Critic of the Sensate Culture: Rediscovering the Genius of Pitirim Sorokin - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Critic of the Sensate Culture: Rediscovering the Genius of Pitirim Sorokin

Leaves from a Russian Diary—and Thirty Years After by Pitirim A.
Sorokin (Beacon Press: Boston, 1950; originally published in
1924) [LDR]

Contemporary Sociological Theories by Pitirim A. Sorokin (Harper
and Row: New York, 1928, 1958) [CST]

Social and Cultural Dynamics by Pitirim A. Sorokin (revised and
abridged in one volume by the author, Transaction Books:
New Brunswick, 1957, 1985; originally published in four
volumes, I-III, 1937; IV, 1941) [SCD]

The Crisis of Our Age: The Social and Cultural Outlook by Pitirim
A. Sorokin (Boston: E.P. Dutton, 1942) [COA]

Society, Culture, and Personality: Their Structure and Dynamics
by Pitirim A. Sorokin (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947)

The Reconstruction of Humanity by Pitirim A. Sorokin (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1948) [RH]

Social Philosophies of an Age of Crisis by Pitirim A. Sorokin
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1950) [SAC]

Altruistic Love: A Study of American “Good Neighbors”” and
Christian Saints by Pitirim A. Sorokin (Boston: Beacon Press,
1950) [AL]

The Ways and Power of Love: Types, Factors, and Techniques of
Moral Transformation by Pitirim A. Sorokin (Boston: Beacon
Press, 1954) [WPL]

Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology by Pitirim A. Sorokin
(Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1956) [FFM]

The American Sex Revolution by Pitirim A. Sorokin (Boston:
Porter Sargent, 1956) [ASR]

Pitirim A. Sorokin in Review edited by Philip J. Allen (Durham:
Duke University Press, 1963) [PSR]

Sociological Theories of Today by Pitirim A. Sorokin (New York:
Harper and Row, 1966) [STT]


The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. We are seemingly between two epochs: the dying Sensate culture of our magnificent yesterday, and the coming Ideational or Idealistic culture of the creative tomorrow. We are living, thinking, acting at the end of a brilliant six-hundred-year-long Sensate day. The oblique rays of the sun still illumine the glory of the passing epoch. But the light is fading, and in the deepening shadows it becomes more and more difficult to see clearly and to orient ourselves safely in the confusions of the twilight. The night of the transitory period begins to loom before us and the coming generations—perhaps with their nightmares, frightening shadows, and heart-rending horrors. Beyond it, however, the dawn of a new great Ideational or Idealistic culture is probably waiting to greet the men of the future.

Pitirim Sorokin (1937)

The American Sex Revolution

In the mid-1950s the Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin published a provocative little book on The American Sex Revolution that would prove uncanny in its prescience. Indeed, Sorokin’s book makes for most engaging reading today as it may be the only work of social criticism written during the middle years of the 20th century that so accurately gauged the direction in which America and Europe were headed that its analysis is even more relevant to the social situation that exists at the present time than the one that existed when it was first written. A full half century after its appearance, hardly a page of The American Sex Revolution is dated, and readers today will look repeatedly at the publication date for reassurance that the book was actually written during the supposedly tranquil years of the Ozzie and Harriet era.

The harmful trends that Sorokin described in his book, many of which were cause for only moderate concern in their own time, would become much more extreme in subsequent decades, and today are generally acknowledged as a major source of social and cultural decline in what is not inaccurately described as a “”post- Christian”” West. These include declining birth rates and diminished parental commitment to the welfare of children; vastly increased erotic content in movies, plays, novels, magazines, television shows, radio programs, song lyrics, and commercial advertising; increased divorce, promiscuity, premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, spousal abandonment, and out-ofwedlock births; and related to these developments, a growing increase in juvenile delinquency, psychological depression, and mental disorders of every description. So extreme have some of these trends become, particularly since the late 1960s, that many today can look back nostalgically upon the 1950s when Sorokin issued his warnings as a period of great social stability, “”family values,”” and dedication to traditional Christian understandings of sex, marriage, and child rearing.

The American Sex Revolution begins with stark acknowledgment that a radical change in sexual mores and sexual practices has come about in America in the 20th century whose effects permeate all aspects of American life. “”American society has become obsessed with sex,”” Sorokin declares: “”During the last two centuries, and particularly the last few decades,”” he writes,

every phase of our culture has been invaded by sex. Our civilization has become so preoccupied with sex that it now oozes from all pores of American life… Whatever aspect of our culture is considered, each is packed with sex obsession. Its vast totality bombards us continuously, from cradle to grave, from all points of our living space, at almost every step of our activity, feeling, and thinking… We are completely surrounded by the rising tide of sex which is flooding every compartment of our culture [and] every section of our social life.

While we may not think of a sexual revolution the way we do a political, economic, or social-class revolution, the effects of the American sex revolution may be just as momentous as those of the more familiar kinds of social upheavals. “”In spite of its odd characteristics,”” Sorokin writes, “”this sex revolution is as important as the most dramatic political or economic upheaval. It is changing the lives of men and women more radically than any other revolution of our time.”” (ASR 19, 54, 3)

Sorokin devotes much of the earlier sections of The American Sex Revolution to documenting the claim that 20th century American culture is “”sex-centered and sex-preoccupied.”” In literature, Sorokin writes, almost all eminent American authors have had to pay their homage to sex, either by making it the central theme of their work or by devoting to it a good deal of attention even in books focused on entirely different topics. What is most significant is that many of these authors—including serious writers like Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neil, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck—portray sexual excesses and sexual misconduct as if they were perfectly normal and acceptable adult behavior. This is a dramatic change from the practice of the great novelists of the 19th century like Tolstoy and Flaubert, Sorokin explains, who “”depicted illicit passion as a tragedy for which hero and heroine alike paid with their lives or by long suffering.”” By contrast, “”most of the adulteries and other sins treated in contemporary literature are considered by the authors enjoyable adventures in the monotonous existence of modern men and women.”” (ASR 23) Such depictions cannot fail to weaken commitment to marital fidelity and tend to demoralize rather than integrate the many conflicting passions, sexual and otherwise, that exist within the human soul. Sex obsession in what Sorokin calls the “”pulp”” or “”sham”” literature—i.e. the junk novels and mass market literature—is even more pronounced and more degrading than that in the more serious literature.

