In the last two installments, we have investigated the rise and decline of a society as seen in the health of its institutions and the parallels between the self of the individual and the self of society.
Societies exemplifying domination, such as ours in the West, are not the culmination of human civilization or the uttermost expression of human potential; rather, they are a delicate early stage of scientific and spiritual maturity, where “scientific” means the gathering of knowledge for the sake of knowledge and material freedom and “spiritual” implies the capacity of citizens to live an expansive sense of identity. Indeed, one sign of decline is the popular belief that society is eternal and ideal, held to the degree that citizens welcome the bureaucracy, dehumanization, and waste that accompanies social decay. In their romantic nationalistic notion, members of a declining dominant society glorify their State though it may have ceased to be a united entity long ago.
When the theory of self, as it pertains to human history, speaks of creativity as the antidote to decline, the creative urge is not limited to the arts. Above all things perhaps, creativity lies in the capacity to ask not only any question, but to ask the questions that particular challenge that which is widely taken for granted. In science and spirituality, superficial questions reflect limits of perspective -- a limitation of self -- whereas challenging and difficult questions reflect a self eager to face the unknown. Today, members of Western society, like citizens during any decline, have confused creativity with entertainment that promotes complacency, moderate to progressive religious ideologies that soothe with just enough platitudes but without prodding the self to expand, commercialism as a habitual comfort zone, and political parties as pathetic excuses for leadership. Instead of imitating the creative pioneers that prod the self to expand, Western culture stands for the imitation of popularity, priests, propaganda, and politicians. This is typical of a society in decline.
At the same time, Western society today exemplifies an extreme in superficial creativity -- a generation in computer technology is counted in months, pop culture is increasingly shock culture, anger and pettiness are spotlighted for their commercial value, and legal drug programs replace right diet, slower and low-stress living, and moderation. Western society is also in the grip of extremes in religious behavioral conservatism; but historically, excess and puritanical paradigms are sister symptoms of the same sick desperation. The most licentious act in another society at another time is conservative in the declining society if it is an act mimicked by millions. For instance, public fornication as a political statement against a war’s death toll is conservative if millions do it without the capacity to creatively consider alternative means to centralize social power in the individual. In an authoritarian State moving toward greater centralization, those acts that are permitted -- such as marches -- are conservative and eventually empower the conservative elite by becoming an easily regulated conduit for social anxiety.
The declining society is creative in its destruction and suicide, conservative in introducing any changes. Perhaps more than in any other subject, we as a majority are conservative in our assessment of who we are. Our spiritual conservatism is so extreme, we no longer ask the deeper questions of life, or we ask the same old questions of yesterdays because the answers are comfortably familiar. Think for a moment. When was the last time you sincerely asked yourself a novel question that called into question a cherished idea?
Conservative religious, political, and economic leadership cherishes a bygone society that cannot endure. The societal dreams of a dominant culture assume infinite exploitation, and the world is simply not big enough. The conservative body attempts to maintain a status quo that will, even if it is temporarily sustained, result in future crises of even greater proportions.
Western society is declining due to a dearth of creative genius, meaning a lack of responsible questions and appropriate sacrifices. This decline is ideally a recipe for a new popular attitude toward science and spirituality to form. It has not yet formed, I feel, due to the dominance of actual and de facto Christianity. As much as sacrifice is central to Christian faith, it is not the sacrifice of the narrow self. If anything, it is a sacrifice that empowers the conservative elite by crippling the Christian majority with promises of eternal beatitude in exchange for a lifetime of serfdom. Far from needing to sacrifice, vicarious atonement means the sacrifice has already been done. Even apostates who reject the sacrifice of Jesus largely hold to the basic assumption that they don’t need to sacrifice anything. In fact, the mantra of a dominant society in decay is “I don’t have to pay for my life.” Therefore, the replacement of actual and de facto Christianity, with a new outlook, is a vital early step in the creative development of Western civilization. This inward expansion will balance the centuries of external exploitation, of which Christianity was symptomatic.
All societal regeneration originates in creative genius, whose goal is first, the concrete realization of its creativity and second, introducing a new centrality of purpose to society. This evolution comes about when the majority imitates the exemplary sacrifice of the creative realization. That is, the only way for the majority of a decaying society to follow the lead of the creative genius is by the easy overt imitation of the concrete realizations of the creative genius. Since the people have the habit of mimicking the conservative elite and cannot so easily be freed from this habit, creative genius uses this habit in the service of regeneration by being redirected toward itself. More specifically, the people mimic the ascetic sacrifice of the creative genius -- its concrete creative realization -- and thereby decentralize social power. Needless to say, this process of mimicry has its pitfalls and limitations.
The first limitation rests in the inclination of people to mimic not principles, but other people. If a decline continued for several decades, all living generations will have the habit of mimicking the personalities of the creative elite. The propensity for seeking a personality in the creative genius will be apparent. After choosing poorly numerous times, the populace may eventually focus on an individual who exemplifies the sacrifice and social asceticism necessary to strip power from the conservative elite.
It is hoped that this creative genius will not become intoxicated with attention and turn into a controlling individual that, for all intents and purposes, joins the conservative elite; but this is a possibility. If the creative genius is personalized by the masses and, in his or her hubris, claims to be a world savior, then again creativity will fail since saviors are merely after-the-fact mythological assessments of past creative genius. Another possibility is that the creative individual dies or is murdered, and then is martyred and institutionalized by the conservative elite. Within a few generations, the one-time creative genius standing for decentralized and distributed power will symbolize centralized power. If any of these eventualities takes place, the society will again start down the road of disintegration.
