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Dialogue and Universalism

Volume 22, Issue 2, 2012

Civilization and Religion

Stephen M. Borthwick
Pages 17-39

Spiritual Sovereignty and the Decline of Civilizations in History

The study of civilizations is largely motivated by a single question—what drives and defines a culture or civilization? In an effort to locate a civilization—or, in the case of this chapter, three civilizations—historically, perhaps the best way is to call this drive and defining quality the cultural “sovereign.” Historically, in almost every case, this sovereign takes on a spiritual and religious form in the earliest and most vitalized period of any civilization’s lifespan. Conceptualizing civilizations in two phases, this chapter will seek to show that, as a rule, at some point this spiritual sovereign is usurped and replaced by a human and corrupted sovereign. This transition precipitates the decay of Civilization, first explored by Oswald Spengler, examined here with a focus on the point at which the original and eternal sovereign ceases to be the arbiter of moral and cultural questions, and the State takes over this sovereignty. To understand “sovereignty,” the chapter appeals to Schmitt; the sovereign is one who has the power “to decide the exception.” In this way, the ethos of a culture begins as something in which no exceptions can be made by a human being—the point at which the eternal is sovereign. As civilization declines, however, one witnesses human beings making exceptions, as morality ceases to be binding, social propriety becomes a luxury rather than a necessity, and religion becomes a fixture rather than the core of society. This state of collapse is highlighted in three separate civilizations—the Civic (i.e. Graeco-Roman), the Pharaonic (i.e. Egyptian), and the Ecclesiastic (i.e. Western). The viability of any project aimed at “revival” or “regeneration” is also examined and, the author hopes, soundly denied.

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