In February 1941, the world was at war. Nazism and fascism ruled virtually all of Europe and parts of Africa. Imperial Japan was poised to conquer much of East Asia. Joseph Stalin still controlled the world’s largest land mass, although Hitler was soon to shake Stalin’s throne. That year, Pitirim A. Sorokin, born in 1889, delivered the Lowell Institute Lectures on the topic, “The Twilight of Sensate Culture.” The lectures summarized his four-volume work, Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937), which was subsequently reissued in 1957 in a one-volume revision by the author himself.
Although the immense four-volume Social and Cultural Dynamics represented many years’ work and was prepared for publication in the early days of the Hitler regime, it already took nazism and fascism into account, as well, of course, as communism. Sorokin was the first professor of sociology at the University of St. Petersburg in 1919. As a proponent of non-Bolshevik socialism, he had been sentenced to death but was pardoned by Lenin himself His opposition to Bolshevism continued, and he was fortunate enough to be expelled from the Soviet Union in 1922. After making his way to the United States, he became a professor at the University of Minnesota. He was called to Harvard University in 1930, where he founded that university’s department of sociology. His interest went far beyond mere descriptive sociology; in the years after World War II, he attempted to provide leadership for what he considered the necessary cultural shift from a “sensate” culture (his favored term) to a more idealist one, founding the Harvard Center for Creative Altruism. By altruism, Sorokin, a Russian Orthodox communicant, seems to have meant rather the same thing that Jesus meant when he said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” Although I was an undergraduate and a graduate student during Sorokin’s last years of teaching, and even had his son Sergei as a lab partner (to whom, with his brother, Social and Cultural Dynamics was dedicated), my experience with Pitirim Sorokin himself was limited to hearing him lecture and speak in chapel a few times.
Nineteen ninety-one is the 50th anniversary of those Lowell Institute lectures, which Sorokin brought out in book form in October 1941 with the title, The Crisis of Our Age. At that time, Hitler had already invaded Russia and seemed for a brief time, in the magnitude of his conquests, to be about to repeat the exploits of the young Alexander the Great. Japan was on the threshold of her brilliant but brief imperial expansion. The Western democracies were either defeated and occupied (France), beleaguered (Great Britain), or unprepared and isolationist (the United States). Sorokin made no prediction concerning the outcome of the ongoing battles, although in his earlier 1937 work he had foreseen that if an incredibly powerful explosive were invented, certainly some men would prove rash and “scientific” enough to use it.
I bought his Crisis in a paperback edition in 1957, without looking at the original date of publication, and promptly assumed it, as a then 16-year-old work, to be out of date. On rereading it 34 years later, I realized that the passage of time has brought ever more compelling confirmation of Sorokin’s analysis. What is shocking is that the crisis he predicted 50 years ago, and which he felt must soon lead to a radical reorientation of culture, is still with us. The trends that he felt were reaching their natural limits and would have to break have continued and become more intense and all-pervasive. He ended The Crisis of Our Age on a note of guarded and yet rather confident optimism, as indeed he had already done with Social and Cultural Dynamics, but the beneficial reorientation that he expected has not yet taken place.
Sorokin’s Dynamics belongs to a select group of three ambitious works that seeks to unravel the meaning of history and to tell us where it is headed (Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West and Arnold Toynbee’s ten-volume A Study of History being the others). Sorokin’s work is probably the most difficult of the three to read, because he builds it on an incredibly large mass of data. Unlike both Spengler and Toynbee, who tend to think in centuries or even longer periods, Sorokin breaks down his analysis of culture—mostly Mediterranean and European—into 20 year periods and provides data virtually year by year.
In the immensely detailed four-volume work, Sorokin discusses, among many other things, the “Fluctuation of Systems of Truth.” One section is devoted to what he calls the “eternalistic and temporalistic mentality.” (One problem with which Sorokin confronts the reader is his rather specialized terminology.) Most historians have thought in terms of two different approaches to time, cyclic and linear. Cyclic time characterizes Hindu and Buddhist thought, as well as much Greek thought and that of the philosopher Nietzsche: history endlessly repeats itself Most commentators consider the biblical (Jewish and Christian) concept of time to be linear, beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the coming or second coming of the Messiah. Modern faith in progress is then seen as a secularized variant of the biblical view of linear time.
Sorokin, by contrast, makes the Christian view a variant of the cyclic view, in which repetitive cycles exist but are not identical repetitions of one another, and which differ from the non-biblical views of Indian and Greek thinkers in that there is a goal and fulfillment in the eschatological consummation of all things. For Sorokin the linear view is primarily a sensate, secularistic view that places unlimited and totally unwarranted faith in continual progress.