In addition to the trends in literature, The American Sex Revolution offers trenchant sketches of the trends towards greater sexualization in several other areas of American arts and media including painting, sculpture, music, films, plays, television shows, radio broadcasts, commercial advertising, and the popular press. Other developments in American culture richly documented in the book include (a) trends in law making divorce much easier to obtain; (b) trends in social science in which “”sex-obsessed ethnologists produce fables about primitive peoples which extol promiscuity, recommend premarital and extramarital relations, and throw into the ashcan all arguments for our existing institutions of monogamous marriage and family as obsolete and scientifically indefensible”” [Margaret Mead is the unnamed target here]; and, (c) trends in ethics and moral philosophy whereby “”new beatitudes have been successfully spread throughout our nation”” such that divorce and spousal desertion are no longer punished by public obloquy, while “”continence, chastity, and faithfulness are increasingly viewed as oddities””—””ossified survivals of a prehistoric age.”” These trends, Sorokin writes, do not bode well for the future health of American society or the American family. Much of the rest of The American Sex Revolution is devoted to spelling out in very concrete terms the harmful effects of these multiple developments upon the well-being of individuals, families, and society at large. (ASR 40, 43, 44, 55)

One such harm is a general decline in culture’s creative élan. Contrary to what is sometimes said about the greater creativity of bohemian intellectuals and other sexual profligates, history, Sorokin says, shows unmistakably that any society given over to sex obsession, such as ancient Greece and Rome in their later stages, loses the self-discipline, sensitivity, sense of purpose, and dedication to a demanding task that is necessary for any kind of great creative achievement. Thomas Edison’s remark that his inventions were 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration reflects a truth about any kind of successful creative endeavor Sorokin says, and individuals and nations given over to a sex obsession he believes are incapable of the sustained effort needed for truly creative and inventive work.

Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, and others are sometimes held up as examples of great creative artists who led sexually dissolute lives. This shows, some say, that sexual dissoluteness either has little effect upon creative output or may even enhance it. But such claims, Sorokin says, are refuted by the historical record. The illicit liaisons of Mozart and Chopin had a clearly depressive influence upon their artistic lives he points out, and poor Schubert was led to an early grave by the venereal disease he contacted through his sexual adventures. Most of the greatest achievements in Western philosophy and fine arts were the product of creative personalities who, in their personal lives, were anything but sexual adventurers. Sorokin offers a long list: Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Archytes, Aristotle, Euclid, Plotinus, Archimedes, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Phidias, Varro, Copernicus, Newton, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Palestrina, Victoria, Bach, Beethoven, Dante, Kant. These, and many of the other great creators of Western culture “”were in their sex life either normal from the standpoint of the prevailing standards of their society and period, or were more continent than their contemporaries.”” (ASR 70–71)

When a sex obsession grips an entire society, according to Sorokin, it not only loses its artistic creativity, but it also becomes devitalized in many other areas of life, including eventually the economic realm. He draws heavily in support of this contention from the extensive research of the British anthropologist J.D. Unwin whose Sex and Culture1 presents a richly documented theory of cultural flourishing and decline in which the social control of sexuality plays a key role. Unwin illustrates his views with innumerable examples taken from both literate and preliterate cultures. Summarizing both his own and Unwin’s findings, Sorokin writes that “”there is no example [in history] of a community which has retained its high position on the cultural scale after less rigorous sexual customs have replaced more restricting ones.”” (ASR 110–111) Loosening sexual morals in the late stages of Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, Mongol, Greek, Roman, and Ptolemaic–Egyptian civilizations were all associated, Sorokin says, with the decline of these civilizations in creative vigor of all kinds.

In their early phases, Sorokin explains, each of these cultures observed great modesty in their visual arts in the way they depicted the human body, but in their later phases their art became increasingly preoccupied with eroticism and sexualized display. What is known about sexual behavior in these cultures suggests that this change in the subject matter of art paralleled a general loosening of the sexual morals of the society, a decline in family stability, increasing domestic unhappiness, and a general loss in the culture’s creativity and élan. A tendency in this direction could also be seen in Italy during the late Renaissance and early modern period, Sorokin says, but the Catholic Counter- Reformation and the ascetical strains in early Protestantism temporarily turned back this trend. By the early 20th century, however, Western society rapidly abandoned its older religious restraints and moral values regarding sex and plunged headlong into a sexual revolution whose harmful consequences for the overall health and well-being of society can hardly be overstated. This revolution in sexual mores occurred in Europe shortly before it occurred in the United States, but by the middle of the 20th century Americans were rapidly catching up to their European counterparts and in some respects even surpassing them.

There is a time-lag element to change in sexual mores, however, Unwin’s and Sorokin’s scholarship suggest, as the effects of a loosening in sexual morals may not be immediate for the society beginning to undergo the change. This is because those brought up in the period before the sex revolution often retain much of their older ways of discipline and restraint, and even their children have solid parental role models to look back upon as a partial restraining influence. According to Unwin’s extensive studies, the greatest effect of a sexual revolution comes in the third and subsequent generations, when an entire generational cohort is brought up in a society whose elders were also the product of sexual liberation and has lost all capacity to focus its libidinal energies in a controlled and productive manner. Such a society is marked by advanced dissipation, diminished creativity, antisocial behavior, and general economic and cultural decline.

