Talk of decline and decay abounds as the twenty-first century opens. Political commentators note the ever-decreasing percentage of eligible voters who actually cast ballots. Communitarians lay a steady decrease in public involvement and civic-mindedness squarely at the feet of an increasingly predominant liberal ethic that, in their view, sanctions selfish individualism and personal gratification. A number of prominent religious commentators view the rise of a “neutral state”—the gradual removal of religious imagery and rhetoric from the public square—as sparking a steady decline in the nation’s moral (and thus political) character. Environmentalists often view the rise of modern science as initiating the steady decline of harmonious relationships between the Earth and its people. The ubiquitous nature of such decline narratives in both popular and academic circles makes a closer examination of them both timely and important.
The decline narrative itself is perennial, of course. Hesiod lamented his birth among the “iron” as opposed to the lost “golden” race in the eighth century BC. A number of Roman commentators blamed the rise of Christianity—the turning away of their society from its traditional religious foundations— for the empire’s decline and fall. Rousseau’s Second Discourse traced the decline of “natural” man at the hands of the “civilizing” process. In the twentieth century, Spengler’s monumental Decline of the West provided testimony to the continuing power of the declinist approach to social and political life.
My attention is more specifically directed at a subset of contemporary decline narratives that I shall call “narratives of liberal decay.” These accounts of contemporary society trace its ills to something peculiarly modern, generally called “liberalism” (as the political corollary of “the Enlightenment”) when assessing responsibility for cultural, political, and moral decay. Such narratives generally view modernity as beginning in the seventeenth century, focusing on the Scientific Revolution or the important philosophical figures of Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Newton. I argue that contemporary narratives of liberal decay present an inversion of what is commonly called “Whig history,” an outlook on the writing and interpretation of history that motivated Herbert Butterfield’s famous polemic more than seventy years ago. Whig thinkers, to generalize, view history as gradually but inevitably progressive and trace the growth of individual liberty and constitutional government from humble beginnings to their flowering in the modern age, triumphing over the resistance of kings, popes, bishops, and aristocrats. Those who invert Whig history, on the other hand, see not progress, but decline; liberal ideas as the motor, not of human improvement, but of creeping alienation and the death of community and real citizenship; the “founders” of modernity not as heroes but as villains. Both Whigs and their inverters, though, agree about the linear directionality of history, the appropriateness of judging the past by contemporary standards, and the role of the historian as moral judge.
What is Whig History?
The most trenchant exploration (and critique) of the phenomenon of Whig history is provided by Herbert Butterfield in The Whig Interpretation of History, a work that appeared over seventy years ago but remains keenly relevant to the writing of history. Butterfield uses the term “Whig history” to denote a common mode of historical writing that is intensely and inherently present-centered (a “study of the past with direct and perpetual reference to the present” (Butterfield, 11)), subscribes to a notion of historical progress, and presents history as a clash between good and evil, passing moral judgments on historical figures and developments.
Whig history tells a tale that is centered in and constantly points to the present. What differentiates Whig history from more genuine historical work (by which he means the attempt to understand the coherence of the past on its own terms), says Butterfield, is that this present-centeredness causes the historian to overlook the complex and often-circuitous nature of the interactions between past and present. Instead, the Whig historian looks for “roots” or “anticipations” of contemporary ideas and practices (18). In Quentin Skinner’s words, “the tendency to search for approximations to the ideal type yields a form of non-history which is almost entirely given over to pointing out earlier ‘anticipations’ of later doctrines, and to crediting each writer in terms of this clairvoyance” (Skinner, 11; see also 9).
