Scott Alexander on the Decline of Culture

From Scott Alexander’s Tumblr:

voximperatoris:

[This post is copied over from Stephen Hicks.]

An instructive series of quotations, collected over the years, on the theme of pessimism about the present in relation to the past:

Plato, 360 BCE: “In that country [Egypt] arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as pleasure and amusement. I have late in life heard with amazement of our ignorance in these matters [science in general]; to me we appear to be more like pigs than men, and I am quite ashamed, not only of myself, but of all Greeks.” (Laws, Book VII)

Catullus, c. 60 BCE: “Oh, this age! How tasteless and ill-bred it is!”

Sallust, 86– c. 35 BCE: “to speak of the morals of our country, the nature of my theme seems to suggest that I go farther back and give a brief account of the institutions of our forefathers in peace and in war, how they governed the commonwealth, how great it was when they bequeathed it to us, and how by gradual changes it has ceased to be the noblest and best, and has become the worst and most vicious.” About Rome’s forefathers: “good morals were cultivated at home and in the field; there was the greatest harmony and little or no avarice; justice and probity prevailed among them.” They “adorned the shrines of the gods with piety, their own homes with glory, while from the vanquished they took naught save the power of doing harm.” But Rome now is a moral mess: “The men of to‑day, on the contrary, basest of creatures, with supreme wickedness are robbing our allies of all that those heroes in the hour of victory had left them; they act as though the one and only way to rule were to wrong.” (The Catiline War)

Horace, c. 23-13 BCE: “Our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begot us who are viler still, and we shall bring forth a progeny more degenerate still.” (Odes 3:6)

Alberti, 1436: Nature is no longer producing great intellects — “or giants which in her youthful and more glorious days she had produced so marvelously and abundantly.” (On Painting)

Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1620: “For what else can our degenerate race do in this age of error. Our lowly disposition keeps us close to the ground, and we have declined from that heroic genius and judgment of the ancients.”

Mary Wollstonecraft, c. 1790: “As from the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind.”

William Wordsworth, 1802:
“Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”
(“London”)

John Stuart Mill, in 1859, speaking of his generation: “the present low state of the human mind.” (On Liberty, Chapter 3)

Friedrich Nietzsche, in 1871: “What else, in the desolate waste of present-day culture, holds any promise of a sound, healthy future? In vain we look for a single powerfully branching root, a spot of earth that is fruitful: we see only dust, sand, dullness, and languor” (Birth of Tragedy, Section 20).

Frederick Taylor, 1911: “We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight.” (Scientific Management)

T. S. Eliot, c. 1925: “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.”

So has the world really been in constant decline? Or perhaps, as Gibbon put it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): “There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.”

Words to keep in mind as we try to assess objectively our own generation’s serious problems.

I hate this argument. It’s the only time I ever see “Every single person from history has always believed that X is true” used as an argument *against* X.

I mean, imagine that I listed Thomas Aquinas as saying “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades,” and then Leonardo da Vinci, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades”. Benjamin Franklin, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades”. Abraham Lincon, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades. Henry Ford, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades.”

My conclusion – people who think technology is advancing now are silly, there’s just some human bias toward always believing technology is advancing.

In the same way technology can always be advancing, culture can always be declining, for certain definitions of culture that emphasize the parts less compatible with modern society. Like technology, this isn’t a monotonic process – there will be disruptions every time one civilization collapses and a new one begins, and occasional conscious attempts by whole societies to reverse the trend, but in general, given movement from time t to time t+1, people can correctly notice cultural decline.

I mean, really. If, like Nietszche, your thing is the BRUTE STRENGTH of the valiant warrior, do you think that the modern office worker has exactly as much valiant warrior spirit as the 19th century frontiersman? Do you think the 19th century frontiersman had as much as the medieval crusader? Do you think the medieval crusader had as much as the Spartans? Pinker says the world is going from a state of violence to a state of security, and the flip side of that is people getting, on average, more domesticated and having less of the wild free spirit that Nietszche idealized.