The judgment of history is unmistakable: “”The regime,”” Sorokin writes, “”that permits chronically excessive, illicit, and disorderly sex activities contributes to the decline of cultural creativity, [while] the regime that confines sexual life within socially sanctioned marriage…provides an environment more favorable for creative growth of the society than does the regime of free or disorderly sex relationships which neither morally disapproves nor legally prohibits premarital and extramarital liaisons.”” (ASR 106–107) An extreme confirmation of this historical law, says Sorokin, was provided by developments in Russia during the 1920s, when the new Soviet regime, reflecting the Leninist view that traditional Christian marriage was a harmful “”bourgeois”” convention, deliberately tried to destroy traditional marriage and family ties. Sorokin describes this policy as follows:

During the first stage of the Revolution, its leaders deliberately attempted to destroy marriage and the family. Free love was glorified by the official “”glass of water”” theory: if a person is thirsty, so went the Party line, it is immaterial what glass he uses when satisfying his thirst; it is equally unimportant how he satisfies his sex hunger. The legal distinction between marriage and casual sexual intercourse was abolished. The Communist law spoke only of “”contracts”” between males and females for the satisfaction of their desires either for an indefinite or a definite period—a year, a month, a week, or even for a single night. One could marry and divorce as many times as desired… Bigamy and even polygamy were permissible under the new provisions. Abortion was facilitated in state institutions. Premarital relations were praised and extramarital relations were considered normal. (ASR 113–114)

In very short order, however, it became apparent that a disaster was rapidly descending upon Russia—one whose severe effects didn’t have to wait two or three generations to be obvious to all. Within a few years juvenile delinquency rose in Russia; hordes of wild, undisciplined, parentless children became a menace to the stability of the new regime; lives were wrecked; divorces, abortions, mental illness, and domestic conflicts of all kinds skyrocketed; and work in the nationalized factories began to suffer. Recognizing their mistake, the totalitarian leaders of the Soviet Union made a complete about-face at the end of the 1920s, Sorokin explains, and essentially reestablished the status quo ante. The “”glass of water theory”” was declared to be counterrevolutionary, abortion was prohibited, the freedom to divorce was radically curtailed, and both premarital chastity and the sanctity of marriage were officially glorified by the Soviet state. The result was that by the middle of the century Soviet society displayed “”a more monogamic, stable, and Victorian family and marriage life”” than that found in most non-communist countries of the West. (ASR 115)

One of the most interesting discussions in The American Sex Revolution is about the effect of loose sexual mores on the ability of a population to reproduce and sustain itself. One might think that a culture that encourages early sexual experimentation, premarital and extramarital sexual relationships, casual sex, multiple lifetime partners, women who say “”yes”” rather than “”no,”” and many other features of a sex-liberated society would produce more babies and have a higher birth rate than a sexually more restrained or sexually “”repressed”” society. But the very opposite is the case, Sorokin shows, and historically societies that are in the grip of a sexual revolution, he says, will, within a generation or two, begin to start declining in population. In explaining this fact, Sorokin says that communities whose members become preoccupied with the hunt for sexual excitement and sexual pleasure usually do not want to be burdened by the obligations of raising children whose care presents great obstacles to the realization of these goals. Whether through abortion, infanticide, contraception, or the involuntary sterility that sometimes results from venereal disease, the birth rate in such societies will dramatically decline.


On a small scale this fact is easily seen, Sorokin says, in the history of many European aristocratic families in both medieval and modern times. European aristocrats were notorious for their sexual libertinism, and the attitudes and behavior patterns engendered by such class-based sex obsessions, Sorokin says, were so unfriendly to the demands of raising substantial numbers of children that it is not surprising that these aristocratic families often failed to produce enough children to continue their family lines. Within a single century, Sorokin’s statistics show, many of the aristocratic families of medieval and modern Europe simply died out with few lasting beyond three-hundred years. This trend can be seen, he says, among aristocratic families in England, France, Germany, Sweden, Russia and many other places as well. He offers many examples. In medieval Nuremburg, for instance, there were 118 patrician families in existence at the end of the 14th century, but a century later there was barely half this amount. Similarly, in England between 1611 and 1819, there were 1,527 baronetcies created, only 43% of which survived to the beginning of the 20thcentury.

What is true of aristocratic families can become true of whole cultures, Sorokin says, with the result being severe depopulation. Men and women in sex-obsessed societies may or may not marry, but if they do marry their marriages are frequently childless, or produce only one or two offspring—which is not enough to sustain the existing size of the group. As a consequence, Sorokin explains, the population first becomes stationary and then begins to decline. If low birth rates are combined with increased longevity— that is, if fewer people die before maturity—the age distribution of the population begins to shift radically upward. There are then fewer and fewer young people in the society and a preponderance of middle-aged and older people. This kind of situation, Sorokin says, has a disastrous effect upon the economic, technological, artistic, and military vitality of the society involved, and the society rapidly declines. “”Whatever may be the virtues of age,”” Sorokin writes, “”they cannot compensate for the vitality, vigor, courage, daring, elasticity, and creativity of the young. A nation largely composed of middle-aged or elderly people enfeebles itself physically, mentally, and socially, and moves toward the end of its creative mission and leadership.”” (ASR 82)2

Besides devitalizing whole cultures and family lines, a sexual revolution, Sorokin says, upsets the delicate psychic equilibrium of the countless individuals who succumb to its allure. Contrary to the image created by much of modern literature, psychology, and film, the inner world of the sexually liberated is one of inner turmoil and tension. The sexual adventurer, he explains, is dominated by his lusts and sexual desires, and is perpetually bombarded by external stimuli that challenge his weak internal control mechanism. He is a house divided against itself. The hunt for new sexual thrills is inseparable from the sex-obsession itself, and this inevitably leads to conflicts between the sexual libertine and the many persons and groups whose norms and interests he has transgressed. In such a situation, says Sorokin, the libertine cannot achieve real peace of mind. He is subject to alienation, depression and a variety of mental disturbances—not to speak of the danger of venereal disease, unwanted pregnancies, and the possibility of being maimed or murdered by an aggrieved party. And he usually must lie or dissimulate about what he is doing. (The contemporary reader inevitably conjures up thoughts about some of our past presidents). Sexual liberation, Sorokin contends, is really not what it is cracked up to be in so much of our modern art, literature, movies, and songs.

By contrast, Sorokin says, the more integrated personalities that reject the allurement of sexual liberation and seek to bring their animal or “”lower self”” into harmony with the “”higher self”” of their moral and spiritual values are more likely to lead an orderly life that is free from the kinds of conflicts experienced by the more profligate. Such a person can follow a clear-cut path of action determined by his highest values—which most frequently involve a loving marriage and dedication to spouse and children. And he will attain a moral integrity and inner peace of mind beyond the comprehension of the sexually dissolute and disorderly. Such an integration of personality is always difficult to achieve, but it is much more difficult, Sorokin says, in a sexsaturated culture such as our own. It is nevertheless a goal well worth struggling for.

