The Age of Indifference
by Jeremy A. Kee
In 1984, Russell Kirk penned an essay of almost prophetic accuracy, which soon thereafter appeared in the pages of Modern Age. This essay, The Age of Sentiments, suggests that the world was in transition between one age, the so-called “Age of Discussion”, and into another, one which Kirk labels “the Age of Sentiments.” As Kirk puts it, “Our civilized world is passing out of one age and into another epoch.” Quite so.
When Kirk references the “Age of Discussion”—a phrase first coined by Walter Bagehot in his book Physics and Politics—he is referring to a longstanding albeit ill-defined period of time of human history in which there was a general relay of ideas throughout a given community or society. In this Age of Discussion, ideas were discussed openly and conclusions arrived at by way of thoughtful consideration. Kirk points out by way of Bagehot that democracy both ancient and modern is itself a product of discussion, having been birthed in small towns of Greece and Italy. Of course, any student of politics, philosophy, or history will know that what we refer to as the classics, and indeed the classical age, also come from predominantly from Greece. From the Greeks we have been given the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—all three of whom were quite fond of discussion. From their love of discussion, the bedrock of all philosophy is built. The ripple effect generated from their discussion defies quantification.
The value of discussion in a community however great or small cannot be overstated even slightly. This is reflected in our own Constitution, in the First Amendment guaranteeing all Americans the right to free speech. Every American has the right to say whatever crosses his mind. It is then up to those around him to determine whether the idea holds any merit. Such is the way of discussion, and such ways are being replaced.
Kirk’s “Age of Sentiments”, in essence, is an age in which man is governed by their sentiments, which is to say a higher, deeper, emotional sort of judgment. Kirk, to sum up his understanding of “sentiments”, quotes Pascal; “The heart has reasons which reason cannot know.” That, says Kirk, is the gist of Sentiment. The Age of Sentiments, then, is one in which man relies less on the absorption of differing points of view or interpretations of the issue-at-play, less on established wisdom regarding the topic or problem being put forth, and more on his own intuition on the matter.
Herein lies the rub—modern forms of entertainment, starting with mediums such as cinema and the radio, to the television, and beyond to technological tyranny of today, have made information—though not always wise, knowledgeable, or even credible—readily available almost instantaneously. Critical thought as a necessity for opinion-making is no longer pursued, precisely because we no longer believe there to be a need to discuss ideas. Discussion is what we did in the dark ages of yesteryear, before the likes of Google and Wikipedia. Kirk minces no words in assigning as the catalyst for this shift the proliferation of the television as a household item because of it homogenizing effect on society.
In “The Age of Sentiments”, Kirk recounts two trips he took in the decades prior to the authoring of this essay to demonstrate his aversion to the degenerating effects of the television—one to Verona and the other to the Orkneys. Both communities, he points out, are long and storied in the practice of discussion. While in Verona, Kirk visited the Piazza delle Erbe, which in time past was the local Roman forum. For twenty-five hundred years, men had discussed the business of the day in this and similar public spaces. On this trip, however, Kirk arrived at the Piazza on a Saturday night only to find it seemingly deserted. Upon closer inspection he discovered that while the cafes were themselves full of patrons, the attention of all were focused on small television sets. As it turns out, televisions had arrived in Verona not too long before his arrival. Men and women sat at small round tables, drinks in hand, in silence as they gazed at the cold glow of the television. No discussion of any sort appeared to take place.
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