The more I am hit by the decadence and vulgarity of American culture, the more I return to the thought of Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968). Now out of favor in spite of his enduring scholarship and his central role in the development of academic sociology, Sorokin was already beginning to fade when I entered graduate school in the late-1950s. His stout anti-communism, critique of loosening sexual mores, and cultural conservatism ran squarely against the academic trends of the time. And it didn’t help that his life story gave him far more credibility than his colleagues to discuss the great ideological debates of the Cold War.
It was an extraordinary career. Born in Russia and steeped in Russian Orthodoxy, Sorokin spent time in jail because of his resistance to the Czar. He joined the February Revolution and became a functionary in the Kerensky regime, but that of course was temporary. After the Bolsheviks took over in October, Sorokin turned to studies in sociology, law, and penology, writing books and articles that promoted him in the Soviet intellectual world. He sharply criticized the new Communist regime, though, and was faced with the choice of imprisonment, execution, or exile. He took exile. Emigrating to the United States, he taught sociology at the University of Minnesota, and then founded the Department of Sociology at Harvard. Giving up his earlier commitment to “empirical” sociology, he developed what one could call a normative sociology, one which was informed by his own philosophical and religious commitments. Combative and sarcastic, Sorokin engaged in some celebrated academic conflicts. His rival sociologist at Harvard, Talcott Parsons, finally had him removed from his position as head of the department in 1955. He continued writing until his death in 1968, focusing on the necessary role of altruism in any wholesome social life.
We students read his The Crisis of Our Age (1941) in which he developed his then famous theory of cultural cycles. He argued that cultures move from ideational forms in which transcendent truth claims and moral norms are the organizing principles of social life, to idealistic cultures, which blend ideational and “sensate” aims, to sensate cultures, which focus exclusively on sensory perceptions and experiences. This latter stage rejects transcendent values and slides into decadence and chaos, out of which is born a new ideational culture. The transitions between cycles are characterized by violent upheavals. Sorokin thought the period of World War II was such an upheaval, one which marked the end of a sensate cycle and presaged the dawning of a new ideational phase.
Needless to say, the West has not experienced a new birth of religious commitment, though one could argue that such is happening in the growth of Christianity in Africa and the resurgence of Islam. Nonetheless, Sorokin was on to something profound when he argued that pre-modern cultures were guided by transcendent norms. Israel believed the Law was a holy revelation from God and organized her life around that transcendent point of reference. Christianity reverenced the Law but also believed in the revelation of Christ as the supreme point of reference. The Catholic Church organized a whole “Christ Above Culture” model of social life, which in due time became Christendom.
We have lived off the capital that was initiated by the ideational revelation of the Christ event, developed and tended by the Catholic Church. From the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment onward for several centuries, we had what Sorokin called an “idealistic” culturea creative blend of the ideational and the sensate. But now the residue of even the idealistic culture is fast receding and we are slipping into a sensate culture.
Sensate culture emphasizes sensory experience as the guiding principle of human life. The adjectives Sorokin uses are“sensational, passionate, pathetic, sensual, incessantly new, radically oriented toward the empirical world, materialistic.” Although he wrote around the time of the World War II, many of his insights can be applied to the contemporary world.
Take popular music. In a recent conversation with a music professor who had just started teaching popular music in his classes, I asked if there were not some sort of hierarchy in music. I wondered whether he was teaching students to appreciate what I believe to be higher forms of musicthat of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. It has always seemed to me that such music has a beauty and seriousness that rise far beyond what popular music can convey. It gives the hearer an encounter with transcendence.
My professor colleague would have none of my argument. A high-brow himself, he would only allow that the piano compositions of Bach had more technical complexity than most popular music. I could report similar conversations with those in the art history department, where beauty is no longer a useable word. Thus, it seems to me that the elite world has followed the popular world in reducing everything to the sensory perceptions of the hearer or viewer. We call this post-modernism. In this world there is no transcendent point of reference to make judgments about truth, beauty, or goodness.
Sorokin predicted this leveling as an upshot of sensate culture, which wants to rid itself of religious notions of human nature and destiny. Judaism and Christianity both affirm that humans are created in the image of God, and therefore of incomparable worth. This affirmation, of course, is not verifiable on empirical grounds, or on utilitarian grounds. Rather, it is grounded in the will of God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Such deontological affirmations are under severe pressure in a sensate culture. A growing segment of society, the “engaged progressives,” as the University of Virginia Family Cultures Study calls them, is characterized by its firm rejection of transcendent norms.
Sorokin was certain that the chaos and decadence of the sensate phase would soon give way to a new birth of ideational culture. I am not so sure. We could putter along this way for a long time, pursuing the “Kleinigkeiten” of sensate existence at the expense of real aspiration or adventure. But the human spirit is irrepressible and there will be rebellions against such a reduction of humanity. Some of those rebellions may be nasty indeed, as are the Islamic reactions against the sensate elements of Western culture. On the other hand, the vigor of some religious subcultures in America is far from depleted. They maintain a strong conviction that God’s guidance surpasses the promptings of the senses, and soon they may rise up and reverse the long decay of civilization, producing a new idealism that restores to transcendent values their proper authority.
Robert Benne, Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus, Research Associate, and Founder of the Robert Benne Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia.