Thursday, August 17, 2017

Virtue and the Moral Fall of Civilization

"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." John Adams

"Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom." Benjamin Franklin

"Whenever we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary."  Thomas Paine

"It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains." Patrick Henry

Civilizations fall rapidly due to an inescapable catastrophe. Water sources dry up. A powerful empire invades.

Civilizations fall slowly due to a moral catastrophe. A moral catastrophe is not a failure of arms or food. It's a failure of the sustaining virtues of the civilization. As the society tumbles slowly downward, it will encounter defeat in battle, collapse of its infrastructure and food shortages. But these are symptoms, not causes. The cause is the degeneration of the society and its people.

A civilization is not a mechanical endeavor, but a moral one. The virtues that uphold a civilization, the ability to reason, to work hard, to study how to solve a problem, to sacrifice now for future gain, to cooperate with those outside the tribe, to value truth, beauty and goodness for their own sake are individual, but they are also social. A society that cultivates these virtues in people can prosper. As society loses these virtues, it grows dysfunctional. It loses winnable wars, it squanders vast wealth, it loses its work ethics, its ability to cooperate and to plan for the long term. It slowly dies.

Barbarians are not savages because they wear loincloths or bones through their noses, or even because they lack the majority of these virtues, but because they lack the ability to appreciate them. A barbarian who appreciates civilizational virtues can become civilized, but a civilized barbarian may wear a suit and tie, but is still a savage because he cannot even appreciate the virtues of his ancestors.

As a civilization declines, it becomes barbaric. Before the savages invade it from the outside, its own people have become savages. They enthusiastically welcome the savages. They are drawn to the culture and norms of the savages because these echo their own descent into barbarism. The cult of the noble savage is simply civilized barbarians glamorizing their own descent down the moral ladder.

Civilized men and women have principles. Such principles are the intersection of ideals and interests. Ideals on their own easily fall into an abstract nobility that can manifest as anything from sainthood to self-destructive aspiration. Interests on their own leave selfish people incapable of maintaining anything greater than themselves. Virtue negotiates between interests and ideals. This negotiation is expressed as a principle. A principle realizes an ideal and localizes it in an interest.

Utopians kill and die for ideals. The Nazis, Communists and Islamists are Utopians. Civilized men live and fight for principles. Utopianism is a civilizational degeneracy. It usually precedes barbarism. Sensing the decline, men and women embrace some pure ideal, they idealize equality or race, and set off on a quest to construct a new civilization around it by destroying the existing civilization. They are convinced that their ideal will create a civilization that can live forever. When their ideal fails, they revert to their barbarian roots by worshiping the shamanic personality force of their leader. And these new barbarians murder, scream and cavort around the fire convinced that their new god can stave off the fall of night. And when the fires goes out, all that remains is ash, horror and rubble.

Civilized men and women understood that nothing mortal is immortal. That which is best in us, is virtue. It is that, which in our flawed and humble way, makes us closest to the God that made us. Our principles are how we aspire to keep that faith. When we lose our principles, we destroy whatever it was we sought to preserve, we become our own worst enemies and bring about our own destruction.

Principles are defined at their farthest end by what we must do and what we would never do. But their soul is self-awareness. The essence of virtue is to know thyself. Few are so innately good that they can always do the right thing without ever examining and questioning themselves. It is this self-examination through conscience that is the great moral labor of all religion and philosophy.

Everyone is naturally inclined to believe in their own goodness. But goodness comes from questioning one's own worth and examining one's own deeds. It comes from transcending our emotions, our anger and our pain, our self-pity, jealousy, resentment and vengefulness to become better than we are. The essence of virtue is not doing what comes naturally, but controlling the natural impulse and rising above it. That is how civilizations are built. We build civilizations by transcending ourselves. We destroy them by giving and taking permission to fall to our worst impulses.

Interests and ideals tend to opposite ends. In war, ideals may say that one should never kill and interests counsel one to survive by fleeing the battlefield. Virtues guide us to principles that overcome the extremes by finding our higher responsibility in the intersection of ideal and interest.

