It’s common to hear historians and laypersons alike express the notion that history is linearly moving in a positive direction, that is: society is gradually improving upon itself through social, political and cultural upheavals which culminate in the incessant improvement of the human condition, asymptotically approaching nothing short of utopia. But modernity has its price. The fruits of the modern world can only blossom from the corpse of the traditional world, the consequences of which few have foreseen. Individualism became contiguous with atomization, freedom with decadence, secularism with moral relativism and spiritual desolation. What is considered progress by some can also be described as decay by others.
The crisis of the modern world is not economic or political but is in essence spiritual. This crisis is exacerbated by industrialization and the social changes it inevitably brings however the crisis originates in the culture from which it is also disseminated. The modern world has liberated the individual from the shackles of tradition; the decay of the nuclear family and institutionalized religion has broken the chain tethering the individual to their community, culture and heritage setting them violently adrift into the void of radical individualism and freedom. The dismantlement of authority and hierarchy which emanated from the Church has set the individual morally adrift, resulting in the highest moral good being the gratification of appetites and finding your true “authentic” self without reference to family or community. While church attendance is declining and congregations are aging, new manufactured communities are taking their place which offer wholesome values like the furry community or the gay community. The modern individual no longer has to endure being bound to communities for which their membership is inadvertent, they can choose their own communities as if humans were replaceable parts. It just so happens that in modern times, these manufactured communities indulge the individual’s every decadent desire. And why should you be shamed for desiring to wear an adult diaper over your furry costume? It is 2016 after all.
And yet, even with every desire satisfied, the number of Americans who have no close friends to confide in has tripled to 25% between 1985 to 2004 according to a study conducted at Duke University and the number of Americans living alone is higher than at any point in history. According to a CDC report the number of Americans taking antidepressants has increased 400% between 1988 and 2008. The modern individual finds himself in utter spiritual and physical isolation, always seeking something which cannot be articulated but its absence is felt; it leaves a chasm in their soul which the wonders and delights of the modern world cannot fill.
Edmund Burke said “Society … it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Yet in modern times, the living exist autonomously, unconstrained by the traditions of a once great civilization and no longer beholden to family and community. The idea that the individual is the irreducible, atomic unit of society and that the protection of individual or natural rights is the highest good a society can aim to, necessarily creates the conditions for a “permanent social revolution” against the past because any constraints placed on the individual that would inhibit these inalienable rights must be abolished for the sake of progress. What is good is simply what the individual desires and what is evil is that which inhibits those desires.
The collapse of communal identity and the emergence of the individual has heralded the decline of not only traditional institutions, but has fostered an incredulity towards the legitimacy of traditional authority. The Protestant Reformation opened the floodgates of subjectivity, leading to the complete evaporation of the hierarchy of moral authority the Church once sat atop, unintentionally leading to the moral decline and secularization of the West. Christopher Dawson wrote that “Christianity is the soul of Western civilization, and when the soul is gone the body putrefies.” Christianity provided a sense of direction, a sense of purpose for Western civilization and its decline has left generations aimlessly wandering a dangerous landscape without a moral compass. Whittaker Chambers writes: “History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that have become indifferent to God and died.” This spiritual crisis has led the modern world, like the Roman Empire before it, to peddle nihilistic hedonism as salvation, degeneracy as freedom and welcoming barbarian hordes to live amongst them.
Roman Emperor Caracalla issued Constitutio Antoniniana in 212 AD granting Roman citizenship to all residents of the Roman Empire, dealing a death blow to what little remained of traditional Roman identity. The deconstruction of Roman identity compounded by moral degradation lead to the collapse of the distinction of in-group and out-group, soon Roman institutions like the military solely consisted of barbarian outsiders who held no allegiance to Rome. Furthermore, studies have shown that multicultural communities have substantially less social cohesion, trust and social capital than homogenous communities. Every multicultural society in history from the Roman Empire to South Africa has collapsed under the weight of its own internal ethnic conflicts, not from invading armies. As historian Arnold Toynbee solemnly notes “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”
Modern cities have given rise to conditions of moral anonymity in that the sense of community is largely diminished, detaching moral consequences from the interactions among the cities inhabitants. Without the consequence of moral condemnation or ostracization from the community, individuals can indulge in their basest desires without consideration of upholding family status, or damaging the cohesion of the post-hoc community that is the modern city. Once the individual is emancipated from the “tyranny” of tradition and family, and are convinced that moral weight of their actions burden them alone, the rot sets into the roots of the community and decays it from inside out. The process of moral decay creates a feedback loop, continuously opening the door to ever more decadent, hedonistic pursuits. To center one’s life around satisfying fleeting appetites is like drinking salt water, it temporarily quenches the thirst but in the end leaves one more dehydrated than before, and Americans are indeed spiritually dehydrated as the modern world cannot provide the spiritual fulfillment we require. While behaviors consisting of avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure are conducive to survival in a biological sense, rationality endows us with higher values that one ought to aspire to in order to live a fulfilling, virtuous life. Aristotle notes: “One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.” Which is not to say that happiness should be an end, but that individuals who take the route of hedonic experience to fulfill their lives end up empty in the end.
