From myth to mob-rule, and back

The Prophet Jeremiah, by Gustave Dore

The Prophets of Doom

Neema Parvini, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2023, pb., 227pps., £14.95

The West, it is said, is modernity, but if it is, there is melancholy at its core. Our most confident centuries have subsisted in the shadow of Rome – our Ozymandian awareness that the greatest powers must pass, and all empires will be overthrown.

To a certain type of observer, Western decay seems obvious and often imminent, while other opinionators are unable or unwilling to see what they can see, to translate “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” for themselves. Even today, except for concerns over climate change, there is a very human reluctance to arrive at logical conclusions from abundant data. Declinists are accused of ‘rosy retrospection’, but optimists are at least equally guilty of ‘pink projection.’

Anglo-Iranian academic Neema Parvini here discusses eleven critics of contemporaneity. Parvini is an energetic and (to borrow Baltasar Gracián’s expression) ‘dis-illusioned’ discussant, unsentimental about human nature and scornful of pabulum – and armed with mordant wit. He has rendered a considerable service to intellectual history by summarising and comparing often unappetising yet obviously urgent writings, to provide a convenient conspectus of declinist thinking. It is simultaneously a service to the future, offering timeless counterweights to today’s cognitive biases.

The oldest of this eclectic eleven is Giambattista Vico, born in 1668, while Joseph Tainter and Peter Turchin are still with us. The others are obvious inclusions – Thomas Carlyle, Arthur de Gobineau, Brooks Adams, Oswald Spengler, Pitirim Sorokin, Arnold Toynbee, Julius Evola, and John Bagot Glubb. Some chapters end abruptly, but this is a question of style rather than substance, judging from the extensive bibliography and copious endnotes. It requires character to stand against fond delusions, and those who did (or do) deserve to be honoured. As Spengler noted in Man and Technics, “Optimism is cowardice.”

The author aims for “value-free” analysis, but his heart belongs to the ‘pessimist’ party. He tosses and gores Tony Blair’s famous, fatuous 2005 assertion that liberal globalism was the resistless wave of the future:

The End of History did not materialise and will one day be regarded as a self-contained epoch that started in the direct aftermath of 1945 and will end at some point in the future, during which some great things were achieved and during which most educated people took leave of their senses.

Leaving this fast-decomposing corpse on the field, Parvini rides with relief to 200-118 BC – the lifespan of Polybius, a Greek historian of Rome, whose Histories systematized earlier intuitions about civilizations’ trajectories. To Polybius, states were organic, but bound by inexorable laws of politics and psychology. Monarchy under charismatic strongmen is mankind’s natural state, to be succeeded by hereditary monarchy, which degenerates into tyranny, then aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and ochlocracy – after which the cycle recommences, with the emergence of a new charismatic strongman. Polybius’ Anacyclosis influenced contemporaries like Cicero and Livy, and was rediscovered by Renaissance scholars, and then by Vico. We can trace in Polybius a future cliché: “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. Weak men create hard times.”

The taproots of progressiveness are in the Bible. Medieval Christianity was realistic about what could be done with Man, but millennialists were swayed by the neat purposefulness of Genesis-tribulations-uplift – the didactic and ‘happy ever after’ qualities inherent in the greatest stories. As belief in original sin and God’s existence have retreated, the whole cosmos has become ‘Caesar’s’, and all that is left for the meaning-starved are old habits of dualist thinking and blind belief in future bliss. 

Vico’s 1725 New Science set out shrewd objections to what he saw as anti-social new notions –shallow rationalism, the mechanistic implications of natural laws, the selfishness of social contracts. He preferred “poetic wisdom” to sere analysis, and thought Homer a better guide to Greece than any philosopher. He found few readers in his lifetime; Parvini gives a vignette of the scrawny scholar slinking through Naples, his home city, avoiding people to whom he had sent his manuscript, who “give me not the faintest sign that they have received it, and…confirm my belief that it has gone forth into a desert.” He was only catapulted into consciousness in 1939, in an unlikely fashion, when James Joyce used New Science to structure Finnegan’s Wake.

He is interpreted today as an intuitive understander of how societies are made, and how society-specific ‘truths’ are arrived at – a ‘social anthropologist’ before social anthropology, a ‘relativist’ before relativism, a ‘post-modernist’ even before modernity had fully arrived. He also believed that societies could improve. But he also felt improvements carried seeds of their own destruction, as a mythic ‘Age of Gods’ becomes an ‘Age of Heroes’ and eventually a hubristic ‘Age of Men’, when poetry becomes prose and romance reason, and individualism makes everyone an island.

Carlyle was his century’s sceptic-in-chief, thundering magnificently against complacency and sentimentality. He was hugely influential; he was also abrasive, seen as excessive and unduly gloomy. Even a friend, Edward Fitzgerald, complained “Carlyle raves and foams, but has nothing to propose”. He lost his faith when young, and always felt that lack, yearning for primordial forces of “Love, and Fear, and Wonder, of Enthusiasm, Poetry, Religion, all of which have a truly vital and infinite character.” He hated democracy, but even more the middle-class money-counters and moralizers who preached equality and liberalism but left the poor to be ground down by the “Age of Machinery”. He loathed industrialism (his word), yet saw possibilities in great entrepreneurs, who might translate “hard energy” into action, and become ‘Great Men’, capable of restoring a hierarchical and mystical pre-rational order.

