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Wilhelm Roepke's Wisdom! On modern mass culture

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Wilhelm Roepke's Wisdom! On modern mass culture
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Wilhelm Roepke's Wisdom!  On modern mass culture


Wilhelm Roepke's Wisdom

On modern mass culture

"By whatever standards we measure cultural development, its curve has been going steadily downwards in all countries of the West during the last fifty years, notwithstanding certain brakes and compensations to which the optimists cling with a kind of despair. Men like John Stuart Mill, Herman Melville, or Jacob Burckhardt, who watched with misgiving the proliferation of the signs of cultural decay in their own times, would find their worst fears far exceeded if, halfway through our twentieth century, they could take the measure of the readers (or should I say the viewers?) of our illustrated papers and our race of educational pygmies (1). No doubt those who lay down the law in our society would ridicule them as hopelessly romantic because they have not yet grasped the fact that the hour of "modern consumption society" is at hand.

"Mass culture has gone quite far already, as can be seen by anyone who looks, without rose-colored glasses, at the indicators of intellectual mass consumption, from the seven-figure circulations of our completely infantile illustrated papers and the eighty to ninety million editions of the incredibly dreadful American comic books to the general educational and cultural level of our times. The reverse side of all this is the tight corner into which books really worth reading are driven, together with serious periodicals not catering to mass tastes. Nor is this all. It is hard to disagree with pessimists -- such as, for example, the American Dwight MacDonald ... -- who maintain that our civilization is becoming subject to a sort of Gresham's Law. Just as, according to Gresham's Law, bad money drives out good money, so, too, does modern mass culture make it increasingly difficult for anything better to hold its own. ...

"No serious discussion of this subject can avoid a comparison between these results and the high hopes which a progress-happy era had pinned on the fight against illiteracy. We can but marvel that those who cherished these na´ve hopes -- some of them may still be about -- never seem to have realized that what really counts is what all these people are to read once they have learned how to read. Nor do they seem to have asked themselves whether the standardized educational system by which illiteracy is eradicated was always favorable to a wise choice of reading matter. 'The average Englishman reads nothing except a thin and vulgar daily newspaper, though he has been compelled to go to school for half a century; while in Portugal, the state with the highest rate of illiteracy in western Europe, the reading of serious books and journals, per head of population, is much higher than in enlightened Britain. The broad nineteenth-century public for English literature, in short, has ceased to exist' (2). (Russell Kirk, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice. Chicago, 1956, 303f).

"That this should not be turned into a specious argument against compulsory education and the fight against illiteracy is so obvious that one is almost ashamed to mention the mere possibility of such abuse. But it is na´ve to overlook the conditions on which depends the benefit of general education; these conditions are of more importance than teaching the technique of reading. It is mass society which has so largely destroyed these conditions.

"Let me illustrate this point with an example from my personal experience. Not long ago I had occasion to discuss with a student the final draft of a paper; his nationality is immaterial. It was an above-average study of civil aviation, and the author was a mature, experienced man whose education probably surpassed that of many of his kind. He had come to the conclusion that the economic rationality of this latest means of transport appeared somewhat doubtful if allowance were made for all the open and indirect subsidies. I brought our long conversation to an end with a few philosophical reflections and added that the story of Daedalus and Icarus still seemed to contain a mysterious truth. What kind of people were they, I was asked, and what in the world did they have to do with aviation? Did he not remember Ovid's Matamorphoses? No, that had never been mentioned in his Latin class. Had he never encountered this legend elsewhere? Again, no (3).

"Now let me tell another story, also a personal recollection. Many years ago I visited a second-hand bookshop in Istanbul [Constantinople]. It was run by a Greek, and I found him immersed, together with a young girl, in the study of a book. I asked him not to let me disturb him, but while I was browsing among the dusty shelves, I could not help overhearing some of the remarks passing at the table. Soon there was no doubt; they were reading and discussing the Odyssey. It seemed to me that there could hardly be a more touching sight than that of this Greek, here, in a dark corner of ancient Byzantium, handing down to his daughter the eternal beauty of Homer, still a living heritage after three thousand years, while outside the trams rattled past and the motorcars hooted.

"These two experiences, juxtaposed, illustrate the meaning of discontinuity and continuity in cultural tradition. They show what continuity signifies and, on the other hand, how sharp a break is taking place in our generation after a long process of attrition. It is a break which amounts to a cultural catastrophe, for we witness the passing of millennial traditions that have furnished the substructures of our civilization (4). Anyone who wants to instruct himself in detail about the sources, significance, and development of these traditions will find an admirable guide in Ernst Robert Curtius' great work European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Curtius has shown us on what an almost inexhaustible source we are still drawing, and in teaching us to appreciate it fully, he makes it all the more evident just what we are losing now, three thousand years after Homer, my amiable Greek in Istanbul not withstanding. ...

"One of the first and indisputable consequences is perhaps the decay of our languages. But why, we may ask, is the loss or even the dilution of this Christian and humanistic cultural tradition more than a change of scene in the history of thought? why is it a cultural catastrophe, which is of the essence of our present cultural crisis? Because this tradition is a European tradition and because it makes us Europeans in the widest sense of the word. What this means can easily be appreciated by anyone who merely tries to imagine what the world, a world in which every continent is built upon Europe and its traditions, would be like without this pillar (5). We cannot even seriously conceive of the idea that after three thousand years we should have to begin again at the beginning in fashioning our minds and that we could possibly replace our spiritual heritage by educational matter of the kind which may roughly be indicated by the range and style of popular magazines , that is, by run-of-the-mill knowledge and run-of-the-mill discussions about vitamins, jet aircraft, social questions, the dernier cri [the latest fashion] of literature, and the latest creations of philosophy. ... 