In the penultimate chapter of The American Sex Revolution Sorokin comments on “”America at the Crossroads”” in words with such contemporary resonance that it is hard to believe they were written almost two generations ago:

[The] preceding chapters have shown a rapid increase of divorce, desertion, and separation, and of premarital, and extramarital relations, with the boundary between lawful marriage and illicit liaisons tending to become more and more tenuous….As a consequence, in spite of our still developing economic prosperity, and our outstanding progress in science and technology, in education, in medical care; notwithstanding our democratic regime and way of life, and our modern methods of social service; in brief, in spite of the innumerable and highly effective techniques and agencies for social improvement, there has been no decrease in adult criminality, juvenile delinquency, and mental disease, no lessening of the sense of insecurity and of frustration. If anything, these have been on the increase, and already have become the major problems of our nation. What this means is that the poisonous fruits of our sexmarriage- family relationships are contaminating our social life and our cultural and personal well-being… Our trend toward sex anarchy has not yet produced catastrophic consequences. Nevertheless, the first syndromes of grave disease have already appeared. The new sex freedom, of course is only one factor… However, the sex factors and the accompanying disorganization of the family are among the most important contribution to these pathological phenomena. (ASR 132-133)

Sorokin ends The American Sex Revolution on a note of optimism. Periods of great social disorder and calamity, he says, open opportunities for both degradation and ennoblement. In what he calls “”the law of polarization””—which he has written about extensively in other works—troubled times are seen as ones in which the majority of the people in a society usually respond to disorder by becoming more disorganized, self-centered, and immoral. At the same time, however, a minority of the population responds to social stress—be it from war, famine, plague, revolution, genocides, or whatever—by reintegrating their personality upon a higher moral center and becoming more decent, loving, and holy. Sorokin puts sexual revolutions in the same category as other social disturbances and believes they present an opportunity for the more morally determined to detach themselves from the surrounding corruption of their society and devote themselves to a higher and nobler calling than the pursuit of bodily pleasure. For young people, in particular, Sorokin says, this is one of the great challenges of our time and a critical step in the movement away from a dying narcissistic culture to the beginning of a new, spiritually revitalized creative culture.

Who Was Pitirim Sorokin?

Pitirim Sorokin was one of the giants of 20th century social thought. The founding chairman of Harvard’s sociology department, Sorokin authored over thirty books in his lifetime, many of them weighty tomes of five- and six-hundred pages or more displaying encyclopedic knowledge of specialized scholarship in no less than six European languages. In terms of the scope and focus of his interests he is most readily compared to Comte, Tocqueville, and Weber, though in terms of the sheer breadth and weightiness of his literary output he even overshadows these.

Yet in his own lifetime Sorokin received little of the recognition commensurate with the true greatness of his achievement, and in recent years he has all but been forgotten. This is a sad development since Sorokin is one of the few social theorists writing in the early and middle years of the 20th century whose thought in many ways is even more relevant and more illuminating to developments that have occurred in America in the last third of the previous century than in the period in which his ideas were first formulated. Sorokin, however, was a man writing for the ages, and the fact that neither his own age nor the current generation has shown sufficient respect for his genius may tell us more about the shortcomings of our times than it does about Sorokin. A true intellectual giant, Sorokin’s achievement endures even if not yet fully appreciated.


Pitirim Sorokin was born in 1889 in a region of northern Russia populated by the Komi people, a tight-knit ethnic group closely related racially and linguistically to the Finns. His mother, a Komi peasant woman, died while he was still an infant. From the age of three until the age of ten he and an older brother were cared for mostly by their father, Alexander P. Sorokin, an itinerant craftsman of Russian descent, who earned his living specializing in the repair of gilding and icon work on local Orthodox Christian churches. Pitirim and his older brother spent many years of their childhood following their father around from village to village in search of work (another brother was taken in by relatives after the mother’s death). Although material conditions were harsh, and the three Sorokin’s spent many a night sleeping in the forests on the way from one local job to the next, Pitirim in his later years would look back upon his early years among the Komi people with great fondness born of the realization that Komi peasant society, while terribly poor by the standards of more economically developed cultures, reflected a well-integrated and wholesome form of community life that was morally and spiritually richer than that offered by most technologically advanced urban societies. The impact of Komi living would leave an indelible imprint upon Sorokin’s personality and beliefs.

The Komi society of his youth seems to have been an early model for what in Sorokin’s later philosophy would be described as a balanced Integral or Idealistic culture in which the material and the spiritual, the this-worldly and the other-worldly, are harmoniously blended in a mutually enriching partnership. “”The morality and mores of the Komi peasant communities,”” he would explain in a late autobiographical sketch,

were well integrated around the precepts similar to those of the Ten Commandments and of mutual help. The houses of the peasants did not have any locks because there were no thieves. Serious crimes occurred very rarely, if at all; even misdemeanors were negligible. People largely practiced the moral precepts they preached. Mutual aid likewise was a sort of daily routine permeating the whole life of the community. Moral norms themselves were regarded as God-given, unconditionally binding and obligatory for all… Living in this sort of a moral community I naturally absorbed its moral norms as well as its mores. (PSR 15)

Although Sorokin had many fond memories of his father (“”he was a wonderful man, loving and helping his sons in any way he could””), the elder Sorokin was prone to bouts of alcoholic binges in which he would become delirious and sometimes violent. In one such episode a drunken Alexander attacked Pitirim and his older brother with a hammer, after which the boys decided that they had to leave their father’s custody and strike out on their own. Pitirim at the time was only 10 years old, his brother 14. A year after the violent hammer incident Alexander P. Sorokin died. Pitirim and his brother took up their father’s gilding trade and found work painting cathedrals and silvering and gilding church icons in both Komi- and Russian-speaking regions of Russia.

