The building blocks of Western Civilization
Reflections on marriage and the family
The Hon Kevin Andrews MP
The 2015 Warrane Lecture
Warrane College, University of New South Wales, October 7, 2015
In the introduction to my book, Maybe ‘I do’ – Modern marriage and the pursuit of happiness, I wrote:
“The greatest threat facing the western world is not climate change or global warming. It is not the financial crisis. Nor is it the threat of radical Islam. The greatest threat is within. It is the steady, but continuing breakdown of the essential structures of civil society – marriage, family and community.”
In just three years, the words I penned appear to be bearing out. The globe has not warmed for almost two decades. The financial crisis has passed, although some of the consequences remain. Radical Islam can be defeated, provided its opponents have the will to implement an appropriate strategy. (That is a subject for another occasion.)
But the breakdown of civil society continues apace, with little indication that most policymakers are aware of the causes or consequences, let alone equipped to address it.
It is this topic that I wish to explore tonight in this annual Warrane Lecture.
May I express my gratitude at the outset for the kind invitation to deliver this lecture? I am truly humbled, considering especially the eminent public figures that have delivered it over the past 30 years.
The decline of marriage and family
In Maybe ‘I do’, I outlined a series of changes in family patterns throughout the industrialized world over the past four decades that indicate a decline in marriage and a weakening of family life. It is not my intention to rehearse the discussion here, other than to briefly outline the trends. In summary:
- People are marrying less;
- Those couples who marry do so at an older age and increasingly to a person from their own socio-economic background;
- Pre-marital cohabitation has become ubiquitous;
- Cohabitation as a substitute for marriage is increasing, but it is less stable than marriage;
- There has been a dramatic increase in separation and divorce;
- The number of children involved in separation and divorce has continued to grow since the early 1970s;
- The rates of remarriage have fallen over the past 30 years;
- Families are having fewer children;
- The proportion of children born out-of-wedlock has increased dramatically; and
- There has been a marked increase in the proportion of single parent families.
In addition to these direct trends:
- Families increasingly have both parents in the paid workforce; and
- In most nations, the population is rapidly ageing.
As thousands of studies now indicate, these trends have had many negative economic, health and social consequences for adults and children and have had a significant impact on society more generally.
I noted that “modern western society celebrates the emotional, the sensate, and the sexual” before concluding:
“How we preserve marriage – against the cultural and the economic pressures that threaten to overwhelm it – as the foundation of healthy family life, the protective institution for children, the crucible of the free market, and the essential condition for democracy, will determine the health and longevity of the critical institutions of the western liberal experiment. The future of individuals, families, communities and nations is tied to the outcome.”
Marriage, family and Western civilization
I wish to take that conclusion as the starting point for my reflections tonight. My thesis is that these negative trends, if they continue, endanger Western civilization itself.
In doing so, I will draw, in particular, on the works of the great Russian-American sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, whose writings from the 1920s through to the 1960s deserve renewed attention.
Sorokin is hardly known now, even in the many places that pass as schools of sociology. Yet, he remains a giant amongst the students of civilization and social change. His scholarship predates and informs better-known and more recent, popular thinkers, including Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington and Niall Ferguson.
Born in 1889 in the Komi region of northern Russia, Sorokin was brought up in a close-knit peasant community, before leaving home at aged ten, working itinerant jobs and winning a scholarship to school and university, and then becoming an organizer in the Social Revolutionary Party. He was imprisoned by the Tsarist authorities, before being appointed Cabinet Secretary in the short-lived Kerensky government after the 1917 removal of Nicholas II. Sorokin was sentenced to death by the Bolsheviks, only to be saved by former university friends, before completing a PhD at the University of St Petersburg, where he became the chairman of the new sociology department. Following further arrest and imprisonment, he fled to Czechoslovakia before emigrating to the United States where he became a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, and then at Harvard University, where he was appointed the founding chairman of the inaugural Department of Sociology in 1930.
Sorokin’s substantial works began with Social and Cultural Dynamics, the first volume of three, being published in 1937. Before returning to his central thesis about the life of civilizations, I wish to fast-forward to his later 1956 book, The American Sex Revolution. It was in this book that he noted the radical change in sexual mores and practices that had emerged in the 20th century, noting the trends to easier divorce, the decline in family stability, domestic unhappiness, juvenile delinquency, depression and mental disorders.