The second limitation is in the necessity of creative genius to establish its own institutions. If a stew goes bad, it is folly to take out the old potatoes and put in new ones; the only wise choice is to throw out the stew and start from scratch. Similarly, it is folly for creative genius to attempt to use the decaying political, economic, and religious institutions in its quest to inspire creative vitality into a declining society. As new potatoes will go bad in a bad stew, so too will new creative genius stagnate if forced to express itself through old institutions.
Nevertheless, citizens in a declining society routinely engage in this folly. Indeed, hoping against hope that decayed institutions can be revitalized is the initial standard response to decline – and it is one that only furthers decline in a haze of denial. A plethora of pseudo-creative groups will form in the hope of improving established institutions already rotted with corruption. Even if the creative genius proves resilient against stagnation, the institutions themselves will merely break down and the creative minority will find itself in the position that it started in – faced with the necessity of establishing new institutions.
The third limitation is in the possibility for the creative minority to lose realized genius. The enemies of creativity are apathy and helplessness, smugness, resting on previous glories, identifying with narrow accomplishments that do not have lasting influence, believing one's discoveries to be final and absolute, intoxication with success, and unethical demands made on the imitating majority in the belief that creative genius determines its own ethics, arbitrary though they may be. To be precise, creative genius does not become conservative in this case, but it becomes impotent.
The fourth limitation is if the creative institution resorts to murder, which quickly turns it into a static institution. Fire can be fought with fire, but the centralization of power in individuals and groups, if done properly, will obliterate any need for mimickers of creativity to defend against the militarism of the dying conservative elite. Some conflict in self-defense may erupt, but continued use of arms eventually becomes the easy answer to a failed regimen of social asceticism. Instead of centralizing power by ceasing to distance power, the death of the conservative elite creates a power vacuum that might be filled by…anyone. If creative genius presumes to remain creative but takes the reigns of the dead controlling leaders, then it will fail by succumbing to the needs of political underhandedness, propaganda, and the subversion of government that confuses rule with order.
Fifth, if the creative genius degenerates into futurism or archaism, usually to appease the mimicking majority, then it will either be controlled or rejected by the majority who is clearly unprepared or unwilling to mimic creative genius. In looking to the past or future for the escape the majority seeks, the creative genius de facto becomes a power in the service of conservatism.
The sixth limitation is in the ability of the majority to actually imitate creative genius in the first place. The enemies of this process are: idolizing political, economic, religious, and social leaders, hopelessness, confusing controlling leaders with creative ones, identifying with a narrow sense of self that purposely fears and rejects the creative individual and the sacrifice and asceticism exemplified. In the latter case, the controlling elite typically brands the creative genius as a threat through all propaganda outlets.
The seventh limitation lies in the stage of decline a society must be in when it realizes creative genius. Creative genius cannot succeed unless the declining society has reached a balance point of both conservatism and creativity, capable of hosting the self-knowledge creative genius attempts to exemplify. Too much conservatism results in closed doors and the ridicule of creative genius while too much dispersed creativity results in closed doors and the ridicule of creative genius. With centralized conservatism and scattered creativity, no centralized front to challenge centralized power is possible. With dispersed creativity, a ploy of the conservative elite, no centralized creative front to challenge centralized power is possible either.
In mythology, creative events -- whether centering on the creation of the world, a hero, a Son of God, the rise of civilizations, or the discovery of some hidden scientific or ontological truth – tell their stories in the language of cosmic clashes, divine unions, and supernatural encounters. In our terms, the effects of climate changes, war and dispersion, or the projections of divine meaning onto a stellar phenomenon inspire mythologized encounters. Still, the rarity of the mythological event lends its own mystique, insuring colossal consequences. One day there was peace and prosperity and the next the world would never be the same. Something intruded upon the calm and ease, provoking a response, demanding growth, and requiring creativity. This challenge forced those intruded upon to herald all the creative energies gatherable to counteract the threat of suffering or extinction represented by the intruder. History has shown that the greater the challenge, the greater the creative response, and that the intruder need not be from without.
Our society in decline has its full share of challenges, but what is the alternative to facing them? The price a society pays for failing to exhibit the creativity necessary to emerge triumphant from the challenges of its past is disintegration. With our technological capabilities, the price might be annihilation.
Historically, the first step in disintegration is the emergence of a governing body that rules but does not realize, prohibits but does not prevent, funds but does not function. This step has already been taken.
The second step is taken when the majority reacts against a growing sense of oppression; distrust and disinterest of the governing minority become prevalent. Again, we have taken this step.
The final step is the death of the society and the birth of an orphaned social system. This deathblow can come with invaders, economic collapse, ecological collapse, or the failure of the conservative elite to maintain control despite ratcheted domestic militarism. As we speak, the conservative elite is desperately trying to maintain growth, maintain imperialism, maintain irresponsible policy, and maintain control. It wants all the proverbial cakes in the world, and none of the indigestion.
But, if a society meets the challenges of its past with fearlessness and imagination, disintegrating trends can be nullified and even reversed in a creative exchange that inspires deep-seeded changes in purpose and perspective. A shift will be made in the society’s attitude toward human life and indeed all life. Where it is creative -- in waste, abuse, and misuse -- it will become conservative; where it is conservative -- in challenging its spiritual identity -- it will become creative.
Three generations used to be the time span for a change in societal habit, but that duration has shortened in recent decades, for better and for worse. Our creative genius must make use of present-day circumstances. If it does so successfully, it can potentially effect a change in Western habits of living in roughly one to three generations. In twenty to forty years, the world will not recognize itself and our times will seem primitive.
On such waves of historical patterns do our lives and civilizations rise and fall. The society that musters its creative talents survives and thrives, but the one that fails stagnates and dies. Since the history of the self is the history of the cosmos, we all have ample access to creative genius in facing the challenges of our time.