Are Culture Wars a Symptom of Western Decline?

Victory Arch of Emperor Constantine

The victory arch of Roman emperor Constantine. The arch once symbolized spectacular victory — there are many examples in European cities — but its shape does suggest a process of rise and inevitable fall. (Image: public domain.)

When I was a young man, a popular topic for intellectuals was the decline of the West. As liberal ideas spread and moral standards declined, many writers drew parallels with the Roman Empire in its last days. German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler had popularized the notion in the 1920s. By the late 20th century, with the complete triumph of the left, the idea had fallen from favour.

As Winston Churchill said, “history is written by the victors.” Today, we see the left rewriting Western history and those who cause a decline seldom see reason to find fault with their role in it. As it happens, the left does not see a decline at all, only an incomplete change to leftist outlooks, values, and policies.

Yet there are still a few rumblings of dissent. Arguably, the American “culture war” is actually recognition on the part of the political right that things are going badly wrong. The Tea Party objects to the left’s obsession with more and larger government. It decries bureaucratic waste and crippling levels of social spending. The US government is seen by many on both sides of the political debate as being “broken.” Europe spirals into debt-ridden depression. Social critics are legion on both sides of the Atlantic.

I believe the idea of decline has begun to manifest itself symbolically, specifically in the image of the arch. American psychologist James Hillman in The Soul’s Code and Polish composer Henryk Górecki in his rhythmic and memorable Symphony of Sorrowful Songs seem preoccupied with the idea of the arch. Hillman sees life as a rise towards the heights of achievement followed by a settling down to pursuits that are more mundane. Górecki conceives his spiritually inspired compositions to be musical representations of the church or temple arch. I believe both men are incorporating a visible truth in their work. Liberal democracy, with its mindless pursuit of the lowest common denominator (enshrined as “egalitarianism”), has trivialized Western civilization. The West has long since reached its peak and is now in steep decline.

Hillman spells this out explicitly in his book, which he offers as a remedy. That is, he believes the widespread adoption of his notion of a divine personal Fate would turn things around by providing the West with Jungian-based spiritual values. While I share Hillman’s concerns, I cannot agree that restoring a superstitious belief in Fate is an answer. Interestingly, Tony Blankley, in his famous work, The West’s Last Chance, also offers a return to religious belief — albeit in a more traditional form — as a remedy for what ails the West. This proposal seems equally unrealistic.

Whether Górecki was conscious of the West’s decline, I could not say, but I am certain he sensed it at some level. His sorrowful symphony was inspired by Nazi (National Socialist) and Gestapo torture of prisoners. His work also has a spiritual aspect and when speaking of his surprisingly popular symphony he said, “Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music […] somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed.” He is definitely indicating a subconscious assessment of his times.

Only at the end of a civilization does the arch-like shape of its rise and fall become visible, and even then, only to those willing to see. The conservative thinkers and artists of our time are taking note of the worsening situation. Ideology blinds the left.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

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