The death wish in the contemporary west

Americans have been through any number of “this is the end” worries over the last few years from both the Left and the Right. The Left spent years selling books and making copy that warned of an impending theocratic, illiberal police state with intolerant citizens, and now the Right warns of an impending bureaucratic police state with impoverished citizens. I’m not interested in the relative merits of the warnings: I’m all thumbs with the subtleties of political discourse; and an honest view of both claims would probably show them both to be a mix of insight into real danger, misplaced but correct concern, and pure hype.

The truth of the claims doesn’t interest me, but a psychological fact that comes along with hearing them. There is a clear desire on all sides, and I can feel it also in myself, to just let the crisis come. In all of the endless cycles of NEWS CRISIS SPECIAL REPORT there is an undercurrent of the death wish. In our honest moments, we fear more that the cataclysm won’t come. The Right has its own way of venting this death wish (the appeal to moral hazard in the face of economic crisis, fantasies about guns and rugged living) and the Left has another (media and movies that fantasize about corporate conspiracy, whitechristianguy intolerance, a pristine environment without people, and the Big-Brother federal surveillance state) but both involve a venting of the pressure built up by the death wish (notice I don’t say they are this venting – it’s just an aspect of them) and living, by anticipation, in the world that comes after death.

But to call it a death wish is to name it after what is most dramatic in and not what is most real. Nature doesn’t think about death, and our desire doesn’t terminate in it. We want the new birth on the other side of the collapse. This desire for a new birth has been building at least for the last century, and it is most apparent in our contemporary art. We have spent the last century trying to destroy the very idea of art. Warhol’s soup can or Duchamp’s urinal are brilliant pieces of art, if reckoned according to their goal, which was to infect the popular imagination with the idea that art was anything you called art – in other words, that there was no art. Taken as pure nihilism, both are trite and pointless, but they are more than that, which is why they fascinate. The desire is to kill art altogether, all the way down to its foundations, so that we might come out on the other side with a clean slate and a pristine consciousness.   The civilization has grown tired. Let’s burn down the forest to clear the path and fertilize the earth. Philosophy has run on a path similar to art – we have destroyed all the systems by critique, and we strive to deconstruct and complicate thought to the point where the life of the mind stops altogether. All the sciences and humanities strive to complicate, to befuddle, to leave anyone who wanders into them in a complete state of bewilderment. The degree of truth in all fields is measured by the degree of specialization, and the degree of specialization by the extent to which no one can understand what you are saying – including yourself. It would be one thing to say that all of this just happens – there would be nothing confusing in that. But we want this to happen, and are horrified that the whole thing might not hit its consummation. Why?

In treating of the question why there are many different things in the universe, St. Thomas answered that God was infinite, and that matter could only imitate this infinity by giving rise to a multiplicity of forms. One such imitation is “static”, that is, we can consider the multiplicity of forms at one given time. But the changes in matter also give rise to time, and so there should also a temporal multiplicity of one form following upon the next. Death does this in one way, and factors like natural selection and genetic drift do it in another (this latter way is a more perfect way of bringing about the telos of multiplicity over the whole of time).  But man is an infinite spirit too, and so there is an identical impulse for multiplicity in the things that owe their existence to his will: art, culture, society, governments, etc.  This impulse arises from the nature of the infinite giving rise to a finite good, and so there is some necessity of death – and even of the goodness of the death itself. Anyone can see in music or architecture that one style goes from freeing in one generation to being a straitjacket in the next, even if it is always beautiful. Mozart and Chartres will always be beautiful, but it would be insipid to simply imitate them forever – or even for more than a generation or so (various styles last more or less, but it is a matter of when and not whether they should die.)

Culture or government, in their concrete expressions, are styles too. Like all art, they also have a natural and timeless element, but this is not what the death wish works on. There are signs that we want a change in a rather far-reaching style – given the thought of the last 100 years, it looks like we want a death of the West. This desire is obvious in the university, but it has had great popular success and has been widely adopted in elementary and secondary schools; and we must always remember that ideas do not catch on like an infection, but because they are persuasive. The multi-culti desire to liquidate the West speaks to a need in Western persons. It had to come sooner or later, and by “had to” I mean it is good that the death of all our artifacts come at some time or another, even if the artifacts themselves have permanent value. This does not make apathy some sort of wisdom – as though we can content ourselves smugly to wait for this all to come crashing down. One is not heroic for abandoning a lost cause (just ask the soldiers at Thermopylae).


  1. sancrucensis said,

    August 13, 2011 at 11:37 am

    This is so brilliant. I’ve been mulling it over for the past couple of days. The idea that development in human works comes from the infinite giving rise to a finite good sheds such a light on so many things (the Cistercian reform of monasticism for example…).

    But what I’ve been wondering about is where on this account the sinister element comes from. Why death rather than simply increase and development? You show the similarity of human works to God in this, but where does the difference come in? God, obviously, has no death wish; “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” I wonder whether the difference in the kind of infinite we are dealing with here plays into this. God is an actually infinite good, whereas we are only possibly united to an infinite good.

