Thinking Like Sorkin in a Decadent Culture
Our newspaper carries a celebrated local columnist by the name of Ben Beagle, a graduate of our college who identifies himself as a “semi-hysterical” reporter. He uses an amusing ploy when he claims some minor disaster has overtaken him, such as his dog eating his newly written column. Then, he says, he is shocked into writing like Ernest Hemingway. He proceeds to write in macho sentences, short and crisp, for the rest of the column.
I experience something similar. When I become inordinately discouraged by the decadence of American culture, I begin to think like Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889–1968). Sorokin, now much out of favor among sociologists, was already beginning to fade when I entered graduate school in the late 1950s. He was a fascinating figure. Born in Russia and steeped in Russian Orthodoxy, Sorokin spent time in jail because of his resistance to the Czar. He was a functionary in the Kerensky regime, but that of course was temporary. After the revolution he studied sociology, law, and penology, and begin writing books in those areas. He sharply criticized the new Communist regime and was faced with the choice of imprisonment, execution, or exile. He took exile, emigrated to the United States, took a job teaching sociology at the University of Minnesota, and then founded the Department of Sociology at Harvard.
At Harvard, Sorokin gave up his earlier commitment to “empirical” sociology and developed what one could call a normative sociology, one which was informed by his own philosophical and religious commitments. Combative and sarcastic, Sorokin engaged in some celebrated academic conflicts. His rival sociologist at Harvard, Talcott Parsons, finally had him removed from his position as head of the department in 1955. He continued writing until his death in 1968, focusing on the necessary role of altruism in any wholesome social life.
As a graduate student, I read his The Crisis of Our Age (1941) in which he developed his then famous theory of cultural cycles. He argued that cultures move from ideational cultures, in which transcendent reality is the organizing center of social life, to idealistic cultures, in which there is a creative blend of the ideational and the sensate, to sensate cultures, which are focused on sensory perceptions and experiences. This latter stage rejects transcendent values and moves toward decadence and chaos, within which is born a new ideational culture. The transitions between cycles are characterized by violent upheavals. Sorokin thought the period of the Second World War was such an upheaval, one which marked the end of a sensate cycle and presaged the dawning of a new ideational phase.
Sorokin was on to something profound when he argued that older cultures, in contrast to our present culture, were guided by what they considered to be transcendent norms. Israel believed the Law was a holy revelation from God and organized her life around that transcendent point of reference. Christianity reverenced the Law but believed in the revelation of Christ as the supreme point of reference. Christ was the focal point in which God’s dimension poured into ours, not only revealing the will of God to us mortals but also performing saving acts. The Catholic Church organized a “Christ Above Culture” model of social life, which in due time became Christendom.
Western history has been decisively shaped by the normative notions of Christendom. We have lived off the capital that was initiated by the ideational revelation of the Christ event and developed and tended by the Catholic Church. From the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment onward for several centuries we had what Sorokin called an “idealistic” culture—a creative blend of the ideational and the sensate. But now the residue of even the idealistic culture is fast receding and we are moving deeply into a sensate culture.
Sensate culture emphasizes sensory experience as the guiding principle of human life. The adjectives Sorokin uses are “sensational, passionate, pathetic, sensual, incessantly new, radically oriented toward the empirical world, materialistic.” He has major discussions of sensate art, philosophy, ethics, law, and family. Though he wrote around the time of the Second World War, many of his insights can be applied to the contemporary world.
Take popular music, for example. Exposure to popular music makes me start thinking like Sorokin. I continue to be perplexed by the heavy vitalism of much modern popular music. Cars with huge sound systems pulsate so powerfully the sound waves can be felt blocks away. Students put tiny speakers into their ears but you can still hear the reverberations. The music is loud and energetic, heavily sexual. Hip-hop and rap emphasize heavy rhythm with a faintly threatening effect. Their lyrics are raw and vulgar. The last thing one could say about their form and content is that they are beautiful. It is difficult to believe that young people weaned on such music will ever be able to appreciate more subtle and delicate forms. One could formulate a theorem that as our sound equipment has gotten better and better, popular music has gotten worse and worse.
Certainly the popular music that I grew up with is attractive to me not so much because of its quality but because of its nostalgic associations. Most of it was flotsam and jetsam, rightly consigned to oblivion. But some of it had higher aesthetic qualities, for example the vocal performances of Frank Sinatra, the jazz of Brubeck or Stan Kenton, or some of the Broadway pieces of that time. The best of the popular music had a measure of delicacy, romance, and subtlety about it. Lyrics were clever, sometimes even sophisticated. The music was attractive, maybe even lovely.