Written in the mid-1950s, when the marriage rates were high, divorce rates low and out-of-wedlock childbirth exceptional, Sorokin’s observations displayed a remarkable prescience. Authored before the accelerating impact of television, the internet and digital communications on modern culture, Sorokin’s study of the rise and fall of great civilizations sounded an alarm that few heard or noted.
His concerns had been confirmed by the consequences of the great social experiment during the 1920s in his native Soviet Russia when the Leninists set out to destroy ‘bourgeois’ marriage and family. As he observed:
“During the first stages of the Revolution, its leaders deliberately attempted to destroy marriage and the family. Free love was glorified by the official ‘glass of water’ theory: if a person is thirsty, so went the Party line, it is immaterial what glass he uses when satisfying his thirst; it is equally unimportant how he satisfies his sex hunger. The legal distinction between marriage and casual sexual intercourse was abolished. The Communist law spoke only of ‘contracts’ between males and females for the satisfaction of their desires either for an indefinite or a definite period – a year, a month, a week, or even a single night. One could marry and divorce as many times as desired. . . Bigamy and even polygamy were permissible under the new provisions. Abortion was facilitated in state institutions. Premarital relations were praised and extramarital relations were considered normal.”
Within a relatively short period of time, the Soviet nation descended into the social chaos of widespread divorce, fatherless families, abandoned children and juvenile delinquency, leading the authorities to reverse their policies by the end of the 1920s.
It was a similar social situation that Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted of African American families of the 1960s:
“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationships to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future – that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder – most particularly the furious, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure – that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable. And it is richly deserved.”
Fiercely rejected at the time, these observations are now seen as a critical element of the war on poverty.
A decade before Moynihan’s 1965 report, Sorokin had concluded:
“. . . in spite of our still developing economic prosperity, and our outstanding progress in science and technology, in education, in medical care; notwithstanding our democratic regime and way of life, and our modern methods of social service; in brief, in spite of the innumerable and highly effective techniques and agencies for social improvement, there has been no decrease in adult criminality, juvenile delinquency, and mental disease, no lessening in the sense of insecurity and frustration. If anything, these have been on the increase, and already have become major problems of our nation.”
He acknowledged that these trends had not reached catastrophic consequences, but wondered how long before they would. Six decades later, his judgment stands. The trends have escalated and compounded. They are part of what Francis Fukuyama has called ‘the great disruption’.
Sorokin also predicted – correctly – that the changed pattern of relationship mores would result in a significant decline in the birth rate, a fact that is true of all western countries – and most others – today. Pre-dating the medical, pharmacological and surgical advances of the past few decades, Sorokin predicted that the combination of low birth rates and increased longevity would result in stationary, and subsequently, depopulating societies. This, he said, would be economically, technologically and militarily disastrous.
“Whatever may be the virtues of age, they cannot compensate for the vitality, vigour, courage, daring, elasticity, and creativity of the young. A nation largely composed of middle-aged or elderly people enfeebles itself physically, mentally and socially, and moves towards the end of its creative mission and leadership.”
Family instability and an ageing population have real economic costs for nations. They negatively impact on economic growth, a fact that most Western nations are yet to realize.
The impact on Western civilization
Let me return to the significance of these changes for western civilization.
In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington identified six aspects about the nature of civilizations. First, the idea of civilization (in the singular) is not the same as civilizations (in the plural). Second, a civilization is a cultural identity. It is culture writ large. Third, civilizations are comprehensive – a totality with a degree of integration. Fourth, civilizations are mortal, but also long-lived. They evolve and adapt and are the most enduring of human associations but they eventually die. Fifth, the political composition of civilizations varies between civilizations and varies over time within civilizations. Finally, there is general agreement about the civilizations that have existed, and exist today.
Of the civilizations that exist currently, Huntington identifies six: the Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Western, and Latin American. He also observes that “religion is a central defining characteristic of civilization”, quoting Christopher Dawson’s conclusion that “the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest.” Indeed, four out of five of Weber’s ‘world religions’ form the basis of a major modern civilization: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Confucianism.
