You are on page 1of 5

[This is excerpted from my 2017 book Modern or Moral

Summary of our ‘Demotic’ era
“From Dawn to Decadence”
Since the end of the 18th century, increasing tolerance of unsupported opinions, and skepticism of
authority seem to have undermined the original Enlightenment confidence in objective truth, and universal
values. We discussed this earlier, under the rise of romanticism. Although the extreme sentimentality of
early 19th century fiction was soon ridiculed and rejected in the name of realism, romanticism remained
dominant until the present, but in different forms. Whatever names one might use to describe them, later
trends in modern thought to the present contain several romantic characteristics relative to our discussion.
One is a disregard for authority. This could be distrust of academic research, or professional expertise. It
might be conflicts with law enforcement, or distrust of politicians, especially at the federal level. It could
be disregard for social conventions of civility and propriety (which are mislabeled as hypocrisy), in favor
of blunt or crude manner of speech and action, which masquerades as honesty. The presidential election
campaign of 2016 gives painful evidence for how widespread is this characteristic.i
Another trait of today’s society is extreme skepticism, both about the existence of standards of value
(as in Nietzsche and Sartre), and in its belief that truth – especially religious truth - is subjective (as in
Kierkegaard). In its more radical (i.e. academic, social-scientific) forms, it is “linguistic relativism”
(exemplified by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), which suggests languages determine the way people see the
world, and there is no ‘true’ language. This view can bring even science and mathematics into doubt. iiThe
other romantic trend of modern thought is an extreme individualism, linked with a belief in the authority of
feeling. Paradoxically, the latter leads to a sense of isolation, attended by anonymity, and impersonal mass
These trends constitute much of what is called post-modernism, developed in the late 20th century. We
live in “demotic” times – a term used by Jacques Barzun. Ours is a mass culture viewpoint, which does not
seek true democracy. Instead, it seeks unrestricted personal freedom, in terms of choice and life style, and
makes societal institutions that encourage, and try to satisfy, limitless claims to the rights of every interest
group, which can’t be satisfied.

