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 worker’s 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 anyone holding positions requiring a modicum of education used to be of a far higher standard than that of people in those same positions 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 houses. In ways we enjoy great material plenty, but the market is flooded with tasteless 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 culture’s elites. One’s culture usually encodes the available forms and acceptable conduct from which we choose. In the past, western culture was more unified. The high culture of the aristocracy was the same culture that the middle and working classes strove to uphold, albeit with lesser means. The culture the aristocracy perpetuated in the past remains, but only a very small portion of western civilisation continues to enjoy it. Ordinary, and not so ordinary, people have been exhorted to indulge their passions and reject the traditions of the west. Instead of taking their inspiration from the Queen, ordinary people today seek to emulate Beyoncé or similar popular icons. The vices sold by this alternative cultural elite are not compatible with good taste, and require the buyer to give up their traditional culture. Thus a popular secular culture has been conjured into existence and has diverted large numbers of people away from knowledge of their customary culture.
The culture of our upbringing is a mass produced, secularised, revolutionary social experiment which has existed for a very short time and bears little relation to western tradition. The order and certainty provided by the old traditions has been removed from the experience of the youth, setting them adrift with nothing but a feeling that things used to be different. Those claiming the authority to guide us seem unable to deal with our questions, so we turn to the internet for answers. Here, we may occasionally stumble onto our tradition.
Unfortunately, since at least the Second World War our traditions have been attacked and ridiculed, eroded and undermined so that the vast majority of young people today have only the vaguest conception of them. Even those people who believe they are upholding tradition have sometimes drifted rather further from it than they think. Our culture is not dead, it still exists, often in the same places it has always been. But instead of being encouraged to learn and embrace our heritage, 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.
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. Of course, all principles are unified in God. Our beliefs about reality and humanity’s relationship to God are the point from which emanate all other traditional forms. Thus, if we are to restore our culture we will make little progress without considering our religious tradition. Without living faith, all that will be gained from an examination of the past is a lifeless and rigid list of rules, hardly more useful than the complete absence of rules in which we now drift.
To claim expertise in any field of western culture is not intended. Instead, this is a tentative search for a more coherent approach to reality than that of secular materialism. Perhaps these small offerings might inspire others to remember their culture. This is not a rejection of the modern world. We enjoy a standard of living dependent upon modern technology which we would not wish discard. All traditions are constantly in need of reform and refinement as they are translated into new contexts. However, the cultural revolutions which raged from the 60’s were co-opted into a wholesale rejection of tradition rather than its further development. If returned to the service of western tradition, it could be hoped that modern technology would produce ever more refined culture.