Western civilization is founded on European Christendom. A distinct European culture, embracing elements of earlier cultures and civilizations emerged over many centuries. For the past few centuries, it has been the predominant civilization on the globe, but a millennium ago, other civilizations were predominant. There is no simple definition of western civilization: it embraces many elements, but primary amongst them are the Christian religious and ethical base (which includes the both Judeo and Hellenic strands), and a legal system that evolved from the previous Roman civilization.
Human dignity and freedom are the core ethical values upon which the West is founded. The belief in human dignity and freedom has motivated men and women over centuries to counter totalitarianism in its many guises. It continues to motivate them today, a reason no doubt why many with a totalitarian instinct, such as many in the modern-day Left, despise and seek to destroy Christianity!
Over centuries, a number of notable developments occurred in the growing Western civilization, particularly the Westphalian settlement of national sovereignty, and the emergence of a distinct, advanced system of international law. The stability of family relationships centered on marriage as the basis of the community; the rise of the city, commerce and trade; and the embrace of technology for both industrial and military purposes, drove this growing civilization to greater prosperity and dominance.
There have been many different political ideologies and systems that have emerged, some successful, others not, over the span of Western civilization. Liberal democracy and Western civilization are not the same. Whether the liberal democratic experiment, as Jean Bethke Elshtain described it, continues to thrive involves a range of factors, some, but not all of which, reflect western civilization.
How do we measure the state of a civilization, apart from retrospectively after its demise; and what is the state of western civilization today?
It is here that I return to Pitirim Sorokin. His decades of study of the history, the economies, the administration, indeed, the art and social life, of all known civilizations and societies led him to conclude that there are two cultural supersystems. These he described as Ideational culture and Sensate culture.
In essence, they describe two different ways of understanding and interacting with the world in which we exist:
“[For the sensate] reality is that which can be perceived by the organs of sense; it does not see anything beyond the sensate being of the milieu. Those who possess this sort of mentality try to adapt themselves to those conditions which appear to the sense organs, or more exactly to the exterior receptors of the nervous system. [The Ideational] perceive and apprehend the same sensate phenomena in a very different way. For them, they are mere appearance, a dream, or an illusion. True reality is not to be found here; it is something beyond, hidden by the appearance, different from this material and sensate veil which conceals it.”
He acknowledges that neither culture has existed in their pure form, that there is always a mixture of the two, in their various stages of development, but one will tend to predominate in a civilization for long periods of time.
“Each has its own mentality, its own system of truth and knowledge, its own philosophy and Weltanschauung; its own type of religion and standards of ‘holiness’; its own system of right and wrong; its own forms of art and literature; its own mores, laws, code of conduct; its own predominant forms of social relationships; its own economic and political organization; and finally its own type of human personality, with a peculiar mentality and conduct.”
Moreover, the dominant culture influences the outlook and mentality of all who live within it:
“The mentality of every person is a microcosm that reflects the cultural macrocosm of his social surroundings. . . The scientific, philosophical, religious, aesthetic, moral, juridical, and other opinions, theories, beliefs, tastes, convictions – in brief the whole Weltanschauung – of human beings in an Ideational society are shaped to the Ideational pattern, while those persons living under the dominance of a Sensate culture are formed by the Sensate mold.”
This conclusion reflects, at a civilizational level, the observation of Coleridge in Essays on His Own Times:
“In every state, not wholly barbarous, a philosophy, good or bad, there must be. However slightingly it may be the fashion to talk of speculation and theory, as opposed (sillily and nonsensically opposed) to practice, it would not be difficult to prove, that such as is the existing spirit of speculation, during any given period, such will be the spirit and tone of religion, legislation, and morals, nay, even of the fine arts, the manners, and the fashions.”
Sorokin’s studies of civilizations, especially ancient Greece, the Roman, and the modern Western civilizations, led him to the conclusion that civilizations move through a pattern over centuries from an Ideational culture to a position that integrates both the original Ideational and the Sensate, before the Sensate dominates. For Western civilization, he characterizes the periods as, first, Ideational from roughly the 5th to the 12th centuries AD, and, secondly, integrated from the 11th through to the 16th century during which time scholars such as Thomas Aquinas drew together the truths of reason, science and faith, just as Plato and Aristotle had in ancient Greece. Thereafter the sensory began to dominate as the Sensate culture moved through various stages until today.
