Opinion and Editorial

The Decline of the West

Thérèse Delpech (Debate)
Filed on January 6, 2010

The “decline of the West” is a theme exploited by those who use it to express resentment, longing for revenge or blatant hostility.

This is the case in Russia, even though Russian art and culture are considered to be an integral part of the Western patrimony; in China, which is awaiting its historic moment with barely concealed impatience; and in Iran, the self-proclaimed bearer of a mission to spread Islam throughout the world.

Whatever the merit of an otherwise weak argument, those who propagate this theme deserve at least one concession: It is built on the growing aversion of the Western world to continue playing a major role in history.

But these critics ignore something just as important: Decline is one of the greatest themes of Western culture, from Hesiod’s “Works and Days” at the dawn of Greek civilisation, to the better-known, albeit mediocre work of Oswald Spengler at the beginning of the 20th century (“The Decline of the West”).

The theme of decline runs through our history like a relentless refrain, which is not based on a fear of change, since change has in fact been considerably accelerated by the West, but on a fear of the fall. This is not simply part of our Judeo-Christian heritage: Before the fall of the bad angels of Christianity, there was already the fall of the Titans in Greek mythology. In both cases, the heirs to these stories carry the memory of irremediable loss.

The philosophical or literary variations on this theme are innumerable. In Plato’s “Timaeus,” the progressive degeneration of creation is only ended by divine intervention. In “Paradise Lost,” John Milton depicts the battle of the angels in such fearsome terms that Bernard Brodie used it for the introduction to one of his books on the atomic bomb. Twelve years before Spengler, Andrei Bely used a much more powerful vision than the German author — the fire at the start of the 20th century that is beginning to consume the whole world: “Events here are coming to a boiling point.

All of Russia is on fire. The fire is spreading everywhere. The anguish of the soul and sadness of the individual have fused with national mourning to produce one massive scarlet horror.”

Images of a radiant future for humanity are only epiphenomena in Western culture. For the most part that future, proclaimed by revolutionaries, ends up catastrophically, as the past century amply bears witness.

Western authors, even those often quoted for their enthusiastic phrases about history, carry a solid dose of pessimism. Immanuel Kant, for instance, whose project for perpetual peace we so willingly praise, declared that nothing straight can be fashioned from the twisted wood of humanity. That is a conclusion that the Europeans have never really managed to impart to the Americans, whose Garden of Eden seems to be missing a crucial actor: the snake.

This absence, if we may be so bold, is especially evident in the Obama administration, which extends its arms to all winds, without fear of storms or dangerous winter drafts. The American president should re-read Herman Melville, one of the greatest writers America has produced.

Granted, there is an obvious risk in the theme of decline: discouragement in the face of all human enterprise, or worse, a form of complacency in the fall. One can wallow in decline — both public and private — and even find a certain comfort there: If this is the way things are, what can we do about it? But the strength of the theme remains introspection and reflection, allowing us to measure errors and pass judgment on the ethical numbness into which the world has slipped. Nations that refuse to explore their past will never reach historical maturity.

This may be where Western countries have a true superiority — having spent decades trying to comprehend the abyss into which they had plunged — over China and Russia. To this day, the Europeans are aware of being “in the middle of the debris of a great storm,” as Balzac wrote of the survivors of the French Revolution.

Only reflection and memory will give us the power to see the potential for new catastrophes in the violence and disorientation of our time. They constitute the first step in avoiding them. If past massacres are taboo, how can we condemn those of today?

If the links between Beijing and Pol Pot are censored at the Khmer Rouge trials; if there is no serious effort to ascertain the number of victims of the Cultural Revolution in China; if the archives of the Gulag or the war in Chechnya have still to be protected and sometimes concealed by the Russian authorities, what can we expect the attitude of these countries to be toward massacres to come?

To be sure, introspection, while necessary, is not enough. The Western world still has prickly problems to confront: The progressive disappearance of the great issues that used to fire our minds has resulted in a narrow intellectual life — just as the possibility of reaching new horizons has considerably increased thanks to modern means of communication.

The revenge of the sacred with the thundering return of religion in its most violent and destructive forms, pointing at a spiritual void in our societies, is another big challenge and finds so far no response other than arms. Work is just barely beginning on these subjects in the West. But the gift of remembrance for peoples, as for individuals, is the beginning of any psychological cure. Hence the importance of the theme of decline.

This theme does not aim to perpetuate a culture at its twilight and even less to herald the arrival of the “Asian century” without too much reflection. What does that mean for such a vast geographic expanse?

And who can say what good or bad this arrival holds in store? The future would seem less deeply unstructured if we drew conclusions from one simple truth: Those who have the best tools to make history are also those who have the sharpest awareness of its tragic character.

The great disasters of the 20th century are all part of our heritage. We are creatures of the decline and the abyss, thirsty for rebirth and salvation. Many nations would recognise themselves in this mirror.

Thérèse Delpech is director for strategic studies at the Atomic Energy Commission of France and a senior research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research. This essay was translated from French by the IHT

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