Scott Alexander on the Decline of Culture

From Scott Alexander’s Tumblr:

voximperatoris:

[This post is copied over from Stephen Hicks.]

An instructive series of quotations, collected over the years, on the theme of pessimism about the present in relation to the past:

Plato, 360 BCE: “In that country [Egypt] arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as pleasure and amusement. I have late in life heard with amazement of our ignorance in these matters [science in general]; to me we appear to be more like pigs than men, and I am quite ashamed, not only of myself, but of all Greeks.” (Laws, Book VII)

Catullus, c. 60 BCE: “Oh, this age! How tasteless and ill-bred it is!”

Sallust, 86– c. 35 BCE: “to speak of the morals of our country, the nature of my theme seems to suggest that I go farther back and give a brief account of the institutions of our forefathers in peace and in war, how they governed the commonwealth, how great it was when they bequeathed it to us, and how by gradual changes it has ceased to be the noblest and best, and has become the worst and most vicious.” About Rome’s forefathers: “good morals were cultivated at home and in the field; there was the greatest harmony and little or no avarice; justice and probity prevailed among them.” They “adorned the shrines of the gods with piety, their own homes with glory, while from the vanquished they took naught save the power of doing harm.” But Rome now is a moral mess: “The men of to‑day, on the contrary, basest of creatures, with supreme wickedness are robbing our allies of all that those heroes in the hour of victory had left them; they act as though the one and only way to rule were to wrong.” (The Catiline War)

Horace, c. 23-13 BCE: “Our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begot us who are viler still, and we shall bring forth a progeny more degenerate still.” (Odes 3:6)

Alberti, 1436: Nature is no longer producing great intellects — “or giants which in her youthful and more glorious days she had produced so marvelously and abundantly.” (On Painting)

Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1620: “For what else can our degenerate race do in this age of error. Our lowly disposition keeps us close to the ground, and we have declined from that heroic genius and judgment of the ancients.”

Mary Wollstonecraft, c. 1790: “As from the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind.”

William Wordsworth, 1802:
“Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”
(“London”)

John Stuart Mill, in 1859, speaking of his generation: “the present low state of the human mind.” (On Liberty, Chapter 3)

Friedrich Nietzsche, in 1871: “What else, in the desolate waste of present-day culture, holds any promise of a sound, healthy future? In vain we look for a single powerfully branching root, a spot of earth that is fruitful: we see only dust, sand, dullness, and languor” (Birth of Tragedy, Section 20).

Frederick Taylor, 1911: “We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight.” (Scientific Management)

T. S. Eliot, c. 1925: “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.”

So has the world really been in constant decline? Or perhaps, as Gibbon put it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): “There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.”

Words to keep in mind as we try to assess objectively our own generation’s serious problems.

I hate this argument. It’s the only time I ever see “Every single person from history has always believed that X is true” used as an argument *against* X.

I mean, imagine that I listed Thomas Aquinas as saying “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades,” and then Leonardo da Vinci, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades”. Benjamin Franklin, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades”. Abraham Lincon, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades. Henry Ford, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades.”

My conclusion – people who think technology is advancing now are silly, there’s just some human bias toward always believing technology is advancing.

In the same way technology can always be advancing, culture can always be declining, for certain definitions of culture that emphasize the parts less compatible with modern society. Like technology, this isn’t a monotonic process – there will be disruptions every time one civilization collapses and a new one begins, and occasional conscious attempts by whole societies to reverse the trend, but in general, given movement from time t to time t+1, people can correctly notice cultural decline.

I mean, really. If, like Nietszche, your thing is the BRUTE STRENGTH of the valiant warrior, do you think that the modern office worker has exactly as much valiant warrior spirit as the 19th century frontiersman? Do you think the 19th century frontiersman had as much as the medieval crusader? Do you think the medieval crusader had as much as the Spartans? Pinker says the world is going from a state of violence to a state of security, and the flip side of that is people getting, on average, more domesticated and having less of the wild free spirit that Nietszche idealized.

Likewise, when people talk about “virtue”, a lot of the time they’re talking about chastity and willingness to remain faithful in a monogamous marriage for the purpose of procreation. And a lot of the time they don’t even mean actual chastity, they mean vocal public support for chastity and social norms demanding it. Do you really believe our culture has as much of that as previous cultures do? Remember, the sort of sharia law stuff that we find so abhorrent and misogynist was considered progressive during Mohammed’s time, and with good reason.