While Sorokin acknowledges that great economic, scientific and technological progress occurs in Sensate culture, he argued that it has the inbuilt tendency to become overripe, narcissistic and decadent, leading to stagnation and eventual replacement.
“A culture in the sensate phase increasingly tries to be ‘progressive, dynamic,’ seeking forever new empirical values. . . It values the latest fashion instead of the old-time consecrated tradition. It tears down the building just erected to replace it by a new one. It puts a premium on everything swift, fast, dynamic, modern ‘up to the last minute’ and even beyond it. Hence its feverish tempi of change, its insatiable lust for change, its never-resting Becoming.”
He viewed the history of 20th century Europe with its two great wars and revolutions as a manifestation of the dying Sensate culture of the West. Unless it reclaims an integrated balance, he argued, its creative vigor and cohesiveness is lost in a demoralizing fog of self-absorption, hedonism and egoism.
The idea that creative vigor is lost over time is not new. Rousseau noted that “nations, like men, are teachable only in their youth; with age they become incorrigible. Once customs are established and prejudices rooted, reform is a dangerous and fruitless exercise; a people cannot bear to see its evils touched, even if only to be eradicated.”
“The more a sensate man has,” said Sorokin, “the more he desires to have, whether it be riches, popularity, or love experience; or fame or power or charm; or anything else.”
In such a society, the values of truth, love, beauty . . . even fatherhood and motherhood cannot continue to function, he argued, even though in its virile stages, the sensate system contributed to the values of science and technology, the fine arts, and to a lesser extent, philosophy and ethics.
Is this too harsh a judgment on Western civilization today?
Is there substance in Sorokin’s theory of civilization, and, if so, have we reached the terminal stage he suggested?
Concern about integration and balance is not new. That perceptive European observer of the new American republic, Alexis de Tocqueville, worried that without the internal constraints of civic and religious values, materialistic liberal democracy would be in danger of self-destruction.
Adam Smith is best known for The Wealth of Nations, but that celebrated work was complemented by his earlier The Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he wrote “to feel much for others, and little for us . . . constitutes the perfection of human nature.” Contemporary Christian proponents of democratic capitalism, such as Michael Novak, acknowledge the need for a synthesis of an underlying value system with economic freedom.
The social science of the past few decades indicates that the evidence of family and community dysfunction upon which Sorokin made his judgment over half a century ago has only accumulated and grown. There is no social science indicator, of which I am aware, that points in the other direction. Liberals and conservatives alike (in the American understanding) now generally agree on the data, even if they disagree on the solutions.
It is difficult therefore, to conclude that Sorokin was mistaken.
Indeed, there are a series of reasons to suggest that it is easier, more convenient, and less troublesome to ignore warnings than to act upon them.
First, we have a tendency to downplay social problems. Let me illustrate. During the financial crisis that swept the world in 2008-09, many remained skeptical about the downturn. Many public officials, business leaders, and commentators asserted that the situation would right itself, that it was only a blip in the ever-upward march of prosperity. Even when some banks began to get into difficulty, officials continued to optimistically proclaim the events as a minor correction in an otherwise positive trajectory. For months, some public officials refused to concede the depth of the problems.
As I reflected on this refusal to face the reality of a rapidly deteriorating situation, I wondered why the reluctance. In part it was the optimism born of years of prosperity. In part it was an attempt to cultivate public confidence in the financial system. And in part it was political spin from public officials faced with an economic disaster.
But there was another factor also at work. It was disbelief that the world’s financial structure could so rapidly disintegrate. How could one of the pillars of the world economy crumble so easily? The downfall sundered assumptions and beliefs. Only when the stark reality of the collapse was evident did many begin to comprehend what had happened.
As I reflected upon the reaction to the events, it struck me that a similar process can occur with civilizations. There is a belief in their immutability and immortality. From time to time an event occurs which horrifies us, but it soon passes and life goes on. Two boys, not yet in their teens, brutally torture and kill a younger child. A teenager goes on a murderous rampage through a school. A financial adviser defrauds clients of their life savings.
