Full text from Whole Number 17


Endgame: prolegomena to the Matter of the West



Perhaps part of what it means to be a Faustian civilization, as some have called the West — I would much rather call it Promethean or perhaps Icaran — is that its creative flame burns much brighter, but also and necessarily far briefer.

— Nicholas Strakon,
"Pride in the ruins, part 2: Thinned blood, lost bones,"
TLD 15, p. 6

Prolegomenon I

It is sometimes asserted that civilizations have a "life span," just as living organisms have. Let us suppose that that is true.

In that case, it is at least possible that Western civilization is now in a natural decline.

It does not follow from that supposition that we might as well all lie down and die. A man's life span is famously given as 70 years ("perhaps in strength even 80"). A 65-year-old does not lie down and die. Neither does a 90-year-old. Moreover, it is not defeatist for either of them to acknowledge his age or the state of his health. In fact, one who acts or even dresses younger than he is becomes a laughing stock.

If they are sensible and in good health (for their age), the elderly undertake activities appropriate to their age. They normally do not take up rock climbing or lacrosse. They normally do not attempt to start families. They do not invest in growth, as opposed to income, securities. And refraining from those activities is normally not regarded as defeatist.

If the West is in its declining years — if on its own terms it is more like a 70-year-old man than a 40-year-old one — it is foolish for its devotees to treat it as if it were in the prime of its life.

Therefore, if one wishes to address the question "What is to be done?" there must be some attempt to answer the related question "About what?" And in this case, the "what" calls for an analysis of the nature of this achingly beautiful culture that seems to be passing from our view. That analysis, in turn, calls for some estimate of its age.

The rub, of course, is trying to estimate the "age" of the West (or any other civilization while it is still functioning) without knowing what kind of life span might be appropriate to it. Western cultures are not, after all, as plentiful as human beings, so generalizations along such lines are difficult to come by.

But in that case, does it not at least make sense to attempt to answer the "what if" question: What if the West is already an old culture? If we cannot know its life span, does it not make sense for several courses of action to be taken? Those who believe that its present ailments are analogous to a disease or malady that is merely a temporary setback to a healthy man, not a sign of his slide into senescence, will undertake certain courses of action. Those who fear it is more like a last illness must investigate other courses.

The task, then, is threefold: to get a sense of what stage the West is in; to determine what kinds of action are appropriate to that stage; and then to undertake them.

Prolegomenon II

Now let us reject the "life span" theory of civilizations.

I take it as unarguable that Christianity has been integral to the history of the West. Without it, Western culture would be virtually unrecognizable to us. But some allege that Christianity is harmful or alien to the West; they hold that its catholic message of charity to all men for the sake of a God who loves all men must of necessity result in a fatal mixing of alien or inherently incompatible elements. If they are right, it follows that Western culture is inherently and cybernetically unstable.

Others may argue that Christianity is not at all a weakness in the West, but that the Industrial Revolution and its consequences are. But industrialization is as inherent in the West as anything may be said to be. The physics of the West and its approach to solving the problems of nature contain within themselves the seeds of the Industrial Revolution. Again, one simply cannot imagine what the West would be if the antecedents of the Industrial Revolution are not integral to it. If the Industrial Revolution has destroyed the West, then again, the West is inherently unstable.

Still others say that it is individualism and ardor for liberty that are destroying the West. But, again, both of these have characterized the West throughout its history. Without them, it is just impossible to project what a Western man would be. They, too, may be part of what the West means. And again, in that case, the West is a doomed culture.

And finally, if it is the growth of the nation-state, with all that that entails, including a ruling class and centralization or amassing of political power, that is destroying the West, we nevertheless must admit that the growth toward that end seems to have been part of the dynamics of the West for most — if not all — of its history. And again, we should have to contemplate the possibility that the destruction of the West comes from within itself, from its own nature.

If any of those hypotheses is true, then the conclusion is the same: the West is a doomed culture. And as in the "life span" analysis, it is not defeatist to arrive at that conclusion or to defend it.

And if the West is a doomed culture, then it makes sense to investigate whether the stage at which we find it is a natural, logically inevitable end stage, or a contingent period of setbacks and defeats that can eventually be reversed.

If it is the former, it is incumbent on those who love the West — as in the "life span" analysis — to determine what actions are appropriate to its stage and to take them, rather than take actions that might be more appropriate to a culture with the vigor of its prime still before it.


© 1997 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

What do you think of Neff's observation? If you'd like to see your brief comments posted on the site, please respond here.

All comments will be subject to the usual editing, and we will be looking for those that are the most thought-provoking, pro or con.

To the Ronn Neff contents page.

Notice  to visitors who came straight to this document from off site: You are deep in The Last Ditch. You should check out our home page and table of contents.
























One writer who talks of civilizations as organisms is Lawrence Brown (The Might of the West  [Washington: Joseph J. Binns, 1963]). For the purposes of this essay, I have in the back of my mind his distinguishing of the West from Classical civilization. [Back to text]