Civilizations depend on responsible people. It is the people who come to work every day and do their best who keep a country running. It is the soldiers who advance to the enemy and return fire, who win wars. It is leaders who do the difficult things who leave their country better than they found it. It is the men and women who search their souls, who leave this world better people than they entered it.

In a declining civilization, there are few responsible people. There are many who will want a title, but few who will do the job. There are many who will shout, but few who will reason. There are many who will wave a flag, but few who will fight for a cause. There are many who would destroy, but few who will build. There are many who will lecture, but few who will do.

In a civilization on the verge of a moral catastrophe, the invocation of virtues and principles is met with contemptuous laughter. It is widely understood that irresponsible behavior is better, that decency is for weaklings and fools, that anger is the only true virtue that suffices to achieve all ends. Manners vanish like autumn leaves in a breeze. Moral compasses show nothing. Intellectual consistency ceases to matter. Men believe contradictory things at different hours of the day. Illusory victories are always being achieved even as real defeats follow.

We wonder why great civilizations fall. Couldn't the Romans see what was coming? The first thing that goes in a moral catastrophe is virtue, the second is reason, the third is foresight, the fourth is competence and the fifth is self-control. And by then you have barbarians in the midst of civilization.

When virtue goes, civilizations rationalize destructive behavior. When reason goes, they become unable to even think about a problem with any degree of consistency. When foresight goes, they no longer understand consequences. When all those are gone, competence is all but  impossible. When there is no self-control, nothing matters anymore.

Civilizations are built on virtue. Without virtue, there is no civilization.


Infidel said...

Good points. The Byzantine Empire's collapse is a good example of some of them.

Ironically, we may be watching the collapse of Western Europe taking place in slow motion, like a train wreck, right before our eyes.

Not to mention the situation in USA, which worries me even more, if that were possible.

Gary Sack said...

Brooks Imperial said...

I can't argue with any of the above Mr. Greenfield, but I'm confounded by how the great majority of right thinking Americans, probably from the comfort of rewarding American lifestyles and a charitable disposition, take on the crazy mindsets served up on television. Americans have been bludgeoned with multiculturalism and the myth that all men have value, when in fact, some frankly don't. Should 3000 nazis (which is all of them by the way) occupy the head space of the majority of Americans? Or the Islamists or communist Antifas? Of course not! Yet we find ourselves preoccupied with their arguments. These people are literally insane, and their insane philosophies get to live rent-free in the heads of otherwise right thinking Americans. We need to call out their insanities for what they objectively are, and not for what they subjectively intend within the scope of their respective cults. There's nothing to be gained by empathizing with crazy people.

D.D.Mao said...

"Our principles are how we aspire to keep that faith. When we lose our principles we destroy whatever it was we sought to preserve. We become our own worst enemies and bring about our own destruction"........Daniel Greenfield

Brilliant article Daniel!

A civilized society FIRST LINE of defense is not law, police and the courts but customs, traditions, principles and moral values. Great horrors don't BEGIN with gas chambers, killing fields, or famine.....they are the results. They begin when a society loses it's moral values, principles and the value of life. When embroidered promises by politicians and radical outside sources are the playground for malcontents and the misled. When an amateur connoisseur of backwoods populism performs a lobotomy on the definition of Conservatism. Where recklessness is masked as righteousness. For ours is a world not of angels but of angles.

Dennis Latham said...

“You need violence in order to protect nonviolence,” Ms. Nauert added. “That’s what’s very obviously necessary right now. It’s full-on war, basically.”
Quote from idiot of the Communist Antifa. These fools never make any sense.

Mo said...

Sobering words, indeed.

As always, thank you, Daniel.

Michael Neibel said...

Good essay Mr Greenfield but I would question your terminology. "Sacrifice for future gain" is a contradiction. To sacrifice is to surrender values not gain them. To give something up for future gain is a trade. The kind of trade is called an investment. Yet every religion on this planet has demonized the concept of trade as evil because it is seen as self-interested which in turn has been condemned as selfish therefore evil. This needs to be challenged. Also needing challenging is you're acceptance that we humans are flawed creatures because we can and do make mistakes. That we have the ability to chose between alternative values that can sustain our lives or destroy us, is not a flaw but rather, a blessing. One thing we all need to ditch is the insane notion that perfection is in always choosing right and never choosing wrong. To do this one would not in fact be exercising choice and would never learn why right is right and wrong is wrong.

HolylandIsraelTours said...

Wow. What a forceful message.
You only need to look back in history to understand the force of this article.
It's not only Eurabia which is on a slope to hell after its destruction in WWII, just look around you and see what happened to Islam, ISIS, Syria, Lybia, Egypt and Tunisia. Turkey, N. KOREA and Iran are next. I hope and pray that America will wake up before it's too late.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding breakdown of the madness that seems to have taken hold everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Individuals and groups have to learn to fight their inner demons to attain virtue. Liberals think themselves above that struggle as holders of absolute virtue. The problem is that nobody believes, nor listens to them anymore and it is driving them crazy; their only option left to cure us all is some antifa syrup.

Unknown said...

Another great piece...While I read many by various authors, few can deliver on a learning experience like Daniel does. He writes what I would write if I was as masterful with the pen as he...

Anonymous said...

God was generous in giving us an outline on how to live successfully.
Those who, for whatever reason, chose not to follow those guidelines set in
motion the failure of civilized life for all. Whether one believes in God or not,
the guidelines He set forth for a successful society transcends the opinions of men.
And, men have proven it many times over recorded history numerous times on both sides of the ledger.

Kevin said...

You are correct in all your comments, except your conflation of right ideals with faith in "G0D" (or dog or xyz or whatever, since you haven't defined the term). Human virtue is a function of the ideal element in human nature. The "ought" must be derived from an "is", as morality is something and cannot come from nothing. Religious faith posits a false ideal, separated from human nature, and tends to result in carnage, as we have recently seen in Barcelona.

JackIAm said...

Out of the park, Dan! Amazing finely nuanced details and relationships between massively fundamental concepts, such as “Virtue negotiates between interests and ideals. This negotiation is expressed as a principle. A principle realizes an ideal and localizes it in an interest.”

One thing that Robespierre did get right, The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant. - Max. Robespierre, French Revolution, over-zealous prosecutor

And one of the countless guides in that crucial Guide Book of lfe, and a fundamental principle:
‘My people perish for lack of knowledge, so there will be a famine in the land.’ - Isaiah 5:13

Principle, Fail to learn, consequence, Fail to thrive!!!! True, except to the ignorant or lazy, who will learn anyway, by pain…

Infidel de Manahatta said...

Unfortunately America is in decline. This is how civilization die. Fat, dumb and slothful.

Anonymous said...

This explains the Left's embracing of barbaric Islamic culture.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Brooks Imperial: Ah, yes... television. The Glowing Box. I understand your frustration and concern. The Glowing Box is the ultimate distribution system for filth. It is passively consumed. It has allure. It appeals to our instincts. It glows. We're all like moths, staring into it. Have you ever watched someone watching TV? I mean really watched it, in a disinterested way. They're mesmerized. It's hypnosis. It's deus ex machina, muse, narcissus, pixelated shiny stuff. It's the ultimate delivery system for emotional ideas, appealing to your most base instincts. Run a checklist on the Seaven Deadly Sins... they're all there with the Glowing Box. My wife and I stopped watching the news after Election Night 2016. It's amazing how liberating it is to read rather than watch SportsCenter-style news.

Anonymous said...

As good as anything you have written.
Dave S

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

D.D.Mao: "When an amateur connoisseur of backwoods populism performs a lobotomy on the definition of Conservatism."

