073 Pitrim Sorokin Revisited


Harold O. J. Brown, a distinguished professor of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has recently published The Sensate Culture (Dallas: Word Publishing, c. 1996), employing a phrase of Pitrim Sorokin’s to describe modernity’s landscape. He’d known of Sorokin for years, but only in 1990, while re-reading The Crisis of Our Age, did Brown note “Sorokin’s incredibly accurate judgments and prophecies and by the note of hope that distinguishes his work” (p. vi). Suitably impressed, Brown wrote this book to lift Sorokin’s 1940’s insights into the 1990’s. My interest piqued, I too re-read Sorokin’s work (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., c. 1941). So I will, joining the discussion, intertwine material from both authors.

We’ve been deluged, during the past half-century with hosts of “futurologists,” prophets of both optimism and despair. The likes of Alvin Toffler, Paul Ehrlich, and Hal Lindsay and have caused many waves–though the accuracy of their predictions grows daily more dim! And however flawed, those Jeremiahs who lamented the demise of Western Civilization marshalled much evidence. While nuclear destruction has been avoided, Brown thinks the West “seems on the verge of destroying itself in a self-inflicted delirium” (p. 3). Most fundamentally: “Loss of faith in God and in all moral absolutes on the societal level is a fundamental cause of the distress and evils that mark our period of sociocultural transition” (Brown, p. 115).

Pitrim Sorokin understood this well. Born in Russia, he was sentenced to death underTsar Nicholas II, though he was (like many others so sentenced) released. In time he became the private secretary of Aleksandr Kerenski, who headed the short-lived Russian republic which replaced the Tsar. Kerenski’s regime was shoved aside by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who, taking their turn, also sentenced Sorokin to death! Pardoned by Lenin, he sought refuge in the United States, where he became a professor of sociology at Harvard, teaching there for 40 years. He personally experienced and consequently understood the chaos and malignancy of modernity! In an early work, published in 1926, he wrote:

. . . every important aspect of the life, organization, and the culture of Western society is in the extraordinary crisis. . . . Its body and mind are sick and there is hardly a spot on its body which is not sore, nor any nervous fiber which functions soundly. . . . We are seemingly between two epochs: the dying Sensate culture of our magnificent yesterday and the coming Ideational culture of the creative tomorrow. We are living, thinking, and acting at the end of a brilliant six-hundred-year-long Sensate Day (Sorokin, p. 13).

Yet, amidst it all, he maintained a robust faith in God and hope for His world. As he ended his 1926 analysis, he declared: “The night of the transitory period begins to loom before us, with its nightmares, frightening shadows, and heartrending horrors. Beyond it, however, the dawn of a great Ideational culture is probably waiting to greet the men of the future” (p. 13). However horrific, the agonies of a disintegrating society will be “followed by a new integration” in a creative new epoch. Given a strong sense of history, Sorokin observed, much like a film critic, the reels of cultures routinely passing through three phases: ideational, idealistic, sensate. Ideational eras focus on God and His acts. In the Byzantine world, Christus Pantokrator (Christ the Ruler of All) encapsulated the ideals and aspirations of folks who built a vigorous culture through self-sacrifice and martyrdom. The Medieval West, as well, primarily valued “God, the true-reality value” (Sorokin, p. 17).

When the rigors of ideational cultures wane, idealistic cultures emerge. More rooted in the material world, more realistic in its philosophy, idealistic cultures nevertheless maintain healthy social structures. In the High Middle Ages, for example, the “major premise was that the true reality is partly supersensory and partly sensory,” and everything ultimately “blended into one unity, that of the infinite manifold, God” (Sorokin, p. 20).

The final stage, the sensate, appears when cultures exhaust themselves. Whether evident in “fine art” such as Reubens’s “The Drunken Hercules” or in today’s consumer culture’s glossy magazine ads, the values of sensate cultures have no super-natural source or orientation. “Let us eat, drink, and be merry” swells to a crescendo as their theme song. The world we live in, the final moments of the Second Millenium, bears all the marks of a sensate culture at the end of its tether. “European civilization entered its sensate phase in the late fifteenth century, coinciding with the beginning of the modern era” (Brown, p. 11), and its days are, quite frankly, numbered.