Likewise, when people talk about “virtue”, a lot of the time they’re talking about chastity and willingness to remain faithful in a monogamous marriage for the purpose of procreation. And a lot of the time they don’t even mean actual chastity, they mean vocal public support for chastity and social norms demanding it. Do you really believe our culture has as much of that as previous cultures do? Remember, the sort of sharia law stuff that we find so abhorrent and misogynist was considered progressive during Mohammed’s time, and with good reason.

I would even argue that Alberti is right about genius. There are certain forms of genius that modern society selects for and certain ones it selects against. Remember, before writing became common, the Greek bards would have mostly memorized Homer. I think about the doctors of past ages, who had amazing ability to detect symptoms with the naked eye in a way that almost nobody now can match because we use CT scan instead and there’s no reason to learn this art. (Also, I think modern doctors have much fewer total hours of training than older doctors, because as bad as today’s workplace-protection/no-overtime rules are, theirs were worse)

And really? Using the fact that some guy complained of soil erosion as proof that nobody’s complaints are ever valid? Soil erosion is a real thing, it’s bad, and AFAIK it does indeed keep getting worse.

More controversially, if T.S. Eliot wants to look at a world that over four hundred years, went from the Renaissance masters to modern art, I am totally okay with him calling that a terrible cultural decline.

Scott’s argument is plausible, although he seems somewhat confused insofar as he appears to associate Mohammed with monogamy. And since we are discussing the matter with an interlocutor who maintains that the decline of culture is obvious, we will concede the point immediately. Scott seems a bit ambivalent in regard to whether a declining culture is a bad thing, but we will concede that as well, other things being equal.

However, we do not clearly see an answer here to one of the questions raised in the last post: if culture tends to decline, why does this happen? Scott seems to suggest an answer when he says, “Culture can always be declining, for certain definitions of culture that emphasize the parts less compatible with modern society.” According to this, culture tends to decline because it becomes incompatible with modern society. The problem with this is that it seems to be a “moronic pseudo-reason”: 2017 is just one year among others. So no parts of culture should be less compatible with life in 2017, than with life in 1017, or in any other year. Chesterton makes a similar argument:

We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be. And for my present purpose I specially insist on this abstract independence. If I am to discuss what is wrong, one of the first things that are wrong is this: the deep and silent modern assumption that past things have become impossible. There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, “You can’t put the clock back.” The simple and obvious answer is “You can.” A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.

There is another proverb, “As you have made your bed, so you must lie on it”; which again is simply a lie. If I have made my bed uncomfortable, please God I will make it again. We could restore the Heptarchy or the stage coaches if we chose. It might take some time to do, and it might be very inadvisable to do it; but certainly it is not impossible as bringing back last Friday is impossible. This is, as I say, the first freedom that I claim: the freedom to restore. I claim a right to propose as a solution the old patriarchal system of a Highland clan, if that should seem to eliminate the largest number of evils. It certainly would eliminate some evils; for instance, the unnatural sense of obeying cold and harsh strangers, mere bureaucrats and policemen. I claim the right to propose the complete independence of the small Greek or Italian towns, a sovereign city of Brixton or Brompton, if that seems the best way out of our troubles. It would be a way out of some of our troubles; we could not have in a small state, for instance, those enormous illusions about men or measures which are nourished by the great national or international newspapers. You could not persuade a city state that Mr. Beit was an Englishman, or Mr. Dillon a desperado, any more than you could persuade a Hampshire Village that the village drunkard was a teetotaller or the village idiot a statesman. Nevertheless, I do not as a fact propose that the Browns and the Smiths should be collected under separate tartans. Nor do I even propose that Clapham should declare its independence. I merely declare my independence. I merely claim my choice of all the tools in the universe; and I shall not admit that any of them are blunted merely because they have been used.

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