Cultural pessimism  

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"O most ingenious Theuth ... you who are the father of letters ... this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth."--Phaedrus by Plato

"FOR better or worse, the most powerful, influential instruments for the dissemination of values, knowledge, and art are today the mass media. Among artists and intellectuals, the cultural domination of radio, film, and television is normally viewed with apprehension. Teachers of literature, for example, often express the fear that books are an endangered species, that literacy is dying out, that it is giving way to what Jerzy Kosinski calls "videocy.""--Bread and Circuses (1983) by Patrick Brantlinger, incipit

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Cultural pessimism is a variety of pessimism, as formulated by what is nowadays called a cultural critic, but used to be called a moralist. In brief, a cultural pessimist believes that today's culture is inferior to yesterday's culture. It runs parallel to the argument that today's youth is more immoral than yesterday's youth. Cultural pessimism's closest relative is cultural elitism. Cultural pessimism comes equally from the political right and left; it scorns new media and new developments in art and culture.

Despite the views of cultural pessimists, every era yields equal amounts of creativity and equal amounts of quality culture. The exception to this rule are times of hardship such as war and famine in which cultural production in general tapers off. See cultural optimism.


Contemporary proponents

Towards the end of the 20th century, cultural pessimism surfaced in a prominent way. The very title of Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000) challenges the reader to be hopeful. On Matthew Arnold, a major cultural critic of the Victorian era, Barzun writes

According to Arnold, the behaviour of the English social classes was touched neither by spiritual nor by intellectual forces; the upper orders were barbarians, the middle classes philistines. (op. cit. p.573)

The end of the millennium saw in the USA concerns rather specific to the conservative view on the culture wars and university education.

Western Europe, on the other hand, struggled towards self-definition in the face of limiting demography, and postmodernism as at least journalistically predominant — the difference primarily lying in the political prominence of the issues.

Traditional versions

It has been significant presence in the general outlook of many historical cultures: things are going to the dogs, the Golden age is in the past, and the current generation is fit only for dumbing down and cultural careerism. Some significant formulations have gone beyond this, proposing a universally-applicable cyclic model of history — notably in the writings of Giambattista Vico.

Nineteenth century

The pessimistic element was available in Schopenhauer's philosophy and Matthew Arnold's cultural criticism. The tide of Whiggish optimism (exemplified by Macaulay) receded somewhat in the middle of the reign of Queen Victoria.

Classical culture, based on traditional classical scholarship in Latin and Greek literature, had itself been under attack externally for two generations or more by 1900, and had produced in Nietzsche, a model pessimistic thinker.

Early twentieth century

Cultural pessimism of the Oswald Spengler epoch might be seen as a refusal, of the rather intellectual and secular choice between nihilism and modernism. Politically this tended to squeeze liberal thought.

Specific criticism of the West, in the first years of the twentieth century, is usually taken as of the Old World of Europe, excluding therefore North America in particular. The classic source for this is Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918 - 1923), often cited in the years following its publication. The tone of much of the critical writing, for example, of T. S. Eliot, and the historical writing of Arnold J. Toynbee from the 1920s onwards, is identifiable. It was fashionable to say that Spengler had at least formulated some truths about the cultural situation of Europe after World War I. Eliot's major early work The Waste Land (1922) was commonly and directly interpreted in those terms.


  • Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World (2001) Oliver Bennett

See also

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