By the middle of March, civilization as I knew it had ceased to exist. Even before the federal government launched its draconian measures, my native Washington decided to close all restaurants and bars to slow the spread of what a politically-incorrect friend has dubbed “The Insidious Flu Manchu.” Only then did I realize how much of my social life revolved around getting together with friends at the Cosmos Club, the Press Club, the Café Mozart, the Prime Rib, the Hay-Adams bar, and assorted other old-line dining and drinking establishments where my boon companions are mostly conservative but the pours are always liberal.
For more than 50 years, I have guided my leisure time by Dr. Samuel Johnson’s maxim that, in good company, “a tavern chair” can be “the throne of felicity.” As I write this, the throne is vacant and I often feel a bit like one of those forlorn Jacobite exiles wandering an alien world in hopes that someday, somehow, the king will enjoy his own again.
I was rescued from such gloomy ruminations when another of Dr. Johnson’s aphorisms came to mind: “You may depend upon it, sir, when a man knows that he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” With the current sense of doom literally going viral—and with more than enough time for solitary reflections—I found that my mind really was concentrating wonderfully. Rather than wallowing in the daily scare headlines, I started to think about underlying causes, not of the virus, but of the spiritual ills that threatened our society long before its outbreak, and will continue to do so long after it has vanished.
My thoughts were further focused by something I came across while reviewing Yuval Levin’s “A Time to Build” for another publication. In his book, Mr. Levin quoted a hauntingly prescient 1973 statement by the brilliant American sociologist Robert Nisbet. From time to time in history, Nisbet maintained, “twilight ages make their appearance. Processes of decline and erosion of institutions are more evident than those of genesis and development. Something like a vacuum obtains in the moral order for large numbers of people … Individualism reveals itself less as achievement and enterprise than as egoism and mere performance … There is a widely expressed sense of degradation of values and of corruption of culture.”
Boy, did he get that one right. And if ever America has entered a “twilight age” it is in the not-so-sweet here and now. But twilight ages need not be terminal. Just as the sun sets each evening only to rise again the next morning, twilight ages can be dispelled by fresh light. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. Ancient Rome, for example, went through numerous cycles of decline and revival before succumbing to total collapse.
Closer to home, and in a more compressed time frame, the same thing happened to the British Empire. In the late 18th century, Great Britain had lost the jewel in its crown, its 13 American colonies. It also contended with grinding poverty, growing social unrest, economic disruption, and a loss of faith in traditional institutions, most notably the corrupt and enervated Church of England.
Yet within a generation, the British successfully resisted the revolutionary mob terror that overran much of Europe, and ultimately defeated the attempts of Napoleon to establish a pan-European military dictatorship with global designs. By the middle of the next century, the Victorian era witnessed the apogee of British power and influence. More importantly, it also marked the rise of a morally renewed society. As historian Geoffrey Treasure points out, some of the earliest efforts were “directed towards the improvement of the upper classes where … cynicism and loose morals stemmed from the decline of personal religion and the increase of wealth, without a corresponding sense of duty.” Simultaneously, a religious revival both within and outside of the Church of England led the way for mass literacy and education movements, early legal protections for the working poor, and an incredible burst of economic, scientific, social, and medical progress. Great Britain had emerged from a twilight age and entered an age of unparalleled achievement both morally and materially.
While too many of our young people are growing up without organized religion, ignorant of history, bombarded by the blandishments of a corrupt popular culture and, more and more often, without the benefit of a married father and mother, 75 percent of Americans still ascribe to a religious faith. The majority of the latter, 63 percent, identify as Christian. Skeptic though I am about the ability of politicians and so-called “public intellectuals” to work social miracle cures for the rest of us, I believe that America’s current “twilight age” could be the prelude to a revival that many, if not most, Americans recognize as needed—and even more hope for in their hearts.
Aram Bakshian Jr. is a former aide to presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. His writings on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts have been widely published in the United States and abroad.