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Friday, October 1, 1999

Staring into Chaos: Explorations in the Decline of Western Civilization

A Competent and Congenial Guide

The right is temperamentally pessimistic. The left is philosophically nihilistic. Both camps have long tended to see the West as culturally decadent, a civilization in decline. So it is odd that, for decades, virtually every major English-language reference work in the social sciences included articles about progress, but not its opposite. It was as though Americans were reluctant to give the imprimatur to decadence and decline as major categories of thought. One had to look to the French for scholarship on decadence—perhaps because they have had more firsthand experience with it than Americans.

Only in recent years has cultural pessimism received the attention it deserves on this side of the Atlantic. After all, one cannot do serious intellectual history without confronting the pessimism of Nietzsche, Burckhardt, Darwin, and legions of other theorists of decline since the Renaissance. Their works are so numerous as to constitute a veritable type of literature, what I call the “decline-of-the-West” genre.

Because English-language surveys of that genre have been few and far between, it is a pleasure to discover B. G. Brander’s most recent book, Staring into Chaos: Explorations in the Decline of Western Civilization. Brander is a full-time writer and a former editor for National Geographic—not the typical credentials for a student of cultural pessimism. Yet it is precisely because Brander is a layman who has escaped the perils of academic specialization that he is able to read the classic statements of the decline of the West from a fresh perspective.

Brander is clear about his purpose from the outset, and readers should be too. He aims to “distill the insights of more than two-dozen thinkers into this single volume. . . . Where writers contributed whole books on the topic, I offer concise digests of their works.” Thus Brander’s book, while not categorized as such, functions as a reference work that will give readers a crash course in the decline-of-the-West literature.

Early chapters introduce notions of cultural decadence and civilizational decline in the thought of Albert Schweitzer, Nikolai Berdyaev, Ernst von Lasaulx, Nikolai Danilevsky, and Henry and Brooks Adams, among others. Brander then trains his sights on three twentieth-century giants of the genre—Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Pitirim Sorokin (to whose memory the book is dedicated). In some 400 pages of text, Brander devotes about 100 pages to each one of these three, ably surveying their works and making them accessible to the educated lay public.

Readers of this magazine will find much of interest in all three, but perhaps most of all Sorokin because of his concern over the fate of freedom and the rule of law. Sorokin, a Harvard sociologist, was already arguing in the 1930s that the West was undergoing one of the greatest transitions in history. Brander encapsulates some of Sorokin’s predictions: “Governments will turn increasingly fraudulent and tyrannical. Contracts and covenants will lose binding power and contractual society will collapse. Democracy, capitalism, and [our] free society of free people will be swept away. Freedom will become a mere myth for the majority of people, whom centralized governments will deal with as puppets. Meanwhile, the dominant majority will turn their freedom into unbridled licentiousness.” And this: “Private educational institutions will lose autonomy from government control and diminish in favor of public or state-controlled schools.” Prescient.

One question that inevitably arises in a survey is why certain thinkers were not included or were given only cameo roles. Christopher Dawson, for example, qualifies as one of the twentieth century’s most insightful historians and theorists of decline. Brander, however, cites him only once in the text, and then fleetingly, and lists none of his books in the bibliography. Perhaps this oversight will be addressed in a later edition.

As we approach the millennium, many will seek to understand the signs of the times; many will have premonitions of decline. They would do well to go behind the culture wars of the present day and seek perspective through the provocative historical and social analysis of these giants. In Brander, they will find a competent and congenial guide.

Gleaves Whitney is chief speechwriter for Michigan Governor John Engler, senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, and the senior scholar of the Center for the American Idea.