End of an Age – democracy and scientific materialism

This essay is intended as a summary of ideas about morality, freedom, science and spirit, and their
interrelations in the history of western culture. For that reason, most of the conclusions I draw are based on
generalizations which I offer as ‘factual.’ This is not, and makes no claim to be, good science. The essay
also includes many opinions, my own and other people’s. I think this summary supports the conclusion that
modernity has steadily become alienated from morality, both in terms of thinking, and in practice. The
assumptions that inform these pages should be transparent. They center on the claim that genuine morality
is not possible without freedom of thought and choice, and that this freedom can best be understood when
human nature and responsibility are seen from a perspective that goes beyond nature, to engage a spiritual
reality, and even better, a loving divine One.
Much in this study is offered as cultural criticism, which is largely a matter of interpreting, assessing
and evaluating generalities about what happens in various societies at various times. In turn, many of the
generalities are themselves based on claims that are questionable. So in many ways, both the assessment
offered here of what is happening, and the critical judgments about it, are subjective. I can’t say whether
these views are shared by many or few. For the past sixty years, I’ve looked critically (the curse of a
philosophical mindset) at trends in the popular and intellectual culture of this and other western countries.
Clearly there are other thinkers who have seen similar cultural characteristics, and come to similar
conclusions, from before the start of the 20th century to the present moment. That they and I agree is
gratifying. However, the points of agreement are discouraging. In any case, I’ll cite one well-expressed
example, showing how America during that last century looked to another critic who lived through most of
Jacques Barzun
Jacques Barzun (1907–2012) spent his long academic life at Columbia University (formerly Columbia
College), as a student and a history professor, from 1924 to 1975. After retirement, he continued writing
until his death, at age one-hundred and four! The scope of his thinking is shown in the title of his dense,
eight-hundred-page masterwork, published in 2000: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western
Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, from which the following ideas are taken.
Barzun treats the past five hundred years as an “era”, with an indefinite beginning and end, similar to
Ancient Rome, or The Middle Ages. The title “From Dawn to Decadence” also suggests a moral evaluation.
I think Barzun would say all historians make value judgments, and the effort to ‘just tell it like it is’ is an
impossible and improper pretense.
The era began with the Renaissance, and the spirit of “emancipation” through knowledge –
emancipation from ignorance, from superstition, from arbitrary political power, from dogmatic religious
authority, from the view that this world is owned by Satan, and the like. This spirit of emancipation is a
theme, throughout the five centuries that Barzun chronicles, rising and falling in shorter cycles, marked by
the endless conflict of various interest groups (rulers, religious leaders, scholars, business men, tradesmen,
artists and artisans, warriors and ordinary workers). One group after another tries to liberate itself from what
it considers oppression. In addition, the thinking and living conditions of everyone are impacted by
developments in science and technology. Barzun deals with many sub themes, through various periods, but
the last of these is the focus of our ‘conclusion,’ coinciding roughly with the 20th century.
One great issue seems to dominate the intellectual discourse of this period: can a true representative
government be developed? It would be the final step in emancipation, visualized as the realization of
“democracy”. Every high school student believes that (disregarding slaves) democracy began in Greece,
but it was best achieved in the late 18th century, in the founding of the United States. Unfortunately, the
belief is misguided. True, Greece did try rule by the people, but Plato and Aristotle showed the weaknesses
of that form of government, and what the Founding Fathers started here was a system that never has been
fully representative. Meanwhile, here and abroad, emancipation has been mistaken for freedom, and it
remains a dream.
Throughout the 20th century, this hope of emancipation has been marketed in the language of
“democracy”. Barzun rejects this term, because it’s vague and shifting meaning depends on context.
Moreover, democracy doesn’t and can’t exist in the form its Greek original meant – direct rule by the demos
(‘people’) voting on every question – but perhaps in some other form approximating the popular will.
Instead, he uses the term “demotic”, or “of the people”, (not to be confused with “demonic”, though the
latter term comes to mind, as developments in our society over the last century become clearer). In effect,
the spirit of “emancipation” at the beginning of the era, becomes the spirit of “freedom” at the end, with
destructive and decadent results. In effect, it demonstrates the failure of an illusion.
At the end of the 19th century, the perceived evils of unmitigated capitalism, in western Europe and
around the world, led G. B. Shaw and other idealists to hope for socialism, in which the ‘people’ would
truly be in charge of society. In Barzun’s language, this is the great “illusion” that characterizes the end of
the 19th century, and has continued up to the present. At the same time, in most of Europe, poorly
administered alliances among states, once under orderly but autocratic Austro-Hungarian rule, were
fractured by the disaffection of member mini-states who wanted to return to independence and former glory
days. Moreover, colonial powers like France, Italy and England, proud of their ‘possessions’, competed for
more land and prestige, and took offense at any perceived insult to their national pride. Add finally the old-
fashioned absolutist imperial government of Russia, which had the largest military, and various alliances,
and the effect was to make all of Europe bristle with weapons, preparing for and fully expecting the next
war, which most people thought was inevitable. It started when a Serbian nationalist killed the arch duke of
Austria and his wife. A month later, Austria’s ally, Germany, attacked Belgium on the ‘western front’, and
The Great War began. It was a horrible waste of life, but immediately after it, lingering resentment in
Germany, and revolution in Russia, led to WWII, followed by fifty years more struggle for emancipation
of oppressed people in Europe and the Soviet Union, and a continuing struggle in dictatorial regimes around
the world, which has not ended, and indeed appears to be still growing.
In Western Europe, Great Britain and the U.S., dreams about emancipation morphed into what Barzun
calls a “social revolution”, in which ‘the people’ demand ‘freedom’. This differs radically from responsible
participation in government, with a shared sense of community, and a willingness to compromise. At the
end of the 20th century, Barzun believes that “society” (institutions) and “style” (individual choices) - the
key ideas of this period - are generally at odds with each other. Socially, ‘freedom’ means the expectation
of limitless rights to benefits, which societies are unable to provide. As demands and conflicts increase,
institutions multiply, hoping to meet demands, but always failing to satisfy. According to Barzun, when
good intentions exceed the society’s capacity to fulfill them, “decadence” necessarily results, in the form
of wishes without actions - a failure of will. In the ‘machine age’ such as ours, these desperate efforts to
meet constituents’ demands lead automatically to a welfare state, not to a happy society. The earlier
pluralism (the ‘melting pot’) yields to separatism (the ‘salad bowl’). Classical education is ruined by
“gadjetry”; and outward changes substitute for inner changes. At the personal level, “style” means the life
of immediate gratification; fast is good, faster is better; fast food is fashionable. Criticism is unacceptable;
authority is unaccepted; conventions of politeness disappear; pornography and the ‘atmosphere’ of sexuality
is everywhere, replacing real sexual relations.
The concluding paragraphs of Barzun’s dreary summary, at the end of the modern era, speak of the
present state of affairs in America. He labels this the “View from New York City, 2000”, and imagines it
in the form of an anonymous writer’s prologue to her future history of our present age. Note the word
‘renacent’ at the end. Is there another Renaissance? What is being reborn?

As for peace and war, the former was the distinguishing mark of the West from the rest of the world.
The numerous regions of the Occident and America formed a loose confederation obeying rules from
Brussels and Washington in concert; they were prosperous, law-abiding, overwhelming in offensive
weaponry, and they had decided to let outside peoples and their factions eliminate one another until
exhaustion introduced peaceableness into their plans.
After a time, estimated at a little over a century, the western mind was set upon by a blight; it was
Boredom. The attack was so severe that the over-entertained people, led by a handful of restless men
and women from the upper orders, demanded Reform and finally imposed it in the usual way, by
repeating one idea. These radicals had begun to study the old neglected literary and photographic texts
and maintained that they were the record of a fuller life. They urged looking with a fresh eye at the
monuments still standing about; they reopened the collections of works of art that had long seemed so
uniformly dull that nobody went near them. They distinguished the styles and the different ages of their
emergence – in short, they found a past and used it to create a new present. Fortunately, they were bad
imitators (except for a few pedants), and their twisted view of their sources laid the foundation of our
nascent – or perhaps one should say, renascent – culture. It has resurrected enthusiasm in the young
and talented, who keep exclaiming what a joy it is to be alive.iii
I recently saw this loss of propriety at close quarters, when a young female acquaintance came to a
social gathering, wearing a T-shirt, apparently unaware of the irony of the message printed on its front:
“Fuck Conformity!”
For a short summary of linguistic relativism, see “Language and Thought,” at the website of the
Linguistic Society of America.
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (New York: Harper
Collins, 2000), p. 801