In his 1995 book After the Future, Russian philosopher and Culturologist, Mikhail Epstein, discusses the tense relationship between civilization and culture. Drawing upon previous theorists of civilization, such as Oswald Spengler, Epstein argues that civilizations go through processes of growth and decay and that it is in the transition stages that culture emerges. According to Epstein:

…culture is civilization that has realized its end and embraced its own limit in the perspective of self-destruction: political opposition, economic crisis, environmental catastrophe, or a cultural meta-language capable of using “civilized” language in a practice of self-analysis or self-critique.

This is perhaps best understood from a narrative perspective. The story of a previous civilization has lost its potency and its members have lost the plot. This opens up the potential for critique and speculation about alternative possibilities. From this a new story emerges of a utopian future. All embrace this new story precluding all others until all expression becomes fixed on what is, not what could be. The story shifts from a utopia to be created to an ideology to be defended. With time, entropy and greater distance from its origins, the story begins to unravel into multiple separate strands opening up possibilities for critique and new utopian visions to emerge. And on and on it goes in cycles of civilization and culture.

Epstein defines culture, complexly, as potential. It is the condition for transcendence. A civilization at its apex becomes blind to alternative possibilities. On its way up it must prove itself superior to other stories it is aware of and on its way down it must suppress or discredit them to prolong its life. Like fractal patterns, these processes can be seen as self-similar at multiple scales such as that of living organisms going through phases of development and eventual senescence.

This relationship between civilization and culture allows us to gauge where our civilization is at in its lifecycle through examining the range and nature of our cultural expression, in particular, the nature and levels of critique and alternative thinking. For example, for several decades now we have seen a plethora of post-apocalyptic, super hero and zombie stories being told, suggesting a phase of decay. We are also seeing more and more stories of alternative futures either about complex technological societies and humanity’s incursion into the galaxy, or, a return to more simple and sustainable agrarian-based societies.

In terms of critique, we have perhaps never seen more of it with a constant flow of experts appearing hourly in various media telling us how dysfunctional and corrupt our world is becoming, particularly our political systems. The political opposition, economic crises and environmental catastrophes we are constantly reminded of in our speed-of-light news feeds, are sure signs that our civilization is realizing its end.

One recent example of cultural critique is a television series called The Young Pope. This is a story which speculates about the possibility of a relatively young, deeply insecure, cigarette smoking and coke drinking American being elected Pope. Deeply insecure, because the young Pope feels alone and betrayed having been abandoned by his parents who left him at a Catholic orphanage at a young age and have never contacted him since.

While this story is still unfolding and has many complexities, one thing we see is the relationship between civilization and culture I have discussed. The young Pope, rather than being progressive, is an angry, dogmatic and conservative fundamentalist, perhaps not unlike the many young men who join Islamic State. What he sees around him is decay manifest in the compromise and corruption of the aging Cardinals; men who have lost the plot of Christianity’s utopian narrative.  To address such chaos and decadence, the young Pope insists on establishing a strict and ascetic form of order, including a total rejection of homosexuality.

We have seen this story repeated ad nauseam throughout history, of course, as well as its destructive consequences. The young Pope, who names himself Pius XIII, can, perhaps be thought of as a 21st Century Martin Luther. Luther also insisted on a strict and individualized form of piety to create order from the chaos and decadence of the institution of the Catholic Church, which began to see itself as more important than the God it served.

Or, perhaps Pius XIII is Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian intellectual who is said to have inspired modern Islamism and its leaders such as Osama bin Laden. Qutb’s arguments for jihad against the West and other Muslims is said to have been inspired by his contempt for the decadence that had infected Americans as well as liberalized Muslims. Or perhaps he is Leo Strauss, the American philosopher credited with inspiring the Neo-conservative movement which emerged to counter the growing decadence in American society by undermining democracy and restoring the natural order of things, putting power in the hands of intellectual elites; elites justified in manipulating the masses for their own good.

Perhaps he is all of those who have throughout history seized the opportunity afforded by the potentials opened up within a decaying civilization to impose strict order on a system in chaos; men, who harbour deep insecurities and live in constant fear of uncertainty. Who control their fear by strictly controlling their environments, reducing all life to instruments of such control.

As an expression of our current culture, The Young Pope reveals to us the advanced stage of our civilization’s decay most evident in our inability to solve a host of problems because our civilization has generated them: environmental destruction, global terrorism, spiraling debt, obesity, aging populations, un-employment and under-employment, inequality, over-connection, mindless consumption, over-population, the dismantling of democracy, the corruption of knowledge and truth, disembodiment and meaninglessness, to name a few.

Our civilization’s senility has left us devoid of imagination and memory. We have lost the plot and no longer have a sense of what it is we are working to achieve. Our nihilism leaves us easy prey to those who mask their insecurities by denying complexity and becoming certain of what they believe in and want.

Epstein shows us that we have an opportunity. The decay of our civilization provides the potential for culture and new stories to emerge. The Young Pope not only reveals to us our decadence, it warns us to not blindly follow history and allow our fears and insecurities to destroy potential for transcendence towards greater freedoms.

About The Author

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Glenn McLaren teaches philosophy at Swinburne University. Melbourne, Australia. Prior to becoming a philosopher he spent most of his working life as a fitness trainer. His main interest, therefore is in health, both of humans and the biosphere. As a process philosopher, he has a particular interest in transforming philosophy to make it more relevant to addressing our current and future global crises.