The Wreck of Western Culture

The Wreck of Western Culture:  Humanism Revisited, John Carroll, 2008

Carroll is yet another diagnostician in action here.  I will say that his thesis is bold and interesting, and I also note that often I wondered, “can this be true?”  Yet the evidence is visible:  “Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble.”  Carroll works backward from the conclusion to find what went wrong.  So, what went wrong?  Humanism.  Carroll is not here to honor Western humanism (though he gives credit to some real achievements), but to bury it, and bury it he does with a vicious polemical style.  I confess to a fondness for this.

What humanism did is to try to replace God with man, to found an order on earth without any transcendental or supernatural supports.  Yet, man needs a place to stand; he quotes Archimedes, “Give me somewhere to stand and I shall move the earth.”  Overturning the old order, humanism sought a new place to stand:  man.  This book chronicles, at a high level, the 500 year attempt to do so.

Carroll begins in the Italian Renaissance, with Donatello’s Gattamelata, a sculpture of a most noble, heroic man on a horse.  Carroll’s discussion turns on the idea of honor, and the Gattamelata is a visible embodiment.  Honor will save the day.  Continuing the theme, he moves into Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which Brutus is presented as an honorable man, a noble man.  Once again, honor will save the day.  The honorable Brutus killed Caesar to save him–from naked ambition.  Ultimately virtu is what it is to be fully human.

Next Carroll examines Holbein, a Renaissance artist, whose The Ambassadors is a key work in the story here.  Holbein has found that humanism is precarious; a look at The Ambassadors shows many humanist elements yet the picture is claustrophobic; and a foreshortened skull is painted right at the front.  Holbein mocks humanism.  And what is humanism’s weakness?  Death, and death haunts the humanists.  What to do with death?  Hamlet explores this, holding the skull of poor Yorick.  Hamlet is ultimately a character who is paralyzed, he cannot do his duty (kill Claudius).  His will is not enough to do what needs to be done, and he knows it, and it sickens him, full of shame.  “To be or not to be”: Hamlet explores death, and has no answers but dread.  Cervantes’s Don Quixote answers that one can will things into being, in a noble life lived in illusion; to come back to reality is a dismal existence.

And then there is Luther and the Protestant Reformation.  Carroll’s interpretation of Luther is intriguing, where he says that Luther sought a place to stand, and it wasn’t man’s will.  Luther himself said his most important work was On the Enslaved Will, and that was written not against the Pope but against Erasmus.  Erasmus was a Catholic humanist, and Luther was fighting for faith against man’s free will.

It is either the darkness of faith or nothing.  Sola fide has been the easy half of Luther’s Reformation:  he now moved into harsh terrain where, against all reason, the will is nothing.  Everything hinged on this.  If Erasmus won, Christ was done for.  The history of the next five hundred years would prove Luther right.


The deeper purpose of Luther’s Enslaved Will is not to debate Erasmus.  It is to create the authority with which to counter humanism, to annihilate it in its infancy.  Luther, too, has to find his place to stand.  With his sola fide and “no free will” he sets about forming the new Christians and subjecting them to fate.

Which was a dark dungeon where man has no free will, is imprisoned, heavily burdened with guilt and the inability to escape on his own, and so can only escape by faith.  Hard as it may be to believe, Luther was the cheerful one; and there is Calvin, who is the “sternly thoughtful and inwardly tormented self.”  Calvin embraced the contradiction against all reason:  God determined the human fall, yet all mortals are guilty.

It’s a long discussion and beyond this review’s scope, but it is clearly a pivotal element of Carroll’s thesis.  Luther & Calvin tried to answer the humanist problem (death), yet they introduced contradictions that, ultimately proved neurotic to and destructive of the West.

Carroll goes into the Alternative Reformation:  the works of Poussin, Donatello, Raphael, and Caravaggio.  He finds hope in these Catholic artists, who give embodiment to answers to humanism, yet ultimately failed.  The culture was on the move–“the seductive combination of ego, reason, and will”–and the Catholic church was declining from its own internal sclerosis, so not capable of beating humanism back.

Carroll continues through Velazquez and Rembrandt:  “The aftermath of the head-on clash between Luther, Calvin, and humanism was high cultural volatility” and these two artists are engines of two different directions, both injecting or reflecting discord into the culture.  His analysis of Velazquez’s Las Meninas is fascinating, it is pure subversion of authority.  Rembrandt’s The Sacrifice of Isaac cuts to the heart of Dutch Calvinist neurosis–he cannot manage a satisfactory revision of Protestantism.

What follows is the rise of the bourgeois, represented by Vermeer (rational vocations) and Bach (a popularizer of high-culture virtuosity).  England is presented as the most successful cultural arena here.

Next:  Humanism cuts the ties with Christianity and goes it alone, in France and the Enlightenment (or, the Age of Reason), which is the fulfillment of humanism.  Descartes (pure reason), Mozart (romanticism), and Kant (tried to save the Enlightenment by supplying a moral foundation) feature prominently.

The decline and fall of the Enlightenment happens in the 19th century, with Marx and Darwin:  they represent the descent into wrecking and mockery.  Marx himself was full of rancour, which was a new attitude.  For those who need the antidote of the 19th century there is Dostoyevsky (who is generally outside the scope, being a Russian).

While the preceding is fascinating, his juxtaposition of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard is the most interesting.  Both are the best diagnosticians of their time, but came away with entirely different solutions to the vexing problem of humanism.  Nietzsche’s is to double down on humanism, so is really no solution.  Kierkegaard’s is to make the leap of faith, hard-core Calvinism taken to its logical extreme, a paradox:

so burden yourself with inwardness and guilt that the paradox will explode into faith.

With Freud the exploration goes under–into the subconscious, or even unconscious mind.  Will the answer be found there?

Henry James’s The Ambassadors is a tragic rage against the humanist ideal in Paris.

Carroll then introduces the American filmmaker John Ford, and his Westerns, as an attempt to find a place to stand.  What better place than the American West, and John Wayne, to do this?  He discusses a trio of Ford’s works–Rio Grande, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–as Ford’s (and Wayne’s) trajectory from foundational myth to epic tragedy to elegy.  Liberty Valance is Ford throwing in the towel, America chose poorly (represented by Hallie choosing Ransom Stoddard over Tom Doniphon).

And there it is.  I’ve catalogued all the subjects to show you the arc Carroll takes.  In the end, he is like most diagnosticians of our decline:  the story is there–and Carroll’s certainly is a fascinating version–but in the end Carroll’s answer is simple.  The problem that stared the humanists in the face–death–remains, and we know we cannot continue as we are.  So, ditch the humanism, it has no place to stand.



One thought on “The Wreck of Western Culture”

  1. I just finished “The Shipwrecked Mind”, by Mark Lilla. A good read about Political reaction and current society. Probably along the same lines as “The Wreck of Western Culture”.


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