Thus the Whig historian inevitably leads a “quest for origins” more interested in identifying supposed precursors to liberal ideas than in understanding, in all its richness and complexity, the muddled ways in which past leads to present (Butterfield, 43). Certainly when one goes looking for such anticipations, one can find them, or rather create them. Medieval conciliarists were proto-social contractarians. The Reformation sought to assert the sovereignty of individual conscience, and so on. In Butterfield’s view, the Whig historian too often forgets that he or she is creating, not merely tracing, this purported line of development, and we are left with a crude view of historical figures and texts, with subsequent commentators positing meanings that the figures under consideration could not conceivably have meant to propose, and which may have only the most tenuous relationship to the affairs of the time in which the texts were produced.
Not only do these processes—“line-drawing” through history and the search for anticipations of later ideas—result in abbreviated, abridged accounts that gloss over vast differences to emphasize purported similarities, they also present an oversimplified version of the almost-inevitable triumph of currently prevalent ideals.
If we can exclude certain things on the ground that they have no direct bearing on the present, we have removed the most troublesome elements in the complexity and the crooked is made straight....By seizing upon those personages and parties in the past whose ideas seem the more analogous to our own, and by setting these out in contrast with the rest of the stuff of history, [the Whig historian] has his organization and abridgment of history ready-made and has a clean path through the complexity (25, 29).
This glorification of the present at the expense of the past, of course, is part and parcel of theories of progress (v). The notion of progress is fundamental to Whig history: the contemporary era is not merely the product of historical change, but of historical improvement. The task of the Whig historian then becomes to elucidate within the historical record those thinkers and actors who have helped us reach our privileged position.
The present-centeredness of Whig history combines with the notion of progress, leading the historian to “[classify] historical personages...into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it...” (11). This classification produces a third feature of Whig history, the tendency to pass moral judgments on historical figures. When we consider both the present-centeredness and the progress narrative inherent in Whig history, it becomes apparent what sorts of judgments are most likely to emerge: ones that suggest “the modern world...[emerged] as the victory of the children of light over the children of darkness...” (28). Thus Whig history is in fact the antithesis of an attempt at genuine historical understanding, “the result of the practice of abstracting things from their historical context and judging them apart from their context—estimating them and organizing the historical story by a system of direct reference to the present” (30-31).
What is a Decline Narrative?
Several aspects of the decline narrative will be important for the analysis I put forward in this essay, and I shall outline them briefly here. First, of course, decline narratives are narratives, and thus they organize historical material into a story intended to teach a lesson or drive home a theme. Definitions of narrative are both widespread and widely varied, but Michael J. Toolan’s definition of narrative as “a perceived sequence of non-randomly connected events” is a worthwhile place to start (7, 4). Hayden White, who has done as much as any scholar to raise issues of narrative in historical inquiry, portrays narrative as, most basically, the imposition of story form on historical events or social reality: “narrativization produces a meaning quite different than that produced by chronicalization…the narrative serves to transform a list of historical events that would otherwise be only a chronicle into a story” (White 1984, 19–20; see also White 1987, 2). Donald E. Polkinghorne calls narrative “a scheme by means of which human beings give meaning to their experience of temporality and personal actions” (11). The definitional questions surrounding narrative have spawned a literature all their own, but I take the elements raised in this paragraph—an emphasis on storytelling, the stitching together of discrete events into a thematic account of meaningful change over time—as an appropriate starting point for this essay’s concerns.
With regard to the substance of these narratives, decline accounts identify a specific phenomenon or group of phenomena as central to understanding the contemporary social condition and as illustrative of the seriousness of contemporary decline. Declinists claim that contemporary society has gone badly wrong and offer vivid examples and/or statistics to back up these claims. Alongside claims about the prevalence of decline go claims about the causes thereof. The narratives of liberal decay I shall examine here extract specific features of something called “modernity” and its political and philosophical counterpart, liberalism, as the root cause of contemporary decline. Generally speaking, declinists ascribe causality to ideas. Although at times social, economic, or other material causes are included in their explanations, the declinists considered in this essay tend to see these features of contemporary society as the caused manifestations of wrongheaded ideas about human nature, society, or epistemology.