In his analysis, Sorokin found the 19th century to have been relatively peaceful and prosperous, giving rise to the false hope that the dominant culture of the era (sensate) would lead to still further improvements in the human condition. This hope was dashed by the fact that the 20th century has become the bloodiest of all centuries. He rejected the proud boast of contemporary society that modernity is more humane than the barbarous centuries that preceded it. Sorokin’s 1937 work examined crime and punishment through the centuries and concluded that while individual punishments in earlier centuries were frequently cruel, as in the Middle Ages, the number of persons so punished was small, so that in fact there is much more punishment in our own century than in medieval times. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union indeed became virtual concentration-camp societies. Sorokin predicted in 1937 that as a result of the failure of American sensate culture to maintain widely shared ethical values, punishment—primarily imprisonment—would expand tremendously. And this indeed has happened, with the result that prisons in the United States cannot cope with the vast numbers of offenders being sentenced.
Sorokin sees three basic patterns of culture emerging several times in the history of the world: the ideational, sensate, and idealistic. In ideational culture, the truth of faith is dominant. Absolute values prevail, and people expect rewards and punishments from God or the gods, in eternity. In sensate culture, the only values are those which can be perceived by the senses, and the only truth is that which is obtained or supposedly obtained through the sciences. What he calls idealistic culture is largely ideational, modified by a certain respect for science, the senses, and human reason. Augustine is a good example of the ideational value system. Thomas Aquinas of the idealistic, and almost anyone one might mention in the 20th century other than Senator Jesse Helms can serve for the sensate world view.
Sorokin obviously believes in the essential stability of the human race, and for this reason is not surprised when he sees cultural patterns repeating themselves in different centuries. The greatest and plainest parallel is that of the sensate phase of late Greco-Roman culture, during the expansion and decline of the Roman Empire. When sensate values become dominant, life becomes disordered, social structures disintegrate, and a change must take place. Sorokin sees two possibilities: a turning to the truth of faith (ideational culture, in his terms), or an ever-increasing cynicism and despair. He considered Western culture—world culture, really—to have reached a similar situation in the period between the 1930’s and the 1950’s, so that once again there was a necessity to turn to faith or to descend into ever greater cynicism.
A reader who views things from a Christian perspective will probably agree with Sorokin in his analysis of our culture as late sensate, like that of imperial Rome. He will certainly hope for a return to the “ideational” view, i.e., the world-and-life view of Christian faith that replaced the decaying sensate culture of Rome. Unfortunately, Sorokin’s understanding of cultural dynamics would imply that if such a return does occur, it will be only temporary and will be followed by another phase or phases—idealistic and presumably sensate as well. Thus the changes he expects and actually promises seem to offer only a temporary improvement—a new Age of Cold, but one to be followed still again by Brass and by Iron.
The Christian may hope that the eschatological wind-up will occur before this disaster recurs. Indeed, Sorokin seems to share something like this hope: his Crisis ends with the words, Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”). This was the acclamation with which Jesus was greeted in the “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem in the week before his crucifixion, and it naturally evokes the coming or the return of the Messiah, which inaugurates the end of history.
The Crisis, half a century old in 1991, is essentially a distillation of the immense Social and Cultural Dynamics. Read in isolation, it sounds like a tour de force, the fruit more of insight or inspiration rather than evidence. Sorokin’s Dynamics is so immense and detailed that it demands protracted study to digest, but even a rather cursory reading will reveal that Sorokin has marshaled the data to justify his analysis. When the evidence does not permit him to draw conclusions, he does not draw any, as in his discussion of the causes and frequency of war and revolution in the various cultural phases.
He begins his Crisis with a criticism of two wrong views: the idea that our society is really not in a crisis, and the conviction that the crisis is indeed upon us and is the death agony of Western society. He stresses the intensity of the crisis but hopes and expects that out of it will come a renewed society, not the death of the West. As he concludes, “Let us hope that the grace of understanding may be vouchsafed us and that we may choose, before it is too late, the right road—the road that leads not to death but to the further realization of man’s creative mission on this planet!”
His analysis of the crisis is broken down into several sections, beginning with the fine arts, and going on to truth, ethics and law, and the contractual family (each of which has a number of subdivisions). Here is a citation from his chapter “The Crisis of the Fine Arts”:
To sum up, contemporary art [in 1941] is primarily a museum of social and cultural pathology. It centers in the police morgue, the criminal’s hide-out, and the sex organs, operating mainly on the level of the social sewers. If we are forced to accept it as a faithful representation of man and his society, then man and his cultures must certainly forget our respect and admiration. In so far as it is an art of man’s debasement and vilification, it is paving the way for our own downfall as a cultural value.
