1861, May 23: Virginia voters approve secession, thus finally (to my mind) reaching bottom in the Commonwealth’s descent from the preeminent position it played both politically and philosophically – humanly – since long before the Revolution, a decline powered by the attachment to slavery and enabled by a phony sentimentalism rewriting the history of the causes driving Virginia’s founding fathers.
On the secession itself, see
To my mind, it is helpful to have in mind several historical and literary markers of the “decline and fall” theme when considering the sunset of Virginia. The four of them are by historians Gibbon and Spengler, and novelists Wilde and Waugh.
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Gibbon’s History:
Gibbon offers an explanation for why the
Roman Empire fell, a task made difficult by a lack of comprehensive written
sources, though he was not the only historian to tackle the subject. Most of his ideas
are directly taken from what few relevant records were available: those of the
Roman moralists of the 4th and 5th centuries.
According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in
large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens.
They had become weak, outsourcing their duties to defend their Empire to
barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were
able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, had become effeminate,
unwilling to live a tougher, “manly” military lifestyle. He further blames the
degeneracy of the Roman army and the Praetorian guards.
In addition, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life
existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman
citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for the Empire. He also
believed its comparative pacifism
tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit. Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers, Gibbon held in
contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden,
superstitious, dark age. It
was not until his own age of reason and rational thought, it was believed, that
human history could resume its progress.
Gibbon sees the primary catalyst of the empire’s initial decay and eventual
collapse in the Praetorian Guard, instituted as a special class of soldiers
permanently encamped in a commanding position within Rome, a seed planted by Augustus at the establishment of the
empire. As Gibbon calls them at the outset of Chapter V: The Praetorian
bands, whose licentious fury was the first symptom and cause of the decline of
the Roman empire… He cites repeated examples of this special force abusing
its power with calamitous results, including numerous instances of imperial
assassination and demands of ever-increasing pay.
Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West
His grim view of an inexorable doom for western civilization implied acceptance of
fate, but also offered a sense of freedom from the past. His historical idea
influenced artists and architects, who used it as a justification for abandoning
the historic styles, now no longer valid for the new era. Mies van der Rohe
is known to have accepted Spengler’s view, and used it as a framework to guide
his search for a new architectural style that would represent the modern
His worldview also took a dim view of democracy as the type of government of
the declining civilization. He argued that democracy is driven by money and
therefore easily corruptible. Spengler initially supported the rise of a
strong-willed leader type of government as the next phase after democracy
A 1928 Time review of the second volume of
Decline described the immense influence and controversy Spengler’s ideas
enjoyed during the 1920s: “When the first volume of The Decline of the West
appeared in Germany a few years ago, thousands of copies were sold. Cultivated
European discourse quickly became Spengler-saturated. Spenglerism spurted from
the pens of countless disciples. It was imperative to read Spengler, to
sympathize or revolt. It still remains so.”
The first volume, published in 1918, had by 1920 sold more than 600.000
|This section requires expansion.|
Scholars now agree that the word “decline” more accurately renders the
intended meaning of Spengler’s original German word “Untergang” (often
translated as the more emphatic “downfall”; “Unter” being “under” and “gang”
being “going”, it is also accurately rendered in English as the “going under” of
the West). Spengler explained that he did not mean to describe a catastrophic
occurrence, but rather a protracted fall—a twilight or sunset.
In a footnote, Spengler describes the essential core of his philosophical
approach toward history, culture, and civilization:
- “Plato and Goethe stand for the
philosophy of Becoming, Aristotle
and Kant the philosophy of
Being. [This saying of Goethe] must be regarded as the expression of a perfectly
doctrine. I would not have a single word changed of this: “The Godhead is effective in the living and not in the dead,
in the becoming and the changing, not in the become and the set-fast; and
therefore, similarly, the reason is concerned only to strive towards the divine
through the becoming and the living, and the understanding only to make use of
the become and the set-fast.” This sentence comprises my entire philosophy.”
Spengler adopts an organic conception of culture. Primitive Culture
is simply a collection, a sum, of its constituent and incoherent parts (individuals, tribes, clans, etc).
