A French, self-styled “philosopher”, Michel Onfray, affirmed recently that « the Judeo-Christian civilisation is in a terminal phase.”i
His statement is ruthless, definitive, without appeal: « Judeo-Christianity has reigned for almost two millennia. An honourable length of time for a civilisation. The civilization that will replace it will also be replaced. A question of time. The ship is sinking: we still have to sink with elegance »ii.
Onfray uses the metaphor of « sinking ». The ship “sinks”. This is not, I think, a good image to depict « decadence ». The sinking is sudden, rapid, terminal. Decadence is long, soft, indecisive, and sometimes it even generates rebirths.
It is precisely the possible rebirth of our civilization that deserves reflection. History is teeming with « decadent » periods. Rebirths are rarer, but possible, and merit attention.
A century ago, Oswald Spengler famously glossed over The Decline of the West, a two-volume book published in 1918 and 1922.
In the previous century, Nietzsche had powerfully erupted against the « decadence » of Western culture. He had a piercing vision, and according to him, Euripides was the first to detect the premises of this, with the « decadence of the Greek tragedy », which was a sign of what was to follow.
The metaphor of decadence, as we can see, easily flourishes under the pen of « thinkers ».
But what seems more interesting to me, assuming that decadence is effective, is what may happen afterwards. After the darkening of the misleading suns, is a new dawn conceivable? After the general collapse, what renewal is possible? Where to find the forces, the energy, the resources, the ideas, to invent another world?
Onfray, a convinced atheist, and aggressively anti-Christian, thinks on this subject that Islam has a role to play. « Islam is strong with a planetary army made up of countless believers ready to die for their religion, for God and his Prophet.”iii
Alongside this strength, what Jesus represents is only « a fable for children », says Onfray.
In Moscow, when I lived there, on assignment for UNESCO, I sometimes met real tough Russians, of the kind FSB or ex-KGB, who spoke directly : » You Westerners, you are like children.”
Is Russia herself decadent? I don’t know. What is certain is that Russians are proud of their history and geography. They stopped the Mongol invasions, beat Napoleon, resisted at Stalingrad, and hunted Hitler down in his bunker. And their country covers eleven time zones, giving meaning to the political and philosophical utopia of a « Eurasia » of which Russia would be the soul.
The West, condemned by Mr. Onfray to its impending demise, also has some occasions for pride. It has a number of inventions, several masterpieces, and social and political institutions, which are apparently healthier and more « democratic » than elsewhere. And yet, decadence is on the horizon, says Mr. Onfray.
That may be possible. There are some worrying signs. But the world is changing fast, and it is shrinking rapidly, as we all know. The metaphor of decadence, because it is a metaphor, is not very original. What is most lacking today is not to shed crocodile tears over the past, but to propose new ideas, a new breath of fresh air, not for the benefit of the « West », but on a whole human scale. The world needs a « great narrative », a global vision, and a credible utopia, for urgent global issues, such as that of a world union of governments, and finances fair taxation, on a global scale. “Childish dreams” as would say FSB guys?
Planet Earth is overpopulated, in a state of accelerated compression. Massive urbanization, climate change, and the phenomenal impoverishment of the world’s fauna and flora deserve a reflection of planetary scope.
The challenges are also economic and social. The 4th industrial revolution has begun. Massive unemployment due to the ubiquitous applications of artificial intelligence, to large-scale robotization, to deficient or misguided policies based without shame on misinformation or systematic lies, to sidereal inequalities: all the components of a global civil war are there, in potency.
Unless an astounding, superior, unheard of idea emerges, bearing a common vision for Humankind as a whole.
Yesterday, socialism, communism, the idea of equality, fraternity or solidarity could make the « masses » dream for a few decades. On the other hand, conservatism, individualism, capitalism, entrepreneurial freedom, have played their cards in the world liar’s poker.
What does the future hold? More and more conservatism, capitalism and individualism? Or openly fascist forms of social control? We know today more than yesterday the limits, the deviations, the diversions and excesses of the old ideals.
Threats are rising on all sides. The old ideologies have failed. What can be done?
Humanity must become aware of its nature and its strength. It must become aware of its destiny. Humanity has a vocation for ultra-humanity, surpassing itself in a new synthesis, a new emergence, a mutation of world civilization.
General unemployment, for example, could be excellent news: it signals the assured end of the current model, the establishment of a universal income, and the end of predatory capitalism. Billions of unemployed and increasingly educated people cannot be ignored. They will not let themselves starve at the doors of banks and ultra-rich ghettos. There is bound to be a reaction.
The immense and global massa damnata, created by a lawless capitalism, will necessarily regain « common » control over the world’s wealth, which is immense but now monopolized by the 0.01%, and will find a way to distribute it equitably in order to provide a human income for all.
The enormous amounts of time freed up by the « end of work » will then be able to be mobilized to do everything that machines, algorithms and capital cannot do: better educate, care for people, freely invent, really create, humanely socialize, sustainably develop, obviously love.
The promiscuity of religions, races and peoples will impose – by force – a new ultra-human, meta-philosophical, meta-religious civilization.
Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, will have to move together to a higher level of understanding of their respective doctrines, to reach their essential and already common core, the unique core of what still stands as the “mystery” of the universe.
All this will happen in the coming decades. Let there be no doubt about it. Not that men will become wiser. But the osmotic pressure of necessity will make the eyes open, make the scales fall off, will circumcise the minds.
iMichel Onfray.Décadence. De Jésus au 11 septembre, vie et mort de l’Occident. Flammarion. 2017