I'd like to address the problem of the decline of Western Civilization in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription.
Sometimes, when people hear me addressed as "Dr. Kreeft," they think I'm the other kind of doctor — a medical doctor — and then, when I tell them that, no, I'm a philosophy professor, they usually say, "Oh, well, I guess we need that kind of doctor too." But today I want to act like a medical doctor, but for the soul rather than the body.
I'm told that in medical school they tell you that there are four indispensable steps to any medical analysis of a patient's condition. And these four steps are the basic logic of all practical problem-solving in every field — medicine, business, detectives, whatever — because, there are two variables: there's something good or desirable and something bad or undesirable. And then there's the cause and the effect. So you can have the bad effect, the bad cause, the good effect, or the good cause. So the four steps of a medical analysis are first, an observation of the symptoms, which are the bad effects; then a diagnosis of the disease that is causing the symptoms — that's the bad cause; then a prognosis of the hope for a healing, which is the good effect; and then a prescription for the treatment, which is the good cause.
All of Buddhism is based on those four points, which Buddha calls the Four Noble Truths. And when one of his disciples once asked him to speculate about other philosophical questions, he refused, saying, "This is all I teach you. I teach you simply that life is suffering, and that the cause of suffering is selfish desire, and that there is hope for ending all suffering by ending its cause, and my Noble Eightfold Path is the way to end the cause." That's a doctor's analysis but applied to the soul rather than the body.
So I'd like to address the problem of the decline of Western Civilization in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription.
Start with the symptoms. If you went to a country and you found that fifty percent of the citizens of that country committed suicide, you would say that that is a very sick country and does not have a very good hope for survival. That is Western Civilization, because the fundamental building block of all societies is families. Families are the fundamental citizens of every society. And divorce is the suicide of a family. When the body and the soul separate, the body dies. When the mother and the father separate, the family dies. So a fifty percent divorce rate, which is what we have in North America, means a fifty percent suicide rate. That's a very, very serious symptom.
If you think that's a stretch, let's take suicide literally. What is our suicide rate? I think it's the fourth highest in the world, directly proportionate to wealth, by the way; the richer you are, the more likely it is you'll think your life is so wonderful that you put a bullet through your head. And William Bennett's index of social indicators tells us that in just fifty years, in the last half of the twentieth century, the suicide rate among teenagers has increased five thousand percent. That's a rather spectacular statistic.
An even more spectacular statistic is our willingness to murder our own unborn children. As Mother Teresa says, "If abortion isn't wrong, nothing's wrong." Our ancestors would literally not be able to believe that.
It used to be that seventy-five percent of the people in England were in church on a Sunday morning. Now it's four percent. It used to be that five percent of Frenchmen identified themselves as atheists. Now it's forty percent.
I have a little story that shows that. I know a doctor who told me that his friend, a dietician, agreed to work in — I think it was Zaire — some African country — for a couple of years for the United Nations because they discovered this tribe that was so isolated that they were still very innocent, and they distrusted outsiders, and it was one of the most primitive tribes left on earth, and the anthropologists wanted to study them before they died out. And they were dying out because their diet was so bad they were killing themselves but they didn't know it. They were very primitive. For instance, their favourite spice was dried flies. Dead flies dried by the sun. And they didn't trust outsiders, black or white.
So this doctor, who I think was from Canada, volunteered to spend, if necessary, two years of his life trying to win his way into this tribe to convince them to change their diet to survive, so that the rest of the world could study them for scientific interests. And he succeeded, and it took a long time, and he persuaded them to change their diet, and their health improved dramatically and very quickly, so everybody in the tribe knew that he spoke the truth and he was trustable and he was the first outsider they loved and trusted, and they were fascinated with him.
So they kept asking him questions about the outside world. And he said that they were like children: they were very innocent and peaceful, but ignorant. He had to explain to them what planes were, and he explained that we could fly to the moon, and they believed that, and that we had weapons that were so great that we could destroy the whole world with them, if some one madman just pressed a button, and they believed that. They believed everything he said. He was like God to them, almost.
But he said there were two things that it was almost impossible for them to believe. They just had no holding places in their mind. One was, that when they asked him, "Do you have wise men in the outside world too?" — sages, shamans — he said, "Yes, they're called philosophers." Well, philosophy means a love of wisdom. So they asked him "What gods do they believe in?" They were aware that other tribes believed in other gods. And he said, well, seventy-five percent of philosophers outside of Catholic universities are atheists. (Four percent of sane people are atheists, but seventy-five percent of philosophers are atheists.) They had no word in their language for atheists, so he had to explain to them that an atheist believes in no god at all. They at first thought that was a joke. They couldn't believe that. Not the good gods? Not the bad gods? Not the male gods? Not the female gods? Not the gods of the earth? Not the gods of the sky? Not the gods of our tribe? Not the gods of the other tribe? No gods at all? There are people in the world who believe in no gods at all? That blew their mind. But he said they were like very precocious children; they were very energetic and they didn't give up easily, so they said, "We must solve this puzzle."