In Chapter IV, “The Crisis in Ethics and Law,” Sorokin speaks of “a progressive devaluation of our ethics and of the norms of our law. This devaluation has already gone so far [1941!] that, strange as it may seem, they have lost a great deal of their prestige as ethical and juridical values. . . . Legal norms, likewise, are increasingly considered as a device of the group in power for exploiting other, less powerful, groups—a form of trickery employed by the dominant class for the subjugation and control of the subordinate classes.” This is precisely the contention of the “critical legal studies” that are much in vogue in the most prestigious law schools of our day.
Having lost their “savor” and efficacy, they opened the way for rude force as the only controlling power in human relationships. If neither religious nor ethical nor juridical values control our conduct, what then remains? Nothing but naked force and fraud. Hence the contemporary “Might is right.” This is the central feature of the crisis in our ethics and law. . . .
Any sensory value, as soon as it is put on a plane of relativistic and utilitarian convention, is bound to retrogress, becoming more and more relative, more and more conventional, until it reaches a stage of “atomization” in its relativism and of utter arbitrariness in its ever thinner and less universal conventionality. The final stage is bankruptcy.
Sorokin anticipates modern fears concerning pluralism and multiculturalism in Chapter VI, “Criminality, War, Revolution, Suicide, Mental Disease, and Impoverishment in the Crisis Period”: “A society is orderly when its system of culture and social relationships is well integrated and crystallized. It becomes disorderly when this system disintegrates and enters a period of transition.” He is aware of the way in which intellectuals and social leaders have fawned on those who would destroy them—an analysis that applies to the attitude of the United States and Canada towards multiculturalism in our own day:
Even when the explosion of the Bolshevist revolution occurred, killing and mutilating millions, many of the rich aristocracy, statesmen, politicians, professors, ministers and journalists of Western society were entranced by what they regarded as a “wonderful social experiment.” Western society behaved in this respect exactly like a degenerate aristocracy on the eve of a revolution which is to deprive it of its preeminent position, its property, and even its life. Such an aristocracy cherishes and lionizes the Rousseaus and Voltaires, socialists and communists, Karl Marxes and Lassals, in the salons of aristocratic ladies, in its academies and colleges, and in the financial quarters of the rich. Exactly the same obtuseness has been manifested in regard to all of the recent revolutions, from the socialist and communist uprisings to those of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco. . . .
This means that Western society is becoming mentally deranged and morally unbalanced. Additional novelties in the field of criminality are the calculated cold-bloodedness of crimes perpetrated for pecuniary purposes, in contradistinction to the passionate, impulsive, and spontaneous criminality of the past; the efficiency of scientifically organized criminal machines; technologically organized “racketeering” on a large scale in collusion with political leaders and “respected citizens”; and the prominence of the role of the lower age groups in criminal activities.
Sorokin may even have had a prophetic word concerning the present economic situation in the West, which fluctuates between stagnation and decline: “It [society] failed to realize that periods of sharp transition are, without exception, periods of catastrophic economic decline, especially when the transition is from a sensate to an ideational system. Demoralization, disintegration, wars, anarchy, revolutions, criminality, cruelty and other destructive forces are not conducive to business prosperity. Under such circumstances security of possessions disappears; the incentives for efficient work are undermined.”
The three great analysts of all things past and present were Spengler, Toynbee, and Sorokin. Spengler saw nothing good in our future and predicted the collapse of our civilization in accordance with the biological model of infancy, youth, maturity, old age, decline, and death. Toynbee appeared, for a time, to be more hopeful and to acknowledge a special role and distinction for Christianity and Western civilization. Only Sorokin, the transplanted Russian condemned to death and pardoned by Lenin, had both a hope for the future and a reason for that hope. One factor, which he only partially took into account, may disturb his calculations: the new and all-pervasive influence of the media. Nevertheless, the 50 years since The Crisis of Our Age have only reinforced the accuracy of his analysis. He is all but forgotten in the great university where he spent the last four decades of his life, no doubt because his emphasis on values and his contempt for corruption are politically unfashionable and therefore not the least bit viable there. Those readers who share Sorokin’s perceptive vision may take some comfort in his confidence that it is not the end: Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini—not the end of the West, and certainly not the End of All Things.