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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

the darkening age

Jeepers, still coming up dry as I sit down here to write a post. Maybe it is time to go back to jotting down ideas for blog-posts as they come to me during the day; for they do come to me. Sometime after I publish each post I usually have the thought, "Oh yeah, that's what I've been wanting to write about!"

Well, today I'm quite underslept (late to bed, early wakeup) and I don't feel up to much in terms of anything to say. I've dutifully typed some notes into the PC, from Arnold J. Toynbee's A Study of History (volume 1 of the abridged version) and from The Golden Bough (also an abridged version--where did people ever find the time to read 12-volume works?).

I'm finding Toynbee's writing a bit pompous, but also powerful, bold, and provocative--in other words, very good. I love his field of inquiry: how civilizations arise, flourish, and decline. He's plowing ground similar to that covered by Oswald Spengler in his The Decline of the West, the book that so inspired the young Joseph Campbell. I got that out of the library a couple of years ago, but found it quite heavy going. I would need to get my own copy that I could highlight at will (I'm a destroyer of books--ruining them for others while making them more useful and valuable for myself).

Toynbee has identified 21 civilizations (or "civilizing societies") that have existed since humanity first took up agriculture. The one in which I'm sitting and writing right now he dubbed Western Christendom. By his reckoning, every civilization evolves along the same broad lines, prospering for awhile under the impetus of an initial creative and spiritual energy, gradually settling into a universal state run by a dominant minority. Along with the dominant minority grows a church, a religion within the universal state, and a proletariat of people excluded from the dominant minority. Eventually, as the state ossifies into a more or less oppressive structure, it cracks and is overthrown by forces within and without. In general, the church that grew within the shelter of the universal state becomes the spiritual germ of another civilization, as the Christian Church became the germ of Western (and also Eastern) Christendom after the demise of the Roman Empire. In the meantime there is an interregnum or "heroic age" in which barbarians contend for the scraps of empire--what in our history we refer to as the Dark Ages.

Fascinating. I can't help but wonder: what is the "church" of our society now? The notion of "Christendom" has become weak and anachronistic, even though there are still many Christians in our society. But in Canada, as in Europe, the churches are filled--well, partly filled--mainly with old people; their congregations are dying off. The U.S. is more aggressively "Christian", but the society itself is violent and uncivil, with "Christianity" apparently doing little but attempting to put the brakes on certain aspects of science, such as evolutionary biology and biotechnology.

Western society is certainly aging. Who would deny that we're moving closer to senescence in our aggressive, materialistic culture, in which fewer and fewer people vote, and which is gradually coming to be steered by unpopular people who, as Toynbee puts it, rule rather than lead. There is disaffection within and also resentment without--ingredients leading toward the dissolution of the society and the lapse into a new "heroic age" of barbarism and warlords. Right now, it's not easy to pick which spiritual tradition or idea might form the nucleus of a new society, something creative to arise from the corpse of our own.

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