Whenever they had a puzzle, he said, the oldest members of the tribe would get in a circle and they'd all talk together, like bees buzzing together. They had this ability to hear many voices at once. And after a few minutes or a few hours they finally solved the puzzle, and the head tribesman would announce the solution. So that's what they did with the problem of atheists. It took them all day. This was the biggest problem they ever had in their tribe. But at the end of the day, they finally emerged, smiling, and the head tribesman said, "We have solved the riddle of your atheists. We know that you people have these great big concrete buildings that you like for some strange reason, and that you live in these cities. Well, these atheists, as you call them, must have been born in the cellars of these buildings, and never emerged outside of these buildings. They have never seen a bird, they have never seen a waterfall, they have never seen the stars! That is why they are atheists!"
C. S. Lewis wrote, in an article entitled "The Poison of Subjectivism," that "this moral relativism will certainly damn our souls and end our species."
But there was another thing that he told them that they could not believe at all, ever. Literally, psychologically, impossible to believe. And that was that one third of all the children that were conceived in North America were murdered by people called "physicians" or "healers," who were paid by the parents. Their reaction to that was a polite giggle, because they knew it must be a joke and they didn't understand the joke, so they pretended to laugh. They giggled. And he tried to persuade them that it wasn't a joke. And they literally could not believe that it wasn't a joke. So they thought it was a riddle.
So he stayed there for a few months after he told them this, and every day they'd come to him and say, "Can you explain the riddle today?" And he kept saying, "It's not a riddle. It's true." And they literally could not believe that. He said the last sight I had of them was when the plane came in the little dirt landing strip to take me away, the head tribesman came to me and said, "We will never see you again in this world. You must tell us the solution to your riddle today, because we will never discover it ourselves." And he said, "It's not a riddle. It's true." And he said the last sight I had of him is walking from my side by the door of the plane back to his tribesmen who were eagerly awaiting the solution to this hilariously funny riddle, and they were looking with eyes wide open with expectation to hear the funniest joke they'd ever heard in life, and the head tribesman was looking down and hanging his head, and still not believing. One wonders who the primitives are.
We're not having children. For strictly biological reasons, a society cannot survive without having children. Europe is almost lost. In another generation, Europe will be a Muslim continent, because Muslims are the only ones having children. And we're not. They deserve it. It used to be that seventy-five percent of the people in England were in church on a Sunday morning. Now it's four percent. It used to be that five percent of Frenchmen identified themselves as atheists. Now it's forty percent. You can find statistics of our culture's decline and crisis everywhere. Some of them are very clear; some of them are more subtle. One of the subtle but deep symptoms is moral scepticism. No society in history has ever existed without believing in some version of the natural moral law. Ours is the first that officially does not believe in this. It's illegal to appeal to natural law to justify positive law. The United States Supreme Court said so. I think Canada is even farther advanced, like tooth decay can be farther advanced.
Imagine — I don't have a blackboard here — imagine a square on a blackboard, perched on one of its four points. And at the top there is Community and at the bottom there is Chaos. And at the two corners there are two other Cs which are the only arms, the only means that a community has to ward off chaos. They're called Cops and Conscience. The law of the four Cs. Any community, whether it's a human body, or a community of people, or a tribe of animals, survives only if it wards off chaos. Chaos is like death. It destroys, it separates. And for a human community, the only two ways to preserve that community against chaos are the inner cop or the outer cop. And the inner cop is conscience. And cops are the outer conscience. So conscience depends upon a natural law. If there is no natural moral law, if morality is simply positive law, law posited by man, manmade, the rules of the game, then it's not morality. It's just a contract. There's no binding absolute obligation to it. And that's the prevailing theory of morality among intellectuals and among media personalities in our civilization.
C. S. Lewis wrote, in an article entitled "The Poison of Subjectivism," that "this moral relativism will certainly damn our souls and end our species." C. S. Lewis was a British Oxford don. They are not prone to exaggeration. Why "damn our souls"? Well, according to Jesus, you have to repent and believe in order to be saved. How can you repent if there's no such thing as sin? And how can there be such a thing as sin unless there's an absolute moral law against which you sin? Why "end our species?" Because even though this may not biologically end our species, it will spiritually end our species by producing a new kind of creature, a creature without a conscience, Nietzsche's superman. Nietzsche was, alas, a prophet. A conscience-ectomy would be a very serious operation, to put it mildly. C. S. Lewis calls such a person "a man without a chest." He's got a head, he's got guts, but he's got no chest. He's got no conscience, no moral will.
Peter Kreeft. "The Church and Secularism - part 1." a talk given at Westminster Abbey, Mission B.C. (January 28, 2012).
This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.
Photo: Kwan Choo, ARPS
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2012 Peter Kreeft
back to top