Commentary Magazine

Article Preview

Is the Free West in Decline?
History's Verdict” in Perspective

- Abstract

Our time is dominated by a feeling of unprecedented crisis involving every aspect of political, social, and intellectual life. The very foundations of modern civilization seem imperiled and the “decline of the West,” about which philosophers of history from Spengler to Toynbee have been talking since 1914, is now almost a cant term. But this feeling of crisis, of decay and decline, is scarcely unique. Almost every great age and civilization has had its periods of anxiety and loss of confidence. On the eve of the great era of the pax Romana, we find Virgil lamenting in his Georgics:

For here are right and wrong inverted: so many wars in the world, so many fashions of evil; the plough meets not its due honor; our lands, the tillers deported, lie waste, and the crooked pruning-hooks are forged into hard swords. Here Euphrates, there Germany kindles war: even as when from the barriers the chariots burst forth, they gather speed in the course, and the driver, tugging vainly at the bridles, is borne along by the horses and the car heeds not the reins.

The Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, and the period of the French Revolution all had their crises when despairing voices were lifted up to predict the end of the world or the death of civilization. In two respects only, is the present crisis different from all previous ones: owing to the very nature of modern Western civilization, the present crisis is worldwide; and it has sucked into its orbit the hitherto quiescent and “extra-historical” lower classes, who constitute the overwhelming majority.

About the Author