A century ago Oswald Spengler predicted the West’s undoing in The Decline of the West, says novelist and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth in UnHerd. It’s hard to argue with that prognosis “as nations angrily fragment, the Gulf Stream stutters, the supply chains choke up”. But what even is the West? It’s older than liberalism, leftism, conservatism or empire. For centuries, from our taxes to our moral duties, it was, in short, Christendom. “But Christendom died” – killed off not by an external enemy, but from within.
When a culture is stripped of its heart, the shape of everything changes: family, work, moral attitudes, the very existence of morals. Everything is “up for grabs”. And so, welcome to 2021. We are living amid Christendom’s beautiful ruins – cathedrals and Bach concertos, ghosts of the old sacred order. We should expect lasting upheaval at every level of society, “from the level of politics to the level of the soul”.
Our empty throne has been filled, after a bloody detour via Hitler and Stalin, by money, which has “splintered our culture and our souls into a million angry shards”. The post-Christian West isn’t short on “world-saving” ideas, arguments and stratagems. But it is short on saints; and how we need their love, wisdom, discipline and stillness in these chaotic times. “Maybe we had better start looking at how to embody a little of these qualities ourselves.”
🏝 🍆 🍽 💔 Philosopher Alasdair Macintyre saw the “partial, empty and over-rational humanism” of the Enlightenment as a poor replacement for the “mythic vision of medieval Christendom”, says Kingsnorth. Perhaps civilisation needs values that aren’t entirely rational to bind it together. When Captain Cook’s men arrived on the shores of Polynesia, Macintyre observed, they were astonished by the contrast between the “lax sexual habits” of the Polynesians and their strict prohibition of men and women eating together. The incongruity seemed baffling, and slowly, one by one, the old taboos and rituals were abandoned, the beliefs behind them long forgotten. But instead of bringing some abstract “freedom”, their loss created a “moral vacuum” and stripped the culture of its heart.
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