The Wreck of Western Culture - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Wreck of Western Culture

Humanism Revisited


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.

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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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“John Carroll has earned a place entirely of his own, a place which but few others dare or have the stamina to visit. . . . His unique role in present-day intellectual life consists in continuous stimulation. . . . In this reassessment of Western civilization, Carroll’s unorthodox, thought-provoking version puts the religious, artistic and philosophical milestones of modern history into new perspective. . . . Some readers will find Carroll’s book eye-opening; some will find it infuriating; all will find it unputdownable”
Zygmunt Bauman

“Even as he challenges Humanism, John Carroll remains faithful to its core commitment—the search for meaning. In an age when serious thinkers have almost all become academics, specializing in precise answers to disciplinary questions, Carroll reminds us what an intellectual should be. Hunting big game, he addresses the dark and brooding problems of our time. Whether we agree with his answers or not, we are immensely provoked by his questions, and the brilliant and critical mind that lies just beneath.”
Jeffrey C. Alexander, Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology, Yale University

“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.”
George Scialabba, BookForum

“Carroll shows that the Enlightenment blew out the candles all over Europe and contributed in the long run to intellectual and emotional darkness. . . . In the long rune those Enlightenment ideas turned many Anglican churches into museums or clubs, and second British Empire lost its reason to live.”

The Wreck of Western Culture is a four-part drama: Foundation, Middle Acts, Fall, and Death Throes. If you relish the masterpieces of the modern West because they reveal ‘the deepest truths of their time,’ then you will welcome this study because Carroll unapologetically ‘seeks the best, and neglects the rest.’ Some of the finest books are ambitious to the point of hubris, synoptic to the point of oversimplification, and courageous to the point of rashness. The Wreck of Western Culture risks the flaws to achieve the merits as it traces five centuries of Western humanism, beginning with the Renaissance credo ‘I am everything,’ transitioning to the Reformation credo, ‘I am nothing,’ and ending with the nihilistic credo ‘I am against everything.’ The Undertaker has written a memorable requiem.”
Christopher Benson, The Weekly Standard

“Selectively adducing an array of cultural icons—works of Shakespeare, Velizquez, Poussin, Descartes, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, to cite a few—Carroll analyzes each masterpiece to forge a new link in the catena of his argument that the inner logic and competing perspectives of the humanist experience inevitably led to self-destruction due to the absence of a metaphysical foundation beyond human’s reason and free will. The author’s dour, unflinching portrayal of modern Western civilization’s ‘surrender to oblivion’ will elicit from his audience some profound and trenchant responses to this invitation to the funeral of humanism.”

“Carroll’s penetrating insights and his prodigous scholarship will repay a careful reading, and his astringent book is very highly recommended.”
Daniel Boice, Catholic Library World

“A hair-raisingly vicious polemic against the legacy of the Renaissance, liberalism and modernity. . . . A set of brilliant, partisan sketches of major works from Donatello to Freud.”
The New Statesman

“Overblown, utterly misguided, and sometimes downright dangerous (not to mention half crazed), but important, and, at times, brilliant. What if he’s right?”
The Guardian

“This book is provocative, brilliant, exasperating.”
The Age, Melbourne

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