The fall of European civilization, however, need not mark the end of civilization itself! The Roman empire, manifestly sensate in its final days, collapsed in the fifth century, but a vigorous new movement, Christianity, birthed a vigorous civilization in the High Middle Ages. Such renewal is again possible, but only, Sorokin insisted, “if we receive what he calls the ‘grace of understanding’ and, assisted by that grace, make the right decisions” (Brown, p. 13). The areas where we need such grace, Sorokin and Brown think, include: the arts; philosophy; religion; ethics and law; education, medicine, etc.

“The fine arts,” Sorokin wrote, “are one of the most sensitive mirrors of the society and culture of which they are an important part” (Sorokin, p. 30). Thoroughly religious, ideational art focuses on God and is highly symbolic in its forms. Orthodox icons, everywhere gracing Greek and Russian churches, illustrate ideational culture, as do Gothic cathedrals in Medieval Europe. “Its object is not to amuse, entertain or give pleasure,” Sorokin said, “but to bring the believer into a closer union with God. It is a part of religion, and functions as a religious service. It is a communion of the human soul with itself and with God” (Sorokin, p. 31). Thus “The Middle Ages disclose no picture or sculpture of extremely sensuous or sexual character, and a notable proportion of medieval works are highly spiritual and ascetic” (Sorokin, p. 51).

By contrast, idealistic art gives more realistic portrayal of the physical world, but only in its most exalted aspects. This is the art exemplified by Phidias, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Pindar in Greece’s classical era. “Exemplified by the Parthenon, it is half religious and half empirical” (Sorokin, p. 37). The same shift occurs in the Late Middle Ages, as more naturalistic art led to the flourishing of what we call the Renaissance, with artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael.

Sensate art, obviously, focuses on the “real” world the senses encounter, and it seeks to entertain rather than uplift those who embrace it. Ordinary folks, not heroes and saints, are celebrated. “At its overripe stage, prostitutes, criminals, street urchins, the insane, hypocrites, rogues, and other subsocial types are its favorite ‘heroes.’ Its aim is to afford a refined sensual enjoyment: relaxation, excitation of tired nerves, amusement, pleasure, entertainment” (Sorokin, p. 32).

Everything about modern art seems to celebrate self-indulgence and sensuality, both Sorokin and Brown declare. Even the standards of a sensate culture have collapsed. Manifestly, the West has lost its way! In Brown’s judgment, “The spirit that pervades the arts and entertainment of the West today is shaping a culture of which only the degenerate can be proud” (p. 26). Whether you analyze “gangsta-rap” lyrics or the “artists” granted funding by the National Association of the Arts, this truth stands clear: sensuality interests our artists. The “pathology and vulgarity that prevail in our motion pictures” Sorokin noted in 1941, have certainly not been excised or upgraded! In his somber judgment: “contemporary art 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” (Sorokin, p. 67).

The ills Sorokin diagnosed have metastasized! As Brown notes, rather than suppressing or censuring the depraved and debased, our cultural elites place strictures on religious references, the Ten Commandments, while banning politically incorrect words such as stewardess or mailman. Pornography flourishes while Christmas trees and Confederate flags are banned. Condoms are dispensed in our schools while teaching chastity is forbidden. Perhaps more clearly than anywhere else, the arts reveal our “sensate culture.”

Still more: cultures incubate systems of truth as well as artistic styles. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” finds clear response in ideational cultures: truth comes from God! It’s divinely revealed and stands forever etched in infallible scriptures. “Such truth may be called the truth of faith” (Sorokin, p. 81). As St Paul insisted: “The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” Idealistic cultures seek out a synthesis between the supernatural and the natural, weaving together an intricate system such as we find in Plato and Aristotle, Albertus Magnus and St Thomas Aquinas. Primarily concerned with God and His Kingdom, empirical knowledge is clearly subordinate to the mind and its ability to know transcendent truth.

Sensate cultures, of course, doubt truth itself exists because only the senses give us data and their configurations rarely suggest “absolutes” of any sort. In sensate eras, science reigns, replacing theology and philosophy. As usual, Sorokin documents his positions with ample data, even drafting graphs to demonstrate the preeminence of theology in the Medieval World and the power of science in our century. One of the consequences of science’s triumph “is the development of a temporalistic, relativist, and nihilistic mentality. The sensory world is in a state of incessant flux and becoming. There is nothing unchangeable in it–not even an eternal Supreme Being” (p. 96).