The event gains widespread media attention. Religious and community leaders react in shock. Politicians call for tough action. A few days or weeks later the event is almost forgotten. A year or two later, when a similar event occurs, it receives less attention by the media. We become inured to the previously shocking behaviour.
Like a person adjusting to a new location, we seem to become acclimatized to ever increasing coarseness. Reports of bashings, public drunkenness, and anti-social behaviour proliferate. Road rage is a new phenomenon. Crass banality is beamed from our television screens every day. Crude language, once considered the mark of bad manners, is now broadcast to the world. Daniel Patrick Moynihan described this process as ‘defining deviancy down.’ Problems are downplayed, ignored or excused.
Secondly, we prefer the status quo to the challenges involved in embracing the uncertainty of change. As Machiavelli observed, those who benefit from the existing order will defend it, while those who advocate change have difficulty in attracting support.
Where incremental changes occur within a society, it is often difficult to detect.
Thirdly, when we concentrate on the other, we run the risk of missing changes in our own society. Three-quarters of a century ago, after Neville Chamberlain had announced ‘peace with honour’, Adolf Hitler marched his army into the beautiful city of Prague, setting off the conflict that resulted in the Second World War and the division between the East and the West. As we subsequently protested the military occupations of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, recoiled the horrors of Solzhenitsyn’s gulag, condemned the atrocities of the ‘evil empire’, prayed for the success of Solidarity, and cheered the destruction of the Berlin Wall, implicitly and explicitly, we molded our perception that communism was the manifestation of evil, and that all change in the West represented true human progress.
Yet our culture was also changing. Increasingly rights – established as a bulwark against totalitarianism, notably the right to life and freedom from oppression – were claimed without consideration of corresponding duties and obligations. Over time, personal interest and convenience have become a dominant public ethic.
When Alexander Solzhenitsyn turned his attention away from his native Russia towards what he perceived happening to the culture of the West in his Commencement Address at Harvard in 1978, he met with incredulity from many who were affronted by his critique.
Finally, being a product of the culture in which we exist, we have difficulty in perceiving other possibilities. Even if we do, a counter-cultural message is unlikely to resonate with the populace, especially in an era increasingly dominated by the emotive, thought-bubbles and personal spite of the social media.
This suggests a pessimistic conclusion. But Sorokin, along with others, including Fukuyama and Huntington, from a secular perspective; and those of an ethical or religious bent, such as Václav Havel and Jonathan Sacks, have argued otherwise.
Demise or resurgence?
In Maybe ‘I do’, I suggested a series of policy initiatives that would help to strengthen marriage and family. Without repeating them, let me address three matters that will indicate at least an understanding of the issues I have discussed, an appreciation of their significance, and a willingness to consider solutions.
First, it is essential that nations retain replacement, or close to replacement, levels of their birthrate if they are to thrive. As I demonstrated in Maybe ‘I do’, it becomes almost impossible to increase the birthrate once it falls below a certain level, which I estimate to be about 1.5 births per woman. Lower birthrates result, over time, in depopulation, constrained economic growth, and falling living standards. This may take a few decades to occur, but it is inevitable.
Secondly, families should be better recognized in the taxation system. Prior to the 1996 election, the then Opposition considered a range of taxation policies that would support families, including income tax splitting, a system that operates in various other countries. Due to the cost involved – then estimated to be about $7 – 8 billion – and the dire state of the Commonwealth finances, it was not adopted.
However, the new Howard government did raise tax free thresholds for families with children, an initiative that was intended to be a step towards income splitting, allowing further increases in the thresholds as the nation’s finances improved.
This approach was subsequently replaced by the Family Tax Benefits scheme. Although designed to achieve the same outcome, the new benefits were perceived by both government and the community as welfare, and treated accordingly. Instead of allowing families to retain more of their income in recognition of the responsibilities for and costs of raising children, government provided handouts, which have eventually been treated as another payment that can be cut if necessary.
There is a need to re-examine the way in which the taxation and welfare system supports the family, as my colleague, Senator Matt Canavan, has advocated recently.