I can on,y assume you mean Donald Trump. You may not like what we've got. I get it. But the other choice was Hillary. Unacceptable. Before that, the other 16 choices were a joke. A total joke. Not one of those people could've defeated Hillary. Unacceptable.

In the end, what people call mainstream "Conservatism" isn't conservative at all anymore. It's a veneer, ankle-deep, phony version with sneers. People like Kristol, Will, Hayes, Krauthammer, et al, have showed us that the realities of politics are lost on them. We are losing. Badly. And the U.S. chamber of Commerce libertarian-without-the-consequences is an economic disaster for the vast majority of people in this country. Oh sure, it's great for the D.C. set (where all the aforementioned writers live, by the way). But it demands no sacrifice, no critical thought, and no care for the middle class. What counts for intellectual conservatism in this country is a bunch of theoretical jumbo-jumbo that doesn't work for the real lives it's applied to. I leaned this in 2008-09 when the brilliant "free market" lads said "Why do we need a domestic auto industry?" That's CRAZY TALK, with no grounding in material or economic reality. This just in... manufacturing creates wealth. The crazy talk is the GOPe. I could go through the names of all Trump's GOP nomination competitors, but it wouldn't really matter, would it? The middle class would've been screwed under all those guys (and one gal), and they would've been doubly screwed under Hillary's corporatism.

I cringe sometimes at what Trump says, but man... that was our choice.

paul scott said...

Well to me, unlike Mr. Greenfield usually, this seems almost like a long bible class sermon.
Here is a worry. > "The virtues that uphold a civilization, cooperate with those outside the tribe, .. "<
Isn't that a major part of our problem , co-operating and acquiescing to the barbarian who is here to invade, conquer and destroy us physically, spiritually.
To destroy as a Nation as a people and a Civilisation, and as a concept.
Co-operate if you are a stupid mentally deformed shell like Trudeau, but not me.
My co-operation will be full frontal ferocity.

Just the Truth said...

Apart from some portions of the Bible, perhaps the most profound written word I've read. Keep it up, Daniel.

Boomer said...

Mr. Greenfield you truly do have the most amazing mind. We are very lucky to have you in our corner sir.

Just the Truth said...

Very profound. Your writings are inspirational. Please keep it up.

Anonymous said...

One other thing to add to the descent of barbarism, is consideration for others. Just take a look at the way people drive on America's roads and highways.

D.D.Mao said...

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD:
I wish your comment would have been posted sooner so that my reply isn't lost in the dust of future articles.

I have no qualms about the incompetence of the Republican party which you pointed out. This however is the cause of Conservatism not fulfilling the expectations you hold for it not the ideology itself. It has nothing to do with George Will, Charles Krauthammer, or Bill Kristol. As I wrote once before when a person runs for office they have in mind how they can better society for their constituents while a Conservative has how they can shrink government and make it more efficient. Conservatism and the environment of Washington can not compete with this logic.

The past election was the opposite of "American Idol". At American Idol they start off with a bunch of weirdo's and end with a winner. It has long passed where using Hillary as your measuring stick for the current administration is either applicable or acceptable. History will determine the Trump administration on it's own merits NOT against WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN. Trump supporters are so infatuated with his pugnacity they ignore him stomping on his own nuts and thus hampering anything him or the party could accomplish. Using the excuse that rather than looking under a rock for faults you can use him as a stepping stone has proven to be a failure. The only draining of the swamp he has done is his own appointments of Manafort, Priebus, Spicer, Flynn, Mooch, and Bannon.

Obviously you may "cringe" when he says something but you refuse to see reality. Are you getting tired of all this winning yet?

D.D.Mao said...

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD:

If I may make a correction. The first two sentence of my reply to you should have read:

"I have no qualms with your views on the incompetence of the Republican party. Their incompetence is the cause of Conservatism not fulfilling the expectations you hold it's not due to the ideology itself."

Ns P said...

What you so aptly and eloquently describe Mr. Greenfield, is what we've been witnessing for many decades now. Thank you for putting what we see and hear into solid intellectual prose.

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