Relativism reigns! Nothing is truly true. “Hence the dictum, ‘Everything is relative in this world,’ is the motto of sensate truth” (Sorokim, p. 97). Still more: Sooner or later, relativism gives place to skepticism, cynicism, and nihilism. The very boundary line between the true and the false, between right and wrong, disappears, and society finds itself in a state of veritable mental, moral, and cultural anarchy” (p. 98). Instead of revealing truth as the adaequatio intellectus et rei, it yields mere impressions and artificial constructs relating to something essentially unknowable. Decadent sensory science even declares that it is not concerned with any true reality. It offers merely certain propositions based upon sensory observations which appear to be convenient and therefore speciously true” (ibid).

How prescient! Before the birth of “postmodernism” Sorokin clearly described it! Bringing Sorokin’s insights into the 1990’s, Brown points out that leading “postmoderns” such as Foucault and Derrida deny the very existence of “truth” at all. Much like Milton’s Satan, they think “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Such radical skepticism, truly demonic in nature, is equally evident in much that flies the flag of “cultural relativism or “multiculturalism.” Such has appeared before–ever the last gasps of a collapsing culture–but cannot last long.

The depravity of postmodernism is evident in a footnote of Brown’s which says: “Michel Foucault (1926-84) held one of the most prestigious chairs in philosophy in the world, at the College de France. An active homosexual who knew he had AIDS, he deliberately infected many other partners. The astonishing radical nature of his rejection of virtually every standard that human beings have erected to separate themselves from barbarism and chaos is reflected in these lines: ‘We can’t defeat the system through isolated actions; we must engage it on all fronts–the university, the prisons, and the domain of psychiatry–one after another, since our forces are not strong enough for a simultaneous attack. We strike and knock against the most solid obstacles; the system cracks at another point, we persist. It seems that we’re winning, but then the institution is rebuilt; we just start again. It is a long struggle; it is repetitive and seemingly incoherent. But the system it opposes, as well as the power exercised through the system, supplies its unity” (Brown, p. 246, quoting Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, , p. 230). Brown adds: “It is characteristic of the end phase of Western sensate culture that the university system attacked by Foucault gave him its most prestigious honors. He attacked all the distinctions on which civilization is based–the distinction between truth and falsehood, knowledge and ignorance, good and evil, sanity and madness–both in theory and practice” (Brown, p. 246).

Shifting to the realm of religion, Brown endorses Sorokin’s evaluation. The West was shaped by Christianity, an ideational culture which prevailed from ca. 600-1200 A.D. Rooted in that culture, “every major Christian confession makes the same claim: to teach objective truths, not merely subjective interpretations, about God, man, and the world” (Brown p. 65). That stance has largely collapsed, like an imploding skyscraper, almost everywhere. In Sorokin’s view, “Religion, as a revelation of God, degenerates into a second-hand ‘social gospel’–a sort of political creed” (Sorokin, p. 100).

In Brown’s judgment, “When religious groups compromise their foundational beliefs in order to coexist with the late sensate culture rather than challenging it or standing against, it, they in effect consent to their own liquidation” (Brown p. 67). The supreme irony of the Christian world, Brown writes, is this: “. . . only Christianity . . . has within its own ranks hosts of religious officials and teachers who devote themselves to undermining the religion they formally profess. Priests, ministers, bishops, archbishops, professors, and entire faculties and schools of theology seem to find nothing strange in promoting skepticism, atheism, radical feminism, goddess worship, neopaganism, occultism, and even witchcraft, or in approving and praising conduct that traditional Christianity calls immoral and abominable” (p. 76).

Ethics and law reveal much of the same disintegration. Ideational cultures propound divine command ethics. Good and evil pervade the world, and the dividing line between them shines brightly. There are rights and wrongs, and God has clearly highlighted them. Legislators enact laws which are rooted in nature and God, following the ancient Roman maxim that “Law is found, not made.” “Making its moral principles absolute, Christianity raises man to the highest level of sanctification, and protects him unconditionally against any use as a mere means to an end. No greater glorification or sanctification of man is possible than that vouchsafed by the ideational ethics of Christianity” (Sorokin, pp. 139-140).