I would even argue that Alberti is right about genius. There are certain forms of genius that modern society selects for and certain ones it selects against. Remember, before writing became common, the Greek bards would have mostly memorized Homer. I think about the doctors of past ages, who had amazing ability to detect symptoms with the naked eye in a way that almost nobody now can match because we use CT scan instead and there’s no reason to learn this art. (Also, I think modern doctors have much fewer total hours of training than older doctors, because as bad as today’s workplace-protection/no-overtime rules are, theirs were worse)

And really? Using the fact that some guy complained of soil erosion as proof that nobody’s complaints are ever valid? Soil erosion is a real thing, it’s bad, and AFAIK it does indeed keep getting worse.

More controversially, if T.S. Eliot wants to look at a world that over four hundred years, went from the Renaissance masters to modern art, I am totally okay with him calling that a terrible cultural decline.

Scott’s argument is plausible, although he seems somewhat confused insofar as he appears to associate Mohammed with monogamy. And since we are discussing the matter with an interlocutor who maintains that the decline of culture is obvious, we will concede the point immediately. Scott seems a bit ambivalent in regard to whether a declining culture is a bad thing, but we will concede that as well, other things being equal.

However, we do not clearly see an answer here to one of the questions raised in the last post: if culture tends to decline, why does this happen? Scott seems to suggest an answer when he says, “Culture can always be declining, for certain definitions of culture that emphasize the parts less compatible with modern society.” According to this, culture tends to decline because it becomes incompatible with modern society. The problem with this is that it seems to be a “moronic pseudo-reason”: 2017 is just one year among others. So no parts of culture should be less compatible with life in 2017, than with life in 1017, or in any other year. Chesterton makes a similar argument:

We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be. And for my present purpose I specially insist on this abstract independence. If I am to discuss what is wrong, one of the first things that are wrong is this: the deep and silent modern assumption that past things have become impossible. There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, “You can’t put the clock back.” The simple and obvious answer is “You can.” A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.

There is another proverb, “As you have made your bed, so you must lie on it”; which again is simply a lie. If I have made my bed uncomfortable, please God I will make it again. We could restore the Heptarchy or the stage coaches if we chose. It might take some time to do, and it might be very inadvisable to do it; but certainly it is not impossible as bringing back last Friday is impossible. This is, as I say, the first freedom that I claim: the freedom to restore. I claim a right to propose as a solution the old patriarchal system of a Highland clan, if that should seem to eliminate the largest number of evils. It certainly would eliminate some evils; for instance, the unnatural sense of obeying cold and harsh strangers, mere bureaucrats and policemen. I claim the right to propose the complete independence of the small Greek or Italian towns, a sovereign city of Brixton or Brompton, if that seems the best way out of our troubles. It would be a way out of some of our troubles; we could not have in a small state, for instance, those enormous illusions about men or measures which are nourished by the great national or international newspapers. You could not persuade a city state that Mr. Beit was an Englishman, or Mr. Dillon a desperado, any more than you could persuade a Hampshire Village that the village drunkard was a teetotaller or the village idiot a statesman. Nevertheless, I do not as a fact propose that the Browns and the Smiths should be collected under separate tartans. Nor do I even propose that Clapham should declare its independence. I merely declare my independence. I merely claim my choice of all the tools in the universe; and I shall not admit that any of them are blunted merely because they have been used.

Remarriage and What People Know

Earlier I argued, somewhat in passing, that integralism is false. Responding to the point about the Church’s teaching on marriage, P. Edmund Waldstein responds:

Leaving aside questions of the differences between supernatural faith and natural knowledge of the natural law, I would respond to my anonymous friend by saying that a truth need not be “obvious” in every sense for it to be blameworthy for someone not to know it. Consider St. Paul’s famous words in the Epistle to the Romans:

For from heaven is revealed the anger of God against all the impiety and unrighteousness of people who in their unrighteousness suppress the truth; since what can be known about God is plain to them because God made it plain to them. Since the creation of the world, what is his and invisible, his eternal power and divinity, has been perceived by the mind through what he has made, so that they have no excuse; because, while knowing God, they did not glorify or thank him as God, but they were be­guiled in their reasonings and their uncomprehending hearts were made dark. (Romans 1:18-21)

Now, the existence of God is surely not “obvious” to the gentiles in the sense employed by Entirely Useless. Their minds are darkened by sin, and so it is difficult for them to see the truth. But St. Paul teaches that this darkening by sin is blameworthy, and can be overcome. As I wrote in my letter to Cardinal Schönborn:

It is possible for conscience in the sense of the particular judgment about what is good to be in error. It is even possible to be habitually in error about the moral good. But there is something indelible about conscience in the sense of synderesis, the knowledge of the good that God has inscribed in our hearts. Hence moral error always includes an element of “suppressing the truth” (cf. Romans 1:18) that gives witness against us in the depths of the soul.

