The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited

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9781933859699: The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited

Humanism built Western civilization as we know it today. Its achievements include the liberation of the individual, democracy, universal rights, and widespread prosperity and comfort. Its ambassadors are the heroes of modern culture—Erasmus, Holbein, Shakespeare, Velázquez, Descartes, Kant, Freud. Those who sought to contain humanism’s pride within a frame of higher truth—Luther, Calvin, Poussin, Kierkegaard—could barely interrupt its torrential progress. Those who sought to reform humanism’s tenets from within—Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche—were tested by the success of their own prophecies.

So runs the approved view. It is not shared by John Carroll.

Instead, Carroll articulates a disruptive and compelling alternative narrative of the course of Western civilization since the Renaissance and the Reformation contrived to unleash reason, will, and a superhuman man on the world. The West’s five-hundred-year experiment with humanism has failed, he maintains in this bracing study of humanism’s rise to preeminence and its headlong tumble into contradiction, because humans ultimately need some kind of contact with a higher, or metaphysical, order beyond the confines of their time-bound, mundane selves. And if this wasn’t entirely clear before September 11, 2001, Carroll concludes, it surely is now. His provocative and brilliant arguments will challenge received wisdom on every side.

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About the Author:

John Carroll is Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and a Fellow of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. He has degrees in mathematics, economics, and sociology from the universities of Melbourne and Cambridge. His work focuses on culture and its crucial role in the human search for meaning, with particular reference to modern Western society. Carroll’s recent books include Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning, The Western Dreaming, Terror: A Meditation on the Meaning of September 11, and The Existential Jesus.

Review:

"Carroll is a different kind of sociologist. Not only does he not make a fetish of data and method, he eschews them altogether. The Wreck of Western Culture is nothing so pedestrian as social theory; it is a (sometimes) inspired vaticination, a dramatic and portentous reading of the entrails of Western culture from Homer to Hollywood. . . . To produce--in fewer than three hundred pages--a passionate, imaginative, richly detailed interpretation of the spiritual history of the modern West is not a small achievement, even if that interpretation is, as I believe, profoundly wrong. At a time when cutting-edge cultural criticism devotes itself to ephemera, it apparently takes a maverick Aussie sociologist to don the prophet’s mantle. Let him be praised, if only for forcing us to look once again at our cultural monuments, this time as harbingers of life or death."

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