Sensate cultures, however, resort to utilitarian ethics and legal positivism. Without metaphysical authority, sensate ethicists resort to opinion polls and power ploys. “Its aim is exclusively utilitarian: the safety of human life, security of property and possession, peace and order, the happiness and well-being of either society at large or of the dominating faction which enacts and enforces sensate law. Its norms are relative, changeable, and conditional” (Sorokin, p. 152). Rather than having “legislators,” sensate cultures follow “lawmakers” who basically make up laws to regulate human behavior. In time, as the Cole Porter song declares, “Anything goes.” Inevitably, “Might makes Right.”

In Brown’s opinion, “Among all the factors that contribute to the sociocultural crisis of our age, the crisis in ethics and law may well be the one that has the greatest implications for the future of our society” (Brown, p. 94). He notes that Gustav Radbruch, “once a leading German legal positivist,” following WWII urged the West to recover its roots in divine and natural law and the Christian tradition. “He asserted that the most dangerous revolution in history was when men discovered that they can make laws. The older term, legislation–derived from the Latin lex, legis (law), and latus (moved, as in ‘translate’)–corresponds to the view that laws are ‘found,’ as it were in heaven, and ‘moved’ into our human law codes and statute books. This is the reason why we speak of ‘moving’ and ‘motions’ when proposing something in a deliberative body” (Brown, p. 89).

Another crisis of our age is found in education. As Brown sees it: “The quest for equality has produced the collapse of a fundamental pillar on which education rested, namely authority, and the virtual disappearance of one of the primary goals that education was intended to achieve, excellence” (Brown, p. 177). Authority is the ability to elicit voluntary obedience, whereas power is the ability to impose obedience. Educators have, largely, lost their authority and must resort to force to maintain order in the public schools. When teachers are not respected, when students assert their own opinions are equal to those expounded by teachers, a culture collapses. Yet this is what’s happening in the United States. Historically, disintegrating cultures begin losing authority in education, and many believe the battle’s largely lost–at least in the public schools!

The plight of modernity, Sorokin says, is this: “If a person has no strong convictions as to what is right and what is wrong, if he does not believe in any God or absolute moral values, if he no longer respects contractual obligations, and finally, if his hunger for pleasures and sensory values is paramount, what can guide and control his conduct toward other men? Nothing but his desires and lusts. Under these conditions he loses all rational and moral control, even plain common sense” (Sorokin, p. 205).

If even part of Sorokin’s critique is valid, what should we do? First of all, never despair! When things degenerate to a certain level, increasing numbers of people turn to higher things. Secondly, though some losses occur, many of the grand accomplishments of the past usually endure. The monks who copied classic texts during the Middle Ages illustrate how the treasures of the past often survive. And from such treasure new life comes! New spiritual leaders will emerge! A new civilization will come! In such transitional eras, “Society itself will be increasingly divided into open, perfectly cynical sinners with their ‘Eat, Drink, and Love for tomorrow is uncertain,’ and into the ascetics and saints who will flee the sensory world into a kind of new refuge, new monasteries, and new deserts” (Sorokin, p. 302).

What we must do is honestly face the depth of the crisis. What we face is not a momentary fluctuation in the processes of history. The sensate culture, for so long dominant in the West, is breathing its last breaths. We live in an era which will chart the course of tomorrows. We may be able to help put in place “purer and more godly familistic relationships” (Sorokin, p. 320). The solution, rooted in past examples, “can be reduced to a compact formula: Crisis–ordeal– catharsis–charisma–resurrection” (Sorokin, p. 321). And finally, because we humans have a poor track record of doing things on our own, the final sentence of the book declares: Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.

In Brown’s re-casting of Sorokin’s appeal, we’re urged to recover what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things.” St Paul’s short list is instructive: faith; hope; love. To call men and women to faith in Christ, hope in His Kingdom, and love for Him and His world, is a constructive task laden with great promise. Indeed, “In the words of the Austrian sociologist Hans Millendorfer, ‘The future will be Christian, or it will not take place'” (Brown, p. 251). We need not concern ourselves with a power-grab, taking control of the culture in order to impose our standards. “What is necessary,” Brown thinks, “is the shared conviction of large numbers of people that ‘it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves’ (Ps. 100:3)” (Brown, p. 237).

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