    • August 14, 2011 at 2:17 pm

      Yes, why not improvement? If I’m right about this, the basic argument at work is

      All things proceeding from a source which they are not adequate to imitate this source by one thing passing away into the next
      Culture, society, civilization, etc. all proceed from the soul but are not adequate to it

      (N.B. The first premise is restricted to the domain of things that can pass away.)

      The major is from ST I q. 47 a. 1 co, though it wouldn’t be hard to reduce it to the ratio of an equivocal cause or the procession of the common good (the major can be put as “all effects of an equivocal cause imitate the cause by… etc.); the minor strikes me as self-evident. If the argument works, it sets limits on how long any culture or society could improve itself, since at some point natural law (and I use the term in STA’s sense) requires that the culture, society, civilization dissolve and give rise to another one.

      My sense is that the West has reached this point. Others have reached the same conclusion too. One critical caveat that needs to be stressed right away is that this has very little to do with how much evil is in the culture. Societies at their height can commit very grave evils too, and be the place where many are committed, and we will never know just how many crimes and sins will be committed in one era as opposed to another, or how we could ever balance the conquering of one set of evil (say, in the West, dueling, slavery, Donatism, child prostitution…) with the widespread succumbing to other ones. When I say the West is dying, it has nothing to do with some “grand total of evils” getting larger and larger.

      • sancrucensis said,

        August 15, 2011 at 9:03 am

        That makes a lot of sense, but it raises a lot of questions. For one thing, doesn’t the first premise make evil hypothetically necessary? That is, if God creates anything which is both finite and not necessary then there will necessarily be corruption, which is a kind of evil.

      • August 15, 2011 at 12:08 pm

        That’s true. Physical evil would be necessary on this hypothesis, both in divine and human making. Moral evil isn’t necessary, though it is not an easy thing to see how the collapse of a culture can happen except by moral evils. Isn’t it by definition an age of decadence? That’s why I stress that decline does not bespeak any particular moral state. Societies in decline might well, for all I know, have cumulatively more virtues than societies at their height. In our own case, it seems like we have a sharper sense of the evils of war, the equality of persons, and the evil of religious hypocrisy (fewer people in our age seem willing to endure merely going through the motions of religious practice, which I think might be a sign of spiritual development).

      • Brandon said,

        August 15, 2011 at 12:49 pm

        I think on a small scale (local groups and small associations) we regularly see societies decline and collapse without the cause necessarily being any sort of moral evil: people develop an interest in other things and drift away, the ends of the society are met and thus the society is no longer needed, a better society comes along doing the same thing, the resources required to maintain the society no longer exist, etc.

        I think the difficulty with thinking of this in terms of cultures arises from (1) the fact that cultures are so big that they can’t just be dissolved arbitrarily; (2) the fact that the ends and needs served by cultures are ongoing and indefinite; (3) the fact that people so strongly identify with cultures; and (4) the fact that corruption of one sort or another plays such a large role in most narratives of social decline that we can imagine. But in principle, at least, the loss-of-resources problem could apply at a very large scale, and things like mass conversion or large-scale reform show that at least partial corruption of a previous culture is not unheard of. Perhaps it’s just that on a massive scale the likelihood of a consistent corruption without extesnive moral fault is unlikely, given original sin.

        Or perhaps it’s just that virtue can often extend the life of even a failing society, culture, or government, in such a way that it is not itself, as such, a cause of decline. For instance, in the running-out-of-resources case, thrift and prudence could make the resources last longer without necessarily preventing the decline itself, and yet also without the thrift and prudence being a cause of decline.

        (I’m reminded a bit of the Asgard in the TV series Stargate SG-1; due to a mistake that they didn’t see was a mistake at the time, their survival depends entirely on cloning and as a result they are biologically deteriorating through copies of copies of copies. In principle, experimenting on humans, who have biological similarities to their original form, could speed up the discovery of a solution to the problem, or at least give them more time to solve it, but the main part of their society refuses to do so for ethical reasons, even knowing that their survival is on the line. And the result is that they don’t find a solution and the degeneration becomes so severe as to be irreversible, leading them to commit suicide for broadly Stoic reasons. Some small renegade groups break away, experimenting on humans and outlasting the rest of Asgard society — but the Asgard-society-that-dies is a better society, and a better Asgard society, than the Asgard-society-that-survives.)

  2. outofsleep said,

    August 14, 2011 at 1:20 am


  3. Thomas said,

    August 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    It seems to make sense that people get tired of everything finite, and everything human is finite, so we get tired of everything human, and that includes every civilization.

    Isn’t something missing though? Civilizational collapse through general disgust seems rather unusual. Egypt and imperial China and Hindu India and Christian Rome (a.k.a Byzantium) could go on and on and on, until they were overwhelmed or at least debunked and demoted from outside.

    The difference seems to be that every civilization before that of the modern West had a transcendent and indeed infinite component. We in the modern West have done away with that. Hence, it seems to me, our current state.

  4. bgc said,

    August 31, 2011 at 6:59 am

    I think the answer is that the end of the West is, in itself, neither good nor bad (although almost certainly the scale of human misery will be unprecedented) – it is the reason for this desire that is good or bad.

    To desire the end of the West for reasons of nihilism (as you describe it above) is surely demonic, evil? But to desire the end in hope of (say) restoring a Christian society might be regarded as good?

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