The identification of symptoms and causes of decline leads naturally to reflection on its timing. Decline narratives generally look to a time in the past that initiated the current decline and trace out the implications of these nefarious ideas as they are progressively realized in subsequent years. As mentioned above, the notion of “modernity” being associated with instrumental rationality or skeptical epistemologies leads many narratives of liberal decay to point to early modern natural science or moral philosophy for these beginnings. Others think the decline began more recently—the 1960s, for example. But all narratives of liberal decay suggest that degenerative potential is inherent in liberal modernity and awaits only a fortuitous set of circumstances to break forth.
Narratives of liberal decay thus present accounts of actual historical developments with an explicitly evaluative dimension, a normative or moral judgment. In important ways, critics aver, previous times were better; current times are worse. Of course, all narratives contain some organizing principle, a driving aim that structures the discussion and by which each author decides what gets included and what does not. After all, narratives represent ways in which human beings attempt to order events sensibly and coherently and in doing so are invariably drawn to reflect on the meaning and significance of historical changes. What differentiates decline narratives in this respect is the overt, explicit, and moralistic nature of those judgments. Declinists do not merely organize their accounts of historical developments around specific trends or organizational themes—the rise of technology, the influence of patriarchal ideas, or the growth of market economies, for example—but inherent to the decline account is an explicit condemnation of those developments. Social change has not been morally neutral or progressive, but represents a setback along important social dimensions.
Decline narratives thus present a notion of linear directionality in human affairs, insisting that society is moving steadily away from a desirable, and toward a recognizably inferior, state of affairs. Declinists often signal this linearity by using terms like “increasingly” and “more and more” when referring to undesirable outcomes (or, conversely, “less and less” in reference to desirable outcomes), as well as biological metaphors such as “atrophy” or “entropy,” and the more straightforward signifiers “declining,” “decaying,” “decadence,” or “degeneracy.” Sometimes the imagery is quite graphic, as when the authors of Habits of the Heart refer to contemporary individualism as “cancerous” (Bellah,vii) or when Robert Bork refers to “the spreading rot” of liberalism in today’s culture (153). Linear directionality, however, need not imply inevitability. Indeed, the rhetorical power of decline narratives lies largely in their exhortations to their audience to recognize the error of their ways, rectify the root problem that gave rise to the decline, and rededicate themselves to the values that will put their society back on the road to civic, moral, spiritual, or ecological health. But declinists hasten to point out that the situation is dire, the time for action now.
Narratives of Liberal Decay: A Few Examples
In what follows, I offer a few examples of the main categories in which narratives of liberal decay have appeared in recent years. These categorizations are meant to be heuristic and suggestive, not mutually exclusive, and certainly not exhaustive. I suspect, however, that the general outlines of the arguments will be familiar to readers.
The Environmental Narrative of Liberal Decay.
For many contemporary environmental thinkers, the notion of decline carries distinctly ecological overtones. Environmental theorists clearly identify a problem in the health of our natural environment, identify its ideological root in the past, and trace the destructive influence of those problematic ideas over time. The contemporary world, on this account, represents the culmination (or, more appropriately, the nadir) of a process that began with the Scientific Revolution in early modern Europe. The mechanistic worldview that took shape and became dominant during those years has become our governing scientific—indeed, social—metaphor, leading us to an increasingly alienated relationship with our natural world.
On this view, simply put, late twentieth-century society has “transgressed the limits [of the carrying capacity of the ecological commons] and ha[s] begun to destroy our life-support system” (Ophuls, 10). This ecological transgression takes many forms: global warming, destruction of the ozone layer, rampant pollution and deforestation, overpopulation, uncontrolled technology, unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels, and an increasingly fierce competition for increasingly scarce natural resources. Behind the physical decay, moreover, lies an existential sense of crisis. We no longer view nature as a “living being,” and thus the modern age has witnessed “the accelerated exploitation of both human and natural resources in the name of culture and progress” (Merchant, xxii). The destructive effect of contemporary humans on the environment—the outgrowth of this alienated relationship with our natural surroundings—has resulted in an ecological catastrophe that threatens our very existence.
