Review: Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman

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Repost. Originally written in 2008. I read this book because Cindy of Ordo Amoris had done a book club on it and Mental Multivitamin had reviewed it.

I finally finished reading The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman. I checked it out earlier in the year and read the first half, and checked it out again a couple weeks ago and got around to reading the second part, which was the substance for which I began the book in the first place.

In the first half of the book, Berman paints a picture of American culture as it stands, and all his observations — published in 2000 — are only more pronounced 8 years later. Our culture is a culture of kitsch and noise, he argues. But he’s not merely complaining about how bad it is. He’s doing so while drawing parallels to Rome’s culture just before it fell. He argues that America today is to the culture and ideals the country was founded upon as Rome before it fell was to Rome when it was at its peak. He also wonders aloud if any culture’s greatness necessarily also contains the seeds of its demise. He seems to think — though he is not certain — that history is cyclical, and what makes one nation rise will develop and mature into a hardness that will bring the nation down.

In the second half of the book, Berman argues that we do not need to wring our hands in despair, nor organize for political or social change. He suggests that those who see the problem, that those who love real substance and real thinking, should simply live quiet lives as much outside the pop culture as possible and immerse themselves and maybe a small local group with them (homeschooling, anyone?) in the heritage, the questions, the thinking and literature of Western civilization. The New Monastic Individual, he calls these people.

His idea is that these people are the type of civilized elite that every culture needs but that our current society hates and attempts to dumb down. The NMI, as he unfortunately refers to his new character, chooses quality over mass-produced, commercialized products, rejects the notion that buying power and the economy is more important than the soul of each and every individual, and refuses to take his message big-time. He lives within his personal, local sphere of influence and embodies culture. A message that has hit the big-time, Berman argues, must necessarily (in our current structure) have had its individuality and potentcy diluted to make it palatable to the masses.

While Berman does hope that having such a remnant in the society will make a renewal more likely, he does not guarantee it. He thinks that at least having such purposeful, informed people will at least make the inevitable (to him) Dark Ages shorter than they might otherwise be. He doesn’t offer the promise of becoming a hero or savior of society by pursuing the monastic option; he offers the prospect of having personal fulfillment amidst the sea of a rootless, muddled population, and being one who can awake others (individually and locally and personally) and show them the way out – a la The Matrix, though he doesn’t use that analogy. That, in turn, might become the catalyst for a new society after ours collapses, but we cannot predict how history will fall out.

I like his message and I like his solution. It was rather odd, however, to agree with so many observations while disagreeing with many of his conclusions. For example, he believes that faith is opposed to science. He believes the cycle of history is that faith is alive while science is dead, faith actually moves people to discover science (that much is true), but then as science grows, faith dies and as soon as faith is dead, science begins to die. It’s a reasonable observation, but it’s simply fascinating to see it discussed by someone who recognizes spirituality is important to the soul, yet despises Christian faith.

He also identified the primary problem of our society as being the economic disparity between rich and poor, yet he recognized that a culture cannot flourish under a leveling socialism. A cultured civilization does require a degree of hierarchy and distinction. Quality simply cannot be ubiquitous. He obviously thought that the “religious right” was ridiculous and backward — though he wasn’t too insulting — but though he was clearly a liberal, he still recognized that both the right’s and the left’s “isms” were problematic and designed to control the masses and their opinions, money, and votes.

It was fascinating reading, really. And all throughout, I could only be grateful that I do have a biblical worldview and know that all is God’s and He is sovereign, and also grateful I am a postmil and thus have a reason to hope even that a collapse might bring more good than a continuing of the current “progress.” The fall of Rome caused the spreading of the gospel to Europe. If our society falls, it will only be to bring about something better. And I think Berman did at least get our duty correct:

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification. … and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.

Berman explicitly calls for each of these three aspects in his New Monastic Individual: quiet lives, not trying to be a hero, and to learn and appreciate craftsmanship and scholarship.

As much as he contemns the Christian faith (he laments that the very monastic homeschooling option is dominated by people doing it for religious reasons), he is actually saying that our culture must have people who live like informed Christians (who else can truly love words, but those who love the Word — Jesus Christ?). I find it ironic. I also find that it gives him more credence. He came by the long route to this nugget of truth. We can get there directly, and we should.

Berman’s call is to not love this world and to not be of this world. I think that’s a critical message.

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One Response

  1. Brandy @ Afterthoughts
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    Nice review! I had forgotten this, or possibly I read it *before* I had read the book, so it didn’t mean as much to me.

    I have to admit that this was a painful read for me. I felt like I was wading through so much communist and liberal propaganda in order to find the redeeming ideas, you know? He was obviously a liberal writing TO liberals, so he assumed his position rather than trying to justify it (like all of his passing comments in favor of labor unions).

    Sigh.

    I like the idea that monasticism *matters* of course, but I think I’d rather get that idea from a Catholic or Orthodox writer where there’d be a lot more insights from truth and tradition that were worth gleaning as well, you know?