March 27, 2010
Freedom of the Mind and the Emasculated SocietyBy Gary Wolf
Struggling to make sense of the dire straits in which the nation finds itself, I recall a trip I took to Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago. One of the many aspects of the city that struck me was the heavy Greek-revival element in the architecture of the older government buildings. The Treasury, for example, would not have looked out of place in the Athens of Plato.
Needless to say, the disconnect between the original spirit of this style and the worldview of Washington's dominant clan of philistines could not be greater. This glaring contrast led me in turn to compare the ancient world to the contemporary West, seeking in the wisdom of the former answers to the riddles of the latter.
Allow me to present examples of this juxtaposition taken from the two founts of our European heritage: the Judeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman.
As I witness the dismemberment of the American republic, bewilderment overtakes me. I cry out as another human being did millennia ago:
Clearly, this verse and those following it refer to salvation coming from God. For me, there has always been an additional meaning contained in the verse: that man is liable to be overcome with despondency, battered and confused by a complex and mysterious world. The grief is compounded by the fact that change, and particularly decay, can be rapid and merciless.
Our contemporary culture has sunk into a morass of lies, hypocrisy, effeminacy, treason, and abandonment that would be worthy of a passage in the Bible. Perhaps, like me, you remember reading about those societies of the Fertile Crescent that passed, almost in the blink of an eye, from a virtuous, honorable, and vigorous lifestyle to idolatry, decadence, and treachery. Could it really occur so fast?
Now we see that it can happen. Because we are living it. A humbling experience, indeed. Yes, we can pass in the space of a generation from being upright men with a sense of duty and fairness and strength to a society in which such qualities are deemed "racist" and "sexist."
I remember in my own lifetime (I am but fifty years on this earth) going to the movies as a boy and seeing, as role models, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. And today we have...well, need I utter their despicable names? It is proof that the Bible was not exaggerating. We are experiencing cultural reversal on a biblical scale.
There is another model from the ancient world, one that is widely discussed: namely, the fall of Rome. There are many differences between them and us, yet there are also similarities. For one thing, there seems to be something inherently risky about long periods of prosperity and security. They don't end well.
Lately, I have plunged into the writing of Gibbon, attempting to cull a few morsels that may shed light on our own predicament. In his magisterial survey, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one can find parallels to our own dilemma. One of these is the leveling process that occurred when conditions were favorable over the long term. Writes Gibbon:
Could not Americans be substituted for Romans in the above passage? Are we not also enmeshed in a great process of leveling, or, as the contemporary idiom would have it, of dumbing down? Is this the inevitable result of success on a grand scale?
After praising the "love of letters" that characterized Roman (including provincial) society in the early empire, Gibbon goes on to lament what he asserts is the lack of original, quality thinking that marked the civilized world by the late second century AD. There was still scholarship and study, but it had decayed into "cold and servile imitations." And to make matters worse, "if any[one] ventured to deviate from those models, they deviated at the same time from good sense and propriety."
Was Gibbon issuing a prophecy of Western culture of the post-WWII period, with its denigration of intellect combined with an inability or unwillingness to produce monumental works in virtually any area of arts and letters?
It would appear, then, that our own intellectual meltdown is nothing new.
But what is behind all this? One explanation offered by Gibbon is the demise of freedom. This is not freedom in the sense of running amok, doing whatever comes into one's head, nor is it a reference to government control. It is rather a freedom of the mind. Gibbon cites Longinus, who tells us that
In the same manner as some children always remain pygmies, whose infant limbs have been too closely confined; thus our tender minds, fettered by the prejudices and habits of a just servitude, are unable to expand themselves, or to attain that well-proportioned greatness which we admire in the ancients, who ... wrote with the same freedom as they acted.In other words, an internalization of freedom must precede its external manifestation. Great works of art and letters can proceed only from minds that have "expanded," that consider themselves to be free.
Gibbon, in his inimitable style, summarizes the topic:
It would appear that the same applies today. We can strategize endlessly about elections, protest marches, legislative maneuvering, and the like. I do not suggest that we stop. But I am also convinced that to survive, we must somehow unlock the deep yearning for freedom that exists in our spirit.
The Obamunists are counting on us forgetting what it was like when men -- real men -- took the lead. They hope that we will never unlock the freedom within. If they succeed, and we persist in becoming a "puny breed," the result is oblivion.
"Freedom became the happy parent of taste and science," says Gibbon. May I see it in my lifetime.
*Quotes taken from Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (vol. I), New York, Heritage Press, 1946, pp 43-45. First published in 1776.
Gary Wolf is the author of futuristic novels that portray worlds in which multiculturalism and political correctness have run amok. He blogs at awolcivilization.com .