When we think of the Dark Ages, we automatically think of the period after the collapse of the Roman Empire when the West was thrown into chaos. It took several centuries, but Europe was able to rebuild. The result was the civilization of the Middle Ages.
The prevailing narrative that most of us learned in school is that the civilization of the Middle Ages was hopelessly backward. The only way that European civilization was able to emerge from the darkness of medieval superstition was through the Enlightenment with its principles of rationalism, egalitarianism, and democracy.
But in his book The Crisis of the Modern World, French metaphysician René Guénon stated that it was not the Middle Ages that were intellectually dark, but our own modern age.
Guénon studied the mythologies of all the world civilizations. He found that almost all civilizations had a concept of cyclical development. Each human cycle is divided into four periods that move from a stage of high spiritual development to degradation: the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages.
Guénon came to the conclusion that we are currently living in the fourth age, which he dubbed the Kali-Yuga, or the Dark Age. This is because modern civilization has discarded the traditional wisdom that guided prior civilizations.
The order of a traditional society is hierarchical consisting of priests, warriors, and workers. Everyone within such a society knows their place, and there is very little movement between classes. These societies are also monarchical and patriarchal.
Most moderns bristle at the thought of being born into a certain class. Modern civilization is built upon the concept of self-determination. We believe that a person’s social standing should be the result of his efforts, not his birth.
But the promise of self-determination comes at a price. Guénon identified the following items as troubles that afflict our civilization.
The Relentless Pursuit of Wealth
Unlike a traditional culture, we do not have a hereditary aristocracy. Instead, it is the amount of one’s wealth that determines a person’s social standing. That puts everyone into a rat race to make as much money as possible so that they can become one of the “elite.”
This relentless pursuit of wealth has caused the rise of the corporate employer-employee culture. The chance at high incomes is there for the corporate officers, but the other employees find themselves working harder and harder in the hopes they will be chosen to become part of the inner circle.
Technology Over Science
A logical consequence of the pursuit of wealth is that science has been brought into the service of corporations. The result is that the emphasis is not on the gathering of knowledge, but on the production of technology in the form of gadgets that can be sold to consumers.
These gadgets keep us from recognizing that innovation appears to be slowing down. Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, writes: “The smartphones that distract us from our surroundings also distract us from the fact that our surroundings are strangely old: only computers and communications have improved dramatically since midcentury.”
Guénon states that the elected leaders of a democracy are likely to be incompetent. According to the principle that, “the higher cannot emanate from the lower,” it is not possible to elect leaders who will be consistently better than the society they come from.
While democracy has produced some leaders of the caliber of Winston Churchill, the norm for Western leaders does seem be mediocrity. As society continues to decline, so does the quality of our leaders.
The Disintegration of the Family
While the Enlightenment started by overturning traditional forms of government, in our day we see the destruction of the primary building block of a traditional society—the family.
This makes sense, because from a revolutionary Enlightenment perspective, the family is just one more oppressive traditional institution that needs to be transcended.
The decline of the family has come about from many factors including feminism, easy divorce, and economic necessity. One result is that is that all the countries of the West are now experiencing birthrates that are below replacement levels.
Another result of the decline of the family is that the number of births out of wedlock has skyrocketed. In 1980, 18% of births were out of wedlock but by 2010 the figure rose to 41%. For women under the age 30, at least half of births are now out of wedlock. As bad as that is, the number for some communities is staggering. The rate of out of wedlock births in the African-American community is 72%.
Guénon didn’t think that the current state of Western civilization was sustainable. In his book, Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines, he suggests that one of three possibilities will occur:
If the Western society refuses to restore a traditional civilization, it might gradually fall into a primitive state. Unfortunately, Guénon doesn’t provide an example of how this could happen to a highly developed civilization such as ours.
2. Assimilation or Subjugation
The second possibility is that Western society will be either conquered or assimilated by a more traditional civilization, which for Guénon meant some Eastern culture.
At the time Guénon was writing, it was difficult to imagine a way for this to happen. But today, with the rise of the Islamic State and the increasingly large Muslim population in Europe, an Islamic subjugation of the West has become conceivable.
Although subjugation would be terrible for the West, Guénon felt that it was preferable to a descent into barbarism.
3. Return to a Traditional Society
Guénon’s third possibility is that Western society would see the bankruptcy of its present course and re-adopt a traditional form.
Guénon suggests that the best way of doing this would be to follow the example of a prior Western society. Although we could use Roman civilization as a model, Guénon suggested that we use the civilization of the Middle Ages because it is more recent and therefore more easily studied. We should not copy medieval civilization, but draw “inspiration from it in order to bring about an adaptation to suit the actual circumstances.”
For Guénon, the third option represented the ideal path for the restoration of Western civilization. If the West chooses this path, it would exit the Dark Age and enter a new Golden Age.
There are some aspects of Guénon’s thought that are open to criticism. He overlooked many of the good things that have been brought about by the Enlightenment. But considering that he wrote these books in the 1920s, he was remarkably prescient in his diagnosis of the ills that beset modern civilization. Only time will tell if his predictions will prove to be accurate.