From an early age Pitirim Sorokin seems to have possessed a deep spiritual sense, one which was awakened and cultivated by his frequent contact with priests, churches, religious hymns, prayers, Orthodox rituals, and icons. As a boy he took an active part in church choral singing and nourished his soul on the tales of Christian martyrs and saints. “”In my boyhood years,”” he would later write,

this religious climate was one of the main atmospheres in which I lived, worked, and formed my early beliefs, rituals, moral standards, and other values… A large portion of our time we spent in, around, or on church buildings, painting them, and making, silvering, and gilding their cult objects. In this work we naturally met, talked, and interacted with the village clergy… Learning by heart all the prayers and psalms of religious services and the main religious beliefs [of the Orthodox Church], I became a good preacher-teacher at the neighborly gatherings of peasants during the long winter evenings. The splendor of religious ritual, the beautiful landscape of the countryside viewed from the top of church buildings, especially on clear, sunny days, these and hundreds of other situations enriched my mental life—emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, and morally… [These religious influences were] so strong that, after reading several old volumes on the Lives of the Saints, I tried to become an ascetic-hermit and many times retired for fasting and praying into the solitude of the nearby forest. (PSR 12)

Barry Johnston, Sorokin’s biographer, sees these early Orthodox experiences as permanently shaping Sorokin’s later belief system and a key to understanding some of his mature ideas on philosophy, religion, politics, and art. Although Sorokin would downplay, abandon, or ignore some of these early religious beliefs during his years as an anti-Tsarist revolutionary, he would later return to them in the disillusionment that followed the Bolshevik revolution, during the period in which he developed his mature philosophy. From the late 1920s until his death in the 1960s, his boyhood-formed religious beliefs would remain a constant in the structure of Sorokin’s Weltanschauung. It was during his boyhood years, Johnston writes, that “”the drama of the Mass, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Redemption disciplined his spirit.”” “”These mysteries, along with the Sermon on the Mount and the Christian Beatitudes, were moral guides for the rest of his life.””3

Sorokin’s formal education in these early years was sporadic at best as the need to move from place to place seeking new work, together with the help he had to render to his father and older brother, made regular school attendance impossible. But somehow Sorokin managed to acquire as a young boy the rudiments of written Russian, and he became a voracious reader, largely selfmotivated and self-taught. His early reading included a number of the great Russian literary classics, including works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Pushkin. A major change in the course of his education came when at the age of 12 he won a scholarship—including room and board in a student dormitory— to study at an advanced elementary school in the village of Gam. He had taken the entrance exam to the school largely on a lark, but did extraordinarily well on it and later impressed his teachers with the brilliance of his youthful intellect.


After three years at the Gam school Sorokin won another scholarship to study at a teacher’s training school run by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was during his time spent at this school that Sorokin first became interested in questions of contemporary politics. Like many of the young men of his day, he became absorbed in the struggle against what they believed to be the gross injustice of the Tsarist regime, and Sorokin would later become an organizer for the anti-monarchist Social Revolutionary Party. Despite the seeming radicalism of its title, the Social Revolutionary Party was actually among the more moderate factions opposing Tsarist rule in Russia as it sought to combine a vague notion of redistributive justice (“”socialism””) with pluralistic democracy and respect for human rights. From the earliest period of his political awakening Sorokin seems to have been a critic of Marxism, which he believed to be too narrowly class-bound in its focus on the urban industrial proletariat, and insufficiently appreciative of the important role of non-economic factors—including moral forces—in bringing about desirable social change. The Bolshevik form of Marxism was particularly repulsive to Sorokin, as its ends-justify-the-means philosophy seemed to him to reduce its practitioners to the level of clever beasts and criminals.

While at the teacher’s college Sorokin became increasingly interested in many of the “”modern”” thinkers so influential among the left-leaning intelligentsia of his day. These included Darwin, Spencer, Comte, Hegel, Lenin, Marx, Plekhanov, and many others. From these thinkers Sorokin began to acquire a more “”progressive”” view of history, one which saw human development driven by the progress of science and “”enlightenment,”” and history as moving in an upward direction towards ever greater levels of freedom, prosperity, and human solidarity. He would retain these “”progressive”” ideas for a number of years until the bitter experiences of the First World War and of Russia under Communist rule convinced him of their utter fatuousness.

In December of 1906, Sorokin, then only 17 years of age, was arrested by the Tsarist police for his subversive activities on behalf of the Social Revolutionary Party (he would subsequently be arrested twice more by the Tsarist regime and three times by the Communists). Sorokin on this occasion would spend five months in a Tsarist prison, months in which he read a great deal more revolutionary literature and had the opportunity to converse at length with many other political revolutionaries of varying ideological persuasions. He also had intimate contact during these and subsequent imprisonments with many thieves, burglars, murderers, rapists, and other common criminals, an experience which was later responsible for his decision to study penology and write his first book on the topic of crime and punishment.

Sorokin would later explain his attraction to the Russian revolutionary movement as proceeding from the insights he had gained by experiencing Russian society from the bottom and by his visceral intolerance of all corrupt and incompetent ruling classes. While he would later abandon many of the more naïve ideas he had held during his years as a revolutionary activist, his contempt for corrupt and incompetent ruling classes was one he retained throughout his life. “”Since I came out of the lowest peasant-labor stratum and had a full share of hardships and disenfranchisement common to such strata,”” he writes in his autobiographical sketch,

I naturally identified myself with these classes and eventually became disrespectful toward the incapable privileged, rich, and ruling groups. This attitude engendered my opposition to their arrogant domination and to many injustices perpetrated by such persons and groups. This opposition, in its turn, led me to several collisions with the Tsarist government, and to ensuing imprisonments and other penalties imposed upon me. These circumstances are tangibly responsible for my “”revolutionism”” and eventually for my political position of a “”conservative, Christian anarchist”” (in Henry Adams’ term). (PSR 34)

Sorokin’s allusion to Henry Adams is significant. The American medievalist’s contempt for the rising plutocratic governance of America during the Robber Baron era of the late 19th century closely paralleled Sorokin’s own feelings about Tsarist Russia.