Arthur de Gobineau is today written off as ur-racist, an originator of Aryanism through his 1855 Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaine. His dislike of levelling was partly personal, but Parvini also suggests he has been lost in translation. By replacing his unscientific ‘racial’ categorisations (white, black, yellow) with ‘poetic’ categorisations denoting different aspects of the human spirit (chivalric, primal, practical), Parvini shows him in another light. In the 19th century ‘race’ was a generic term applicable to any discrete group, so Parvini’s suggestions seem closer to Gobineau’s intention. The ‘miscenegation’ Gobineau decried, so alarmingly to our ears, was really coarsening, as the ‘chivalric’ intermingled with others.

Brooks Adams was an American Brahmin, and deeply engaged in public life, an influence on Theodore Roosevelt. But his prickly personality and lugubrious views put him at odds with the excitable Americas of Walt Whitman and then Woodrow Wilson. Boosterish Americans who had ‘won the West’ and would soon be entering ‘the American century’ were not drawn to one who foresaw America’s downfall, and dichotomized civilization into two unappealingly-named phases – an ‘Age of Fear’, and an ‘Age of Greed’. Adams favoured ‘Fear’, meaning awe and energy, but feared it was outmoded in the era of centralisation and cheapness. He did not even offer the distant comfort of cycles, believing there were no more barbarians to refresh the Western world, and ultimately Asia would rule.

Oswald Spengler’s 1918-1922 Decline of the West likens cultures to plant species, each with a unique symbology and “high history”, each rooting, fruiting, and dying in its own way – a Nietzschean endless return, “a drama noble…and aimless as the course of the stars.” Zivilization is a late phase in this life-cycle, when the plant has already passed its zenith as Kultur. For Spengler, Europe’s “Faustian” spring was the Gothic Middle Ages, followed by a Baroque summer, an Enlightenment autumn, and finally a bitter winter, dominated by levelling and money-making. Only ‘Caesars’ could overthrow the enervated accountant class; “blood” must defeat “money”, so Europe could slake its soul. This poetical thesis found fertile ground in postwar Germany, and helped feed fascism, although Spengler died in 1936, and his writings were suppressed by the Third Reich.

Pitirim Sorokin was the first to conduct an empirical and statistical survey of other cyclical theorists, to come up with a similar division of civilizations into “ideational”, “sensate” and “idealist” phases. Arnold Toynbee devoted 21 years to his Study of History, whereby civilizations prospered or decayed depending on how they handled threats, attracting opprobrium by observations about deleterious effects of democracy, like the greater brutality of modern wars. He slowly shifted position, concluding that collapse could be averted by Christianity.

Joseph Tainter’s 1988 The Collapse of Complex Societies sees decline economically. As societies become larger, they require ever more resources, and administration. Bureaucracy burgeons and bills soar, and once states stop expanding, the cost of control cuts daily more deeply into national margins. Parvini is more admiring of Peter Turchin, whose ‘Metaethnic Frontier Theory’ borrows from the 14th century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiya (collective solidarity), to show how highly motivated marginal groups can capture entrenched states which have lost the habit of collective action. His cyclical thinking derives from his ‘Demographic-Structural Theory’: increase in population → instability and war → decrease in population → stability → increase in population.

Julius Evola is notorious as eminence grise for the radical Right – a monocled mystagogue who clouded his life deliberately in mystery, and wrote compulsively on esoteric and metapolitical themes. Parvini peels away the ‘Fascist’ to find a traditionalist believer in inexorable cycles and transcendence, and in the ‘truthfulness’ of myth – an opponent of both communism and capitalism, which in different ways represent the utterly anti-human “reign of quantity”.

Evolan esotericism would have been Greek to John Bagot Glubb (“Glubb Pasha”), the bluff British soldier who led the Arab Legion in Transjordan from 1939-1956. Glubb used his Arabist expertise and experience of British imperial retreat to postulate a general theory of civilization in two short 1978 works, The Fate of Empires and The Search for Survival. Vigorous nations become empires, but these only persist for 200-250 years before “liberal sentiment” starts to lead to “disintegration”. Self-sacrificing conquerors metamorphose into insulated intellectuals, who eventually reason themselves and their societies into what Jean Raspail called “deadly doubt”.

Like most declinists, Glubb also believed that cultures are essentially incommunicable, which has clear implications for societies aspiring to be ‘multicultural’ (in itself, a sign of waning confidence). But declinists would also agree that any people may have its ‘turn’ if fortune favours them – which behoves a truly expansive view of all peoples, and all great men. Declinists, for all their occasional excesses, sometimes seem more humane than today’s noisy ‘humanitarians’, in their insistence that our societies shouldn’t be so ugly, and everyone deserves more fulfilment than they generally receive.

This review first appeared in Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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