One of the marks of a sensate culture is its unwillingness to make qualitative judgments about such things as music or art beyond their technical characteristics and/or performance. Since music and art are to be judged by the sensations they excite in the brains of the listener or viewer, such qualitative judgments are impossible to make. Beauty is indeed in the ears and eyes of the receiver of the signals.
In a recent conversation with a music professor who had just taken to teaching popular music in his classes, I asked if there were not some sort of hierarchy in music. I wondered whether he was teaching students to appreciate what I believe to be higher forms of music—that of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. It always has seemed to me that such music has a beauty and seriousness that rise far beyond what popular music can convey. At its best it opens the door to transcendent beauty; it brings forth ecstasy in the hearer. The great conductor Georg Solti once said that the best proof for the existence of God was the appearance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in human history. By that remark I take it he meant that Mozart’s music was so stunningly beautiful that it transported you to the spiritual realm. It gives the hearer an encounter with transcendence.
My professor colleague would have none of my argument. A high-brow himself, he would only allow that the piano compositions of Bach had more technical complexity than most popular music. I could report similar conversations with those in the art history department, where the word “beauty” is no longer used. It seems to me that the elite world has followed the popular world in reducing everything to the sensory perceptions of the hearer or viewer, only we call this attitude post-modernism. In this world there is no transcendent point of reference to make judgments about truth, beauty, or goodness.
Speaking of goodness, many developments in the contemporary moral world make me think like Sorokin. Let’s take, for example, the radical ethical utilitarianism of Peter Singer, who holds an endowed chair at that old Presbyterian institution, Princeton University. While many of his arguments still horrify those who hear or read them, we are inching closer to a Singerian world.
Singer argues that all living beings have similar sensory perceptions and therefore there is really no qualitative difference between humans and animals. A terribly deformed human baby has less claim to life than a fully functioning pig because the latter can experience far more pleasure than the former. Likewise, human parents should have a year’s time to consider whether they really want an imperfect baby they may have brought forth. They should be able to refuse the life of that baby because it would be too much of a burden—too much pain—for them. Singer also has put forward arguments for bestiality as long as it does not inflict pain on the unsuspecting animal. He believes that the taboo against bestiality is one of the last vestiges of the Judeo-Christian insistence on a hierarchy of being in which humans are not to engage in sex with lower beings.
The animal rights movement—at least in its more radical fringes—exhibits not only the elevation of the right for animals to enjoy pleasure over pain but the reduction of humans to the level of animals. An adjunct philosophy professor I once hired for my department was a militant atheist and animal rights proponent. She raised pure-bred horses as an avocation. After an unlikely conversion to Christianity, she told me that one of the things she noticed after her conversion was that she could more easily “put down” an ailing animal. It no longer was like putting an equal being to death.
Sorokin would predict this leveling as an upshot of sensate culture, which wants to rid itself of religious notions of human nature and destiny. Judaism and Christianity both affirm that humans are created in the image of God, and therefore of incomparable worth. This affirmation, of course, is not verifiable on empirical grounds, or on utilitarian grounds. Rather, it is grounded in the will of God that is revealed in the Holy Scriptures. This worth may even be affirmed in idealistic Enlightenment notions of the high respect for the rational agent, but that is but an echo of its earlier ideational formulation. Judaism and Christianity both have strong deontological elements that claim intrinsic value for all human beings and intrinsic rightness for actions that conform to the will of God.
Such deontological affirmations are under severe pressure from the utilitarian movement of sensate culture in Western cultures. Whether it is the new openness to experimenting with human embryos in stem cell research, the reduction of marriage from a life-long covenant to a contractual agreement between partners, the moral deregulation of sex, the resolute separation of law from religiously-based morality, or the effort to expunge religious values from the public sphere, all seem to indicate a flight from the transcendent norms—ideationally based—that have guided Western culture for so long.
Sorokin was certain that the chaos and decadence of the sensate phase would soon give way to a new birth of ideational culture. I am not so sure. We could putter along this way for a long time, pursuing the Kleinigkeiten of sensate existence at the expense of real aspiration or adventure. But the human spirit is irrepressible and there will be rebellions against such a reduction of humanity. Some of those rebellions could be nasty indeed. On the other hand, the vigor of religious subcultures in the America is far from depleted. They carry some conviction that God’s guidance surpasses that of the promptings of the senses, and, if they live up to their convictions, may provide wholesome models for a decaying civilization.
Robert Benne is Director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society.