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Sunday, May 17, A.D. 2009
Civilizational Despair

Cassandra Goldman addresses the gnawing dread that traditionalists feel concerning the modern world in her recent post, “What is to be done?” As Goldman points out, there is no horizontal salvation in sight. Sober men like my friend Andrew like to remind us dyspeptic ones that the world has always been so. There is truth to Andrew’s equanimity. Since Cain, the affairs of mankind have always been deplorable. Yet, human beings have survived and have even managed to justify our race’s existence from time to time along the way.

I respond to Goldman’s post (slightly modified):

Melancholic thoughts, indeed. The despair would be even worse if so many conservatives (traditionalists) were not religious folk who store up their treasure in heaven.

Apart from its veracity, I sometimes wonder if such a measured resignation to/from/in/at the world is beneficial or detrimental to civilization. I really don’t know, but I think that the advantages to evaluating mortal life in a larger, transcendent framework outweigh the disadvantages. The materialist and horizontal Left may gain movement fuel from their “this is all that there is” attitude, channeling the natural human hunger for perfection and order into utopian, social engineering schemes, but I cannot help but think that what is false is ultimately disadvantageous. And I find materialism quite unconvincing. Moreover, when one believes that perfection, order, goodness, beauty, and truth are the really real, then it is easier to hope — and to love, both of which are useful motivation and sustenance.

I think of Tolkien’s line in The Return of the King about earthly evil not being able to mar the beauty of the stars:

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

Life is more than the decay that we see.

It is for this reason that traditionalists rightly abhor the wicked ways to achieve our aims, such as those mentioned beforehand. When the world is much more than the factual situation of any given moment, then utilitarian and consequentialist justifications for committing evil as a means toward the good fall apart.

Also, I agree that Protestantism is the spiritual side of modernity. I don’t know the causality (if Protestantism is the cause or the effect), but I suspect that it is an accompanying symptom of a greater rot. Already in the high medieval West, the seeds of materialism and secularism were germinating. I personally think that nominalism was the beginning of the end.

Lastly, you point out how we are trapped. Wither go we? I wish that the sci. fi. geeks were on to something and we could develop faster than light speed travel. The world has grown too small, too crowded, and too oppressive. It deadens the spirit. We need an escape (or a great culling by nature). Regardless, it will be painful.

Like Goldman, I think that our time is worse. Never before have so many been so wrong about so much, and never before have those confused and/or malicious people had so much power. Technological advances have raised the stakes of human error. The unraveling of modernity will likely result from its own self-destruction through its hybristic abuse of technology. It is a pity, though, that so much beauty and achievement must pass away with it.

Posted by Joseph on Sunday, May 17, Anno Domini 2009
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