But surely permissive attitudes towards sexual deviancy affect no one but the consenting parties, right? In 1944 the percentage of white babies born out of wedlock was just 2%, twenty-five years later in 1969 it has risen to 5.5% and by 1994 it had risen to 25.4%. In just fifty years white illegitimate births increased by 1170%, and today more than half of all births in the US take place out of wedlock. It is important to note that there was a time in history when single mothers were committed to mental institutions called Magdalene Asylums which demonstrates just how intolerant we were of single motherhood not too long ago, and yet today single mothers are venerated to near sainthood. The conditions which lead to the exponential increase in single motherhood have been examined at length, but it’s worth mentioning that the disintegration of the traditional community which once played a distinct role in condemning this type of behavior has utterly evaporated. The “moral community” as it were no longer has the confidence in its own moral righteousness to shame destructive behavior. This inevitably results in permissive attitudes towards sexual deviancy and degeneracy which further reinforces the spiritual desolation and atomization of the community. Regarding Roman society, historian Tom Holland notes: “Without custom there could be no shame, and without shame anything became possible.”
For ancient Roman citizens, exile from the Roman community was the harshest punishment one could endure aside from death. Exiled citizens, in order to escape legal penalties, were given the option to leave their community in shame and have their property confiscated. On Ovid’s exile, he wrote “Where’s the joy in stabbing your steel into my dead flesh? There’s no place left where I can be dealt fresh wounds.” To be stripped of Roman citizenship was the greatest source of shame for a citizen as citizenship was the bedrock of their identity and honor. Without the function of ostracization that the community serves, individuals who engage in self-destructive and deviant behaviors justify their behavior by proclaiming that their deviance affects no one, that what they do is no one’s business as long as everyone is consenting. For example, Stefonknee Wolschtt, a transgender man from Toronto, ended his 23 year marriage and abandoned his seven children to become a six year old girl, noting that “I can’t deny I was married. I can’t deny I have children. But I’ve moved forward now and I’ve gone back to being a child.” On the day of his daughter’s wedding, he attempted suicide. How inspiring.
Clearly, Mr. Wolschtt’s decision to “discover himself” has absolutely no affect on the people around him. It is not Mr. Wolschtt who has the problem, obviously society ought to change to address his needs and desires – which is what degenerates hope to ultimately achieve, for society to not only accept but to celebrate their deviancy, their brave hedonistic pursuit of fulfilling their worldly desires no matter how decadent and depraved.
Social contract theory assumes the individual to be primordial and society to be an emergent property of individual interactions seeking to maximize their utility, which in turn leads to the rational decision to form groups and cooperate. However, history has revealed the process of group cooperation to be much more organic in that every human society organizes itself communally, not simply to serve the primitive function of safety in numbers, but that individuals have always found meaning and purpose belonging to communities. This is not to say community is an end in of itself, but that it is a means or vehicle for self-actualization; the concept of the individual emerges from the community. D.H. Lawrence wrote that “Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose.”
The community satiates the need in man for belonging, for a purpose that transcends himself and which can only be realized in relation to the other. It’s one of the most basic expressions of human nature and its loss is perhaps more cataclysmic and profound than any other disease afflicting Western civilization. The desire for belonging and purpose does not vanish along with the disappearance of the community. As Robert Nisbet writes in The Quest for Community, “Release man from the contexts of community and you get not freedom and rights, but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demonic fears and passions.“