This is why, contra Fr. Häring, it is important to insist on the objective norm, which the person is capable of recognizing. One can even exert “pressure,” not to make someone act against their conscience, but rather to correct the judgement of their erring conscience by reminding them of the truth that is engraved by synderesis in the depths of their heart.

The idea is that whatever the status of Catholic doctrine in general, people are blameworthy if they do not believe that divorce and remarriage, while the previous spouse remains alive, is wrong, because this is a matter of the natural law.

Whether this is actually the case is debatable. The supplement to St. Thomas’s Summa states:

I answer that, As stated above (Article 1, Replies to 7 and 8), plurality of wives is said to be against the natural law, not as regards its first precepts, but as regards the secondary precepts, which like conclusions are drawn from its first precepts. Since, however, human acts must needs vary according to the various conditions of persons, times, and other circumstances, the aforesaid conclusions do not proceed from the first precepts of the natural law, so as to be binding in all cases, but only in the majority. for such is the entire matter of Ethics according to the Philosopher (Ethic. i, 3,7). Hence, when they cease to be binding, it is lawful to disregard them. But because it is not easy to determine the above variations, it belongs exclusively to him from whose authority he derives its binding force to permit the non-observance of the law in those cases to which the force of the law ought not to extend, and this permission is called a dispensation. Now the law prescribing the one wife was framed not by man but by God, nor was it ever given by word or in writing, but was imprinted on the heart, like other things belonging in any way to the natural law. Consequently a dispensation in this matter could be granted by God alone through an inward inspiration, vouchsafed originally to the holy patriarchs, and by their example continued to others, at a time when it behooved the aforesaid precept not to be observed, in order to ensure the multiplication of the offspring to be brought up in the worship of God. For the principal end is ever to be borne in mind before the secondary end. Wherefore, since the good of the offspring is the principal end of marriage, it behooved to disregard for a time the impediment that might arise to the secondary ends, when it was necessary for the offspring to be multiplied; because it was for the removal of this impediment that the precept forbidding a plurality of wives was framed, as stated above (Article 1).

Now it is true that the argument here is that such a dispensation was granted through “inward inspiration.” But if someone can believe this without being blameworthy, it is likely that someone can also believe that such a dispensation can be given by those who have care for the common good, namely the state. Furthermore, this concerns polygamy as such, and if it is believable that polygamy can be acceptable by dispensation, much more is it believable that remarriage after divorce can be acceptable by dispensation, since most of the harm that is done by polygamy is not evidently done in this case. And St. Paul in fact grants such a dispensation in some cases.

But let us set this aside. Whether or not something is against the natural law, and in what sense, is a technical question. The question which is actually relevant to our discussion is not technical at all. It is this: can someone believe that such a remarriage, while the previous spouse is alive, is acceptable, without being blinded by sin?

And put in this way, it is evident that some people can and do believe this, without being blinded by sin. For example, to assert that no one can believe this without being blinded by sin, implies that virtually all of the Orthodox are blinded by sin, since most of them believe that remarriage is sometimes acceptable. Now it might be reasonable to say that they are “blinded by sin” in a generic sense, if one meant to say that they are blinded by their religion and culture, and that the defects in these resulted from sin, but it would not reasonable to attribute their error to personal sin.

As another example, we can consider the reaction of the disciples in the Gospels to the teaching of Christ:

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

If someone who is blinded by sin is confronted with their error, anger is a plausible reaction, but the kind of questioning in the passage, as well as the surprise indicated in the response that in this case, “It is better not to marry,” indicates rather an honest belief.

P. Edmund might well respond that the situation of the Orthodox, or of the disciples, is very different from the position of Catholics in the present day Catholic Church. And this is indeed the case, and it is quite plausible that many divorced and remarried Catholics are “blinded by sin,” or in other words, that their belief that their behavior is reasonable is a motivated belief, and more so than other beliefs. This is why I noted that Pope Francis may have chosen a singularly bad case to make his point. Nonetheless, these Catholics also live in a culture that finds remarriage acceptable, and in a Church in which the majority of professing members have significant disagreements with the teaching of that Church. So there is little reason to doubt that there are some who are no more blinded than the Orthodox or than the disciples of Christ.

Even if there were not, however, the larger point in that post about integralism, and about doctrinal disagreement within the Church, would remain.