Briefly Noted: The Wreck of Western Culture

Don’t say you were never told. John Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture is one of the most underappreciated volumes published in recent memory.[1] Readers beware, however. Carroll’s book is for readers who like their coffee strong (the book is more like a Green Eye than a Café au Lait), and perhaps that’s one reason for its relative neglect. So although I’ve not been able to write up a review, here’s a brief notice about the book.

Carroll, an Aussie sociologist, argues that secular humanism has wrecked Western culture by depriving it of the deep insights provided by faith. He begins the book by prophesying the universal ruin of Western culture: “We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of humanism. Around us is that ‘colossal wreck.’ Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble” (p. 1) But diagnosis is not Carroll’s primary concern; intellectual genealogy is, and he immediately launches his investigation into how we have arrived at this state of affairs: we turned away from theism and toward humanism, trying “to create out of nothing something as strong as the faith of the New Testament that could move mountains” (p. 3). To do so meant that one must build an anthropocentric, rather than a theocentric, worldview: “To place the human individual at the center meant that he or she had to become the Archimedean point around which everything revolved.”

He accomplishes his argument by tracing Western intellectual and spiritual history in general, and Western works of art in particular. He focuses on Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Both of these works illustrate the modern retreat from the theological narratives that have sustained Western society and culture for more than 2,000 years. Both works of art center on a skull. Holbein’s painting includes a distorted and oblong skull in the foreground of the picture, while Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains Yorrick’s skull. In Carroll’s narrative, these skulls symbolize Western culture’s fear of death; if life and death have been divested of divine meaning, then death becomes the ominous and dominant force in our lives and culture. If death has no more meaning than the Darwinist sense, then life has no meaning either, and life becomes absurdly horrible, as Nietzsche argued.

The Wreck of Western Culture is a richly imaginative and passionate interpretation of the intellectual and spiritual history of the West. Its strengths lie in Carroll’s ability to create a vigorous and comprehensive narrative explaining the fall of Western Civilization; its weaknesses lie in Carroll’s sometimes-deficient interpretations of art and theology. Strongly recommended.









[1] John Carroll, The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited (Wilmington: ISI, 2008).