What, specifically, has caused such damage to the natural environment and humans’ relationship with it? According to this environmental critique, the mechanistic paradigm characteristic of modern science has sanctioned (if not explicitly celebrated) the pillage of nature for human purposes and the exercise of human power and domination over nature. Ophuls stresses that “the mind-matter and man-nature dualism that is intrinsic to modern thought” represents the root of the ecological crisis we face, claiming that “the language of modern life is fundamentally anti-ecological,” and “few comprehend the degree to which ecology contradicts the modern way of life” (Ophuls, xi, 2). The modern scientific worldview championed by Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes that emerged in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, is largely to blame for our current ecological situation. In Carolyn Merchant’s words, “Between 1500 and 1700, the Western world began to take on features that, in the dominant opinion of today, would make it modern and progressive” (Merchant, xxiii). In these years, more specifically, “an incredible transformation took place...The world in which we live today was bequeathed to us by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz...” (Merchant, 288, 275). Fritjof Capra uses strikingly similar terminology: “Between 1500 and 1700 there was a dramatic shift in the way people pictured the world and in their whole way of thinking... The notion of an organic, living, and spiritual universe was replaced by that of the world as a machine, and the world-machine became the dominant metaphor of the modern era” (37–38). Recall too, that for such thinkers historical claims are evaluative claims, thus the previous holism and organicism that characterized society was superior in key ways to modern society. The “new mechanical order...and its associated values of power and control” replaced “animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos.” The result was, quite simply, “the death of nature... the most far-reaching effect of the Scientific Revolution” (Merchant, 190, 193). The organic philosophy prevalent in medieval Europe, for all its drawbacks, “placed people within rather than above nature” (Merchant, 83). From its earliest days, modern science has walked hand in hand with nascent capitalism, commercial values, and the destruction of nature.
Liberal Decay and the Decline of Community.
The decline of community has become a prominent theme in discussions about the state of contemporary American society. The core problem, according to communitarians, consists of a nexus of factors: the ever-increasing presence of individualistic, rights-oriented rhetoric within the citizenry; the corresponding decline of community cohesion, faith, and participation in government, and the notion of civic obligation; and the erosion of personal ties, particularly but not exclusively family and traditional communities. The National Commission on Civic Renewal, for example, laments the fact that “[t]oo many of us lack confidence in our capacity to make basic moral and civic judgments, to join with our neighbors to do the work of community, to make a difference....[This crisis of citizenship results in the] degradation of our civic environment.”
Such concerns are voiced by a wide variety of critics. As Sandel puts it, “two fears—for the loss of self-government and the erosion of community—together define the anxiety of the age” (3). Robert Bellah and his collaborators voice their concern that American individualism “may have grown cancerous—that it may be destroying those social integuments that Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities, that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself” (Bellah, 1985, vii). Amitai Etzioni describes a “society that increasingly threatens to become normless, self-centered, and driven by greed, special interests, and an unabashed quest for power” (1993, 254; see also 1996, chapter 1).
What lies at the heart of these pathologies? Sandel blames the “procedural republic” and “unencumbered selves”: a government dedicated to neutrality between citizens’competing conceptions of the good, and the individualistic notion of an antecedent, willing self independent of its claimed ends. Clearly the procedural republic represents the victory of a language of individualism over other, more corporate, traditions in American history. The rise of market capitalism undermines community cohesion and broader notions of obligation. In Henry Tam’s words, market individualism’s “cancerous effects on community life” creates a society in which “selfishness becomes a moral code” (3–4).
How did this state of affairs come to pass? Generally speaking, communitarians agree that “liberalism” as a school of thought, stretching back to the seventeenth century, set in place a destructive individualistic potential that was not immediately realized. Locke’s “radical philosophical defense of individual rights” became important due to his enormous influence in America, says Bellah (1985, 80). The communitarian narrative of liberal decay notes the connection between Lockean ideas and the emerging market system, agreeing with many environmental critics that liberalism and capitalism share coequal blame due to their closely interconnected hegemony over the modern world.
