Monday, May 26, 2008

Sociology 101, Birth and Death of Civilizations

Dreher read Sorokin's The Crisis of Our Age and took away a bit which he shared.

"Crisis" is a summation of Sorokin's cyclical theory of social development. He believed that civilizations cycle through three basic states, based on the dominant view of the nature of truth within that civilization:

1. The ideational, in which a culture is built around God, or some other transcendental source of truth. Material concerns are secondary to spiritual ones.

2. The idealistic, which synthesizes spiritual and material values through reason.

3. The sensate, in which a culture is built around material concerns, and de-emphasizes the spiritual as the foundation upon which the culture is built.

Sorokin held that both the ideational and sensate were only partial truths, and that true human flourishing would be out of balance if civilization focused too heavily on one over the other. Yet both provide for authentic human needs; as such, neither ideational nor sensate cultures can go on forever, without suffering a correction -- possibly traumatic -- marking the transition from one state to another. The idealistic model is, well, ideal, but it is also the most unstable, and rarest.

Sorokin was the first head of Harvard's sociology department.


As order developed and wealth began to spread, the ideational culture of the early Middle Ages, gave way to the idealistic culture of the High Middle Ages, perfected intellectually in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics. But then, in the 14th century, the Scholastics lost the great medieval debate to the Nominalists, who taught that the only truths we can know for sure are those revealed to us through our senses

Occam (of the razor-fame, preceding Gillette) was the first Nominalist.

Nominalism is the eccentric cousin of Aquinas' definition of knowledge, which (inelegantly approximated) stated that 'knowledge is the conformance of one's mind to reality.' Of course, Aquinas included God as the prime part of 'reality;' Occam's nominalism offered the possibility of excluding God.

Thus, ironically, we have 'knowledge' which is only relative, because it lacks the Center. Phrased another way, the Catholic mind seeks synthesis; the relativist mind doesn't care about that.

The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably -- though ways are found to hedge on this -- the denial of truth. With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of "man the measure of all things. " The witches [on the heath in "Macbeth" -- RD] spoke with the habitual equivocation of oracles when they told man that by this easy choice he might realize himself more fully, for they were actually initiating a course which cuts one off from reality. Thus began the "abomination of desolation" appearing today as a feeling of alienation from all fixed truth--Richard Weaver

Sorokin maintains that the "sensate" phase of the West, (c. 1400-date) has brought significant benefits in science, art, literature. But it's not unalloyed progress.

A further consequence of such a system of truth [sensate] is the development of a temporalistic, relativistic, and nihilistic mentality. The sensory world is in a state of incessant flux and becoming. There is nothing unchangeable in it -- not even an eternal Supreme Being. Mind dominated by the truth of the senses simply cannot perceive any permanency, but apprehends all values in terms of shift and transformation Sensate mentality views everything from the standpoint of evolution and progress. This leads to an increasing neglect of the eternal values, which come to be replaced by temporary, or short-time, considerations. Sensate society lives in, and appreciates mainly, the present. Since the past is irretrievable and no longer exists, while the future is not yet here and is uncertain, only the present moment is real and desirable.

Dreher's own short essay on Rieff's work:

Writes Rieff: "The question is no longer as Dostoevski put it: 'Can civilized men believe?' Rather: Can unbelieving men be civilized?" That is, can people who do not believe in the existence of objective truth, and the possibility that it can be authoritatively expressed, ever form a durable civilization?

That second question, "Can unbelieving men be civilized?" is far more portentous than Dostoevsky's...

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