In the fall of 1907, not long after his release from the Tsarist prison, Sorokin moved to St. Petersburg, where he supported himself as a clerk, factory worker, janitor’s helper, and tutor to middle-class boys. He was not advanced enough in his education at this time to enroll at a university, so for two years he attended a night school that enabled him to progress sufficiently to pass the difficult “”examination of maturity,”” which was necessary to gain entrance to a Russian university. In 1909 he enrolled at the recently opened Psycho-Neurological Institute, and a year later he transferred to the University of St. Petersburg, from which he would eventually go on to acquire the equivalents of the bachelors, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees. Studying at first under the Faculty of Law and Economics, Sorokin’s brilliance was even more on display at the university level than it had been at earlier stages in his educational development. During his four years as a St. Petersburg undergraduate he managed to publish no fewer than ten articles in learned Russian journals in addition to the book Crime and Punishment, Service and Reward (1913). Topics of interest in these early years included law, sociology, and penal reform. In 1914 Sorokin graduated from St. Petersburg with highest honors and stayed on to acquire a master’s degree and eventually a doctorate in the newly established field of sociology.

Sorokin’s revolutionary activism continued unabated during his university years and resulted in two further imprisonments by the Tsarist regime and later clashes with the Communist government that almost cost him his life. In the intellectual milieu of prerevolutionary St. Petersburg he came to know many of the leading anti-tsarist intellectuals and activists of his day, including many Social Revolutionaries, Bolsheviks, Anarchists, Populists, and others. His intellectual and speaking skills came to the attention of another student of law at St. Petersburg, Alexander Kerensky, who would make Sorokin his official cabinet secretary when he became prime minister of the provisional government following the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917.

From the beginning of the Revolution in the closing years of World War I, Sorokin threw himself wholeheartedly into the revolutionary cause. He became an editor of two Social Revolutionary Party newspapers and helped to organize the all-Russian Peasant Soviet. Sorokin made innumerable speeches on behalf of his party’s program at this time and was elected to a seat in the newly formed constituent assembly. Sorokin’s enthusiasm for the Revolution was quickly tempered, however, by the widespread outbreak of uncontrolled homicidal violence from many quarters which followed the collapse of Tsarist rule. The ruthlessness, fanaticism, and calculated cruelty displayed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks were particularly unsettling to Sorokin since, like a tornado, it seemed to sweep up everything in its course. By the end of 1917, less than a year after the overthrow of the Tsar, Sorokin had clearly become disillusioned with political revolution and expressed this disillusionment in a particularly poignant entry in his diary:

This is the last day of 1917. I look back on the year with feelings of bitterness and disillusionment. The year 1917 gave us the Revolution, but what has Revolution brought to my country but ruin and disgrace? Has it brought us freedom? Has it bettered the condition of the people? No, the face of revolution unveiled is the face of a beast, of a vicious and wicked prostitute, not that of the pure goddess which has been painted by historians of other revolutions. I could pray that these historians themselves might live through a real revolution. (LRD 112)

His active opposition to the Bolsheviks led to his imprisonment in early 1918, though with the help of his wife Elena and a sympathetic benefactor he was released from jail after a twomonth stay. Soon after his release, however, he resumed his opposition to Bolshevism and took part in an abortive attempt to liberate northern Russia from Bolshevik rule. He was later hunted down and finally surrendered to the pursuing Communist Cheka, whereupon he was thrown into a Bolshevik prison for the second time and informed that he would soon be executed. This confrontation with death had a lasting impression upon him and seems to be partially responsible for the later rekindling of his earlier Christian spirituality and his later emphasis on the central need in human affairs for the healing and reconciling power of agapic love. Sorokin was saved from the firing squad only by virtue of the intersession of two of his former university friends—both Communists who had gone on to assume important positions in Lenin’s cabinet. Lenin himself issued the order to spare Sorokin, though only after having written an article in Pravda that held Sorokin up as a model of the futility of any kind of centrist position between the Communists and the pro-tsarist reactionaries. (Sorokin’s two brothers, however, were not so fortunate—both of them eventually perished in clashes with the Bolshevik regime.)

Sorokin had correctly perceived the nature of Bolshevism from the very beginning, and unlike many Western intellectuals who had to await the revelations of Khrushchev’s 1956 “”Secret Speech”” or Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, he harbored no illusions that ruthless men in power would bring about a socialist utopia. Writing thirty years after the Bolshevik seizure of power, Sorokin captured the stark reality of Russian Communism in unminced words. “”The Revolution,”” he wrote,

promised to abolish political autocracy, despotic government, capital punishment and other forms of coercive penalties; and it guaranteed the maximum of freedom of all sorts to the population. Instead it created as despotic a government as is known in the entire course of human history—certainly incomparably more tyrannical than the incapable, impotent, mild, and very human constitutional government of the old regime… During the thirty years of the Revolution, its government has executed at least from 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 of its citizens directly; murdered many more millions indirectly; arrested, imprisoned, or banished them; coercively transferred from one area to another several million [human beings]… The whole Soviet paradise is, indeed, one gigantic prison in which the Communist warden automatically rules over some 200 million of the inmates. As in any prison, all main resources of this vast house of detention are communized and nationalized; severe discipline is coercively imposed upon the inmates; pitiless hard labor is demanded from them; their remuneration and wages are insignificant; and infraction of any rule of the warden is brutally punished. At the slightest provocation the inmates are executed. This is the picture of the “”freedom”” that the government has built after thirty years of labor. One can hardly imagine a more tragic bankruptcy! (LRD 333-334)

After promising that he would no longer engage in active politics, Sorokin was permitted to return to his studies in St. Petersburg, where he completed his Ph.D. and became chairman of the university’s newly formed sociology department. However, continuing harassment and surveillance by the Communist regime made his life in post-revolutionary Russia untenable, and his unwillingness to become a lackey of the regime threatened his life. Somehow he managed to write and publish five books on law and sociology during his brief three-year tenure as St. Petersburg’s sociology chairman, but in 1922 he was arrested for a third time by the Communists and forced into exile. He fled first to Czechoslovakia, then, in November of 1923, to the United States, where he would go on to become a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota (1924-1930), and subsequently a professor at Harvard (1930-1959).