Furthermore, communitarians argue that the predominant individualist understanding of American freedom does not accurately represent either the theory or practice of American life for much of the nation’s history. In Bellah’s words,
[W]e have never been, and still are not, a collection of private individuals who, except for a conscious contract to create a minimal government, have nothing in common. Our lives make sense in a thousand ways, most of which we are unaware of, because of traditions that are centuries, if not millennia, old. It is these traditions that help us to know that it does make a difference who we are and how we treat one another (1985, 282).
Sandel argues that the more specific and troubling consequences of liberal thought—radical individualism and state neutrality—have arisen only in the past forty or fifty years. As Etzioni puts it, “Once, rights were very solemn moral/legal claims.” He lays responsibility for decline more recently, noting that no consensual values have emerged in American society in the wake of the widespread questioning and rebellion of the 1960s (Etzione 1993, 6, 24; see also 1996, Introduction).
Modernity’s Moral Decay: A Neoclassical Critique
The specific manifestations of contemporary decline are, according to the neoclassical critique, symptomatic of a deeper crisis in contemporary society: far more serious than the specific immoralities that dot our landscape, contemporary individuals have lost the capacity to talk meaningfully and consistently about—and take action on the basis of—morality itself. As opposed to classical philosophy, which emphasized such concepts as virtue, duty, and the common good, liberalism eschews a public vision and celebrates a hedonistic, instrumental morality. Our moral landscape is little more than “emotivism,” in which despite our protestations of rationality we consider moral arguments to be incommensurable statements of preference. In Leo Strauss’s words,
The original notion [of liberal democracy] was that this sovereign individual was a conscientious individual, the individual limited and guided by his conscience.... This change which has taken place and is still taking place may be called the decline of liberal democracy into permissive egalitarianism. Whereas the core of liberal democracy is the conscientious individual, the core of permissive egalitarianism is the individual with his urges....This is the moral decline which has taken place (Strauss 1972, 222–223).
According to this critique, modern liberalism’s rise and increasing hegemony have produced a society in which taking moral stands is virtually impossible. Modernity is, in effect, subjectivism writ large. Our sights are lowered, away from classical concerns about the best city and toward pragmatic and programmatic questions of practicality. According to one Aristotelian account, “talk about the common good has been all but abandoned” (Smith, 625).
Why have these things come to pass? The most fundamental reason, on this account, lies in the Enlightenment project itself, that formative philosophical undertaking that defines modernity. Enlightenment thinkers rejected the teleology inherent in classical thought, proclaiming a view of humans as preference-maximizers without any more transcendent goal than relatively short-term gratification. According to Alasdair MacIntyre, the effect of “the [Enlightenment’s] joint rejection of both Protestant and Catholic theology and the scientific and philosophical rejection of Aristotelianism was to eliminate any notion of man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos” (54).
[The history of contemporary moral crisis] cannot be told adequately apart from an account of the attempts to provide a rational justification for morality in that historical period—say from 1630 to 1850....A central thesis of this book is that the breakdown of this project provided the historical background against which the predicaments of our own culture can become intelligible (MacIntyre, 39).
In such a society, we note the tendency for impersonal bureaucracy, with its claims to dispassionate rationality, to displace democratic, deliberative, or nonscientific ways of proceeding.
This particular narrative of liberal decay, then, points to the Enlightenment project that attempted to ground morality solely on rationality, as destructive of a commitment to public virtue and the pursuit of excellence. The three waves of modernity identified by Strauss culminate in Nietzsche’s view that “all human life and human thought ultimately rests on horizon-forming creations which are not susceptible of rational legitimization” (1959, 56). Such a view of morality leaves us with no firm moral footing, with what MacIntyre calls an “emotivism” that cannot distinguish moral sentiments from expressions of preference. Modern liberalism initiates, and spurs on, moral decay.
