Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy, (we are told) had her ears licked by a serpent while asleep and so got her prophetic gift: forever after she was fated to foretell the evil results of successive events. All civilizations have had their Cassandras, but probably none more than twentieth-century Europe. A symposium in Le Figaro in 1898 (“What’s wrong with France?”) reads uncannily like a Partisan Review symposium 70 years later. Visions of doom have been fashionable for a long time, and their prophets sometimes address large audiences. Brahmaism taught that the world was in decline, Horace and Livius are full of dire predictions following the general relaxation of Roman discipline, and every self-respecting writer in the tenth century began his chronology: “While the world is approaching its end….” Henry and Brooks Adams wrote long ago about the decline of Western man and Baudelaire hated Paris (“centre et rayonnement de betise universelle”) as much as do Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Between the two world wars fascism proclaimed the impending demise of the senescent West—and the rise of the young nations. Since World War II prophecies of doom have come from many quarters and on the basis of different political convictions. Usually, these are frightening visions.
Arnold Toynbee regards Western civilization as an apostasy of Christian civilization, the fatal plunge from faith into the barren grounds of secularism. Western civilization, he says, exhibits authentic symptoms of breakdown and disintegration, and the only thing that can save it is a fresh religious revolution....
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