The progressivist view of history and the optimistic view of human nature that Sorokin had absorbed from his readings of Comte, Spencer, Hegel and others had been shaken by the years of revolutionary turmoil in Russia, and over the decade of the 1920s he would synthesize a new world-view that was in many ways a return to his peasant roots among the God-fearing Komi people. “”World War I,”” he would later write, had already

started to make some fissures in my optimistic Weltanschauung and in my conception of the historical process as progress. The revolution of 1917 enormously enlarged these fissures and eventually broke this world outlook, with its system of values and its “”progressive,”” rational-positivistic sociology. Instead of the increasingly enlightened and morally ennobled humanity, these historical events unchained in man “”the worst of the beasts”” and displayed on the historical stage, side by side with the noble and wise minority, the gigantic masses of irrational human animals blindly murdering each other, indiscriminately destroying all cherished values and, led by shortsighted and cynical “”leaders,”” overthrowing creative achievements of human genius. This unexpected world-wide explosion of the forces of ignorance, inhumanity, and death in the supposedly civilized and enlightened humanity of the twentieth century, forced me, as it did many others, to reexamine sternly my “”sweet and cheerful”” views of man, society, culture, and values, all moving, according to these views, harmoniously from ignorance to wisdom and science, from barbarism to magnificent civilization, from the “”theological”” to the “”positive”” stage, from tyranny to freedom, from poverty to unlimited prosperity, from ugliness to ever-finer beauty, from animality to noblest humanity and morality… There was too much hate, hypocrisy, blindness, sadistic destruction, and mass-murder to leave my “”cheerfully progressive”” views intact. These “”existential conditions”” and the trying, personal experiences of these years started a re-examination of my Weltanschauung and a reappraisal of my values. (PSR 28-29)

Although almost fully developed by the late 1920s, Sorokin’s mature philosophy would first be presented to the world in systematic form in his Social and Cultural Dynamics, the first three volumes of which were published in 1937. Subsequent works which elaborated on many of the themes presented in these volumes include Crisis of Our Age (1941); Man and Society in Calamity (1942); The Reconstruction of Humanity (1942); Society, Culture and Personality (1947); Social Philosophies of an Age of Crisis (1950); The Ways and Power of Love (1954); and many others.

One can look upon Sorokin’s life as one of the truly great odysseys of the 20th century, one which was ultimately a journey to find meaning and purpose in a world in which the great socialist utopia could no longer inspire. Like the parallel quests of Arthur Koestler and Whittaker Chambers, it was a journey in search of a substitute for The God that had failed. And it was a journey that finally ended where it had all began—with the values of the pious Komi people, the Sermon on the Mount, and a vision of human life sub specie aeternitatis. Of truly Homeric proportions, Sorokin’s odyssey is a saving tale of paradigmatic importance to the modern Western predicament. It is summed up best in his own words:

In a span of seventy-three years I have passed through several cultural atmospheres: pastoral-hunter’s culture of the Komi; first the agricultural, then the urban culture of Russia and Europe; and, finally, the megalopolitan, technological culture of the United States. Starting my life as a son of a poor itinerant artisan and peasant mother, I have subsequently been a farmhand, itinerant artisan, factory worker, clerk, teacher, conductor of a choir, revolutionary, political prisoner, journalist, student, editor of a metropolitan paper, member of Kerensky’s cabinet, an exile, professor at Russian, Czech, and American universities, and a scholar of international reputation… Besides joys and sorrows, successes and failures of normal human life, I have lived through six imprisonments; and I have had the unforgettable experience of being condemned to death and, daily during six weeks, expecting execution by a Communist firing squad. I know what it means to be damned; to be banished, and to lose one’s brothers and friends to a political struggle; but also, in a modest degree, I have experienced the blissful grace of creative work. These life-experiences have taught me more than the innumerable books I have read and the lectures to which I have listened. (PSR 7)

Two Mentalities, Two Types of Cultures

Sorokin’s mature philosophy was focused on the recurrent cultural patterns which he believed worked themselves out over long stretches of time in the development of the major civilizations of history. Most of the great civilizations of the past, Sorokin believed, evinced a dominant pattern of meaning that drew together into a coherent whole disparate elements that could only be properly understood when one had grasped the overarching mentality that constituted the civilization’s basic value-system or way of life. While not all civilizations have been well-integrated, and even the most well-integrated have contained discordant elements that do not fit into the civilization’s dominant cultural pattern, most of the great civilizations of the past, Sorokin says, have displayed a high level of internal coherence and unity that often lasts for centuries. The art, architecture, literature, sculpture, religion, philosophy, economics, science, education, and political theory of any given civilization and epoch typically form a single-textured unity, Sorokin believed, with each element forming a subsystem in a more encompassing whole.

While these wholes often persist over very long periods of time, when change does occur—and in the fullness of time change is inevitable—the elements in these wholes usually change in unison with one another as the civilization moves from one dominant cultural ethos to another. Since human beings have a degree of freedom in determining the ultimate fate of their cultures, there can be no absolutely fixed laws of cultural change. Nevertheless, when civilizations do change their overriding ethos and value system, they usually do so, Sorokin says, according to a recurring pattern that has been exemplified in many different cultural orbits. It was a major goal of Sorokin’s later philosophy to explain these long-term patterns of cultural transition and cultural change.

Sorokin’s contention about the inner coherence of civilizations can be well-illustrated by his analysis of Western medieval society. A list of some of the salient cultural features and products of that society might include all of the following: the Gregorian chant, the Rules of St. Benedict and St. Francis of Assisi, the Divine Comedy, the Canterbury Tales, Gothic cathedrals, laws against usury, the Summa Theologica, paintings of the Madonna, theocratic kingship, The Cloud of Unknowing, the University of Paris, the trivium and quadrivium, interdict, monasticism, vows of poverty-chastity-obedience, the Catholic mass, the confessional, the sacraments of the Church, neo-Augustinianism, Christian Aristotelianism, Scotus Erigena, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, relics, indissoluble sacramental marriage, trial by ordeal, and many, many more. Such cultural creations, Sorokin says, are not disconnected “”congeries”” that have merely come into existence in the same geographic location at the same period of time, but are all related to each other “”meaningfully and causally”” as the well-integrated products of a single cultural framework— a framework which reflected the highly spiritualized world-view of Catholic Christianity and the Bible.

