Goodbye to All What?

As far back as I can remember, I had the feeling that I had been born some time after the end of everything that mattered.  Yes, there was still an abundance of material comforts and some vestiges of marriage and religion, but vanishing before our eyes—like the stars in the sky faded by street lights—were the customs and institutions that made a common life worth leading: peaceful solitude that one did not have to fly around the world to find, the simple courtesies by which one pretends not to put one’s self at the center of the universe, and, of course, everything that has to do with arts and letters, with civilization, with all that is meant by that dreadful word culture.

In my later teens I bored parents and friends, telling them that my generation was fortunate in witnessing the end not only of a civilization that stretches back over 3,000 years but of everything that human beings have ever valued.  This was not a dark age we were entering, but a black hole in which every moral and aesthetic standard is disappearing.

When my father dryly observed that philosophers since Socrates had been mourning the degeneracy of the times, I wondered why he thought Socrates and his successors were wrong.  What if, in fact, our civilization, since the Peloponnesian War, has actually been in a steady decline, punctuated by a few brief periods like the ages of...

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