Sunday, May 1, 2011

Vampires, Breast Implants, and the Demise of Western Culture

A few days ago I was online looking at the news stories of the day. In the pop culture section, there was an article discussing the explosion of vampire movies and television shows being produced by Hollywood. It has become quite a phenomenon. There are vampires everywhere these days, and of course, in our consumer society that means all sorts of retail products as well, from books and magazines to clothes and accessories; apparently there’s even a vampire perfume out now - doesn’t that sound lovely?

Just beneath that story was an article about the cosmetic surgery industry, which this year reached the 40 billion mark. Forty billion dollars is now spent every year on breast implants, face lifts, tummy tucks, and the like. The range of products is amazing. All promising to make you look younger and sexier. And that’s when it hit me – I realized that these two seemingly unrelated articles are really just manifestations of the same cultural phenomenon.

There was a time when vampires were disgusting parasitic monsters - blood sucking zombies who were strange and frightening…but not anymore. Now vampires are young and sexy. But not just young and sexy; because of the vampire “curse” of un-death, they are now perpetually young and sexy. And therein lies the obsession. Our culture is obsessed with youth and the fantasy of never growing old. This obsession is the inevitable end point of secularism, which at its core is rooted in naturalism, the belief that the physical world is all that exists.

It’s been said that every culture begins Stoic and ends Epicurean. I’m convinced we are seeing the final stages of this shift in Western culture. For the past two hundred years Western culture has been involved in a monumental cultural shift from a Judeo-Christian worldview to a secular humanist worldview. In secularism there is no God. You can believe in God if you like, but those that know better understand that God is merely a superstition that should be kept out of any serious discussion of history, politics, anthropology, etc. In place of God we have the human being – the highest being in the universe.

Early on, the trade off from God to human looked promising. During the Enlightenment, human beings had not only rediscovered the science of the ancient Greco-Roman world, but had taken that knowledge to new heights. With its new found knowledge the Western mind swelled with pride. Human understanding of the universe, it seemed, would grow forever; eventually, it was thought that man would know all things. “Someday man will be able to do anything” was the common sentiment at the turn of the last century. Human reason was seen as the greatest of virtues and eventually all obstacles would fall before it. Someday human beings would be able to fix any problem, cure any disease, and perhaps even conquer death itself. Once all of humanity embraced a life of wisdom, and they would because reason is not only infallible but irresistible, then human beings would finally lay every enemy to waste and would live in an age of universal peace and reign as gods on the earth.

This sounds ridiculous today, but at that time this was the soup everyone was swimming in – especially in the academy. Even many Christian theologians were taken in by this new messiah and began to reshape Christian doctrine to fit with the secular religion. Such was the gravitational pull of the movement.

But that all began to crumble with the outbreak of World War One. Now the most “enlightened” nations of Europe were doing their best to wipe each other off the map. Human learning and technology proved to be very useful in this regard. Some secularists began to lose faith in humanity. Not all of them though, some said that it was “the war to end all wars,” and when the conflict was over, the new age of human divinity would begin. But we all know how that turned out.

Eventually the secularists would have their hopes fully crushed – stomped out of them as it were. Since they had no real understanding of the depth of human sin, they couldn’t fully explain where things went wrong, but it was obvious to most that their experiment had failed. In the wake of this failure, some academics recovered concepts like sin and idolatry in order to make sense of what had happened. These came to be known as Neo-orthodox theologians. Of course, most Christians had never lost these ideas - it was mainly in the academy that such things had to be rediscovered. It would be nice if the rest of society had followed in their footsteps, but that is not how this story ends. The vast majority of the secular humanists did not return to the religion of their ancestors. Instead they slipped from a hopeful, yet misguided, modernism into a cynical and ultimately nihilistic post-modernism.

Which brings us into the shallow depths of the present. If you accept that the physical world is the entirety of existence, then what’s left when you’ve lost faith in human intellect and human virtue? The only thing left to be impressed with is the physical form itself. That becomes the focus of our energies because that is all that is left.

Now some secularists might object to this characterization (and I admit I'm simplifying things here for the sake of brevity). They might point, for example, to existentialist philosophers who have tried to find meaning in the meaningless and sound a hopeful note for humanity. But the great mass of people in our culture are not existentialists, but rather, body worshipers. If you want to know who those great masses are, just look at the advertisements you find everywhere in our society - that's who they're aimed at.

But body worship is an even more futile religion than the worship of the mind. The human body has a very short shelf life - it is only impressive for a brief period in young adulthood…if ever. And so you end up with the ridiculous spectacle of young people fantasizing about staying young forever, and old people trying to make the fantasy a reality through expensive, and ultimately worthless, medical procedures. In Hollywood, the average 60 year old looks like a piece of cling wrap stretched over a coffee can – a disgusting farce of someone who has grown wise with age.

What does it say about a culture when the dominant religion is the cult of youth? When people worship at the alter of sexual attraction? When you have kids who would be willing to become blood sucking monsters if only they could stay young forever? And when the older members of society see wrinkles as a curse rather than a reminder that our time here is short and that we will soon stand before our judge? It means that you're in the twilight of your culture...pun intended.

I'm no prophet. I have no idea if it will be 25 years from now or 200 years from now. But one need not be a prophet to realize that a hedonistic society has no staying power. That's just plain old historical observation. Sooner or later, a people of greater moral fortitude will take our place. And the age of blood and silicone will be no more.


  1. Corey, I believe you've nailed it!

    Jim Collins

  2. Good post, Corey. I think you're correct to see the connection between these phenomena. Thanks for the thoughts!

  3. Explain, please, what it means to "start Stoic and end Epicurean."

  4. Thanks for the positive feedback everyone.

    Amos, I got this quote from my father in law, who was quoting a book he had read on the history of civilization. The historian was refrencing the popular (though not always correct) view of these two ancient philosophies. Stoicism and Epicureanism were the two dominant philosophies of the Hellenistic era. If you were a wealthy educated Roman citizen, you would most likely have subscribed to one of these philosophies, at least in theory if not practice.

    Stoicism had similarities to modern philosophical Buddhism. It was pantheistic, and placed an emphasis on virtue, self-control, and acceptance of adversity. Thus Stoics came to have the reputation as people of strong constitutions who were a very serious and moral group. The reputation for seriousness is where the English language phrase, "stoic personality" comes from.

    Epicureans were similar to modern secular humanists. It was atheistic (more or less) and placed an emphasis on peace, happiness, and pleasure. Although not true to the original intentions of the philosophy, Epicureanism is often interpreted as advocating a sort of unbridled hedonism.

    So this historian's notion that every civilization begins Stoic and ends Epicurean is the idea that civilizations that rise to prominence do so on the foundation of strong, moral people, and those foundations are later destroyed by their lazy, immoral descendants.