Decline and Fall

Thoughts on the meaning of progress

The moon is seen behind the ancient temple of the Parthenon in Athens

The moon is seen behind the ancient temple of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. (CNS)

It is a common trope of literary history, that of decrying the degeneracy of the times, and looking back with nostalgia upon the virtues of one’s forefathers. “O tempora, O mores!” cries Cicero, fulminating before his fellow senators as he delineates the crimes of Catiline, who sought to stir up a civil insurrection to place himself in power. In The Acharnians and Lysistrata, Aristophanes glances at the virtue of those Spartans and Athenians of two generations past who joined forces to fight the common foe, Persia, at Thermopylae and Marathon, rather than fighting one another and cozying up to that same enemy. William Faulkner sees in the American South a transition from a society whose principal virtue was honor, to one in which money is the only thing that talks; a movement from a world that the thoughtful Quentin Compson could both critique and love, to a world ruled by people like his grasping brother Jason, who even when he was a boy kept his hands in his pockets.

In part such criticism bespeaks a willingness, sometimes laudable and pious, sometimes merely obtuse, to overlook the failings of one’s predecessors. The Senate that heard Cicero’s orations against Catiline had long failed to act for the common good of all Romans. It had ignored the pleas of the Gracchi brothers for land reform. Rome had seized much land in Italy and elsewhere from rebellious peoples after her victories in war. That land, in the late second century, was held by wealthy senators. The Gracchi, seeing the impoverishment of Rome’s veterans, and wishing to return wage-earners from the city to the country, tried to compel the Senate to give up some of those lands. They were assassinated for their pains; and the Senate, rich and unwilling to govern, would consign their own authority more and more to warlords like Marius and Sulla, and to ambitious populists like Julius Caesar. The world that Cicero pretended to save had for a long time not existed. Something similar might be said about the generation of Greeks who fought the Persians. It was not true that the Greeks were united; many a Greek polis sided with Persia, for the city-states had long been fighting with one another, and the fighting would not cease until the very institution of the free polis was destroyed by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander. As for the antebellum South, it was built upon the back of slave labor, as Faulkner well knew, nor would he allow his reader to forget it.

But in part the focus upon cultural decline is warranted, for the simple reason that cultural decline, in one respect or another, is the most common thing in the world. It is an easily noted fact. The conditions that make for cultural achievements of the highest magnitude are rare enough, and transient. Examples are numerous. The people of Elizabethan England had enjoyed a tradition of popular drama stretching back several centuries. These dramas were originally associated with the three-day festival of Corpus Christi, but eventually the characteristic features of those liturgical plays were incorporated into so-called morality plays, sometimes presented by traveling troupes of actors for the people of a town, sometimes performed at regional courts, or even before the king. That made for a tradition both earthy and spiritually profound—think of the great Everyman

But when the new classical learning met that old popular drama—when the playwrights and the company managers began to take their plots from Plutarch or Tacitus, or the classically learned writers of the Italian Renaissance—then we have the opportunity for drama unlike anything the world had seen before. Without those popular dramas, the genius of a Shakespeare would have been cramped into narrow limits; we might have had from him some tragedies like those which the classicizing Racine and Corneille would write in France, but we could have had no Falstaff, no Bottom the Weaver, no Touchstone, no Caliban.

Or—keeping our eyes upon drama, that art form wherein excellence is most sporadic—consider the golden age of American film, the 1930s and 1940s. Again we are presented with a coincidence of conditions that would eventually disappear. Directors such as John Ford and Frank Capra came not from university film departments, of which there were none, but from the common people. They knew what it was to bend over a plow or to hammer spikes into a railroad tie or haul coal up from a mineshaft. They knew what it was to pray and worship beside their neighbors. They saw the suffering of the Great Depression; many of them had served in the armed forces, and knew war. They had, moreover, a popular drama in place: in local playhouses and opera houses and vaudeville stages. When they thought of a story, they thought in archetypal terms they derived in part from reading such works as How Green Was My Valley, but mainly from the Scriptures. Their self-censorship compelled them to find subtle and astute ways to convey the bright and dark sides of human sexuality. They had no great machines for special effects, so they depended for narrative power on the expressiveness of the human body and face. Such conditions were not everlasting, but while they held, Americans produced films of extraordinary range and power. The 10th-best movie of 1939 might well be superior to any film winning the Academy Award between 1980 and the present.

Or consider what has happened to English poetry. Since the time, say, of Tennyson and Browning, whole genres of poetry have basically vanished. Frost wrote long narrative poems, and dramatic dialogues; but few poets of note have done so since, and Frost was consciously old-fashioned even in his own time. The dramatic monologue is gone. The epic is gone. The ode is gone. The 19th century saw an extravagant variety of poetic forms. Byron wrote in the Spenserian stanza and in ottava rima, as did Shelley and Keats. Wordsworth and Shelley and Keats wrote odes of magnificent musical intricacy. Tennyson invented a perfect chiastic rhyme scheme for “In Memoriam. Robert Browning wrote “My Last Duchess” in heroic couplets so beautifully enjambed that the inattentive hearer might miss the rhymes themselves. Hopkins invented something he called “sprung rhythm,” to give us lines of incomparable compression and expansion, as when he celebrates the union of the beautiful things of this world with a heart and mind that can love their beauty and see Christ in them:

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting; which two when they once meet,

The heart rears wings bold and bolder

And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

What made such music possible? The poets enjoyed the benefits of knowing something (often a very great deal) about classical meter, while feeling free to adopt any invention from centuries of English poetry—from the balance of a couplet by Pope, to the nervous syllable-contractions characteristic of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton, to the simple rhythms of popular ballads. Again, these conditions would not last. The 20th century saw a loss in metrical variety and skill. Partly this loss was due to the fading of education in Latin and Greek. Another culprit was the sudden emergence of free verse, far removed from anything like the traditional song of village and church. When poets ceased to write in the old meters, they ceased also to appreciate the peculiarities of those tools. They never learned, for instance, just what effects something as supple as iambic pentameter could produce. Even Robert Frost, for all his fluency and brilliance, could never, or would never, write lines with music as unusual and semantically suggestive as these from Milton, in praise of a young woman devoted to spiritual study:

Therefore be sure

Thou, when the Bridegroom with his feastful friends

Passes to bliss at the mid-hour of night,

Hast gained thy entrance, Virgin wise and pure.

