These two images photograph the same site on North Terrace. The first photograph shows the Queen Victoria Jubilee Exhibition Building, designed by architects Latham Withall and Alfred Wells and completed in 1887. It was torn down in 1962 and replaced with the underground car park and pebble dash office blocks seen in the second photograph. Aside from some minor changes to the fixtures in the concrete quadrangle, the site remains the same today. In just 75 years we went from building beautiful things to tearing them down.
Western civilisation used to produce beautiful things. People in old photographs used to dress better and look more dignified. Not only the wealthy, but everyone from ladies and doctors to labourers and servants. Old buildings, even simple workers’ cottages were more appealing than grand public works today. Books, cars, trains, furniture, art and homewares all used to be more pleasing. The speech and writing of the educated used to be of a higher standard than that of people of similar status today.
What has caused this change? It does not seem to be a full explanation to conclude that we can no longer afford to go beyond basic utility. People continue to indulge in expensive cars, cruise holidays, and beach homes. In ways we enjoy great material plenty, but the market is flooded with vulgar things. More tasteful options do exist, but to find them now one must first know for what to search. The difference between the past and present is not a lack of purchasing power, but that our choices are not consciously governed by a yearning for transcendent beauty. As a whole, it seems that our society makes worse choices with its means.
When individuals make decisions they do not choose from the total range of options which have ever been available to man. Instead, we choose from the limited range deemed relevant by our society’s elites. Whatever the faults of the European aristocracy, it is difficult to deny that the arts produced under their stewardship had quality which our modern attempts do not possess. Today, ordinary people seek to emulate the fashions of their preferred popular icons rather than be inspired by the high culture of the old noble families. The styles sold by this alternative social elite are usually predicated upon exciting our passions and indulging our vices. This is not compatible with respect for our past, and requires the buyer to reject his tradition. Thus a popular secular culture has been conjured into existence and has diverted people from knowledge of their heritage.
The culture the old world developed remains, often in the same places it has always been. But instead of being encouraged to learn and embrace our traditions, most ordinary people are steered away. A startling number of the institutions which once taught and preserved our culture now teach that it is responsible for our and others’ oppression, and are engaged in its destruction. Unsurprisingly, many of us do not feel liberated by this devastation, but isolated in a fragmenting society.
In the decades following the Second World War, our traditions were increasingly attacked and ridiculed, eroded and undermined. The order and certainty provided by those traditions have been removed from the experience of the youth, setting them adrift with nothing but a feeling that things used to be different. The culture of our upbringing was a mass produced, secularised, revolutionary social experiment. What is presented to us as the established way of doing things has often very little precedent in our history and may be quite opposed to older standards. Those who retain some instinct for the old way feel alienated by this new anti-culture. The authorities of this new establishment seem unable to resolve our doubts, so we turn to the internet for answers.
It is prudent to find and reintegrate into modern life those principles of our culture which provided the beauty and order of which countless people feel deprived. Metaphysical and theological beliefs about the nature of reality and man’s place in it are the point from which emanate all works and tradition. Thus, if we are to regain our culture we will make little progress without considering our religious tradition. After all, is not our culture’s rejection of religion the single biggest difference between the past and today? Is it not the death of our belief in spiritual good, in a purpose to our existence beyond blind chance and a fearful and hurried enjoyment of worldly pleasure that has reduced our cultural achievements? How can our culture produce good and beautiful things if it no longer believes in the unequivocal existence of ideals like goodness and beauty? What is religion but a belief in the unity and goodness of ultimate principles, in the possibility that there is more to life than the material? Why, when we can no longer bear to live in a purely material world are we directed towards eastern mysticism or primitive paganism rather than our own Christian religion?
Perhaps we should stop dismissing every avowal of religious belief in the great works of our culture upon the grounds that we enlightened moderns have a more sophisticated view of the universe than our poor superstitious ancestors. When we look for this great progress which we are told is the result of our liberation from the shackles of western tradition do we find we have produced a better world, or a world in which a greater quantity of cheap material goods barely counteracts the erosion of our social fabric and the anxiety of unquiet souls? Perhaps good does not come from deletion and destruction, but from building and refining. Perhaps it was our religion, with its focus upon principles which kept us from falling prey to fads and illusions and treating each other as things to be used. It was an explicitly Christian Europe which produced the culture we miss. Without the animating spirit of Christianity, all that will be gained from an examination of the past is a rigid list of rules, hardly more useful than the complete absence of rules in which we now drift.
In searching for a more coherent approach to reality than that of secular materialism we must be careful not to adopt past errors or to reject the modern world. We enjoy a standard of living dependent upon modern technology which we would not wish to discard. Good cultural forms ought to be the manifestation of good principles, and thus should develop with the world in which they are realised. However, the cultural revolutions which have raged since the 1960s have been directed into a wholesale rejection of tradition rather than its further development. If returned to the service of Christian ideals, it could be hoped that modern technology will facilitate ever more refined culture.
This article has now been turned into a video. You can watch it here.