Higher Culture, in its maturity and coherence, becomes an organism in its own
right, according to Spengler. The Culture is capable of sublimating the various customs, myths, techniques, arts, peoples, and classes into a single strong undiffused historical
Spengler divides the concepts of culture and civilization, the former focused
inward and growing, the latter outward and merely expanding. However, he sees
Civilization as the destiny of every Culture. The transition is not a matter of
choice—it is not the conscious will of individuals, classes, or peoples that
decides. Whereas Cultures are “things-becoming”, Civilizations are the
“thing-become.” As the conclusion of a Culture’s arc of growth, Civilizations
are outwardly focused, and in that sense artificial or insincere. Civilizations
are what Cultures become when they are no longer creative and growing. For
example, Spengler points to the Greeks and Romans, saying that the imaginative Greek culture
declined into wholly practical
Spengler also compares the “world-city”
and province, as concepts analogous
to civilization and culture respectively. This argument has elements of Marxist conceptions of a core and periphery. The
city draws upon and collects the life of broad surrounding regions. He contrasts
the “true-type” rural
born, with the nomadic, traditionless, irreligious, matter-of-fact, clever, unfruitful, and
contemptuous-of-the-countryman city dweller. In the cities he sees only the “mob“, not a people, hostile to the
traditions that represent Culture (in Spengler’s view these traditions are: nobility, church, privileges, dynasties, convention in art, and limits on scientific knowledge). City dwellers
possess cold intelligence that confounds peasant wisdom, a new-fashioned naturalism in attitudes towards sex which are a return to primitive instincts, and a dying inner
religiousness. Further, Spengler sees in urban wage-disputes and a focus on lavish sport expenditures for entertainment the final aspects that signal the
closing of Culture and the rise of the Civilization.
Spengler has a low opinion of Civilizations, even those that engaged in
significant expansion, because that expansion was not actual growth. One of his
principal examples is that of Roman “world domination.” It was not an
achievement because the Romans faced no significant resistance to their
expansion. Thus they did not so much conquer their empire, but rather simply
took possession of that which lay open to everyone. Spengler asserts that the
Roman Empire did not come into existence because of the kind of Cultural energy
that they had displayed in the Punic Wars. After the Battle of Zama, Spengler believes that the
Romans never waged, or even were capable of waging, a war against a competing great military power.
Closely connected to race is Spengler’s definition of a “people,” which he
defines as a unit of the soul. “The great events of history were not really
achieved by peoples; they themselves created the peoples. Every act
alters the soul of the doer.” Such events include migrations and wars. For
example, the American people did not migrate from Europe, but were formed by
events such as the American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War. “Neither unity of
speech nor physical descent is decisive.” What distinguishes a people from a
population is “the inwardly lived experience of ‘we’,” which exists so long as a
people’s soul lasts. “The name Roman in Hannibal’s day meant a people, in Trajan’s time nothing more than a population.” In his
view, “Peoples are neither linguistic nor political nor zoological, but
Spengler asserts that democracy is simply the political weapon of money, and the media is the means through which money operates a
democratic political system. The thorough penetration of money’s power
throughout a society is yet another marker of the shift from Culture to
Democracy and plutocracy are
equivalent in Spengler’s argument. The “tragic comedy of the world-improvers and
freedom-teachers” is that they are simply assisting money to be more effective.
The principles of equality, natural rights, universal
suffrage, and freedom of the press are all disguises for
class war (the
bourgeois against the aristocracy). Freedom, to Spengler, is a negative concept,
simply entailing the repudiation of any tradition. In reality, freedom of the
press requires money, and entails ownership, thus serving money at the end.
Suffrage involves electioneering, in which the donations rule the day. The ideologies espoused by candidates, whether Socialism or Liberalism, are set in motion by, and ultimately
serve, only money. “Free” press does not spread free opinion—it generates
opinion, Spengler maintains.
Spengler admits that in his era money has already won, in the form of
democracy. But in destroying the old elements of the Culture, it prepares the
way for the rise of a new and overpowering figure: the Caesar. Before such a
leader, money collapses, and in the Imperial Age the politics of money fades
Spengler’s analysis of democratic systems argues that even the use of one’s
own constitutional rights requires money, and that voting can only really work
as designed in the absence of organized leadership working on the election
process. As soon as the election process becomes organized by political leaders,
to the extent that money allows, the vote ceases to be truly significant. It is
no more than a recorded opinion of the masses on the organizations of government over which they possess
no positive influence whatsoever.
Spengler notes that the greater the concentration of wealth in individuals, the
more the fight for political power revolves around questions of money. One
cannot even call this corruption or degeneracy, because this is
in fact the necessary end of mature democratic systems.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only published novel by Oscar Wilde, appearing as the
lead story in Lippincott’s Monthly
Magazine on 20 June 1890, printed as the July 1890 issue of this
Wilde later revised this edition, making several alterations, and adding new
chapters; the amended version was published by Ward, Lock, and Company in April 1891. The title is
sometimes rendered incorrectly as The Portrait of Dorian Gray.
The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting
by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian’s beauty and becomes
infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his
art. Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil’s, and becomes enthralled
by Lord Henry’s world view. Espousing a new hedonism, Lord Henry suggests the only things worth
pursuing in life are beauty and fulfillment of the senses. Realizing that one
day his beauty will fade, Dorian (whimsically) expresses a desire to sell his
soul to ensure the portrait Basil has painted would age rather than himself.
Dorian’s wish is fulfilled, plunging him into debauched acts. The portrait
serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or
through a sign of aging.
Aestheticism is a strong
motif and is tied in with the concept of the double life. A major theme is
that aestheticism is merely an absurd abstract that only serves to disillusion
rather than dignify the concept of beauty. Although Dorian is hedonistic, when
Basil accuses him of making Lord Henry’s sister’s name a “by-word,” Dorian
replies “Take care, Basil. You go too far”
suggesting Dorian still cares about his outward image and standing within Victorian society. Wilde
highlights Dorian’s pleasure of living a double life.
Not only does Dorian enjoy this sensation in private, but he also feels “keenly
the terrible pleasure of a double life” when attending a society gathering just
24 hours after committing a murder.
This duplicity and indulgence is most evident in Dorian’s visit to the opium
dens of London. Wilde conflates the images of the upper class and lower class by
having the supposedly upright Dorian visit the impoverished districts of London.
Lord Henry asserts that “crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders… I
should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of
procuring extraordinary sensations”, which suggests that Dorian is both the
criminal and the aesthete combined in one man. This is perhaps linked
to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and
Mr Hyde, which Wilde admired.
The division that was witnessed in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although extreme, is
evident in Dorian Gray, who attempts to contain the two divergent parts of his
personality. This is a recurring theme in many Gothic novels.
Decline and Fall is a novel by the English author Evelyn Waugh, first published in 1928. It was
Waugh’s first published novel; an earlier attempt, entitled The Temple at
Thatch, was destroyed by Waugh while still in manuscript form.
Decline and Fall is based in part on Waugh’s undergraduate years at Hertford
College, Oxford, and his experience as a teacher in Wales. It is a social satire that employs the author’s characteristic black
humour in lampooning various features of British society in the 1920s.
The novel’s title is a contraction of Edward Gibbon‘s The History
of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The title alludes also to
the German philosopher Oswald Spengler‘s The Decline
of the West (1918–1922), which first appeared in an English translation
in 1926 and which argued, among other things, that the rise of nations and
cultures is inevitably followed by their eclipse. Waugh read both Gibbon and
Spengler while writing his first novel. Waugh’s satire is
unambiguously hostile to much that was in vogue in the late 1920s, and ” themes
of cultural confusion, moral disorientation and social bedlam…both drive the
novel forward and fuel its humour.” This, ” undertow of
moral seriousness provides a crucial tension within [Waugh’s novels], but it
does not dominate them.”  Waugh himself stated
boldly in his ‘Authors Note’ to the first edition: ‘Please bear in mind
throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.’