"To all this we must add modern technical  and pseudo-scientific pragmatism and utilitarianism and their total inability to grasp that the achievements of the natural sciences, important and formative though they are, cannot change man's nature as primarily a spiritual and moral being. All in all, we can hardly be surprised that the consumptive disease of our cultural tradition has reached the galloping stage in our generation. At the same time, historical awareness, the sense of continuity and of our links with history as a living part of knowledge, is declining more and more widely. This, too, is an essential feature of a faithful overall picture of our modern mass culture."


On man, "the weakest link"


"The human elements in the economy also enter into the argument in a very specific sense which bars the way to all centrist and mechanistic conceptions and reveals once more, in a prosaic manner, how wrong we can go in reckoning without man. Let us leave the lofty peaks of philosophy and take the low road of sober common sense. ... Now we ask simply: Where are the people, where, above all, are the leaders, who can take on and bear the burden of centralization? Does not centralization come up against sheer physical limits, limits which have become quite obvious by now and which make the principle of centralization not only reprehensible but downright impracticable?


"Here we meet the centrists on their own plane of the tangible and practical, from which they are wont to look down upon us as dreamers romantically worrying about the fate of mankind. We, the dreamers and romantics, are unimpressed by super-organization, centralization, Gagantuan concerns, machine giants, mammoth towns and gigantic plans. Undaunted, we keep quoting Montaigne's wise words -- that even on the highest stilts we still run with our own legs and even on the highest throne sit with our own rumps. We humbly ask how all of these much-vaunted things are going to be done in the absence of a sufficient number of people with the required mental and physical qualities. The claims on the human mind, heart, stomach, and liver are simply more than most men can meet, since their spiritual and physical resources go only so far and no farther. Here is the weakest link in the whole chain, and we cannot but accept this weakness with humility and modesty. Neuroses, heart diseases, and stomach ulcers are the final irrefutable arguments against centrism of every kind. to disregard them is wonton hubris, but we may not be far wrong in interpreting our times as a concentration of hubris and nemesis (6)."



Editors notes

1)   Roepke cites a poem by Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) which goes like this:

Myriads playing pigmy parts--

Debased into equality:

In glut of all material arts

A civic barbarism may be:

Man Disennobled -- brutalized

By popular science -- atheized

Into a smatterer: 

Dead level of rank commonplace:

An Anglo-Saxon China, see

May on your vast plains shame the race

In the Dark Ages of Democracy.


2)  It may be of interest to the reader to learn that, in a Europe-wide survey taken in 2002, Greece ranked lowest of all European Union nations in reading books, going to the theater, going to the cinema, and attending cultural events.


3)  The Daedalus and Icarus myth tells the story of how the engineer and inventor Daedalus, after having completed building the labyrinth, was being held on the island of Crete against his will by King Minos. He planned to escape, together with his son Icarus, by constructing wings made of wax and feathers with which they would fly to freedom. Prior to escaping, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high, but the boy, in his enthusiasm, forgot his father's admonition, and flew high enough for the sun to melt the waxen wings causing him to fall into the sea and drown. The place where he fell has been called the Icarian Sea from that time. The tale has been seen as a warning to mankind not to rely overly much upon his inventions and machines, because Nature has a way of imposing her will and teaching us harsh lessons in the process.


4)  Readers of this website are familiar with our contention that these "millennial traditions that have furnished the substructures of our civilization" are the very ones under attack by the enemies of our Helleno-Christian civilization. By destroying these substructures, they seek to render us helpless to withstand their coercive campaign consisting of the temptations, toys, and fabrications they use to weaken our resolve to resist. Every time our people laugh at the ridiculous caricature that goes by the name of Archie Bunker, every time we allow our children to dress like the East Harlem Blacks with whom we have no cultural affinity whatsoever, every time we are cowed into conforming to the lies being promulgated to our detriment about how "diversity is our strength," or how the poor Blacks, Native Americans, and Jews have been the victims of "White racist oppression," we are playing into the hands of enemies whose long-term goal is to destroy us utterly. Really, have you ever asked yourself, dear reader, against whom is all of this "do-gooding" being waged?


5)  It is, we think, appropriate here to quote Percy Shelly who said: "If Greece had not given the light of civilization to Europe, we would still be wild idolaters." Or Lord John Acton, who said: "Save for the wild force of Nature, nothing moves in this world that is not Greek in its origin." Or Goethe, who wrote: "What the heart and mind are to the body, Greece is to humanity," etc., etc. ad nauseum. Our admiration for Roepke is such that we cannot help thinking that when he wrote "...every continent is built upon Europe and its traditions, ..." the fact that he did not follow this truism with something like "... and Europe and its traditions are built on the solid foundation of Hellenism," was nothing more than an innocent oversight.


6)  A great source for examples of the "Hubris" and idiocies of modern-day movers-and-shakers -- most of whom seem to have a morbid compulsion to direct the rest of us into the collectivist anthill -- is to be found in  Paul Johnson's book Intellectuals (Harper & Row 1988). Johnson details the foolishness of such "great intellects" as Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, Russell, Sartre, Hellman, Mailer, Chomsky, and others, who've done what can most charitably be described as incalculable harm to mankind by acting upon the fantasies their destructive minds and self-serving egos have concocted. The damage that the idiocies their fervid brains, twittering tongues, and poisonous pens have foisted upon humanity can be seen on the streets, the homes, the schools, the churches, the jails, and the hospitals of any Western city, town, or village today. Johnson gives us a glimpse into the warped minds of these culture-destroying egomaniacs.  




Source. Wilhelm Roepke. A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market. ISI Books. Wilmington DE. 1998. passim. Emphasis added.


For more on Wilhelm Roepke click on to Wilhelm Roepke: Means "Contra Gramsci" to read a short introduction before linking to the article.

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