This blog continues a biblical examination of the cultural conclusions reached by two 20th century scholars, British anthropologist J.D. Unwin, author of Sex and Culture, and Pitirim Sorokin, author of The American Sex Revolution and the founder of the sociology department at Harvard University. The first blog on this subject can be found here.
To summarize: Throughout history, the process of societal success and expansion has the same root cause, according to Unwin and Sorokin: monogamy in marriage and a strong moral code limiting sexual activity to the married life. As this custom unravels, the process of decay sets in.
Both Unwin and Sorokin note that history is filled with the remarkably consistent manifestations of this process of corruption. A few examples from their research will suffice to illustrate the process, as well as provide a chilling parallel to what is happening in America:
Sorokin stated that, in the decline of ancient Egypt, “Sexual anarchy assumed extreme forms and spread through a large part of the population. Side by side with an increase of sexual perversions, a shameless sexual promiscuity also greatly increased.”
He also cited a historian who said about this period of Egyptian decline: “[H]omosexual love entered the mores of the population. The contemporary authors seem to sadistically enjoy the enumeration of a variety of turpitudes and sexual perversions. . . . They describe all the aberrations of morbid eroticism with the impudent serenity of the casuist: rape, unnatural sexual relations, flagellations, and sodomy.’”
In ancient Athens in the fifth century, Unwin said, the old customs “had disappeared, the sexual opportunity of both sexes being extended. There was no compulsory continence; sexual desires could be satisfied in a direct manner. Divorce became easy and common; pederasty [homosexual sex between men and boys] appeared; the men possessed mistresses as well as wives; the women broke bounds, consoling themselves with both wine and clandestine love affairs. The energy of the Athenians declined. Three generations later the once vigorous city, torn by dissension, was subject to a foreign master.”
During the decline of the Roman Republic, it was the same story. Sorokin noted, “The growth of sexual anarchy, divorces, desertions, and orgies; of emancipation and ‘masculinization’ of women and effemination of men, together with radical changes in marriage and family laws, which largely dissolved their sacredness and inviolability, and an attendant decrease of birth rate, proceeded hand in hand with a growth of irreligiosity and of vulgar sensualist ethics and frame of mind.”
These examples are not exceptions, they reflect the rule. In every one of the 80 societies examined by Unwin, the pattern was repeated. He said, “In every case the same situations arose; the same sentiments were expressed; the same changes were made; the same results ensued. The history of these societies consists of a series of monotonous repetitions.”
Sexual anarchy is a symptom of a deeper problem of a growing self-centeredness. The transformation of a healthy society into a decaying culture is revealed by whether or not it pays attention to the past and the future. Healthy societies have regard for the past and concern for the future, Sorokin noted; dying cultures care only for the present.
But it is a particular obsession with the present that denotes “a state of degeneracy,” according to The American Sex Revolution. It was when a growing number of citizens had become “selfish nihilists preoccupied with pleasure” that such a state of decay could be said to exist.
These repetitions of the sociological pattern might have been monotonous to Unwin, but what followed the period of sexual anarchy is truly terrifying. As morality erodes over several generations in a decaying society, marriages crumble and family life begins to dissolve.
Once confident in its beliefs and values, confusion reigns in a decaying society, and political movements appear like wild and blinded swings at a piñata as people grasp for solutions to the turmoil. The bewildered culture “attempts to find salvation through drastic economic reconstructions, such as nationalization or denationalization of property; equal or grossly unequal distribution of income and expenditures; governmental or completely private control of production;” or even more dramatic shifts between forms of government, from democracy to dictatorship, for example.
Nevertheless, Sorokin said, these attempts to stem the decline “hardly touch the real sources of the society’s degeneration.” They really don’t know what the catalyst is.
Sorokin said the strain on individuals and social ties creates an anarchy of its own. There is incessant agitation and citizens begin wondering about the stability of the social order. “Each emotional hurricane leaves in its wake its own share of victims: the suicides, the murdered, the wounded; the delinquents, the nervous wrecks, the confused of mind, and the hate saturated,” he said.
Internal suspicions grow, the data showed, and the people “see plots, subversion, and dangers where there are none, but fail to see the true perils which are all about them,” according to The American Sex Revolution. It is easy to imagine group politics fragmenting the society, as each side demonizes the other.
The American Sex Revolution is not a prudish jeremiad against short skirts and dirty dancing, however. There are sociological consequences when people become concerned with their own pleasure – simply because they become concerned with their own pleasure. They might agree in principle that every person has the freedom to do what is right in his or her own eyes, but that agreement is a flimsy foundation for social cohesion. Instead, it creates a toxic environment in which hedonistic desires continually collide. Sorokin states:
[I]nevitably such men and women come into conflict with one another, and are led to chronic violation of moral and legal imperatives and to endless transgression of the vital interests of each other. There results a progressive undermining of the existing legal and moral order, and a perennial war among members of the collectivity seeking a maximum share of material possessions and gratifications. In this struggle the established code of the society is repeatedly broken; standards of conduct are increasingly trespassed, and ultimately they lose their authority and control over individual behavior. The society drifts closer and closer to a state of moral anarchy in which everyone regards himself as law giver and judge entitled to juggle all moral and legal standards as he pleases.
It gets even worse. When people are living for their own selfish pleasures and those pleasures begin to collide, the result is a decline in respect for the law, too. If moral restraint erodes, then the law becomes the lone barrier to selfish pursuits. Moral relativism gives way to a legal relativism. If clergy have no right to tell me what to do, then why should I heed a legislator or a judge?
Sorokin said a struggle for power ensues, as the legal infrastructure becomes merely a means to personal or group gain. There is “an enormous intensification of the struggle for existence and for power,” he said. “The motivating efficacy of legal, moral, and religious rules is increasingly replaced by naked force in league with hypocrisy and fraud. Might becomes right. And those who control the greatest physical power, or who most artfully manipulate precepts of conduct emerge as the rulers.”
Big cities are often among the epicenters of the cultural disaster that is unfolding. Sorokin noted that his research showed that “the urban centers prove to be more dangerous than the wildest jungles.”
There are other consequences of sexual anarchy outlined by both Unwin and Sorokin. For example, low birth rates create the threat of demographic winter, and economic stagnation and mounting debt create an unsustainable financial situation. But you get the idea.
Unfortunately, the signs of corruption studied by Unwin and Sorokin are everywhere evident in America. Divorce. Cohabitation. The sexualization of our children. Abortion. The cesspool of immorality spilling out of Hollywood into our homes. New sexually transmitted diseases previously unknown in history. Homosexuality. Ubiquitous pornography.
The most fearful thing about this decay, however, is that it is not a new process unleashed by wild-haired hippies in the 1960s. It is the result of an old, old virus living in the bloodstream, and it has surfaced in America as it has countless times before in human history.
If you’re like me, you really only want to ask one question: Can cultural decay be reversed? What did Unwin and Sorokin find when they asked this question? (And they did ask it.) Moreover, what does the Bible say? That will be the subject of next week’s blog. Here’s a hint: Have hope!