One cannot fully grasp any of the elements in a well-integrated culture, Sorokin contends, without grasping the overarching cultural mentality that both sustains and creates the culture’s many diverse products. Western medieval society, at least in its earlier phase, can be seen as displaying a single value-system or world-view, which stands in the sharpest contrast to the valuesystem and world-view of the late Roman civilization out of which it grew, and of the Italian Renaissance and early modern culture which succeeded it. It was the product of a radically different mental landscape, Sorokin stresses, than either its predecessor or successor society, both of which, in their own time, displayed their own very different internal cultural coherence.

Sorokin’s understanding of cultural coherence can also be illustrated by a look at contemporary European and American society. If we view late 20th century Euro-American society through a Sorokinian lens we see a radically different set of cultural artifacts and cultural products compared to those which flourished in the Western middle ages, though most are just as well-integrated—and just as much the outcrop of a single coherent world-view and value system—as the elements of medieval Christian culture. Consider for instance the following extended list: suburban shopping malls, consumer advertising, growthoriented economic policies, the New York and London stock exchanges, MIT, the Harvard Business School, Smart Money, Consumer Reports, an individual-rights based political system, empty European churches, divorce-on-demand, abortion-ondemand, gay marriage, How to Win Friends and Influence People, give-away quiz shows, erotic films and romance novels, action movies, Club Med, Caribbean cruises, professionalized spectator sports, Cosmopolitan, People, Maxim, Sports Illustrated, Las Vegas, Indian-reservation gambling, “”Dynasty,”” “”Baywatch,”” “”Wheel of Fortune,”” “”Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,”” Donald Trump, Hollywood, Woody Allen, Hugh Hefner, 500-channel home entertainment, rock music, hip-hop, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Washington lobbyists, fast food restaurants, logical positivism, pragmatism, ordinary language philosophy, functional architecture, the “”naked public square””— these, along with innumerable other products of modern EuroAmerican culture, the Sorokinian would argue, exemplify a single overarching cultural value-system or what Sorokin calls a cultural “”supersystem.””

Just as the medieval supersystem was largely the product of Catholic Christianity and the Bible, so the supersystem of Europe and America in the late 20th century, a Sorokinian would claim, is largely the product of an economically and technologically progressive consumer society. That society is characterized by a distinctly this-worldly orientation to life—one which places great emphasis on individual freedom, career advancement, upward socio-economic mobility, self-expressive individualism, material security, and the many diverse ways of “”pursuing happiness”” through consumption, “”relationships,”” entertainment, recreation, and sex. While there are many elements in both medieval and late 20th century Western culture that cannot be subsumed under the dominant cultural supersystem of the era—and which may, in fact, constitute a discordant or countervailing element at odds with the supersystem (consider, for instance, the medieval brothel, or the Trappist monastery in contemporary America)—nevertheless, most elements in each period are internally related to each other as creations and reflections of the era’s dominant mentality and way of life. Both cultural systems reflect what Sorokin would call a high level of structural integration.

The cultural supersystems that have existed in the past, according to Sorokin, are few in number. Indeed, there are only two pure types, he says, though there are many mixed types that contain elements of each of the two pure types. The two pure types of supersystems Sorokin calls Ideational culture and Sensate culture, and an understanding of their characteristics is central to understanding Sorokin’s basic theory of cultural dynamics and cultural change.


Ideational cultures have been well-represented in the past, Sorokin says, by Brahmanic India, Taoist China, Lamaist Tibet, Ancient Greece in the period from the 8th through the 5th centuries B.C., and medieval Western culture from the 5ththrough the 12th centuries. Sensate cultures are well-represented by the late Greek civilization of Hellenistic times, by the Roman empire, and by modern Western civilization in the period from the 16ththrough the 20th centuries. One of the best descriptions of these two differing types of cultural supersystems is given by Sorokin in his Social and Cultural Dynamics:

We can begin by distinguishing two profoundly different types of the integrated culture. Each has its own mentality, its own system of truth and knowledge, its own philosophy and Weltanschauung; its own type of religion and standards of “”holiness””; its own system of right and wrong; its own forms of art and literature; its own mores, laws, code of conduct; its own predominant forms of social relationships; its own economic and political organization; and, finally, its own type of human personality, with a peculiar mentality and conduct… Of these two systems one may be termed Ideational culture, the other Sensate. And as these names characterize the cultures as a whole, so do they indicate the nature of each of the component parts… The values which correspond to one another throughout these cultures are irreconcilably at variance in their nature; but within each culture all the values fit closely together, belong to one another logically, often functionally… Neither the Ideational nor Sensate type has ever existed in its pure form [as] all integrated cultures have in fact been composed of diverse combinations of these two pure logico-meaningful forms. In some the first type predominated; in others the second… Accordingly, some cultures have been nearer to the Ideational, others to the Sensate type; and some have contained a balanced synthesis of both pure types. (SCD 24-25)

[For the sensate mind] reality is that which can be perceived by the organs of sense; it does not see anything beyond the sensate being of the milieu. Those who possess this sort of mentality try to adapt themselves to those conditions which appear to the sense organs, or more exactly to the exterior receptors of the nervous system. [At the other extreme are persons of the ideational outlook] who perceive and apprehend the same sensate phenomena in a very different way. For them they are mere appearance, a dream, or an illusion. True reality is not to be found here; it is something beyond, hidden by the appearance, different from this material and sensate veil which conceals it. Such persons do not try to adapt themselves to what now seems superficial, illusory, unreal. They strive to adapt themselves to the true reality which is beyond appearances. Whether it be styled God, Nirvana, Brahma, Om, Self, Tao, Eternal Spirit, l’ élan vital, Unnamed, the City of God, Ultimate Reality, Ding an und fuer sich, etc., is of little importance. What is important is that such [ideational mentality] exists; that here the ultimate or true reality is usually considered supersensate, immaterial, spiritual. (SCD 25-26)

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