The Spiritual Narrative of Liberal Decay
What is wrong with contemporary society in the eyes of those proposing a primarily spiritual account of liberal decay? Contemporary American society is awash in the fruits of a disordered spiritual condition; one might say “sin”: crime, divorce, illegitimacy, drug use, abortion, dishonesty, sexual libertinism, and so on. Richard John Neuhaus notes the
understandable reaction to the lethal liberationisms that reached their frenzied apex in the late sixties and early seventies. Drugs, cults, mass murders, the explosion in divorce, teen-age pregnancies, and abortion—all these have, in the eyes of conservatives, vindicated their warnings about the consequences of cultural decadence (1984, 140).
Traditional restraining and moderating institutions such as family, religion, morality, and law have been undermined progressively by a spreading radical individualism and egalitarianism that celebrates individual choice as its cardinal value, idealizing “the unconstrained self” (Bork, 125). This spreading individualism represents the loss of a formerly prevalent moral consensus. Divisive issues like obscene art, multiculturalism, and affirmative action highlight the deep cultural and political fissures that beset a society that once agreed on a basic moral code. The gradual exclusion of religion from the public square both signals the triumph of a new liberal ethic (that of state neutrality) and contributes to a continuing process of moral and cultural decline.
Robert Bork blames much of the contemporary situation on the baleful effects of the 1960s, “the decade that changed America” (17). Student radicals were, in his words, little more than “antinomians,” literally a law unto themselves without moral or religious grounding (54). Abetted by rising affluence, technology, and the growth of universities, among other things, the 1960s “saw an explosive expansion of certain American (and Western) ideals and a corresponding diminution of others.” The moral order that lay behind the Declaration of Independence’s calls for liberty and the pursuit of happiness were forgotten in the stampede for personal fulfillment (56; also 57–61).
But for Bork, investigating the roots of these contemporary problems pushes us further back into the meaning of modernity itself. According to Bork, Enlightenment thinkers—Locke, Montesquieu, Smith, Jefferson—presumed that individuals could and would create a pacific social order free of the confines of religion, tradition, and other conventional restraints. Unfortunately, such optimism proved unwarranted. “The Enlightenment optimists made a serious mistake about the nature of the individual human in whom they placed so much faith...Though they surely did not envision a society resembling ours, they set in motion a tendency which, carried far enough, could and eventually did free the individual from almost all moral and legal constraints” (Bork, 58). Neuhaus pinpoints the increasing relegation of religion to the private sphere as part of a “secularizing mythology” that distorts the nation’s history and founding values (Neuhaus, 98). Such a mythology ignores the fact that “the values of the American people are deeply rooted in religion,” and that “their religious allegiances are identifiably Judeo-Christian” (21, 95). On this reading, the hostility to religion in the public sphere represents “a novelty, a break with the one tradition of the republic” (102). Using terms like “amazingly recent,” “relatively recent,” “recent decades,” “recent years,” and “the very recent past,” Neuhaus stresses the break with tradition that signals the downfall of public religion in America, and its consequent social and political pathologies (24; 28; 37, 99; 112; 112).
Structural Similarities, Normative Inversions
What could Whig history, with its progressive historical narrative, possibly share with the tales of decline and decay outlined above? Indeed, hasn’t faith in progress been largely eradicated from contemporary historical writing? No longer do we encounter the confident assertion that the future will be better than the past that characterized so much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century (not to mention mid-twentieth century) historical writing. The violence, savagery, and rapacity of the twentieth century has made such a belief in progress difficult to sustain, almost comical. Instead, scholars generally present a much more chastened, nuanced version of the relationship between past and present and the nature of historical research. In the history of political thought, this new understanding is best illustrated in the Cambridge School, most notably in the work of Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and others. In the history of science, traditional forward-looking linear narratives have fallen largely by the wayside in the wake of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the work that followed it. If this is the case, though, aren’t we dealing with a fundamentally different sort of historiography and political context of historical research?
