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Proceeding from one representative masterwork to the next, Carroll meditates them intensely, laying siege to each one's inner meaning, pitting them against one another, and wresting from the sequence a hidden narrative of Western decline. It is an audacious performance, sometimes electrifying but just as often erratic and tendentious. It is hard not to be frequently impressed, but even harder not to be continually exasperated. Boldly or rashly , Carroll begins with a proclamation of universal ruin. We are timid, yet we cannot be shocked. We are inert underneath our busyness.

We are destitute in our plenty. We are homeless in our own homes. Not diagnosis but etiology is Carroll's concern. How have we arrived at this civilizational cul de sac? It started five centuries ago, Carroll answers, with our adoption of the false myth of humanism. The ambition of humanism was "to found an order on earth in which freedom and happiness prevailed, without any transcendental or supernatural supports - an entirely human order.

We need a new cultural myth. Since none is yet available, Carroll proposes to sift through the wreckage, retracing the path to catastrophe and prospecting for glimmers of a different future. Before Socrates, the Greeks were not humanists, they were fatalists.

The Wreck of Western Culture - ISI Books

The gods - and behind them, a dimly discerned cosmic order - determined human destiny. Philosophical speculation about the good life and right action was irrelevant; culture rested on mythos , the "timeless archetypal narratives that carry the eternal truths," the "ancient currents of shape and form that move in the unconscious dreamtime of the people.

Likewise, reason and will cannot withstand the annihilating necessity of death. But Jesus's resurrection was "the death of death": that is, an end to death as the meaning, or negation, of life. For Carroll, Jesus's key affirmations are "Before Abraham came to be, I am" and "I am the way, the truth, and the life. His disciples Paul, Luther, and Calvin would become humanism's greatest opponents.

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The Wreck of Western Culture - Humanism Revisited

The first humanist masterpiece Carroll ponders is Donatello's 15 th -century sculpture of a Venetian general on horseback, the Gattamelata. The figure's ease, grace, and power "anticipate the Renaissance ideal, 'we can become what we will,' and project it in three-dimensional form.


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Brutus acts; Hamlet, famously, does not. The two plays are the day and night sides of "humanism's quintessential genius. This is the sort of detail from which Carroll conjures far-reaching interpretations of cultural health or malaise.

The Wreck of Western Culture

The gravedigger scene in Hamlet is not merely a comic interlude; the trompe l'oeil skull in The Ambassadors is not merely a visual trick. On the contrary, Carroll claims, their significance is momentous. Once faith is gone, fate is reduced to necessity - and the ultimate necessity is death. The Protestant Reformation is usually seen as a religious parallel to the Renaissance, a movement of liberation from authority and tradition.

Carroll sees it differently. Luther opposed faith and grace to reason and will; he and Calvin "preached darkness and suffering against the reasonable and the comfortable. Through lengthy commentaries on paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Poussin, and Velazquez, Carroll traces the achievements and failures of the Protestant Reformation and its less well-known Catholic counterpart. Descartes and Kant advanced the humanist project, undermining notions of cosmic order and setting reason in command of philosophy.

Bach and Jane Austen founded their art on perceptions of human insufficiency and dependence. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche subjected themselves fully, heroically, to the spiritual tensions between humanist light and anti-humanist darkness. In its "death throes," the only vital works that Western culture yields are futile protests against modern homelessness, either ironic the novels of Henry James or wistful the movies of John Ford. To produce - in fewer than pages - a passionate, imaginative, richly detailed interpretation of the spiritual history of the modern West is not a small achievement, even if that interpretation is, as I believe, profoundly wrong.

The Death of Western Culture

At a time when cutting-edge cultural criticism is often about ephemeral effluvia, it apparently takes a maverick Aussie sociologist to don the prophet's mantle. Let him be praised, if only for forcing us to look once again at our cultural monuments, this time as harbingers of life or death. But is it true that "without God, without a transcendental law, there is only death"? Like virtually all other anti-modernists, Carroll does not even assert - much less attempt to prove - the existence of God or transcendental law. He merely deplores the consequences of not believing that they exist.

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The so-called Enlightenment was especially damaging, says Carroll: "The deification of reason leaves much human nature in the dark. The Enlightenment was in fact rather narrow-minded, naive about human motivation, about society and politics, always in danger of barricading itself inside an arid and abstract intellectualism.


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Western culture was finished off by the combined influence of Marx, Darwin and Freud, in whose name human lives were reduced to a set of economic, biological and psychoanalytical factors. In short, ours is a culture obsessed by the skull beneath the skin. Carroll castigates Freud for misconceiving the Oedipus complex; it is the antecedent Hamlet complex, he contends, that is the more precise agent of Western cultural ruination. One of Australia's most stimulating thinkers, Carroll bears a passing physical resemblance to the influential French theorist Michel Foucault though a nearer match in this regard might be Peter Garrett.

Both Carroll and Foucault see a crucial significance for the onset of humanism in Velasquez's Las Meninas , the painting that apparently subverts not only the social order in its depiction of the Spanish royal family, but by putting the viewer at the painting's centre, calls into question the practice of art itself. For Carroll, Velasquez is "the most subtly brilliant harbinger of Western resentment".

The angle of approach used by Carroll and Foucault is very different - and indeed ideologically they are antithetical - but they do share an underlying anti-humanism. Carroll acknowledges the advances in the West towards unprecedented levels of physical health and material wellbeing, but mourns the diminution of words such as "sacred", "noble" and "honour". These are not terms normally associated with Foucault, who presumably in Carroll's view would be considered a nihilist.

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In seeking to remake themselves in their own imperfect image, the people of the West have lost their soul. The Wreck of Western Culture thus belongs to a negative strand within the Western intellectual tradition. Since the dawn of the history of thought, the idea of progress has been accompanied by the idea of decline.

Carroll's guiding light through much of his story is Friedrich Nietzsche, and indeed his style evinces a taste for the apocalyptic and the sublime that is not too distant from the turbulent genius of the German master.


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A professor of sociology, Carroll is firmly lodged in the belly of the academic beast. His prose, however, is remarkably free of cloudy abstraction.