Thirdly, I believe it is important to continue to provide support for couples wishing to raise a family.
For adults, marriage and cohabitation offer many of the same benefits. Yet non-marital cohabiting relationships are far less stable than marriage and largely for that reason, the two partnership forms do not provide equally favourable environments for raising children. The most recent World Family Map shows that the greater the prevalence of marriage among reproductive-age adults, the more likely children are to live with two parents. The greater the prevalence of cohabitation, in contrast, the more likely children are to live with one parent or no parents.
It is incumbent upon mainstream political parties to represent the views of mainstream families and to defend mainstream values. This is increasingly a challenge in the Australian political landscape. These are just a few of the practical measures that I believe are important if the trend of marriage and family breakdown is to be addressed. But alone, they are insufficient.
Francis Fukuyama posited a central dilemma facing the West when he wrote:
“We appear to be caught in an unpleasant circumstance: going forward seems to promise ever-increasing levels of disorder and social atomization, at the same time that our line of retreat has been cut off. Does this mean, then, that contemporary liberal societies are fated to descend into increasing levels of moral decline and social anarchy, until they somehow implode? “
His answer is that we will seek to create new rules to replace the ones that have been undercut.
Samuel Huntington seems less convinced. He acknowledges that the trends in family and community decline and decay must be addressed, although he does not propose how this be done. He also posits that Americans must preserve the cultural values of Western civilization, including a rejection (in the civilizational sense) of multiculturalism. The realignment of the great civilizations is inevitable, likely involving more wars, he writes, and an uneasy peace may be the best to be hoped for. Yet, since then, most wars have been within civilizations.
But how are the corrosive trends of social disorder in the West to be countered, especially when a common moral language seems to have escaped our grasp, and the political virtue of toleration turned on its head?
At a time when opinion passes as news; assertion as fact; entertainment as analysis; 140, often-emotive, characters as compelling argument; and the popular media reinforces the sensate, it is challenging not to conclude that the task is impossible. But it is not. As Havel said, the only struggle that is lost, is the one we have given up on.
None of us know the answer to Sorokin’s predictions, but the consequences for individuals, communities and Western civilization, if he is correct, are dramatic. While some doubt the cyclical nature of civilizations, we should be prepared to address the issues, and discuss the challenges.
A starting point, as the modern historian, Niall Ferguson argues in his book Civilization, is a belief in ourselves and the foundation principles of our Western culture; and as Havel points out, an acknowledgement of the transcendental.
Ladies and Gentlemen: May I conclude by addressing in particular the students of this college?
The ethics and religious beliefs that motivated the founders, the Council and staff, and the supporters of Warrane College are the same ethics and beliefs that created and continue to sustain Western civilization. This is your inheritance. Do not hide it under a bushel, but grasp the opportunities for leadership presented to you, regardless of the field of study upon which you have embarked or the career you follow. You are in a unique position to act for the good of Western civilization and the values its represents. Ultimately, the survival of Western civilization will be less about grand actions and major political programs, and more about personal commitment, courage and dedication to the cause of human dignity and liberty.
And that, is a cause worth fighting for!
Kevin Andrews (2012) Maybe ‘I do’ Modern marriage and the pursuit of happiness [Ballan, Connor Court]
Niall Fergusan (2012) Civilization [London, Penguin]
Francis Fukuyama (1999) The Great Disruption [New York, The Free Press]
Václav Havel (1997) The Art of the Impossible [New York, Alfred A Knopf]
Samuel P Huntington (1996) The Clash of Civilizations & the Remaking of World Order [New York, Simon & Shuster]
Michael Novak (1999) On Cultivating Liberty [New York, Rowman & Littlefield]
Jonathan Sacks (2000) The Politics of Hope [London, Vintage]
Jonathan Sacks (2007) The Home We Build Together [London, Continuum]
Pitirim Sorokin (1957- revised and abridged edition) Social and Cultural Dynamics [New Brunswick, Transaction Books] The first of the original volumes was published in 1937.
Pitirim Sorokin (1956) The American Sex Revolution [Boston, Porter Sargent]
Alexis de Tocqueville (1966 – republished edition) Democracy in America [New York, Harper and Row] The first volume of the book was published in 1835.