The Wreck of Western Culture
- Paper • Pages: 275
- ISBN10/13: 1935191829 / 9781935191827
- List Price: $22.95
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Humanism built Western civilization as we know it today. Its achievements include the liberation of the individual, democracy, universal rights, and widespread prosperity and comfort. Its ambassadors are the heroes of modern culture—Erasmus, Holbein, Shakespeare, Velázquez, Descartes, Kant, Freud. Those who sought to contain humanism’s pride within a frame of higher truth—Luther, Calvin, Poussin, Kierkegaard—could barely interrupt its torrential progress. Those who sought to reform humanism’s tenets from within—Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche—were tested by the success of their own prophecies.
So runs the approved view. It is not shared by John Carroll.
Instead, Carroll articulates a disruptive and compelling alternative narrative of the course of Western civilization since the Renaissance and the Reformation contrived to unleash reason, will, and a superhuman man on the world. The West’s five-hundred-year experiment with humanism has failed, he maintains in this bracing study of humanism's rise to preeminence and its headlong tumble into contradiction, because humans ultimately need some kind of contact with a higher, or metaphysical, order beyond the confines of their time-bound, mundane selves. And if this wasn't entirely clear before September 11, 2001, Carroll concludes, it surely is now. His provocative and brilliant arguments will challenge received wisdom on every side.
What They're Saying...
"Features pugnacious prose, expository skillfulness, transgressive wisdom, and mental verve . . . If you relish the masterpieces of the modern West because they reveal 'the deepest truths of their time,' then you will welcome this study. . . . Some of the finest books are ambitious to the point of hubris, synoptic to the point of oversimplification, and courageous to the point of rashness. The Wreck of Western Culture risks the flaws to achieve the merits."
— The Weekly Standard
"Important, and, at times, brilliant."
— The Guardian
"A hair-raisingly vicious polemic against the legacy of the Renaissance, liberalism, and modernity . . . Brilliant."
— The New Statesman
"A passionate, imaginative, richly detailed interpretation of the spiritual history of the modern West . . . At a time when cutting-edge cultural criticism devotes itself to ephemera, it apparently takes a maverick Aussie sociologist to don the prophet’s mantle."
"Shows that the Enlightenment blew out the candles all over Europe and contributed in the long run to intellectual and emotional darkness."
"This book is provocative, brilliant, exasperating."
— The Age (Melbourne)
"Selectively adducing an array of cultural icons—works of Shakespeare, Velizquez, Poussin, Descartes, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, to cite a few—Carroll analyzes each masterpiece to forge a new link in the catena of his argument that the inner logic and competing perspectives of the humanist experience inevitably led to self-destruction due to the absence of a metaphysical foundation beyond human's reason and free will. The author's dour, unflinching portrayal of modern Western civilization's 'surrender to oblivion' will elicit from his audience some profound and trenchant responses to this invitation to the funeral of humanism."
"Carroll has earned a place entirely of his own, a place which but few others dare or have the stamina to visit. . . . His unique role in present-day intellectual life consists in continuous stimulation. . . . In this reassessment of Western civilization, Carroll’s unorthodox, thought-provoking version puts the religious, artistic and philosophical milestones of modern history into new perspective. . . . Unputdownable."
— Zygmunt Bauman
"Carroll compellingly presents a deeply challenging intellectual argument. . . . To argue that the last half millennium of Western culture has been catastrophic is audacious. Nonetheless, his analysis is compelling. . . . An important contribution."
— Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies
"Carroll's penetrating insights and his prodigous scholarship will repay a careful reading, and his astringent book is very highly recommended."
— Catholic Library World
“Even as he challenges Humanism, John Carroll remains faithful to its core commitment—the search for meaning. In an age when serious thinkers have almost all become academics, specializing in precise answers to disciplinary questions, Carroll reminds us what an intellectual should be. Hunting big game, he addresses the dark and brooding problems of our time.”
— Jeffrey C. Alexander, Yale University
Interview with John Carroll, author of
The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited
The book opens with the lines:
We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of Humanism. Around us is that “colossal wreck.” Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from a mild cosmic breeze, never mind one of those icy gales that regularly return to rip us humans out of the cosy intimacy of our daily lives and confront us with oblivion. Is it surprising that we are run down? We are desperate, yet we don’t care much, any more. We are timid, yet we cannot be shocked. We are inert underneath our busyness. We are destitute in our plenty. We are homeless in our own homes.
What do you mean?
A soul that fails to find its meaning goes mad. Madness in its modern form usually takes the form of depression, or a restless and insatiable pursuit of pleasure and entertainment. It is the central task of every culture to provide compelling stories that help individuals make sense of their lives. Western Humanism enacted a cultural revolution that successfully replaced the old stories, and especially the religious ones, with its own defining axiom: the only centre of significance and meaning for humans is their own individual selves, served by two powers, freewill and reason. By now, we know that this revolution has failed.
Humanism built Western civilization as we know it today. It replaced the squalor, rampant disease, brute labor, and poverty of the medieval town with the thriving modern metropolis. Its achievements include the liberation of the individual, democracy, universal rights, and widespread prosperity and comfort. It directed some of the greatest works of the human spirit: the plays of Shakespeare, the science of Newton and Darwin, the philosophy of Descartes, Rousseau and Kant. What can be wrong with that?
Nothing is wrong with that—in its own terms. On the contrary, these are great achievements. In every material sense we live much better than our ancestors; and in some ethical senses too. No one in their right minds would choose to go back to live in the European Middle Ages. But we do not live by bread alone. In fact, we depend for true living on culture—we breathe culture. It is here that Humanism has left us stranded, with very precarious links to any higher or enduring truths.
The New Statesman in England described your book as ‘A hair-raisingly vicious polemic against the legacy of the Renaissance, liberalism and modernity.’ How would you defend yourself?
The New Statesman argues, in effect, that we live pretty well today—comfortably, in more just and tolerant societies than our ancestors, well-ordered and efficiently running societies. All right, there are high rates of psychopathology, like depression and anxiety, worrying levels of drug and alcohol abuse, but this is a small price to pay. Highly-charged belief would return us to religious fundamentalism, or messianic political movements like Nazism and Communism.
I disagree. Nazism arose because of the failure of the old religious orders. It was a symptom of the pervasive crisis of meaning that I am analysing in this book. Hitler promised redemption through politics, a kind of pseudo-religion (nationalism) to replace the dying gods. Fundamentalism today is much the same, an exaggerated protest by those who fear they don’t believe in anything, that they are absolutely confident in their faith. The key issue is this: it is impossible to live well without some deep sense that my life has meaning.
Is it possible for individuals to thrive, and societies to prosper without religion?
The great Western experiment with Humanism has been to try to live in an entirely secular world, without belief in the existence of any metaphysical or religious order beyond the individual. No civilization could have carried out this experiment more intelligently and effectively. Now, five hundred years on, we know that it has failed. I think we can conclude that humans need some kind of contact to a higher, or metaphysical order beyond the confines of their time-bound, mundane selves. The challenge for the West is to rediscover a religious language that speaks plausibly to modern secular individuals.