Before we can answer that question, we have to ask another one. What is civilisation? For only when we know what something is, can we begin to understand if and how a supposed version of it is not living up to its purpose. Therefore, to know if a particular civilisation is in decline we must determine how it stands in relation to the root principle behind all human culture and activity worthy of the name of civilisation.
So, what is civilisation? I would say it must start with an openness to the transcendent and then proceed with the attempt to organise a group of human beings according to that. Essentially, a civilisation seeks to reflect the pattern of the heavens on Earth, and so it manifests in the world primarily in the form of a religion from which there then develops a culture. But the former must derive from the latter which is the inspiring impulse. You might accuse me of loading the dice here. By defining civilisation as necessarily founded on the spiritual, I may be giving it my own preferred spin and excluding other valid forms of human organisation not founded like that. But, in actual fact, are there any? Any civilisations, I mean, that have started from a non-spiritual beginning, not ones that exist like that now but were not originally so. It seems obligatory that all civilisations grow out of an awareness, however dim, of a higher archetypal truth to which human society should try to conform. And the higher the civilisation, the deeper the awareness is of this truth. There can be no civilisation without religion.
I therefore maintain that any civilisation which merits that description must be spiritual in that it is founded on spiritual principles, even if these are not particularly developed. But openness to the transcendent is essential. Without this there is nothing to act as a magnet to pull a human society out of its concern with physical appetites and self-centred desires. There must be an awareness of a higher reality to give any group of humans an organising principle that is coherent and brings out their creative potential.
Now we have established that, it should be easy to mark traces of decline in any given civilisation. First and foremost, it would start with an increasing loss of the sense of the transcendent. A closing to higher realities, as a consequence of which many other things would arise. These would include:
- A greater focus on things of this world because that is now seen as all there is.
- The deterioration and disappearance of religion. This results in the rise of vulgarity and barbarism in culture and behaviour. You might question whether these would be inevitable but it is surely obvious that once you reject a higher reality then lower forms of being assume greater prominence.
- The rise of false forms of spirituality to fill the hole left by the disappearance of serious religion. But these would often revolve around the search for emotional experience rather than orientation towards the good because the idea of the transcendent good has been lost or obscured, and the individual is now what matters so it is his personal fulfilment that counts.
- Cultural relativism, there being no acknowledged absolute which would create a hierarchical scale of values with things that correspond to it more being better and things that correspond to it less being worse.
- This would also produce egalitarianism. No hierarchy, no better or worse, all is the same. Man as he is seen to be in this world is man as he is in toto. This prompts the interesting thought that democracy only comes about as the religious impulse declines. History seems to confirm this.
These are the main signifiers but from them come other things, some of which in the new despiritualised culture appear to be advances.
- Differences between men and women denied or minimised and an increasing influence of women in society as the masculine pole of spirit is subsumed by the feminine pole of matter.
- Worship of celebrity, athletes, singers and actors as human achievement becomes focused on success in this world and appeal to the desires of the lower man, that being all there is of man.
- Welfare and altruism increase as egalitarianism assumes greater importance and this world is all that matters.
- Mass immigration caused by a wealthy host nation attracting outsiders who wish to benefit from its bounty while it wishes to attract cheap workers. This is also another consequence of egalitarianism but indicative too of a loss of confidence as a successful culture starts to question itself and its legitimacy. Once it does that history shows it's on the downward path, even if it does so for noble reasons.
I'm cheating bit here. As the reader will have observed I am listing what is happening today. However, I still maintain that these are indeed among the classic signs of a civilisation in decline (and they are listed as such by Sir John Grubb in his interesting research into the fate of empires). The question is can anything be done about it?
And the answer is, probably not. We may lament the passing of Western civilisation but nothing lasts in this world, and the fact is this civilisation contained the seeds of its own destruction in liberalism which inevitably levels everything down to a flat plane. Civilisations come and go, and while the period of their decline is depressing for those caught up in it, it does help such people transfer their attention from earthly things to eternal verities and transcendent realities. As your world crumbles into dust you may find it easier to set your sights on higher things. That is the great advantage of living at a time of spiritual loss and cultural decline, a time, moreover, predicted in Christian eschatology which also promises a happy outcome for those who remain true to the inner values of which any civilisation here on Earth, even the best, is only an imperfect representation.