As I said, such declines are common. Greek philosophy reached its apex almost at the same time as the free polis fell; the succeeding Stoics and Cynics and Epicureans never addressed even a small portion of the questions that exercised Plato and Aristotle. Sculpture in imperial Rome is a derivative of the Greek, and then becomes bombastic under Constantine. The last great Roman poet is Juvenal, and he is dead long before that sad and wistful emperor Marcus Aurelius, who spent most of his days as ruler trying to hold the frontier against invaders. Poetry in English after Chaucer goes into steep decline for over a hundred years. Tragedy written after the Restoration is a pale shadow of its Elizabethan and Jacobean predecessor. Italian painting in the Baroque period took a turn away from the bold innovations of Caravaggio and Tintoretto, and became, for two centuries and more, sentimental and derivative. Not one man or woman in the United States Senate could now write a speech such as was delivered by a Daniel Webster or a Joseph Hayne, and there are plenty who probably could not read them very easily, either. A few generations ago, popular music was represented by the musically fascinating and literate Cole Porter, and others like him; now it is dominated by sublinguistic lyrics set to infantile rhythms and wailing without melody.

The real question is not whether there are such things as cultural declines, or whether we are in one now—for in one way or another, people are almost always in decline from those peaks that are hard to reach and harder to sustain. It is rather why we resist the judgment so vehemently. Say in public that Chartres Cathedral is a greater work of art than a house by Frank Lloyd Wright, or that the polyphony that resounded in churches across Renaissance Europe is a more powerful and beautiful expression of worship than are the louche verses of Marty Haugen and David Haas, and you will inevitably be charged with elitism; nor will it help you to point out that Chartres was perhaps the greatest piece of folk art the world has known, or that polyphony would be sung and heard in towns everywhere. And this jittery defense of the contemporary deserves a closer look.

The one thing that modern man must believe in, lest he see the poverty he suffers in the midst of wealth and technological sophistication, is progress. It is touchingly naïve, this belief. For it corresponds to nothing in modern man’s personal experience. Modern man considers himself superior to his forefathers because they scratched the land with the horse-drawn plow, while he—if he lives on the land at all, and he almost certainly does not—dredges it up with million-dollar machines, complete with all kinds of gauges for measuring the depth and temperature and acidity of the soil. It will not do to remind modern man that he is far less a user of tools than a product of those tools; that he does not so much develop tools to compass certain cultural objectives, as the tools themselves determine what kind of life he leads, apart from any decision he makes that such a life redounds to a fuller humanity. Modern man “knows” certain scientific truths, such as that the earth revolves around the sun, but he knows them principally because he has been told them by experts; if you ask him to look up at the night sky, it is highly unlikely that he will find a planet there, as any shepherd boy of old could have done. Modern man can go to a museum, or buy a ticket to Rome to look at the churches, or play a recording of Bach; but he remains for the most part an outsider in a world that is all outside and no inside, a consumer in a world that is all consumption. He cannot sing, cannot take up a fiddle unless he has had special training in it. Modern man can click a button and see the whole of the Patrologia Latina show up on his screen; but the few personal letters he writes are childish, his newspapers demand sentences such as would not stump a fifth grader, his magazines are slick and sleazy, and his oratory aspires to the condition of a jingle for selling new and improved soap.

What does modern man have, if not this ill-defined “progress”? I look at the downtown of Stamford, Connecticut, what used to be the real center of a real city, whose people knew one another, who celebrated at one another’s weddings, and mourned at their funerals. On one of the principal streets stands a neo-Gothic church built by Irish Catholics in the 19th century. It is a beautiful and moving structure. Since the neighborhood had grown poor in the 1970s, when elitist churchmen with a taste for minimalism destroyed many a work of popular art, the church survived the decade more or less intact. But its spire is now dwarfed by the ugliness of new wealth. Stamford has become a business center for people who do not want to live in New York, and its streets now boast vast box-like buildings of concrete, steel, and glass, where traders in high finances go to work. This is one face of “progress”: detachment from time and place and a common life.

Modern man eats well, and lives a long time, and for most of his years enjoys good health. These are fine things, but unfortunately they are not going anywhere. Most of his advance in longevity has been due to antibiotics and hygiene; and death looms nevertheless. Having cut himself off from his forebears, modern man has no especial feeling of union with those who will come after him; even in his longevity he feels the burden of time, without the consolation of the timeless. Say to him, then, that the only real progress man ever makes is toward the Kingdom of God, and that progress occurs in God’s good time and by God’s good grace, and that even technological progress is unsteady and humanly problematical, and as for progress in the arts and letters, if it happens at all, it takes a millennium or so to be discernible. 

Say something of this sort, and he will be like a lame man whose crutch has been knocked out from underneath him. But they that trust in the Lord shall be on their way. They shall mount, as on the wings of eagles. They shall run, and not grow weary; walk, and not grow faint.

About Anthony Esolen 18 Articles
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College. His most recent book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press). He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy for Modern Library Classics.