When Did the Decline of the West Really Begin?

Once nominalism severs the sacred chain connecting all being to God, creation shrinks back from its Creator.

Main picture: Sketch of William of Ockham labeled ‘frater Occham iste’. (From a manuscript of Ockham's ‘Summa Logicae’, MS Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 1341.) Inset: From stained glass window at a church in Surrey.
Main picture: Sketch of William of Ockham labeled ‘frater Occham iste’. (From a manuscript of Ockham's ‘Summa Logicae’, MS Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 1341.) Inset: From stained glass window at a church in Surrey. (photo: ‘Moscarlop’, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

A common answer among conservatives is the 1960s. Some conservatives trace the problem back further, to the development of modernism, from the 19th century into the 20th. Distributists might pinpoint the Industrial Revolution, from the 18th into the 19th century. And a good case could be made for the Enlightenment, which spanned 1685-1815, or even the Protestant Reformation, starting in 1517. 

Rod Dreher, in his new book, The Benedict Option, goes back even further—to the onset of nominalism, a philosophy formulated by William of Ockham, who died in 1347. The thesis is not wholly original to Dreher—Richard Weaver, a traditional conservative intellectual, also contends that Western decline began in this way in his classic 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences. But Dreher offers one of the most accessible summaries of what nominalism really is and why it still matters today.

Dreher’s highly anticipated book, which appeared in March, advances the thesis that the current dilapidated state of our society requires revisiting the approach of St. Benedict, widely credited as the founder of Western monasticism. But, in order to understand the solution, one must fully reckon with the problem, hence Dreher’s treatment of nominalism.

He begins with a brief sketch of the worldview of the Middle Ages, which nominalism challenged. Medieval Europeans viewed the real world—the one external to their mind and senses—was interconnected and therefore sacramental, as everything ultimately was related to God. This was innate sense of the inherent relatedness of everything is sometimes referred to as the ‘Great Chain of Being.’

This worldview was rooted not only in the sacramentalism of the Catholic Church, but also in philosophical stance, inherited from ancient thinkers, known as metaphysical realism. As Dreher explains it:

Realism holds that the essence of a thing is built into its existence by God, and its ultimate meaning is guaranteed by this connection to the transcendent order. This implies that Creation is comprehensible because it is rationally ordered by God and a revelation of Him (Benedict Option 27).

So a table is really a table with a purpose—to hold other objects, or a set of dinner plates. But this is not so with nominalists. For the nominalist, there is really no such thing as a ‘table.’ As Dreher puts it, “A table is just wood and nails arranged in a certain way, until we give it meaning by naming it ‘table’”—hence the term nominalism, which is from the Latin nomen, the word for name (to paraphrase Dreher’s etymology).

For the nominalist, the table has no inherent meaning—its meaning is merely something extrinsic, imposed from without. This may not seem to matter much when we’re talking about tables, but it takes on serious implications which we talk about reality in general and our place in it. If the world has no meaning, it has no purpose and it cannot point to the Creator who made it.

Now, you might be wondering, what was William of Ockham, the founder of nominalism, thinking? It seems highly dubious that Ockham, who was a Franciscan friar and theologian, set out to dismantle medieval Christendom. His was a misplaced ‘zeal to protect God’s sovereignty,’ according to Dreher:

If the infinite God reveals Himself through finite matter, does that not imply limitation? Ockham thought so. He denied metaphysical realism out of zeal to protect God’s sovereignty. He feared that realism restricted God’s freedom of action. For Ockham, if something is good, it is because God desired it to be so. The meaning of all things derives from God’s sovereign will—that is, not because of what He is, or because of His participation in their being, but because of what He commands. If He calls something good today and the same thing evil tomorrow, that is His right (Benedict Option, 27).

One can now readily see the theological pitfalls of this position. It means that in Genesis, when God called creation ‘good’—it was only because He said so, not because it was really good. It also contravenes the testimony of the Old Testament, where creation as seen as reflecting the beauty and goodness of God—Dreher quotes Psalm 19:2, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Finally, Ockham’s position is at odds with the reality of the Incarnation itself, along with the reality of the visible Church and the sacramental system. (Certainly it is now apparent how nominalism helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation.)

In the context of the Christian faith, the errors and perils of nominalism may seem manifest, but what about its broader cultural implications? As Dreher explains, once the world had been emptied of inherent meaning and bore only that meaning imposed on it by God, the next big step was to replace God with man.

How and why did this happen?

The real answer, of course, is beyond our scope, but we can briefly point to it here. (See Dreher’s second chapter, “The Roots of the Crisis” for the full summary.) Once the sacred chain connecting all being to God was severed, creation shrunk back from its Creator: the world became a smaller place. This left man as the new center of attention. Again, Dreher well sums up what happened:

In the world of art and literature, a new emphasis on naturalism and individualism emerged. The old, with its metaphysical certainties, its formal hierarchies, and its spiritual focus gradually ceased to hold the imagination of Western man. Art became less symbolic, less idealized, less focused on religious themes, and more occupied with the life of man (Benedict Option, 29).

In this way it was only a natural transition from believing in a God who imposed meaning on things to thinking it was man who did this. We can see this mindset well-illustrated in our society’s acceptance that marriage and gender mean whatever people say they mean.

Of course, it took us many centuries and quite a few revolutions to get us from William of Ockham to today. (And, it must be noted, not everything has been downhill since then!) But understanding how it all began is the first step towards recovery and restoration.