Still, a number of important and intriguing areas of convergence do exist between contemporary narratives of liberal decay and more tradi-tional Whig history. Recent narratives of liberal decay retain two of the central and problematic characteristics of Whig history: its present-centered focus and its tendency to pass moral judgments on historical figures and developments. At the same time, each of these structural similarities appears with a corresponding inversion that illuminates the ways in which narratives of liberal decay reverse the normative judgments of traditional Whig history.
The present-centered focus—the practice of searching back into history for the roots of modern outcomes for which we may then assign blame and praise—is an integral part of the Whig tradition of historiography. Yet the declinist is as much engaged in a “quest for origins” as was the traditional Whig historian who sought to glorify the present at the expense of a benighted past. Recall that the decline narrative begins with a recitation of present degeneracy.
Once the symptoms of decline are clearly laid out, the search for historical culprits is on. For example, what Robert Bellah and his collaborators call “the improvisational self”—the autonomous pursuit of individual wants free of religion, family, or moral example as constraints—so they tell us, “is derived not only from psychotherapy, but much more fundamentally from modern philosophy, from Descartes, Locke, and Hume, who affect us more than we imagine” (80). Carolyn Merchant admits early on in her insightful historical account of the Scientific Revolution and the emergence of modern mechanism that “[t]he central problem of this book is informed by the concerns of the present” (xxii). Michael Sandel tells us that “[t]imes of trouble prompt us to recall the ideals by which we live” (3): determining “how the liberal conception of citizenship and freedom gradually crowded out the republican conception”(6) thus provides the impetus for Sandel’s incursion into the history of the American republic (Sandel, 3, 6).
Alongside this structural similarity—the present-centeredness of both Whig history and narratives of liberal decay—lies of course an inversion of the evaluative claim that each attaches to the present. Instead of a Whig notion of historical progress and contemporary superiority over the past, declinists posit a theory of decline. Behind the evaluative claim about the reality of present decline lies an historical-ideological one, the claim that the roots of this decline are to be found in past ideas. In Robert Bork’s words, “The mistake the Enlightenment founders of liberalism made about human nature has brought us to this—an increasing number of alienated, restless individuals without strong ties to others, except in the pursuit of ever more degraded distractions and sensations” (Bork, 63). Previous eras were not darkened ages yearning for enlightenment, but instead were—slavery, patriarchy, and racial discrimination notwithstanding—superior to contemporary society in key ways. Both Whig and decline narratives present historical directionality in a linear and cumulative manner. Declinists merely change the direction of the arrow, painting the line in a downward, rather than ascending, direction.
Second, both Whig history and decline narratives share a tendency to view themselves as moral arbiters of historical developments. The inversion of this structural similarity—the moral judgment of history—appears, most vividly, in the ways in which different groups and individuals get evaluated and judged. At times, these judgments border on the anachronistic. For example, Carolyn Merchant criticizes Francis Bacon for supporting “antifeminist” legislation in the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth-century (Merchant, 165). But the general phenomenon is more widespread. Consider, for example, the contemporary debate between liberals and communitarians. Beginning from the methodological assumption that contemporary concerns animate historical research, and from the normative claim that contemporary society is mired in decline, it seems natural then to ask, “Whom shall we blame for what has come to pass?” Perhaps Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are to blame for our contemporary anomie, disaffection with government, and aggressive accumulation of property, suggest Ophuls and Bellah. “When all is said and done, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, and the other authors of the Enlightenment paradigm were megalomaniacs: their aim was not merely to dominate nature but to do so violently, brutally, absolutely” (Ophuls, 186). “In seventeenth-century England, a radical philosophical defense of individual rights emerged that owed little to either classical or biblical sources.... John Locke is the key figure and one enormously influential in America” (Bellah 1985, 143).
