest challenges of the human predicament, problems requiring more than quantificational solutions, problems where nothing can precisely be replicated, where a leader must decide before all factors can be known, let alone assessed, where uncertainty and ambiguity cannot be eliminated. But the humanities in our time are devalued. In this vocational age, learning is crowded out by training. The “sixth sense” of statecraft—from Themistocles as a reader of oracles to Spengler’s recognition that the statesman’s art is akin to being “a judge of horseflesh”—is deeply impaired by the decline of the liberal arts.
The Reformation, a revolution to overturn established theological doctrine, was vastly consequential in defining modernity as the age of individualism. If what mattered was one’s faith alone above Church, priesthood and sacrament, it ultimately came to mean that the individual was neither predestined nor therefore bound to be unchanged or unfree. From there, it was only a short distance to credit the right and the consequentiality of personal and political decisions on secular issues in the huge ideational space opened up by the Reformation’s liberating concepts and its pluralization of social authority across Europe. Before long, class, gender, ethnicity, wealth and other distinctions mattered less than the individual’s new power as a free actor. In The Prince, published just four years before Luther hammered nails into a church door in Wittenberg, Machiavelli recognized that the vertical power of medieval Christendom was giving way to a horizontal form of power that was up for grabs in the rise of Europe’s new commercial city-states. While Machiavelli would later be reviled for his “evil” challenge to papal-imperial authority, he unknowingly gave spiritual legitimacy to secular, individualistic drives to fill this power vacuum.
But we are now defined once again as fated—by ethnic and cultural heritage, by “studies” that “show” our behavior is ruled by the unconscious mind or immovable socio-psychological-biological factors. Emerson’s self-reliant individual is now condemned as selfishly indifferent to the needs of the community. When all available options are ruled out or pronounced illusory, what is left for the individual or for individuality itself?
The Enlightenment, symbolized by Diderot’s encyclopedia and Linnaeus’s classification system, awakened the world not only to the universe of knowledge but to a set of responsible methods for applying knowledge. One must categorize but not compartmentalize. Thus Archilochus, who has come to us by way of Tolstoy and Isaiah Berlin, used the characteristics of fox and hedgehog to express the tension between individual actions and the inexorable forces of change. Hegel saw history as the arena in which the greatest issues of the human condition must be played out, and this has been the task of statecraft ever since. These became the defining attributes of the modern age: that you must decide as best you can, that decisions are consequential, and that making them well requires considering both minute particulars and the entirety of the situation. These are the essentials of statecraft, which is an art, not a science. Today, all of these are in a dilapidated condition or worse.
The fourth pillar of the modern age has been the international state system given incipient form at Westphalia in the settlement of the Thirty Years’ War. The genius of the concept lay in its procedural nature, making it potentially universal. Any nation, of whatever character, could become a legitimate international citizen simply by committing to a short list of procedural requirements: be a state, respect international law, follow minimal norms (no slavery), and field professional military and diplomatic services. With difficult military and diplomatic efforts this international system has been defended—all major modern wars and revolutions originated in a determination to wreck it—and in the 20th century it became the structure within which the world’s nations agreed to conduct their common affairs. Kant added a dimension to Westphalia by pointing out that a republic, or better a democratic republic, was the most practically effective governmental form for establishing justice within a state and maintaining peace and security among states thanks to its benign focus on procedural norms. The Kantian project, yearning for center stage since 1795, seemed about to take firm institutional hold at the end of the Cold War, when “democratization” won UN acceptance as a procedural element in the quest for a solidified world order.
But this system, too, is now in a deteriorated, even decadent condition, and democracy worldwide is in decline.11 If present trends are not reversed, prospects are grim for the international state system, democratization within nations and the modern era itself, based on humanism, individualism, universalism and the procedural nature of relations among nations. That which supplants it will be adversarial to each of its principles. Whether future observers will decree this result a matter of the cyclical or the linear, or both or neither, one cannot say. One can barely bring oneself to care.
round the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, “decadence” arose as a romantically thrilling elitist fashion, providing a “sweet spot” in which a privileged, self-selected class could revel in dissolute practices while applauding their own cultural superiority. At the turn of the 20th to the 21st century something akin has emerged—call it a democratized form of decadence—among a far wider swath of the population, with the support of government and approbation of the cultural elite. Many observers have gazed upon such phenomena, then and now, and have seen mainly the sources of shifts in the art world. We move from the 1913 New York Armory Exhibition to mainstreaming of “street art” a century later rather effortlessly. But if what is at stake is world order, with national character and identity as its foundation stone, and democracy as the procedurally and practically most efficacious political form, then the fate of the art world may be the least of our concerns.
It comes down, finally, to the individual and to George Washington’s recognition that a free society must be made up of virtuous, self-disciplined citizens. Americans have grappled with this idea since the days of the early Republic. Americans possess liberty as do no others and so have sought to understand its uses and responsibilities as well as the myriad of ways, direct or insidious, through which it can be taken away. Freedom is for a people; liberty is for the individual. So if liberty must be limited in order to be possessed, it must be self-imposed in the recognition that certain limits are essential to making one’s actions effective, intellectually coherent and even possessed of a certain beauty.
To the main point of Washington’s Farewell Address, that virtue is the necessary restraint upon liberty and religion the best source of virtue, Tocqueville added that in America, uniquely, religion and liberty are compatible: Freedom sees religion as the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its rights, while religion is the guardian and guarantee of the laws that preserve liberty. But at the same time, from the Puritans onward, American liberty has been endangered by the American “passion for regulation.” This, Tocqueville predicted, eventually would enable government to extend its arms over society as a whole, to cover its surface “with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way.”
There is a logic chain at work here, too: a lack of self-limitation on individual liberty will produce excess and coarseness; virtue will retreat and, as it does, hypocritical moralizing about society’s deficiencies will increase. Widening irresponsibility coupled with public pressure for behavior modification will mount and be acted upon by government. The consequential loss of liberty scarcely will be noticed by the mass of people now indulging themselves, as Tocqueville predicted, in the “small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” We will not as a result be ruled by tyrants but by schoolmasters in suits with law degrees, and be consoled in the knowledge that we ourselves elected them.
To retain liberty, or by now to repossess it, Americans must re-educate themselves in what has been made of Burke’s precept: “Liberty must be limited in order to be possessed.” Walt Whitman re-formulated this as, “The shallow consider liberty a release from all law, from every constraint. The wise man sees in it, on the contrary, the potent Law of Laws.” Learning what liberty is and what it requires of us is the only bulwark, ultimately, against American decadence. Pay no heed to the determinists: The choice is ours to make.
1Kennan quoted in “Western Decadence and Soviet Moderation”, in Decline of the West? George Kennan and His Critics (Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1978), p. 8.
2Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 10.
3Note, for example, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Delacorte, 2013).
4See Theodore Ziolkowski, Clio the Romantic Muse (Cornell University Press, 2004), p. 43.
5See Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, first published in German in 1946.
11See Joshua Kurlantzick, Democracy in Retreat (Yale University Press, 2013).
6Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber, 1995).
7Cavell, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 30.
8Thomas Meaney, “David Foster Wallace on Planet Trillaphon”, Times Literary Supplement, March 13, 2013.
9Noted in Charles Murray, Coming Apart (Crown Forum, 2013), pp. 286–7. For the original analysis see Toynbee, A Study in History, revised and abridged by the author and Jane Caplan (Portland House, 1988), pp. 241–7.
10Gray, “The Knowns and Unknowns”, The New Republic, May 10, 2012.
11See Joshua Kurlantzick, Democracy in Retreat (Yale University Press, 2013).