Please consider the wall hangings in this photo from a remote village in Belarus:
And please note the plaque over the door in this painting of a home in Delft, in 1658:
In both of these cases we see people inserting meaning into their lives. This is something very few people do in the modern West, and it illustrates a fundamental change in our civilization.
Consider, as a further illustration, the seemingly mundane issue of naming streets. In the 19th century, new streets were named after great men. By the late 20th century that had changed entirely. Now, streets are named after geographical features: Fox Run, Spring Grove, Forest Ridge, and so on.
While any individual street name may be trivial by itself, a complete change in a naming convention amongst hundreds of millions of people speaks of something deeper. So does the fact that almost no one in the West hangs images and words of personal devotion on their walls any longer. Mainly they hang abstract art.
What Does This Mean?
The lady in the first photo placed images of meaningful people on her walls: beloved progenitors, holy men, and so on. These were “higher than mundane” standards to her: inspiration toward the high and good… and more than that, transcendent human inspirations.
If and when you have a chance, I encourage you to attend a cocktail party or some such gathering and begin to talk about the beauty and genius of mankind. But I also suggest that you be prepared to be insulted, because such talk is heresy in modern circles. Man, it is understood, is dirty, low, and dangerous. And it is because of this that we no longer place images of great women and men on our walls.
There are a few exceptions of course, but they are exceptions, not the norm.
What this means is:
We no longer revere humans, except the idols of this year’s election of course. They’re our versions of Rome’s gladiators. We (and I’m using “we” very broadly today) watch as they slash and thrust at each other, cheering for our side, and imagining that the spectacle will somehow improve our lives. But we have lost all sight of great and transcendent men and women. And so we have lost the expectation of ourselves becoming better than we are, save through the muck of politics. But with the transcendent man’s face on our wall, we had an image of someone higher to think about and relate to. These images helped us improve and aspire to higher things.
We no longer have an independent standard. Back when the West had Christianity, there was always an outside standard by which to judge the world. The king may have had the power to kill, but his actions were always compared to a higher standard. And because of that he could be roundly condemned. (And often was.) With that standard taken away – and replaced with a gaping void – we’re left with no star to guide by. Within that vacuum, filthy politics has become the god of the age, holding power over all human affairs.
How Did This Happen?
The answer is complex, but I’ll summarize here very briefly:
Christianity was regimented and its implementations were broadly corrupted. Judaism, the other outside standard, was shoved away and violently punished… frequently.
The Enlightenment turned dark about halfway through its run and attacked everything outside itself.
Nation-states consolidated and grew very large, legitimating themselves with democracy rather than Christianity.
Huge wars repetitively decimated the West, bringing death and privation to millions of families and driving dark philosophies to the fore.
As laws, regulations, and agencies multiplied, law was overcome by politics and society was overtaken by the state.
The political left learned to win by endlessly criticizing traditional society, a practice that continues. At the same time, the political right came to believe that state-sanctioned violence was inherently virtuous; by this (and the associated “good guy/bad guy” narrative) the most outgoing branches of Christianity were brought into partnership with the state.
There’s much more to say on this subject (and I refer you to issues #42, 67, and 90 of FMP), but this gives you a general outline. The West has lost its sense that humans can be great. They’ve also lost their view of any outside standard.
These things need to be restored.
* * * * *
As it turns out, history was never too hard to understand; they just told you the wrong story.
Comments from readers:
“This is the most amazing little book I have read on history in 36 years of reading history.”
“It will change the way you look at nearly everything.”
“I will flat out say that this is the best history book I have ever read… I am fairly well read, but I learned a tremendous amount that I hadn’t known before or hadn’t aligned so that it made sense.”
“This is the best and clearest description of the history of Western civilization I have ever read.”
“Packed with insights on every page concerning how the world came to be the way it is and what we might expect in the future.”
* * * * *