Earlier Whig accounts often presented heroic figures from the past, struggling for representative government and religious liberty against the concerted efforts of ignorant or self-interested elites (For example Macaulay 1828; Jordan 1932). Narratives of liberal decay, instead, invert Whig history’s sympathy for history’s winners and its excoriation of losers. They suggest that we emulate those who opposed trends that we associate with the “modern” age. The logic is straightforward. If we can identify those thinkers who, on some reading, most closely resemble modern ideas—Locke, Hobbes, Bacon, Mill, Kant—and we know that the modern age is declining and decadent, then clearly those figures must be, at least partially, to blame. A long list of blameworthy parties emerge from contemporary narratives of liberal decay: liberals, rationalists, secularists, individualists, to name just a few. These figures are typically considered, by declinists, to have brought us to this unpleasant pass. Those who opposed them represent the opposite position—community, religion, morality, holism, and so on— and are considered not only worthy of praise for attempting to withstand modernity’s relentless (and eventually victorious?) onslaught, but also as possessing insights into how to correct our own decline.
This tendency, in which historians propose assessments of blame on long-dead political thinkers, rests on the assumption that such thinkers are somehow responsible—and thus can justifiably be “blamed”— for the uses made by their views long after their promulgation, indeed long after the thinkers’ death. Often this tactic appears somewhat obliquely. Many of the narratives of liberal decay considered in this essay, as we have seen, note that full-blown liberalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. But declinists also suggest that the damaging potential was present all along, and often take on a tone of denunciation when describing the thought of early modern thinkers like Locke and (especially) Hobbes. This kind of blame-mongering has a destructive effect on any hope for historical understanding and rests on controversial and unstated hypotheses about the intention of historical authors and the “responsibility” of such authors for the uses to which their ideas are put centuries after their deaths.
Many of the disputes brought on by the above two problematic features of contemporary narratives of liberal decay—its present-centeredness and its moralistic tone—have to do with broader explicit or implicit claims about “modernity” or “the Enlightenment.” We have seen above how often something called “the Enlightenment” or “modern” thought—be it modern science, rationalist philosophy, or secular understandings of public life—are often claimed to lie at the heart of contemporary social decline. But talk of, for example, a unitary “Enlightenment project,” as does Alasdair Macintyre (1984, chapters 4–6), perpetuates a myth created by critics and reduces a philosophically and politically diverse movement to an undifferentiated mass, flattening out national differences and philosophical nuance in the search for a stick with which to beat contemporary society. Only a highly truncated understanding of modern thought could so quickly subsume modern views of political authority this way. What becomes of the Scottish Enlightenment, or the English? What of the multifaceted American Enlightenment, or the work of Catholic social thinker Charles Taylor or Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams?
These overstated claims about “the Enlightenment project” are deeply troubling, since they prevent us from confronting the complexity of our own times. On this view of modernity at war with religious values, or true community, or the environment, or moral principles, the continued presence of any of these values (widespread religious belief, or authentic community, or environmental consciousness, or firm moral standards) can only be explained as a kind of vicarious holdover from earlier times, and not, for example, as authentic examples of a more complex and religion-friendly modernity than one might expect from merely reading Hobbes and Kant (See also Yack 1997).
Butterfield was right. Whig history distorts the past and places historical research in service of a polemical narrative about present superiority and past ignorance. But in getting beyond such overt Whiggism, we seem not to have displaced a defective way of studying the history of political thought but merely to have inverted it, reversed its normative valuation. Unrealistic celebrations of present superiority have given way to unrealistic denigrations of contemporary degeneracy. Whig history understated the contributions the past had made to our complex contemporary situation and passed moralistic judgments on historical actors and outcomes. Narratives of liberal decay do the same thing in reverse. Neither of these ways of approaching history and its relationship to contemporary events is helpful or enlightening. Neither helps us understand the past, assess the present, or think seriously about the future.A
Andrew Murphy is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Political Philosophy in Christ College, Valparaiso University.
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